Thursday 28 September 2017

Take it away…

Let’s just start with this name, shall we? The Takeout. In this country, our food is takeaway. We do not take out meals, except from a fridge. We take away food – we take out rubbish.

So right from the outset, I am prejudiced against a wine which is based on a marketing premise – let’s flog a wine to people ordering food from restaurants to eat at home – and then gets it so simply, linguistically, wrong.

And then they do it again! “Made to take away” it says on the label – well, it’s not, is it? Call me a pedant (and please, while you’re at it, undo that bottom waistcoat button), but if anything, it’s made not to, but for take away, surely? Unless you’re going to nick it from the supermarket.

Actually if, as it suggests elsewhere, you “Enjoy fine dining from the comfort of your couch”, then the wine is emphatically staying in. It’s another matter entirely whether the dining that comes on the back of a moped can conceivably be described as “fine”.

“There’s nothing like a night in,” it says, a reminder which makes me immediately want to go out. Personally I hate ordering a takeaway. I can’t stand the nervous waiting. How long will they be? Have they lost the order? Is that them? Shall I warm the plates up yet? Is that them? I’ll go and have a look through the window. Perhaps they can’t find the house? Is that them? IT’S THEM!

But takeaways are clearly popular. And the most popular in this country are Chinese and Indian. Possibly because both of them are really difficult, and time-consuming, and “pinch of a herb or spice you haven’t got” demanding, to cook upon a whim. Who’s going to order something any fule can cook? Who’s going to stand in the Dragon’s Den and propose a fish finger delivery service?

Unfortunately, in a hitch somehow unforeseen by The Takeout’s marketing department, neither Chinese nor Indian cuisine really pair with Sangiovese, immediately losing them 59% of the UK takeaway market.

The label – indeed, the front label – tells us the dishes with which it does pair. But it regains little ground, since they include fettucine alfredo, a dish patently unsuited to delivery, as its simple ingredients of pasta, melted butter and melted cheese would coagulate on the back of a moped into a sort of yellowish breeze block.  

However, at least we are told the wine does pair well with pizza, our nation’s third favourite takeaway, and a dish with which you can’t really go wrong. Unless someone wants pineapple on it.

And the Takeout has a screwcap, thoughtful when you’re panicking about your delivery getting cold. But beneath it is a pugilistic wine with an acidic edge, lacking not only body or depth, but also the liveliness which Sangiovese can display. Hardly a suitable partner for that “fine dining” they mentioned.

There are so many flaws in this whole concept. In one scenario, you are buying this wine to keep until you have a takeaway delivered at some point in the future, on the evidently false assumption that it will go with whatever you order.

Or, you are actually picking up your takeaway, so you pop into the supermarket to get a bottle of wine to go with it – and bereft of any idea what to get, you buy this because it says it will go with a “takeout”. Although it probably won’t go with yours.

There are many questions around takeaways – such as why does our Indian restaurant always put a little plastic bag of salad in with the dishes they deliver? (You never get salad in the restaurant…)

But there is only one question around The Takeout. Why?


Thursday 21 September 2017

CJ is away travelling…

…but if you feel deprived of SEDIMENT this week, you might read our guest feature for Female First, in which we take you on a brief if visually cluttered journey through life's 4 Stages Of Wine Drinking

Thursday 14 September 2017

Is that wine on your t-shirt?

What madness is this? I wander into a good wine merchant in a provincial city, just looking around. (“Can I help you sir?” “No, I’m just looking around…”) And suddenly, I spy a stack of t-shirts. They are branded with the wine merchant’s name. And they are for sale, like some kind of souvenir.

Now, there are a few one-off, internationally celebrated shops to which tourists make a special visit. If you go to Shakespeare & Company in Paris, or C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries in New York, you might possibly want to display their names on a t-shirt back home, to show that you’d been there. For visitors to our capital, that status might just apply to Fortnum & Mason, or to the once-iconic Knightsbridge store we now think of as Horrid. But seriously, would it apply to any of our wine merchants?

It’s one thing producing attractive, reusable bags bearing a wine merchant’s name. These are functional items, not only for carrying home your purchased wine, but for disguising later purchases from embarrassing retailers. Walk up the road with what is clearly six bottles in Asda bags? No thanks; I’ll pop them into my Lea & Sandeman bag-for-life and, for as long as no-one looks inside, try to look like a man of wealth and taste. For half the price of a bottle of their actual wine. 

But are there any wine merchants so aspirational that their names could be displayed on t-shirts like designer brands? Had he actually done so, might CJ have bought a Berry Bros & Rudd t-shirt, to commemorate summoning up the nerve to cross their threshold?  We shall, of course, never know. I suspect, however,that any business flaunting an ampersand would feel it somewhat vulgar to emblazon their name across a t-shirt – as indeed would their customers. We’re unlikely to see t-shirts bearing the names of Corney & Barrow, or Justerini & Brooks; we’ll have to settle for Cuthbert, Dibble & Grub. 

Few of us, surely, would wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the names of, say, Oddbins or Majestic. Unless, of course, we worked there. In which case, it would be less a fashion statement, more a contractual obligation. 

