Thursday 31 May 2018


So PK drags me along to the London Wine Fair, partly with the intention of re-kindling any interest in wine I might once have had, partly so he's got someone to talk to. And what do you know? Turns out this year's London Wine Fair is unexpectedlly entertaining, although not because of the wine, as such.

Over here, for instance, we have a really quite large stand run by Celebration Drinks, whose thing, it turns out, is champagne perry, done up to look like actual champagne. It's a kind of Babycham, in fact. 'We do a lot of bingo halls, hen nights, that kind of stuff,' says the guy in charge, who looks as if he might be a bouncer the rest of the time, at, indeed, hen nights and bingo halls. His Champers Demi Sec is the business. Even PK senses its grubby allure.

Over here, on the other hand, we have Dracula wines of Romania - an outfit with an apparently huge budget, dedicated to upping our awareness of a whole rainbow of Dracula-themed products, including the Power of Dracula plum brandy, Legendary Dracula sparkling wine, Dracula Fangtasy (sic) praline chocolates, and a Vampower phone charger. A couple of stalls away, the regular Wines of Romania exhibitors stand around examining their nails, but on the Dracula stand, anything goes. In my excitement I accidentally tread on the trailing hem of a blood-red dress worn by a spectacular blonde woman who offers to have her picture taken with me, or grant me immortality, or both, provided I get off her dress.

And the animals! The animals are everywhere except Dracula: if there's a theme to this year's Fair, it's wildlife. A Chilean sauvignon blanc has a llama on its label; another Sauvignon Blanc, from New Zealand, sports a kiwi, self-evidently; a Portugese gin (yes) has a picture of a cat with a monocle and a dog with a top hat, just reeks of class; a South African shiraz has an elephant; an English red sports a chiffchaff; a grenache lives in a bottle done up with an imitation record label and calls itself The Bee Side because it comes from a vineyard with the word abeille in its name. Crazy! Animals are all over everything, apart from the Dracula wines and a shiraz which comes in a tin can and calls itself Take It To The Grave (with a Day of the Dead ornamented skull motif) plus, of course, the many blingtastic rosés and sparkling wines, which have altogether other goals in mind.

Some of these sparklers are done up in faceted, spangled, dimpled containers like giant scent bottles; some of them are encased in bottles held within copper lattices like the windows of a Renaissance strongroom. Some of them - the rosés, usually - turn up in hypertrophied three-litre whoppers for the summertime bash/superyacht crowd, who apparently like nothing more than a jerrycan of sunset blush to round out their day, even if it means having to bring along a special mechincal pourer, given that the bottles are too large to pour by hand.

And then, just when I think things can't get any more deliriously frivolous, what do we stumble upon? Only Roger Daltrey's own-brand champagne, that's what! I mean, this is the Roger Daltrey, out of The Who - for my money the greatest rock'n'roll band there ever was - that Roger Daltrey, the definitive rock front man, Jagger and Plant notwithstanding, and he's put his name on a champagne that comes in a bottle with a kind of Tommy-themed packaging! How cool is that? The fact that it seems to cost £95 a go comes as a slight shock to me and PK, but actually that's cool too, because a lot of that big-ticket price goes to good causes, hospitals and so on, so it's worth shelling out. We try some of the Daltrey cuvée just to make sure he's not pulling a fast one, but all is groovy - or at least, it tastes pretty much like champagne, or something that would pass as champagne, especially if you're the sort of person who otherwise buys champagne in a bottle dressed up as a Florentine specie cellar; or Champers Demi Sec. It's still cool.

Four hours after we go in, we stagger out of the Wine Fair into the weak daylight. Clearly, I have some thinking to do: if wine is now all about Dracula, wild animals, phoney champagne, real champagne that looks like phoney champagne, joke-sized rosés and cuvée Roger Daltrey, then this is not the time to miss out. In fact there is only one thing absent from today's treats, I ponder, as I collect myself on the pavement. And that thing is wine in a bottle shaped like Thunderbird 2. I'm just putting it out there.


