Thursday 26 April 2018

When wine drinking is "cringingly common"

Here am I, “A jumped-up pantry boy, who never knew his place”, as I hope it will say upon my headstone. I thought it was posh just to drink wine, full stop. I thought I stopped being common when I gave up brown ale and Party Sevens.

But no. It seems it’s not as simple as that. It seems there are a number of class signals in wine drinking itself which reveal whether you are U or Non-U, posh or common. Have my guests been laughing at my social gaffes for years because I Didn't Know?

You may not have heard of Nicky Haslam, or Nicholas Ponsonby Haslam to those who have to look him up. He is an interior decorator. This is a profession which requires that you are rich enough to have an interior with which you can do what you like, and then to employ someone else to do with it what they like.

Nicky is “interior decorator to royalty, pop stars, oligarchs and aristocrats” (House and Garden), who are presumably that rich. His small country house is “ravishing”, his London apartment “elegantly playful”. Sometimes, he even looks like a curtain. (Oh, “And do use the couch for your feet,” as John Betjeman put it. So much for class.)

However, Nicky Haslam has developed a secondary career, as an arbiter of what is currently U and Non-U. In the 1950s, this business started with observers specifying that genuinely posh people used words like ‘napkin’ and ‘pudding’, while upstart social climbers said ‘serviette’ and ‘dessert’. Now, it largely seems to involve answering the question which has been perplexing Brits ever since we graduated from using sheets of Bronco; whether the paper on a toilet – no, lavatory – no, loo roll should hang down at the front or the back.

Nicky has declared many things to be ‘common’, such as heating, telescopic umbrellas, coloured wellies, cufflinks and Richard Branson. And unbeknownst to me, Nicky has issued several edicts on aspects of wine – which, horror of social horror, I may have unwittingly transgressed.

For example, he says that rows of wine glasses on a dining table are ‘common’.

Really? Personally, I find them attractive, efficient, and informative of what is to come.  (And it’s a rule which appears to be transgressed at the poshest of dining tables: Buckingham Palace.)

Nicky has declared that changing wine glasses for the second bottle is “cringingly common”. Of course, his wine presumably does not dump a beach-worth of sediment into glass number one.

But in particular, he says that it’s either wine, or it’s white wine. It is ‘common’ to offer “red wine or white wine?” One should ask, “Will you have some wine, or would you prefer white?”

I have clearly been making some huge social blunders over most of my wine-drinking life. In my jumped-up ignorance, I have been cheerfully lining up glasses, and asking guests “Red or white?”, for years. I thought I was displaying generosity – but perhaps I was only displaying my lack of class.

What about my guests? Can I trust that they, too, have all been commoners who Didn’t Know? They may have been poshly ignoring my faux pas, then laughing at me behind my back.  Or perhaps I had already blown it by putting on the heating?

Once you go down this route, you find a surprising number of similar class edicts about wine. William Hanson, a “trusted expert” on etiquette and protocol, lists words that “prove you’re not posh”, and says  that “the word ‘bubbly’ is “a big Non-U giveaway.” It was, he says, invented to make people – presumably poorer people, like me – feel less guilty for serving prosecco rather than Champagne.

He says that 'alcohol' is U, while 'booze' is non-U – “and the term ‘vino' is obviously common.”

And then I came across a guide in the Telegraph to what’s posh and what’s not in 2018, written by someone called Sophia Money-Coutts, who must know whereof she writes because she has a name as impossibly posh as Margaret Tea-Fortnum.

She says that drinking at lunchtime is posh, because “it suggests you don’t have much of a job to go back to.” In my circles that’s called ‘unemployed’.

Not posh, she says, is cold champagne. She quotes Haslam again (these people clearly all know each other): “Much nicer not freezing cold.” Obviously common is spraying people with it. Presumably whether freezing cold or not.

Who are these people? What makes them “trusted experts”? Although it obviously helps to have a name like Susan Notebook-Smythson. Or to be a Ponsonby.

CJ doesn’t get bogged down in all of this stuff; but now I’m worried that that’s because he instinctively knows it already. When he offers me "Wine?", it is indeed always red. No, he has never offered me “Red wine or white wine?” But I assumed that was because he hadn’t got any white.

How many other wine drinkers, like me, were simply oblivious to these rules? Which only revives the old question about whether a falling tree makes a sound if no-one is there to hear it. If a social edict falls upon wine drinkers, but none are aware of it, does it make an impact?