Perhaps other merchants might leap in, creating “witty” slogans for t-shirts? “I’m a Sampler”. “I waited in for Laithwaites”. “How Avery dare you!”. No, let’s stop there, and not even consider what slogans might be created for Virgin, Naked and Rude.

Because this could mark the emergence in wine of what I believe in the music industry is known as merch. I was there!, declares your tour merchandise. I saw Adele! I was in the same (very large) space as the Rolling Stones! I survived a Liam Gallagher gig!

So why not tell the world that you’ve experienced a bottle of Lafite? If you did actually get to drink something like a bottle of DRC, you might well like a t-shirt to commemorate it. Fellow enthusiasts might sidle up to you to discuss it. “Oh, cool man, 2008, remember those top notes?” (Sorry, was that DRC, or Adele?) 

Imagine on a t-shirt the iconic Latour tower, or the year’s Mouton artwork, reflecting your connoisseurship. Or an image of any tasteful label, complete with year, to announce your wine experience. Wearing a wine label on your chest could be like wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Or in CJ’s case, something like a Tough Mudder t-shirt for completing an assault course. “I finished this bottle of bottom-shelf Shiraz and lived to tell the tale”

But the wine is not the same as the merchant, is it? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt should not apply to visiting a wine merchant, however gruelling the experience might be. I hope these wine merchants are not suggesting that a visit to their store is so arduous that you deserve a t-shirt to show that you survived it.

Unless perhaps it’s to identify repeat customers, so that by wearing a t-shirt they stop asking, as soon as you cross the threshold, if they can help you. Now, that’s something for which I would be happy to pay £8.99.


Thursday 7 September 2017

Naming Wines: Let's Use Science!

So the dream of letting Artificial Intelligence design wine names has come a fraction closer: I have been in correspondence with the excellent Janelle Shane, wondering if her neural networks (which have had such success generating paint charts and craft beers) might work with wines. Her take on it? At this early stage, yes, all things are possible. There is some nervousness about stepping outside the world of, basically, Anglo-Saxon nomenclature; so Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and America are going to provide the basic structures - although some snippets of French may eventually creep in. Also, to work at all properly the neural networks need lots and lots of existing names to learn from, hundreds of the things. Back to me, and the next question: How to create such a list?

After an hour of persistent thought, I only have one idea, which is to physically comb through the lists of the big suppliers and supermarkets, churning through their Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America entries by hand, copying and pasting until my head swims. Oh, and some English wines, why on earth not? Well, I can already see why not, given that it seems utterly counter-intuitive to cobble together a list of brand names painstakingly by hand, like some piece worker from the nineteenth century, only to deliver the fruits of this drudging manual harvest to a cutting-edge twenty-first century machine and have it instantaneously translated into The Future. I might as well go out and pick the sloes from the hedges, it'd be just as time-consuming and tedious, but at least I'd have some sloes at the end, which I could then turn into a drink. Although on the debit side of that idea, most of the sloe gin I've ever made has tasted terrible, so perhaps the comparison is less watertight than I think. And, on the other hand, if I do go through the list, name-picking by hand, then maybe, just maybe, Ms. Shane's miracle program will create something so new and vibrant that the whole world will be enriched, just a tiny bit, and God knows we need something to brighten our days. My sacrifice, I start to tell myself, will be for the good of mankind.

After that, of course, I experience another small crisis when it occurs to me that I will have to taxonomise the wines as I go, but what taxonomy to use? I mean, I could just do all reds and all whites and leave it at that, a more or less random selection. But in her terrific craft beer re-stylings, Ms. Shane has already pinned the beers down to categories such as IPA, Stout and so on. A mere shopping-list of wines names isn't going to be enough to keep her happy, I can feel it. So how to divvy them up in anticipation? By principal grape? By price? By sub-region (although that sounds unnecessarily granular to me, all that Barossa Valley stuff)? By style - robust, medium-bodied, lightweight? By reference to topographical feature as mentioned on the label (valley, creek, ridge, hill, river) or colour (yellow, silver, ink, limestone, unless that's topography) or animal (dog, eagle, kangaroo, bird, whale, horse, I could go on) or even simply alcoholic strength? And what about all those characterful place names which to some extent already sound like fabrications - Kangarilla, Waimea, Oxney, Boschendal - how do I insinuate them into the Big List? Would the craft beer experiment have got off the ground if the neural networks had been given Bofferding as a building-block? How, come to think of it, could anything sound less plausible than Wirra Wirra Church Block, currently available at Tesco?

No, hold on, the thing is, given the amount of dumb toil ahead of me, I want as little mental involvement as possible. I don't want to have to check the alcohol count or find out if it's an easy-drinking medium white or even make great inroads into the grape variety. So it's going to be country and that's that. All right, country and colour.

I make a start. After about fifteen minutes with an on-line supermarket wine list, I have twenty-seven reds. I would have done it in ten minutes, but for the fact that the formatting on the web page kept invading my basic document and I had to scrub out images of bottles and presumptuous text alignments. Assuming I get better at it: twelve minutes for every twenty-five names; that's a hundred and twenty-five names in an hour, not too bad. Two, two and a half hours should give me most of what I need, assuming that there are two hundred and fifty-odd different Anglophone wines out there. Oh, and then I'll have to check for duplications. Still. Two and a half hours. That's less than it takes to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris from beginning to end, so really, how hard can it be?