Thursday 24 May 2018

Of Harrods and hoodies

It may surprise some of you to discover that I am not a regular customer at Harrod’s. But I hope that may be understandable when you see what the regular customers at Harrod’s are like these days. However, it was time for me to visit, because the Fine Wines and Spirits Rooms at Harrod’s have received “a conceptual and visual makeover”. Although the main concept still seems to be the sale of Fine Wines and Spirits.

I am delighted to see that the idea of a wine department has actually survived, whereas things like a shirt department have vanished. Like most stores, Harrod’s has succumbed to the power of brands, with each brand being given its own specific location. So if you want to buy, say, a tie, you have to trail around every single brand in order to see if they sell a tie – whereas once there was a thing of customer service and colourful beauty called a tie department, which gathered together for comparison all of the ties by all of the brands which the store was selling. May I suggest such a thing to the current owners?

Although to be fair, the store is now selling very few ties. In fact the wine room is sited in a disturbing location, at the back of a basement area offering three-figure baseball caps and four-figure hoodies, in what appears to be designer thugwear. Foolishly I had dressed up in my best bib and tucker, in order to get a bit of respect from the staff, whereas in fact I could have swaggered in looking like a mugger and been completely a la mode. (And if you ask what kind of mugger wears a £730 baseball cap, the answer presumably is a rather successful one.)

One of these gentlemen may have bought their outfit from Harrod's…

But unlike certain daunting upmarket wine merchants, where your entrance is announced with the ting of a metal bell, there are no doors here. You can just meander in to the wine department, as if you happened to have wandered past while looking at sweatpants – Hmm, perhaps the Magic Stick drop crotch sweatpants, which look to me like, well, sweatpants, but supposedly “transcend the classic style of the off-duty staple”, for just £525.

So in I drift, carefully dropping neither my crotch nor my aitches. First impressions are that this wine room is far less bling than its predecessor. Tasteful, limed oak shelving is discreetly lit, there’s a patterned marble floor, and there are “secret cabinets”, labelled with a winemakers name, which open when you touch them to reveal bottles within. (Unfortunately they are so secret that while I was there, an assistant went round touching them and leaving them ajar, because otherwise none of the customers realised they were there.)

The tables host absurd steampunk devices which look like something out of Professor Branestawm. Through these you can sample scents, like coffee. In case you don’t know what coffee smells like, you can stick your nose into a brass trumpet like Nipper the HMV dog and find out. Or visit the coffee bar.

Then there’s the wine. Of course a lot of it is preposterous ostentation. There are ridiculously expensive bottles here; not just the obvious DRCs, the predictable Petrus, Le Pin and pals, but a bottle of 1959 trockenbeerenauslese which is £28,000, or just under £1500 a character.

And the sizes! There are bottles here the size of milk churns, bottles like oxygen tanks, bottles which resemble household Calor gas cylinders.

But they’re not tucked away inside a daunting special glass room, as the finest wines were in the old Wine Department (or still are at Berry Bros). No, they’re on display alongside their affordable alternatives. And there are affordable wines, priced in the teens, for sale here. There are even wines which I consider laughable (Clarendelle? Mouton Cadet?? Really???)

So it’s worth a trip. You can drool at the cars outside. In fact, you can drool at the cars inside  – there’s a new Porsche currently displayed in one of the windows. (Either that, or there’s been a pretty upmarket ramraid.)

Saunter past the designer thugwear – sorry, “modern streetwear/luxe mash-up” – and into the Wine Room, with no door to dissuade you. And you can pass a pleasant half hour browsing, without obligation, imagining how you might spend £28,000 on a bottle of wine. Or you might actually spend a tiny fraction of that, one two-thousandth to be precise, and buy yourself a perfectly decent bottle.

Which will leave you change for some sweatpants.


Wednesday 16 May 2018

Further Complications

So I'm ranting and raving about the need to transition from a wine-based monoculture to one which was shared more evenly between wines, beers and spirits; and someone calling themselves Anonymous writes a comment at the end of the last rant which is so on the money, so neatly-turned, that I'm going to quote it in full:

'What would a 50-50 split actually mean? What are you measuring? Volume of liquid, volume of alcohol, time spent drinking, financial outlay, pleasure returned? A few months ago I tried moving away from wine to a largely gin and cider based diet (different nights), but it was a statistical nightmare. Whatever the merits of other booze might be, absent of any Exchange Rate Mechanism back into wine, they don't seem worth the admin.'

