Thursday 29 March 2018

Another Fine Mess…

My local Sainsbury seems to have abandoned its “Fine Wine” cabinet. They previously used this wood-effect shelving unit, which fooled no-one, to segregate their supposedly “Fine Wine” (ie anything costing above about thirteen quid) from whatever you call the other wine.

There are, however, no special cabinets for fine beans or superior sausages; and tubs of posh organic ice-cream sit contentedly in one freezer cabinet alongside extruded vanilla-flavoured gloop. Now it looks as if the “Fine Wine” has lost its First Class compartment, and will have to jostle for unreserved accommodation with the Off Peak night-in riff-raff.

But was the presence of “Fine Wine” in a supermarket ever really credible? Was it akin to finding a cabinet in Poundland labelled “Precious Stones”?

“Fine Wine” was once something to which I aspired. The finer things in life – what are they, I pondered? Well, here was one thing which was bold enough to actually declare its superiority, like fine china. Surely it would be a mark of achievement when I could eventually understand, appreciate and indeed afford “Fine Wine”?

And one day, I might join the gilded society of those who can stand with their trolley before the “Fine Wine” shelving, flaunting their wealth and refinement, and eschewing those like CJ who stare in bafflement and penury at the “other” wines.

But now, the phrase has a tawdry feel to it. “Fine Wine” is something which appears in news reports about fraudsters and expense account fiddlers. The nouveau riche lifestyle of crooks and ne’er-do-wells always seems to involve spending on exotic holidays, fast cars and “fine wines”.

And that’s not because those crooks’ palates have suddenly developed, or that they’ve now grasped the basics of the 1855 Bordeaux classification – it’s because “fine wine” has simply become promotional shorthand for “expensive wine”.

No wonder shops have been so keen to tempt us with it. Retailers like Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Majestic have seen that the way to make more expensive wine appealing is to call it “fine” – and to present it, not on their regular, white, metal-supported, wipe-clean shelving, but in a special wooden (or wooden-effect) section.

Because everyone knows that “fine wine” comes in wooden cases and not cardboard boxes, and is sold in dusty old, pre-industrial wine merchants, not efficient modern stores. So surround your wine with wood, whether it’s shelving, cases, worn floorboards or wood panelling, and it magically becomes “fine”.

“Majestic are the specialists when it comes to fine wine,” I read, a claim which might carry more weight had it not been made by Majestic. “Most of our stores have dedicated fine wine shelving…” It’s as if the shelves themselves confer status.

Of course, “fine wine” has no precise definition. You can stick the adjective “fine” in front of any wine, just as you can append credibility (and a higher price tag) by waving the word “vintage” in front of an unpleasant old tie.

I once thought “fine wine” was about issues like complexity, or balance, or ability to age. Or heritage, behind a label which had earnt its stripes over centuries of excellence. But then along comes some jumped-up New World product, with its perfect varietal simplicity, tiny output, long waiting list and huge price tag, and bingo, that’s “fine” too.

Then there is the abuse of the term “fine” itself, as in “fine dining”. This has now become the Masterchef criterion, to meet which food is sculpted, tweezered and coiffed into absurdity, the basis for judgments such as “I’m afraid in fine dining, those peas would be peeled…”.

On the Mr Porter designer menswear site, you can’t buy watches – only Fine Watches.  And people like the “fine wine and spirits boutique” Hedonism don’t have a Fine Wine list at all; they presumably wish us to believe that all of their wine is fine.

So wine joins a world of marketing in which certain adjectives become permanently, pointlessly attached; where all wines are “fine”, all apartments are “luxury”, and all labels “designer”, even when contradicted by common sense. (A fine wine for £10? A luxury apartment in Peckham?)

We’re back in the land of the nouveau riche, where merit is purely a function of price. Except that with “fine wine”, that also seems completely arbitrary. At Majestic, the “fine wine” selection begins at £17.99; but at Waitrose Cellar it’s £11.99, and at the Wine Society it’s just £10.50.

Wine is a field in which many descriptions – geographic, varietal, etc – are regulated and precise. Yet the only commonly recognised description of quality has been abused to the point of worthlessness. Perhaps more retailers should simply abandon it, and let expensive wines compete on their merit alongside the cheaper ones?

