Thursday 29 June 2017

A travellin' man – and his wine

So I got back from my travels – but did my wine travel as successfully?

There was an old notion that a wine “might not travel”. Many a wine which tasted delicious abroad, with grilled sardines at a beachside table as the sun shone, tasted surprisingly rubbish back home, with tinned sardines at a kitchen table as the rain fell.

Yet still people brought wines back with them, souvenirs which were little more than the sombrero hats and straw donkeys of less sophisticated travellers.

That, of course, was in the days when you could carry bottles in your cabin baggage. You would haul a nylon carry-on through the airport, clanking and clonking with bottles of booze, each one in its protective little plastic mesh jerkin. Your bag was so heavy you were hardly able to lift it from the floor, let alone hoist it into the overhead lockers. But unless you actually dropped them on the airport’s terrazzo, you could be pretty sure of getting home in one piece as many bottles as you could carry. Assuming, of course, that HM Customs would accept that they were all for personal consumption. (“Just ask my wife, officer…”)

Those days are sadly over. And there is little to inspire confidence in the treatment of checked-in luggage, when you watch suitcases crashing and sliding from the cargo hold on to the Tetris of the baggage-claim conveyor belt.

But against this comes the siren call of the wheeled suitcase. With hotel lifts and burly taxi-drivers, the first time you lift your case yourself nowadays is to hoist it on to the tell-tale conveyor belt. Surely it could cope with a couple of bottles of wine?

Nowadays people are selling wheeled suitcases entirely designed to check in bottles of wine. These will indeed allow you to safely travel back with a dozen bottles.  I am not sure however what you do with the fortnight’s worth of clothes contained in the suitcase when you went out. Perhaps, if you are willing to be the least popular person on the plane, you make the return journey wearing all your (dirty) clothes at once?

(I also note that a reviewer of the VinGardeValise says “The customs people in Mexico were really interested in the case”. This is meant to be a five-star recommendation, but sounds to me like a prelude to sharing a cell  with El Chapo Guzman.)

Is it still worth trying to bring back wine? Is it any more than just a desperate urge to extend the very taste of a holiday?

Well, there’s the crude financial appeal. Here’s the magnificent Lacuesta Vermouth in London, at £8.95 a bottle. In the Spanish supermarket, El Corte Ingles, it is €4.95. Yes, that’s in Euros.

And visiting the most prestigious wine merchant in Barcelona (as of course I would), it seemed rude not to buy a couple of wines by Telmo Rodriguez, an exciting Spanish winemaker whose wines are hard to get hold of in the UK, and some of which are never imported. Except, now, a brace of them by me.

Some time ago I mentioned travelling back from Spain with bottles encased protectively in dirty socks. But that was unplanned. (And I would like to emphasise to past guests that soiled clothing obviously never touched the contents or indeed even the lip of the bottles. That’s what capsules are for.)

This time, however, I planned in advance. I travelled with several large sheets of bubblewrap. 

“Of course you did,” scoffs CJ. But why scoff? Bubblewrap is practical, and weightless, and takes up little space when flat. It’s recycling all the stuff which people like Amazon have sent me. It’s forward thinking. And anyway, CJ scoffs at the fact that I take socks.

My bottles are packed encased in said bubblewrap, then inside plastic carrier bags (in the hope of containing the wine if they should break). These are sealed in place with socks. The base of the bottles are planted inside shoes, at the foot of the suitcase, to absorb any shock if the case is banged upright, and to stop them moving around. That whole lot is inside a big plastic bag. And then that is surrounded by clothes on all sides, to absorb any lateral impact.

See how much thought and planning has gone into this? Which is particularly reassuring when the case trundles off on its conveyor belt and immediately falls on its side. When it crashes onto the belt at Heathrow like a dodgem car. When the cab driver slings it into the taxi.

But mirabile dictu, the bottles survived the journey. I am proud, and CJ is jealous. You just need faith, hope and bubblewrap, these three. But the greatest of these is bubblewrap.

What do they taste like? Sorry, taste? Having gone to all that trouble, you don’t expect me to open them yet, do you?


Thursday 22 June 2017

Berry Bros. & Rudd: My Secret Shame

So PK has been on at me for ages, years, even, about Berry Bros. & Rudd, legendary wine sellers of Piccadilly, established in the seventeenth century, impossibly period retail premises, outrageous client list (Lord Byron, the Aga Khan, Napoleon III, the British Royal Family past and present), superlative knowledge of high-end wines (eight Masters of Wine working for them), history issuing from their eighteenth-century headquarters like an invisible gas, a surprising number of drinkable wines listed online for under a tenner, I mean, he says, why wouldn't anyone get down to 3 St. James's Street, SW1, and have themselves the heritage time of their lives and come away laden with drink? 'Go on' he concludes, 'you know you want to', the phrase he invariably uses for anything I really don't want to do.