There you have it. Long-term satisfactory booze modification turns out to be a much more enduringly complex problem than it at first appears - almost impossible if you include pleasure returned as an essential criterion. Years ago, when Sediment was young and full of certainties, I came up with a cockamamie notion called The Great Wine Graph, plotting price against sensation delivered as a way of generating some kind of standardised cost/pleasure dataset against which to judge just about any drink I stuck in my mouth. After a couple of weeks, of course, I forgot about the scheme and that was that. 

But it would be one way to tackle the ongoing question, How much am I enjoying this? - which in turn boils down to Why am I even doing this?, which in turn boils down to Why bother living?, but anyway. Boiled all the way down, I end up working not with a graph but with gut feeling, figuratively and literally - a yearning for the sort of things an old man might yearn for: predictability and value for money. In other words, last night I drank whisky and soda, the whisky being the legendary High Commissioner, a massively uninvolving mainstream blend that you find in corner shops and left-behind supermarket chains all over the country. I forget how we came by it. It was okay. It had been professionally made. It tasted like whisky.

On the other hand, a couple of days earlier I had brush with that awful Chateau Pey La Tour stuff - which I feel certain I've bleated about before but can't remember when - which I keep buying because I fall for the name (sounds like something good, but what? What?) and the smoothie packaging and the crap prize at the bottom of the front face, Concours des Grands Vins de France a Macon, Medaille d'Argent, see pic, I mean, what a heap of dross it turned out to be, very nearly (but not quite) undrinkable, and I paid something for it, way more than I should have, how credulous could anyone be? I could have been complacently drinking a bland, completely non-contentious mass-market whisky for a fraction of the price.

And then the whole mess is compounded by a bottle of rosé I knocked off last week, preposterous name - LeBijou de Sophie Valrose - apparently a Cabrières, tasted fantastic. I love drinking wine, I solemnly reminded myself as I slurped through it. I think it cost about the same as the Pey la Tour but it was as high on the value/deliciousness scale as the Pey was in negative figures. You see where this is heading? Beers and spirits are going to be predictable and as satisfying as I want them to be, with occasional outbreaks of sublimity in the gin section and, I'm hoping, in the whiskies. Wines, conversely, you never know what's going to happen. I want reassurance, at a price, not endless leaps into the unknown, except when that's exactly the thing I do crave.

Which brings me back to Anonymous and his intervention: I think my division of wine/non-wine is going to be on a crudely pragmatic day-to-day basis (yesterday I had beer; today, therefore, wine) with, as the central unit of critical judgement pleasure returned, which neatly incorporates price, predictability and taste, whatever that is. It's somewhere on the cusp between art and science, but leavened with that key ingredient: futility.


Thursday 10 May 2018

Let's discover the world of wine! (Or not…)

The cheap wooden wine cabinet in my local supermarket has a new heading. Regular readers (bless you all) may remember that it once housed their so-called ‘Fine Wine’, before becoming some kind of dumping ground. Now, it bears a simple imperative: ‘Discover’.

Discover – what does that mean, exactly? I’m old enough to feel that there’s an abuse of the verb going on, old enough to have grown up with images of proper explorers, in pith helmets, leading a train of luggage-bearing servants through a jungle somewhere. And here is a supermarket, trying to make you feel similarly daring and exploratory, with little more challenge than trying a grape like vermentino.

This notion of ‘discovery’ is peculiar to wine. I don’t see many retailers offering an invitation to discover the world of trousers. Actually, I’ll confess that I’m pretty complacent when it comes to trousers, and perhaps I should be looking to see if there are varieties with unequal leg lengths, or magnetic flies. (“Warning: Unsuitable for customers with certain piercings”)

But I really don’t feel any need to head out and 'discover' uncharted territories of trousers. Or, indeed, wine. Which must disappoint the marketing whiz who clearly thought it would sound an exciting proposition Whereas in fact, a suggestion to ‘discover’ is one of those foreboding phrases, like “I thought we could try something unusual…”, which can make your heart sink whether it’s in connection with wine, seafood or sexual intercourse.

