Thursday 25 August 2016

Cheap & Cheerful: Wine With A Collapsed Pound

So the mishmash of hedonism which is my life continues with a couple of weeks in the South of France and the North of Italy and let me tell you that Nice in August is really, really, hot, hot enough to smelt nickel, but that's only one of the difficulties we have to face. More significantly, the Pound has tanked, post-Brexit, against the Euro, down from around 1.4 Euros last summer, to near-parity this summer. Hilarious. Everything now costs a week's wages, from two small coffees to a third of a tankful of petrol to a single flip-flop. We wander among the shops and cafes, staring helplessly at other, fatter, cleaner, better-shod tourists, squabbling over the single grissino which is our lunch. 'Watch out for the price of wine,' PK says brightly, before I leave, and I have no option but to do just that.

Yet there's an irony in this, just waiting to express itself. Years of overpaying for cheap grog in the UK have yielded a benefit: I don't even notice the price hike occasioned by Sterling's collapse. By the time we get to our fastness in the hills of Liguria, I have acquired a bottle of something called La Banina, a Monferrato with a cork and a bit of paper round the neck, just like a real wine, and it's cost me no more than €2.60 on special offer at the local Conad. I try it with a slice of banana, just to see if there are any name-related synergies, but that's by the by. The fact is that it tastes like something I would stump up at least £5 for in London, perhaps as much as £6.49, has no apparent health disadvantages, tastes like wine from the off - none of that tiresome 24-hour wait while it renders itself potable - and is still plainly a cheap bottle of wine, especially when judged against UK prices.

It gets better. A day later, I find something on sale for 1.99 a bottle - and not just any bottle, but a moulded plastic bottle with a screw top - containing one and a half litres of very very rudimentary grog. I get a red (Sangiovese from Puglia, it says) and a white (a Trebbiano, whatever that is, from Rubbicone, wherever that is) and that's three litres of wine for the price of a phone call home. Do we even need to bring up the question of flavour, of drinkability? Can't we stop there and humbly reverence the legally-retailed zero-cost booze in its bottles and not even have to drink it? Haven't we already achieved so much? 1.99 for a litre and a half! It's just beautiful, even if the wine tastes of used nappies and open graves. Out in the rest of the world, my finances are despicable; here, with my Trebbiano, I am a king.

Actually, I can even keep the stuff down. A whiff of sewage treatment works at first, some unwashed bedding, but it calms down quite quickly, becoming a completely unthreatening go-anywhere white - at 11% I suppose it would be - which I knock off so rapidly that I almost forget to take the statutory picture (see pic), wondering all the time what it reminds me of: something to do with wine, maybe even an actual wine, although I have no memory for tastes, so probably not the latter -

- Until I taste the red, the Sangiovese, and realise that (of course) I'm drinking carafe wine, a wine I love, no matter how crappy or pernicious, not least because of its terrible/adorable freight of nostalgia: carafe wine, the first wine I ever really enjoyed, a wine from a time long before all these failed attempts at expertise or indeed any kind of knowledgability, a wine without qualities, almost. The job is done, and has a compete internal consistency: the whole looming wine/Sterling collapse crisis is solved by the simplest expedient, the one which involves no compromises or ideological revisions, the one which says, buy the cheapest thing you can find and drink it. How easy life can be if you only give it the opportunity!


Thursday 18 August 2016

The tragic diary of a modern red wine

I always felt I had been raised for great things. Not for me the indignity suffered by some of my relatives, eaten as gifts in hospital wards. No, I am to rise from the status of a humble grape to that of a noble red wine! Is it that prospect which is making me feel so light-headed? Or the 13% alcohol level I am now developing?

– | –

I used to worry that I might be condemned to consumption at a beach barbeque. Imbibed in bikinis. Swigged in swimwear. But no; I may indeed have a future in sophisticated circles. It seems I am to be shipped abroad, and to England no less, the Old Country as I believe we used to call it, home of silver service and evening dress.

I spend the voyage in dreams of dinner parties. I see myself in a stylish decanter…

– | –

I arrive at a place called Bristol. I had heard tell of this old port, with its traditional merchants and wine cellars going back hundreds of years. So the clattering and banging of a modern bottling plant came as something of a surprise. Still, at least I am being put into a bottle; others have been put into a bag-in-box, or even a sealed plastic goblet! And I am quite proud of the stylish labels which have been stuck to me; now I know that, despite feeling rather ordinary, I am actually vibrant, full-bodied and rich. Rich! And I am recommended to go with game! Imagine the household for which I must be destined!