How do I know I don't want to? Because I've been past the place plenty of times and everything about it puts me off, apart from the facade and a beetling covered alleyway next door which bears a plaque set on the jamb of its entrance arch: In this building was the legation from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St. James 1842 - 1845. Everything else makes my blood run cold. And yet, just to shut PK up, I will give it a go.

Give it a go is of course a relatively nuanced term. What it means in practice is that I stand at the windows (like the poop of a Napoleonic ship of the line, gnarled and lacquered with centuries of paint), peer inside and see nothing that appears to be a shop. In one part of the building there seems to be a sitting room, recently vacated by Beau Brummel or Queen Mary; in another part there is a Georgian office or counting house, a handful of scriveners seated at desks towards the rear of the space. The window displays contain a handful of sullenly impressive wine bottles, each poised on a single metal stand like a museum exhibit. There are no prices. Apart from the enigmatic bottles in the windows and the legend Wine Merchants in quiet gold lettering, there is nothing to make the uncommitted pedestrian believe that he is in fact passing a wine store. It might as well be an antiques dealer. And although this particular pedestrian knows that he is passing a wine store, he does not stop and go in; he just keeps moving. That's what the place is saying: nothing for you here, nothing you could make sense of.

What makes it worse is the fact that Berry Bros. & Rudd are not alone in this act of deadly hauteur. Next door is a shop owned by Dunhill, for the pleasure of extremely serious cigar enthusiasts. When I peer, hobo-like, through its window, all I see are three expensively-dressed men propping up a counter, talking; in the window it says Cigar Lounge; there is a humidor; I move away.

And on the other side of Berry Bros. are two even greater villains: Lock, the hatters (oldest hatmakers in the world, clients include Lord Nelson, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Kennedy, Winston Churchill) and Lobb the bootmaker (Queen Victoria, Frank Sinatra, Churchill again). Lobb scarcely announce themselves at all, their shopfront bare except for a couple of By Appointments over the doorway and a dusty shelf in the window bearing an assortment of single shoes, apparently dropped there by chance, and an old cardboard box. In other words, I am faced, overall, with about a hundred feet of pure retailing disdain. Why, exactly, am I meant to feel good about this?

Yes, I know that high-end shops like to make themselves inaccessible and I understand that Berry Bros. aren't going to have a chalkboard outside shouting about a supremely chuggable pinot grigio, just to get me in. But there is a limit to the amount of patrician indifference I can put up with, not least because in the modern, disintermediated, world, Amazon (bless them) will supersubtly know what I want almost before I know it myself and silently and efficiently get it to me without my having to do anything more than caress my phone. Just the idea of an antiquated Piccadilly snob shop playing hard to get makes me mad. And a wine shop at that! Where the whole transaction is already rank with elitism, even in a high street outlet! What the hell kind of world are we living in? What the hell kind of world is PK living in? Not for the first time, I tell myself that I must never, ever, act on one of his suggestions again. Only this time I really, really, really mean it.


Thursday 15 June 2017

Thursday 8 June 2017

2014 Chinon: Cold

This week's style icon: James Joyce

CJ turned mulishly aside from his glass. Aversion to the smell of proofing. Messrs Wait & Rose, stockists. Indifferent cellarage, make a pretty profit of it, though.

- Tastes of rubber. Is there something the matter with it?

Outside the late sun freed itself from the clouds, shining dully on Victorian brickwork, London Stock, corporeal entity of Lud's Town.

PK cleared his throat.

- Sure, now, and there's a trick for that fellow. Chinon, it's a bloody mongrel unless you give it a spell in the cooler first. Give it a chance to reflect on its wrongdoings.
- Is that so?

CJ eyed him narrowly, twisting his glassstem by degrees across the deal tabletop: churchchurchchurchchur. Wonder does he drink all he says he does? Old was his mutton and his claret good. Toper's complexion, broadveined map of dissipation, d.t.'s in the fullness of time. She keeps him in line, though. Distaff's duty. Insurance policy. Which reminds me: did I renew? Hell to pay if not. Whole house burned to rubble, conflagration of London Stock, sea of glass mingled with fire, Oh Japes! There'd be some explaining.

- Take it from me, he said, half a day in the boreal, you wouldn't recognise it. In like a lion, out like a lamb. What is it they say about those wines? A thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the Loire? No, that's not it.

Mantling, PK recrossed his legs and plucked from the warp of his workingman's jeans a diminutive trace of lint; after which he folded his hands before him prelatewise. Claretfaced omniscience. A bearded panjandrum, his utterances never cease to amaze. One night only. Finest English wool.

- But you accept my point.
- It's a thing to take into consideration, CJ said. Why don't they advertise it?
- They do. On the bottle.
- Oh, blazes they do. Arp.
- There on the side.