Which would be just fine.


Thursday 22 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (10): Black Tower

So, guys, what do we make of the Black Tower reboot? Clear bottles? Half black half clear? Upscale imagery? No crackle finish? Softened typeface? Clive? Does it do it for you? I know, I know. It was a real thing, back in the day, of course, it had presence, right? Exactly. It looked like a thing. Like a what? Say again, Pyotr? It was like piece of an exhaust pipe? On a car? It was, wasn't it? Like part of the silencer, maybe. Or the catalytic converter? I don't know, Clive, is that what they look like? I thought they looked like boxes. But you're right, a big black bottle that didn't look like a bottle of wine. So cool. Pyotr? It looked like something you could throw, exactly, a missile. What would you throw it at? A shop window? Really? You'd throw it at a vegan wholefood store? Don't say that in front of Morwenna. He's kidding, Morwenna. No, seriously. I'm practically a vegan myself. You know that. Or an explosive device? Mm. Clive? Like something the Nazis would have used in World War Two? Yeah, I guess. Tell you, there was a word going round, couple of years back, they were going to up the Germanic. Heavy up the typeface, really scary black tower, and they were going to rebrand it as Der Schwarze Turm. That's what I heard. Exactly! Standout on the wine rack! Iconic! Really menacing! No, Clive, they weren't going to use the SS flash insignia, fuck's sake. Tell you what I would have done, though. I would have gone down the whole Seventies kitsch thing. Heyday. Seventies. Ford Capri, yeah, rubber plants, flares, James Last, lasagne, exactly. Total retro, niche, but so niche. And Peter Wyngarde! What do you mean, Peter who? YouTube the shit out of him, Morwenna. Wyngarde or Jason King, face hair, gappy teeth, velvet three-piece. He's the bomb. Totally off the chain. I would so have him upfront, the face of Black Tower. Is he still alive? Oh. Had to be, I guess. Anyway, that's my dream, but no, they've gone beige, Easy ends the day, that's the strap. I mean, is that really a thing? Get pissed, it's gone six o'clock, I mean is that a narrative? Oh, oh, it is. Okay, guys, you're ahead of me. But - and you probably know this - the weirdness is that at the same time, same time as they're saying Get pissed, depressed lady, they've gone in with this Tough Mudder outfit as wine partner. Anyone know anything about Tough Mudder? Yeah, it's some kind of assault course thing you do for fun. Yeah, seriously. I don't know, has anyone been on it? I think you crawl through mud and jump over walls and beat yourself up like you're in the Marines, only you pay to do it. Seriously. Yeah, it's a big thing. So you do that and at the end you have a glass of Black Tower. So it's like Black Tower is suddenly the 4 x 4 of white wines, like a Toyota Land Cruiser. It's like a total Man Wine. It's called Tough Mudders cause of the mud, Clive. What? It's like saying Mothers in a New Jersey accent? Mudders? Mudderfuckers? Clive. Morwenna, he's just being obvious. Okay? So, anyway, all that taken together, what do we think? I mean, you know, Blue Nun, they tried a reboot on that, I don't think it's going that great, to be honest, but Black Tower? New Black Tower? You think it's got traction? Maybe. Say again, Pyotr? Have I ever drunk Black Tower? Hahahahahahahahaha. Have I ever drunk Black Tower? Seriously?


Thursday 15 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (9): Blue Nun

Hard as it may be to understand now, this was once the definitive taste of white wine in the UK. If today it is Sauvignon Blanc, and yesterday it was Chardonnay, back in the 1970s the popular white wine was sweet and German.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Kingsley Amis in 1972, on serving white wine at home: “My advice would be to stick to hocks and moselles, which everybody likes, and avoid white burgundies.”

Back then, as Hugh Johnson recalls, "no great dinner could begin without its Mosel … or Rhine Spatlese." And not just “begin”; Blue Nun’s marketing slogan was “right through the meal”, aimed at allaying any anxiety that we novice drinkers might have about the correct order of wines. So it was Blue Nun throughout, even if your starter was carpaccio, your main course steak and you finished with Stilton. You could, according to another ad, confidently ask for “Blue Nun and the menu”.