I thought I would have my birthday on my label, but it seems not.

And I was looking forward to the gentle touch of cork upon me for years to come. But there has been some kind of mistake. My label clearly says Finest – and yet I have been given a screwcap.

 – | –

It seems I have become part of what they call a “mixed case”. I am now surrounded by eleven other wines. They come from South Africa, Chile, North America, all over the world, although a surprising number have also been through the bottling plant in Bristol. We all seem to get on alright; the rosé is said to be charming, and most of the whites are sweet, but some of the South American reds can be a bit aggressive. 

– | –

Today was delivery day. I was so excited! Our van pulled up outside a house in London, and our driver carried us right to the door. Perhaps we would be taken to a rack, where we would rub shoulders with some of the grand old French bottles we have only heard about? (Then someone told me that Burgundies do not have shoulders to rub…)

Unfortunately, the door did not open. Where are the staff? 

– | –

At last we are in the hands of our purchaser. One by one we are lifted from the case, and our labels examined in the light of a sunny day. The charming rosé got taken away immediately. Presumably the rest of us will now take our place in a cellar? I have heard of wines who get to “rest” and “lay down”, even though they have only come across the Channel!
– | –

No. There is no laying down for us. We stand upright in our cardboard box, in a cupboard beneath stairs, alongside some old sports equipment and a vacuum cleaner. There is also a strange bottle of liqueur, who comes from "Duty Free", and has been here for a long time. Some of us feel it is too hot, but the liqueur says not to worry, we will not be here very long. Unlike him.

– | –

I thought that I had done well to avoid the fate of a beach barbeque back home. Perhaps I would see the light again in a panelled dining room. Instead, I am on a counter-top in what appears to be a Magnet kitchen. I am not optimistic, because the Chianti beside me in the case sneered when it heard me being removed to accompany something called a “spag bol”.

– | –

What? Down what hatch?
– | –


Thursday 11 August 2016

Sediment: The Sitcom

So the crazed genius who came up with the ludicrous idea of importing a tanker of cheap French wine and selling it on the streets of London, has come up with another affront to reason: a sitcom, based on the wacky world of Sediment, a sitcom based on two old men writing about wine.

Useless to point out that there really is no wacky world of Sediment, that our lives are only sitcom material in the way that Steptoe and Son or Hancock were once thought of as sitcom material with their bleak, unflinching depictions of personalities immured in routine, lethargy and imaginative failure, relationships curdled by an abiding sense of futility, more than a hint of Beckett or Pinter about them, I mean, where are the laughs in that? We don't even have Hattie Jacques to break the impasse.

But no. My pal has it all thought through. I can't reveal too many details as it's a work in progress (and where the actual comedy comes from is still opaque) but two salient bits of information have emerged (apart from the facts that it'll be, in theory, in half-hour episodes; with no audience laugh track). The part of me, CJ, will be played (the pal reckons) by Mark Heap; the part of PK, by Roger Allam. Since neither Mr. Heap nor Mr. Allam has yet been approached, let alone given his consent, we need to treat this with caution, but already I am getting anxious. Without a doubt, Mark Heap is a top-line comedy (and serious) actor, but the part I cannot help associating with him is that of Dr. Alan Statham out of Green Wing a risible failure of a human being with a moustache and a perma-twitch, endlessly humiliated by his lairier colleagues, losing his trousers, wrestling with toilet brushes, you know the sort of thing. Very funny if you're not him. Less so if you are, or might be.

PK, played by Roger Allam, gets a much easier ride. Allam has a long and distinguished career, but in purely comedic terms I see him as Peter Mannion, the tautly irascible Shadow Minister out of TheThick Of It a character with a hint of gravitas, a sense of the true absurdity of situations, someone who is (we're invited to believe) very slightly more evolved than the fruitloops and morons who surround him. That's who PK gets.

Plainly, there's no reason why our projected fictional characters should map these already-existing ones, but from what I've heard, that's the plan, or something like it. In other words, I'm more likely than not to be re-purposed as a gibbering tosser; while the comedified PK will be a countervailing voice of sanity, or at least semi-competence. Thus the comedy dynamic is set in place: on-top-of-things Allam plays off borderline-breakdown Heap and vice-versa. Hilarity ensues, with some special surprises, apparently, to keep the story moving along.