Yes. He fingered the bottle, womanly shoulders, a white elipse, Domaine du Colombier. Refreshing if served lightly chilled. With stilted movements he spoke mutely of his disappointment, a sigh, lethargic. Birds descanted as the evening drew on, the garden outside slowly blackening in the windowpanes. Tremulous birdsong, nightjar, thrush, nightingale. Jug jug to dirty ears. Your heart you sing of. Skeins of nightfall, windingsheet of dark winding the dark world in.

- You have me.
- Like a Beaujolias.
- We could open another bottle. That. Behind you.

Eternal neophyte.

- What? This one? God, a Malbec: γνῶθι σεαυτόν! Did I ever tell you of the time we got lost in Bordeaux trying to find the football game? That was a shennanigan. The looks we got on account of having drink taken. Johnny Frenchman didn't know what to make of us.

PK shook, panting with soft laughter, his greying poll starting up behind. Terrible business! That Frenchie with his eyes like hatpegs at two in the morning. Forth, beste, out of thy stal! And they say we're finished! Three ruffians. No wonder he looked surprised.

- But the food was tip-top. No mistakes there.

Served lightly chilled: a motto for your escutcheon. How, in Latin? Vix gelidus. No, too cold. Like a Cava, icicles forming in the neck. Heat of Iberia. Great admirer of all that, he is. Wouldn't think it to look. Wears a hat on sunny days, aversion to ultraviolet rays is it? Attraction of opposites. German physicist, not Röntgen, X-rays they were, see the skull beneath the skin.

PK wrested the cap clear of the bottle and sentiently admitted half a gill of red wine to his glass, motioning thereafter in convivial dumbshow to CJ, abstracted at the furthest reach of the table. CJ, still frowning, pushed his own glass back across the soiled woodgrain. Tschink. Imperial purple.

- This'll bring tears to your eyes.
- So, in the refridgerator, then?
- It's your only chance. Unless you honestly prefer Caoutchouc de Chinon, that inveterate Gallic prank.
- There's no telling what they won't try, CJ said with forebearance. Mortification, did I pay good money for this?

From the street a motorcar sounded mockingly its horn.

- Confirmation! said PK. The divine afflatus! Oh, that's a good one.


Thursday 1 June 2017

No value in novelty

Last week, CJ and I were foolish enough to taste some wine from Azerbaijan. As you do. It was absolutely, extraordinarily horrible, with a strange, nasty flavour followed by a huge clout of alcohol. But it had to be tasted – if only for the novelty.

What is this thing about novelty in wine? When a product works, you generally don’t muck about with it. You only get one or two varieties of petrol. We know pretty much what to expect when we buy something called butter. There are a few places in the world which grow superb lemons, and from which we buy them. And in each case, we look no further.

But we suddenly get offered wines from countries like Azerbaijan, and Armenia, and China and for all I know Bangla Desh and Alaska. If each of us try a bottle once, maybe they’ve got a short-lived business. And out of sheer curiosity, we do try it, on the Dr Johnson principle of a dog walking on his hind legs; it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Surely novelty goes hand-in-hand with restless dissatisfaction? We’re wary of people who seek novelty in things which are perfectly good as they are, like omelettes, or masonry nails, or indeed wine. And yet in the name of novelty, we’re presented with aberrations like blue wine, fruit wine and chocolate wine, none of which is remotely as enjoyable as wine wine.

There’s novelty packaging; wine in boxes, and bags, and tins, and individual sealed plastic goblets. Can’t we be content, like the traditional spade or the traditional saucepan, with the traditional wine bottle? No, it seems. Here’s the latest alternative; it’s “a deconstructed bottle”, the very definition to my mind of a heap of broken glass.

Novelty glassware itself extends, of course, into various ridiculous wine glasses, with novelty
sizes, shapes, fatuous slogans and jokey measures. I was given one which flashes. In seven colours! We seem to do without such amusement in our steak knives.  Oh, and here’s a decanter which fills with red wine and resembles a diagram of the aorta.

And then there are the novelty names, the Fat Bastard, the Arrogant Frog, the Chat en oeuf, the Bored Doe claret and Aldi’s Men Are From Mars Minervois. No-one seems to feel a need to give, say, vegetables a punning novelty name, do they? Couch Potatoes, anyone? Full Of Beans? Or, from Aldi probably, Cor, Jets!

When someone does come up with a product, and calls it Utterly Butterly, something within me thinks that it may well have lots of other Utterly wonderful attributes, but it’s just not going to be as nice as… butter.

(And perhaps the Azerbaijan producers should call their product, I Can’t Believe It’s Called Wine.)

There’s a difference between variety and novelty. Variety is the spice of life. Novelty is not a spice; it’s a hot sauce, called Professor Phartpounders Colon Cleaner.

It’s as if we’re all sitting in judgment on a wine-related episode of Dragon’s Den, in which no-one pitches a wine which is actually better than what’s already out there. Instead, there’s an endless parade of novelties, doomed to failure. Green wine! Wine from the Tundra! Wine in a bucket!

I’m sorry, but I’m out.