Let’s briefly scamper through the history of Blue Nun. It was created by Hermann Sichel following the “famous 1921 vintage”. Why a nun? Well, “liebfraumilch” (which it was) is a medieval term that describes the "milk" from the convents and monasteries in the Rhine Valley. Turn that into marketing speak, as a Blue Nun representative did years later, and you could claim that "The monks and nuns of the Middle Ages knew how beneficial a glass of good wine was for the harmony of mind and body."

And why Blue? It’s possible it was a printer’s error; legend says that it was meant to be the brown of a traditional nun’s habit, until a printer misread “brau” as “blau” in Sichel’s handwriting. Or perhaps one of them was smart enough to realise that it would sound rather more appealing than having a Brown’un.

It was certainly one of the first examples of a smart branding exercise. For as Kingsley Amis also observed, “Whatever the men in the know may say, a German wine label is a fearful thing to decipher.” And that’s from a chap familiar with Welsh railway stations. The success of Blue Nun and other subsequent branded German wines, like Black Tower and Goldener Oktober, with a generation of novice wine drinkers, lay in the approachability of their names as much as that of their taste.

The complications of language and labelling were just part of an eventual triple whammy on German wine. It’s hard to be a popular success if ordinary folk can’t understand or pronounce the words on your bottle. And for a generation raised on Commando comics, German wines sounded a little too much like barked instructions to present your papers.

Then there were adulteration scandals, just as we were becoming aware of a world of alternative wines beyond Germany and France. And there was also an inevitable progression, like teenagers who begin drinking Southern Comfort and end up enjoying Chablis, away from those sweeter flavours. Today in
that barometer of middle-class English taste, my local Waitrose, they have labelled sections for wines from virtually every country in the world – but not Germany.

Blue Nun was sold in 1996 – and you can find reports of a “makeover” in 1998; a “resurrection” in 2001; a “reinvention” in 2010.  The nun herself was transformed over the years, from the one I found disturbingly come-hither in my youth, through a drawing with a Florence Nightingale vibe, to the shallow designer motif of today.

And in 1997, they introduced a blue bottle. Well of course they did. A distinctive bottle is a sure-fire sign of a wine sold by marketers rather than winemakers. 

I would employ the adjective “hideous”, but this blue bottle is inevitably described as “iconic” by Blue Nun’s marketing people, who wouldn’t know an icon if it came up and bit them in Constantinople.

And how do those marketers now position their product? “Whether you like to enjoy your Blue Nun wine after shopping, for dinner, getting ready for a girls night out, or staying in with your friends, Blue Nun goes with every occasion,” they say. Well, when I get ready for a girls night out, it’s by checking that Mrs K is taking her keys.

Ignoring their clumsy hints at gender targeting, if Blue Nun goes with every occasion perhaps I could work it into the bin routine on a Tuesday night. And I quite like the idea of a glass after shopping, especially if Sainsbury’s car park has been a bit challenging.

And when it’s time to move up to more sophisticated things, Blue Nun now produce other varieties, including a Gold Edition sparkling version containing flakes of 22 carat gold leaf, which presumably provides potentially rich pickings for your dental hygienist.

Unnoticed amid all this loss of dignity, they changed the actual blend of Blue Nun itself, to become less sugary, and redefined it as a Rheinhessen Qualitatswein, rather than the currently scorned Liebfraumilch. But it was too late. By the turn of the millennium, according to their website, Blue Nun had become “the best distributed German wine in the world.” You somehow know a brand is in trouble when their claim to fame is that their lorries are better than yours.

Ironically, despite that famed distribution, Blue Nun is incredibly hard to find in the UK. On the Blue Nun website, you can choose countries from Norway to Korea, but not Germany itself, who presumably get it “distributed” out of their own borders asap. But after visiting numerous off-licences, convenience stores, and a succession of grim, bunkerlike supermarkets, I only saw one of their “varieties” on a UK shelf, and not Blue Nun itself. Of course it’s online, should you wish to order an entire case. But once you’re online, I find it’s surprisingly easy to search for and order something else instead.

In 2001, its brand manager said "We are trying to get back to the situation when Blue Nun was a must-have item, high up on The Ritz wine-list." In that, they have failed.