Thursday 19 April 2018

More Gin

So a couple of our chums were giving us a meal a few weeks ago (I mean, top-flight stuff, fennel and blood orange, salmon, Pouilly Fumé, it's that good) and to start off, we get a gin and tonic. But not just a Weybridge G & T, no, this one is a rhubarb gin, made by Slingsby's of Harrogate and presented in a frosted glass bottle like a bumper of perfume, topped off with fresh Fever-Tree tonic, American-sized ice cubes and slices of a kind of lemon/lime hybrid which I have never encountered before but which looks a bit like a tiny watermelon. We grasp our fabulous, scintillating, very slightly pinkened tumblers and get stuck in. And it is beyond delicious. In fact it seems to be the most delicious drink I have ever drunk. I can't believe how life-enhancing and yet thirst-quenching it is. And it has rhubarb in it. How can this be?

Normally I would worry about a gin with rhubarb in it. There are so many gins, so many craft gins, so many craft gins with stuff in them (cherry and almond, strawberry, orange, rose, honey, pomegranite, sprouts, cornflower, yacht varnish, you name it), all crossing some unhappy conceptual divide between adult tastes and the world of the nursery, that anything resembling them (with rhubarb in it, let's say) sets my alarms ringing. But what do you know? The rhubarb lends tartness to the mix as well as a kind of supernatural earthy fragrance: this is G & T taken to a new level - impeccably served, let's not forget - and I never want to drink anything else. Light, clarity and ebullience fill me from top to toe. It's a revelation.

Of course, gin is always doing this, surprising me with its fabulousness - from the Martinis I made earlier this year (with a gin given me by the rhubarb gin lady, a lady who really understands and appreciates her gins) to my tour round the Sipsmith factory three years ago: it keeps jumping out like an implausibly happy memory. And my response is always to wonder why I don't drink gin for ever after, in all its permutations, and kiss tiresome, unpredictable, overpriced wine goodbye.

So I think for a bit. And then I get it: tragically, I realise that the reason I can't get by on gin alone, is because it doesn't go with food - not that much, anyway. I hate to sound like PK with his endless hypothetical dinner parties and his fine wine appreciations, but there is an issue, here. The only food I can think of, off-hand, that goes well with a brimming G & T is curry - not least because of the colonial overtones. Other than that? I'm open to suggestions, but doubtfully. Also it only really works as a big, sparkling G & T, unless you're making cocktails, but who does that on a Tuesday evening at home? If you want it at room temperature and not long, what else is there but wine?

Oh, but of course: whisky. Whisky! Why didn't I think of this before? It goes long, it goes short, there are all sorts of different styles of whisky, you can take it at any temperature you like, even hot, and it lends itself precisely to the sorts of foods they might traditionally consume in Scotland - beef, salmon, lamb; arguably, raspberries and tayberries. I suppose, porridge. Dundee cake. Haggis for sure - in fact you're meant to pour whisky over the steaming concoction before you start eating it. I even like haggis, which I like to think gives me some perverse currency, somewhere, almost certainly not in Scotland itself. In fact I can't think off-hand of anything I wouldn't drink whisky with, although pasta might be a stretch. Damn! The answer was there all along! Gin and whisky! All right, maybe an occasional beer, because who doesn't like beer? Gin, whisky and beer! The tyranny of the wine rack is a thing of the past! It's 1957 and I'm going to have a party. Just you watch.


Thursday 12 April 2018

Home Alone

Mrs K is out for the evening, at a musical, which I think avoids the need for any further explanation as to why I have stayed home alone.

So I have choices of both food and wine. On food, I can take the high road, put in some effort, and enjoy the things which Mrs K eschews, such as venison, black pudding and custard, although probably not all at once. Or I can take the low road through quick and easy eating alone options, like fish fingers, pasta with pesto, and ice cream, again probably not all at once. (Although let’s not limit my creative options here; I’ve been watching Masterchef.)

But of course, the real question is on the wine front; and again, it’s whether to take the high road or the low road. Should I enjoy a good wine on my own? Or settle for something mediocre because I’m drinking it by myself?

I have always been wary of the argument that “life’s too short to drink bad wine”. If anything, I have argued that life is too long to drink the good stuff now. That would simply decimate my cellar, and leave me with little to look forward to over the coming years beyond mental and physical decline – incompetence and incontinence.

What about that bottle I have earmarked to celebrate my 70th?  Am I supposed to drink it now, in fear that I may never reach that milestone? And then have nothing worthwhile left to drink if I do?

So when I look at my cellar for solo drinking, my eyes tend to race over the (few) really good bottles. Better to save them for some special event. Cometh the hour, cometh the corkscrew. And while I might get to enjoy twice as much of their contents by drinking them alone, much better to share them, talk about them, enjoy them with someone else.

Drinking alone per se has accrued an image of sad self-destruction, of the drinking into oblivion of Nobby No-mates. But I cling to the belief that there has to be a difference between drinking wine alone, and drinking, say, vodka by yourself. Surely the consideration and appreciation of good wine, even by yourself, is a different matter?