What are the chances of this thing getting made? I can't tell you, it's not a world I know anything about. Stranger things have happened: look at the Republican Party. There was also a British family which was made into a Japanese Manga cartoon a year or so ago, and they seemed happy enough with their transformations, but if the Sediment sitcom turns out to be more like, say, Peep Show (a very real possibility) then I won't even have the consoling alienations of Manga to distance me from my on-screen character. Nor can I try and steer it down a Likely Lads kind of route, as PK is, in real life, both Bob and Terry; nor into a Meryl Streep = Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada high-concept situation, as there is no high concept, and I don't think Tom Hiddleston (= CJ) or Benedict Cumberbatch (= PK) are any more available than Heap & Allam. I just have this feeling that I'm stuffed.

But what can I do? We live in a world full of intertextualities, a world in which one thing exists that it might generate possibilities within another thing, and I'm not going to fight it, I can't fight it. On the other hand, my pal did wonder, the other day, whether cheese might not be funnier than wine. I told him it was definitely funnier than wine.


Thursday 4 August 2016

St John house wine – thinking inside the box

“I’m going to the St John restaurant,” I explain to Mrs K, “to buy a box of wine.”

“What? A whole box of wine? Twelve bottles? But…”

“No, not a case. A box.“

Many moons ago, when it was new upon the scene, I used to eat at St John. I worked nearby, and its straightforward, nose-to-tail eating was a welcome change from the frou-frou fayne dayning which was fashionable elsewhere.

But…I got bored. Bored of too many plain dishes. Bored of my guests asking if there was “anything else” to a dish described as a boiled egg and a carrot. (There wasn’t.) And bored of game birds served rare enough to risk potential resuscitation, meat which appeared to have encountered a sun-bed rather than an oven.

And then I heard that they are selling their house wine to the public. At takeaway prices. And in boxes.

Think about that for a moment. Bag-in-box wines are usually low-rent affairs, mocked by drinkers like me with my oft-reTweeted comment, “Wine in a box? Is that like cigars in a bottle?”

But here is a box branded with the imprimatur of a Michelin-starred restaurant. A celebrated name is actually putting its logo where its mouth is. To echo the restaurant’s philosophy, its wine should be straightforward and no-nonsense. And for the sake of the restaurant’s reputation, it has to be decent.

Their box comes in honest-to-goodness brown cardboard, which not only smacks of the restaurant’s back-to-basics philosophy, but tones rather well with an oak dining table. “It looks lovely,” agreed Mrs K. “Couldn’t you keep the box, and put the bag from a Sainsbury’s one inside it?”

Personally I would have stuck the label on more centrally, an attention to detail which I am sure they do pursue in their food presentation. After all, it's the label which might, with its celebrated provenance, reassure my guests about being served wine from a box. Even if my father-in-law will think it's come from the butcher's.

The wine lives up to everything you might expect from St John. Almost purple in colour, it’s full of dark fruit flavour but without being too heavyweight. It’s bold, but bright, simple and honest like their cooking. It’s slightly taut, which means it’s certainly best with food – but then, it should be, shouldn’t it?

The 3-litre box works out at £7.75 a bottle, which is very good value indeed. In fact, it’s cheaper than a starter on their menu. (And out of interest, it’s sold to diners in the restaurant itself at £6 a glass, or £25 a bottle, an interesting insight into their mark-up.)

But attractive as it is, would they put a box on to a table of diners? I suspect not; aesthetics aside, practicalities kick in when it comes to serving. Can diners, at home or in a restaurant, really pass a box around the table, and hoist it singlehanded above their glassware? Or does the host (or waiter) stand behind a guest, squirting it into their glass? No, I think it has to be decanted.

And even when dining alone, it’s perhaps best to decant your meal’s-worth into a pichet. The box wine notion that you can take as little as you want soon becomes the notion that you can take as much as you want, tip-toeing back into the kitchen to top up another glass. Beware the day when you abandon glass, decorum and self-discipline altogether, and simply squirt it into your mouth.
The bartender advised me that the 3-litre box will last three weeks. It’s unclear whether this was a statement about the box’s vacuum, or an observation about my consumption. Either way, not enough time to get bored.