Thursday 8 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (8): Martini

Martini is a mystery. It's one of the most familiar brands in the world, it's given its name to the most famous of all cocktail drinks, for some of us it still rings a distant answering bell as the quintessence of a certain kind of Eurotrash High Life, but how often have I ever drunk the stuff? How often have you? I mean, it's culturally ubiquitous but at the same time invisible. Just last weekend I made some - though I say so myself - killer Dry Martinis. The gin was Silent Pool (terrific) and the vermouth was Dolin (ditto). Plus a twist of lemon, not an olive, that's the way I roll. But not a drop of actual Martini. Maybe I should have announced these beverages as old-fashioned Gin & Frenchies but does anyone do that these days? And why do I feel no compunction at all about not using original Martini vermouth?

A five-minute trawl of Google reveals not much about the business behind the drink - Martini & Rossi - except the unsurprising truth that Martini began as an Italian vermouth company in the mid-nineteenth century, reaching the New York market in the late 1860s. The first Dry Martini cocktail arrived, probably in New York, at the start of the twentieth century - although the drink's name may actually be a corruption of Martinez, the guy who first mixed gin and vermouth together. Since then, interest has mostly swirled around the exact ratio of vermouth to gin, plus whatever interventions (brine for a Dirty Martini; olive or twist; vermouth mixtures, like two-stroke petrol; ice or no ice) the mixer may or may not be keen on. I am not much better off for knowing this.

So I go out and buy a whole litre of the stuff, in a blousy screwtop bottle slathered in Martini-isms and try it out. I know I've drunk it before, somewhere, but a kind of guilt obliges me to get the taste authentically, here and now. It's the Bianco, the one you're supposed to take long, with a mixer, or as it comes, with a lump of ice. I pick the latter, try and few mouthfuls and, yes, there are botanicals swirling around, plus an aromatic headiness, not necessarily in a good way, more like stale perfume on a cashmere sweater, but I suppose there might be times when that's the experience I might crave, plus a tough terminal coating on the back teeth. The label suggests drinking it long with tonic water but it's already sticky and sugary enough as it is and anyway, if I want to drink Sprite, I can. And now I have 90cl of Martini Bianco bulging away on the liquor tray and I can foresee the awful stuff going with me to the grave, endlessly undrunk, brassily insistent, and I paid £10 for it, on offer.

So it's not the taste and it never has been the taste. Which only leaves one thing to account for its bothersome presence in my mind and indeed in the mind of PK and others of our generation: the adverts. You know what I'm talking about, they're all over YouTube, It's the left's the right's Martini, we used to sing, back in the Seventies. Somehow these ads appropriated a particular iconography all for themselves - the Mediterranean sunlight, the fancy blondes, the fast cars, the megalithic tumblers chinking in close-up, the James Hunt costumed morons leering at the controls of a speedboat, the promise of a brown fortified wine to set your day straight. No-one else came close. And when this cataclysm of kitsch wasn't blaring at us in the cinemas we had it silently reproduced in full-colour magazine ads, a kind of top-up before the next time we went out to watch Diamonds Are Forever or Shaft. And yet - adverts and motor racing sponsorship: is that really all it came down to?

The answer has to be yes: so far as I can see, no encounter with basic, raw, Martini is ever going to be anything other than puzzling and inconsequential. Trouble is, I can't think of anything else - even allowing for the intercessions of time and senility - whose essence has been so mediated by the publicity that went with it - that exists, basically, as a thing advertised rather than as a thing. David Bowie? National Savings Certifcates? NATO? Fondue? Quadrophonic hi-fi? Any time, any place, anywhere...There's a wonderful world you can share... I'm wondering, could we just leave it at that? Keep these imperishable sentiments without having to tangle with the vermouth? On this occasion, isn't the advertising the thing with the real value?


Thursday 1 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (7): Paul Masson

There’s one thing which people particularly remember about Paul Masson wine, and it’s not the flavour, or the advertising, or the fact it was American. It’s that it came in a carafe.

Were we once really naïve enough in our wine drinking to find wine which came in a carafe more appealing than wine which came in a bottle? Did we believe that wine from a carafe was somehow more authentic? And as we grasped and hoisted it by the neck, just like a real carafe full of really decanted wine in a real “continental” restaurant, did we feel somehow more authentic?