The prohibitionists would make no such distinction. The government measure of drinking by units of alcohol renders all consumption the same, whether it’s white Burgundy or White Lightning. Am I simply clinging to justification by pomposity, like Randy in South Park: “I’m not ‘having a glass of wine’ – I’m having six, it’s called a tasting and it’s classy.”

Surely not. I read what Roger Scruton has written in I Drink Therefore I Am, his Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, about the pleasures of drinking good claret. “Always in good company,” he writes, “which does not, of course, preclude drinking it alone, if your own company reaches the required standard (which, after a glass or two, I find, mine does).”

I am struck by a vision of myself sitting in my armchair, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets in hand, Beethoven’s Op 132 playing in the background. Yes, a bottle of good claret would indeed raise the company in this “evening under lamplight” to my own required standard.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be reached, what with the toll exacted by grilling fish fingers and all. In my hand is more likely to be the television remote. And in the background that classic episode of Grand Designs which they seem to repeat constantly.

(You know, the one they’re always showing, where the build goes on over the winter, and the bloke runs out of money and starts working on it himself, and his wife gets pregnant, and Kevin ends up saying “I was always nervous about this build, but d’you know what, this house made of rice cakes actually works…”)

So it’s a bottle of the rubbish stuff for me. The standard of my cooking, the quality of my own company, the cost of good wine, and the selfishness of solo consumption, all point towards a bottle of the trolley fodder. I reconcile myself to a bottle of Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference. (Mmm, certainly can…)

At least I can pride myself on avoiding the embarrassment of serving it to somebody else. Heaven forbid they might think that I would drink this stuff myself.


Thursday 5 April 2018


So my old Ma has got these bottles of red wine sitting in one of her dank, mouldering, cupboards, but has no use for them. Since she's been existing for the last few years on a diet of brandy and Pringles with an occasional glass of Echo Falls on special occasions, I feel no shame in taking the reds away for my own consumption. And they look well posh: some Dourthe Montagne Saint-Emilions and some Gérard Bertrand Minervois, both 2015 both getting okay write-ups from the wine-spotters on the internet. How the hell did they end up in my Ma's hideous cupboard? I must have bought them and dragged them over for Christmas lunch, or maybe Easter 2017, whereupon they weren't drunk.

Only snag: they're standing up. How long has this been the case? Last time I thought to look I could have sworn they were lying down, in a midget bent-metal wine rack dating back to the 1970s. Somehow they've been translated into the vertical, possibly by my Ma's Stakhanovite cleaning lady, probably not by my Ma herself who can barely get out of her chair. But when? Fear very slightly eats my soul: how much difference is it going to make to these nob wines that they're been pointing upwards?

Of course I get them home and forget about this tiny agony, preferring to gaze on their handsome bottlings and their sleek red capsules among my usual dead man's screwtops and telling myself that when the time comes to drink these wines, I'm going to be living the good life.

Not so, as it happens. First time I get stuck into the Dourthe Saint-Emilion, it tastes of insoles, quite clearly - only I refuse to believe the evidence of my mouth and keep determinedly drinking as if I've been told it'll do me good. After a bit I can't separate my lips on account of the pucker and even I have to conclude that something's wrong. I'm forced to tip the rest away at the same time telling myself that it's a rogue and that the next will be fine. Next bottle, some days later, is one of the Minervois. Not as much deep cack as the Saint-Emilion, but, you know, it too has a wrongness about it that I can't rationalise away. No. 2 son has given me for Christmas a rather excellent wine aerator which has had some success moderating my usual gutbucket stuff, so I force the Minervois through it in the hope of shaming it into good behaviour. And, yes, maybe it's a tiny bit less undrinkable; or maybe it's wishful thinking.

Either way, the next bottle of Saint-Emilion only goes to show that, no, it wasn't a one-off and the whole lot (four bottles, I might add) is probably on the fritz. Same for the Minervois, I'm guessing, although for some reason I'm consoled by presence of a Vizigoth Cross on the label; I mean, it looks as if it really might intercede on my behalf in some way.

But then again, how long can you leave a bottle of wine upright? Internet wisdom has it at a few weeks, not much more - although there seem to be plenty of contrarians who argue that it's okay to leave a bottle upright for years and that all fears are baseless. And once, years ago, we opened a magnum of Moët & Chandon which had been standing tall in an overheated room for ages and it was quite drinkable. In other words, the Minverois and the Saint-Emilion might well have been buggered by storage; or they might not. But if not, why are they so awful? I know my sense of taste is arbitrary at the best of times, but I don't think I'm that bad at knowing what's poison and what's not. I don't think I'm choking and spitting on anything really decent. Which means that - in this case - it only takes a month or so of verticality to make a hash of quite a few quid's worth of drink: a notion which I find slightly disturbing, given my tendency to acquire and then forget almost anything that comes in a bottle. Unless, of course, I just stick to spirits, which can take any amount of punishment: a drinking programme, in other words, for the progressively senile. Like my Ma.