Visit any student’s room in the late 1970s, and you’d see an empty Paul Masson carafe sitting on a shelf. Perhaps it was waiting to be used as a flower vase – of which, as they used to say, there were two chances: fat, and slim. Perhaps it was waiting to be reused as a carafe, in the unlikely circumstance that one would buy either a wine so good that it needed decanting, or a wine so bad that one wanted to pretend it was Paul Masson.

Or perhaps, without displaying the serried empty bottles of a dipsomaniac, we simply wanted to tell visitors that hey, I’m one of these new, cosmopolitan, worldly young Brits you’ve been hearing about – who drink wine.

The fact that this wine was American almost passed us by. For one thing, in those days, producers could throw around French terms like Burgundy and Champagne with impunity, so we didn’t really know what it was that we were drinking. A Rare Premium California Burgundy? If you say so… 

And also, the brand played itself off against Europe in its marketing. “Paul Masson is America’s best-selling premium wine in Europe,” ran one ad. “And you can’t fool Europeans about wine.” Well, back then you could stick wine in a carafe, and pretend that it’s the sort of thing served to a table in a continental café, and you could certainly fool us.

But they mainly used another, more famous advertising slogan: Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time. Was this really such a selling point? Just where exactly was all this immature wine we were being threatened with? Would we even have recognised immature wine if someone had sold it?

Paul Masson used Orson Welles in their advertising, a man whose girth was rapidly increasing in inverse relation to his reputation. In those days, tasting notes appear to have been refreshingly basic, but even so they were ripe for a sort of “cut through the bullshit” ad campaign. “Experts say Paul Masson Cabernet Sauvignon is a mature, complex wine with nice wood”, said Orson. (Perhaps “nice wood” is not a choice of words one would use today.) 

“What they’re trying to say is…it tastes good.”

Orson was eventually relieved of his duties, leaving behind an immensely entertaining outtake of one of his TV ads,  showing what happened when too much of Mr Masson’s product had been consumed. Or had it? One story is that Orson was abruptly fired for admitting on a chat show that he never actually drank their wine. But an account executive contended that Welles was dropped when Paul Masson introduced ''light'' wines: ''Obviously, that would not be appropriate.''

He was replaced by John Gielgud, repeating his role as a disdainful butler from the movie success, Arthur. Sir John took a $1 million fee, on condition that the ads would not be shown in Britain, a condition which YouTube now entertainingly flaunts. Gielgud is quoted as finding the filming sessions “exhausting and somewhat humiliating”; but the great actor said that in addition to the colossal fee, he found further compensation in the way that the Paul Masson agency paid “full attention to my comforts in the way of limousines, suites at the Savoy, flowers and cigarettes provided!”

Astonishingly to me, I could still find Paul Masson wines in their carafes today. Not in a suite at the Savoy, no, but in a convenience store in Hammersmith. The carafe used to have an embossed glass seal on the shoulder, presumably dropped as being too expensive now, but which reduced the container’s distressing similarity to a bottle for a medical sample. (This was particularly important with the white wine.) And the carafe seems somehow cruder, thinner, cheaper than I recall; I found myself tapping it with a finger to check that it is still, actually, glass.

The simplicity of the formerly oval, type-only label has also been replaced, with an awkward, assymetric job bearing an image of the original Paul Masson winery, where the wine is no longer produced. And there’s a plastic lid which you push off with your thumbs, and can pop back on. Am I alone in remembering a tear-off foil seal? I certainly can’t recall any resealing requirement back in the day…

The wine itself initially has the nose of a decent, fruity Pinot Noir. Hello, I thought. But that fades rapidly, and a taste of bitter cherries tips over into plain bitterness, a sort of wrestle between liquorice and a chewed aspirin. 

But the most disturbing aspect? It stained the carafe. It stained the carafe!! I don’t know whether to blame the wine, or the carafe, but… Yes, my liver’s suffered a bit of wear and tear, but can I let you know if it actually needs redecorating?

Once, it was as if there was another, wonderfully stylish world of carafes and the like waiting somewhere across the English Channel. Forty Years On – and we are so sophisticated, so continental ourselves, that “a carafe of red” is a routine offer in UK restaurants. But hopefully, it will not bear a Paul Masson label.