So what is this, a carefully curated selection of unusual grapes and challenging flavours? Or perhaps a journey around the world’s wines, featuring lesser-known regions? (Which, I tend to find, generally have a very good reason for remaining lesser-known…)

Let us tip-toe with trepidation, out of our comfort zone, across its top shelf, to discover the unfamiliar wines of, er… France. Of that rarely encountered region, Bordeaux. There’s an example of the possibly less well known Chinon, but then back to a Bordeaux, cleverly labelled as claret in case that makes it seem like a different wine.

Then there are three Kosher wines, whose presence might be explained less by an initiative to discover Middle Eastern wine, and more by a desire to shift leftovers from last month’s Passover.

Below that you can discover their own-label champagne, which is cheap, and their own-label cava, which is cheaper. Oh, and a sauvignon blanc. From Bordeaux.

Go on, you say, discover! Try something different! What have you got to lose? Well, about £13 by the looks of things, for a bottle of Chablis (ever heard of it?), where the only discovery will be of how much more than usual I can spend on a supermarket wine.

Tucked away near the bottom are some genuinely unusual wines, a Sierra de Andia from Navarra, and a Paso Robles Zinfandel blend, both in Sainsbury's own-label Taste the Difference range.  But does anyone still consider Argentinian Malbec much of a discovery? I mean, even CJ discovered that, ages ago. He, of course, would explore anywhere in the world that could possibly offer drinkable wine for less than a fiver. But Lord Sainsbury’s expedition doesn’t seem to have gone that far.

So what have we discovered? Little, beyond the low estimation in which supermarket winedrinkers  are held. Discovery, it seems, is small, confined and unsurprising. A bit like discovering your downstairs loo.


Thursday 3 May 2018


So having returned from a few days in the wilds of North-West Scotland (startling weather, fantastic scenery [see pic], Deuchars, Tennents and some whisky) it's now time to get down to the business of transitioning into a more spirits'n'beer-driven and slightly less wine-driven mode of consumption (see More Gin). Slightly insanely, I've decided to approach this as an exercise in administrative bureaucracy, with a full internal Steering Committee - me, essentially - overseeing various sub-committees and, where necessary, individual working parties; also, essentially, me. And, possibly, strategy forums and/or enabling teams.

First question is, what kind of targets do I want to set for myself? At present, I would guess that my booze input is 80-90% wine, with the rest beers and spirits. Do I want to get this down to 50-50 or is 60% wine, 40% the rest, a more realistic ambition, certainly in the initial six-month period? Come to think of it, is six months realistic? Or is it unambitious? Or over-ambitious? Should I refer this to the Strategy Mapping Group or is it one for the Inner Goals team?

Either way, I'll have to put the problem to the Finance and Procurement Sub-Committee, or to the Health and Social Services Sub-Committee, or, more likely, both, in order to get some kind of useful steer on possible outcomes. Finance and Procurement can run the numbers on how much it's going to cost to go over to a more grain-based intake as opposed to a largely grape-based one. My hunch - and indeed, my hope - is that I'll make some useful cash savings, based on a typical weekly input paradigm (note to self: should that be paradigm or regime?) given that Tesco will sell me 70cl of blended Scotch for £11.00, which should last a week at least, whereas a couple of 75cl bottles of wine usually cost £12.00 or more and last maybe five days. Fizzy water to mix comes in at 17p for two litres, so that's okay. Gin a touch more expensive, not least because of the tonic water. Half a litre of Greene King IPA - should I want to go down the beer road - is , on the other hand, £1.24: another clear saving, if beer is trending that week.

Health and Social Services, on the other hand, have a trickier issue to work on: will I be fatter as a result? Wines contain a lot of empty calories and carbohydrates; but so do beers. Some beers are relatively light on the carbs; others are stuffed with them, so HSSSC (Health and Social Services Sub-Committee) is going to need to focus on this one in a timely and robust manner, albeit with a markedly longer (say, two months) time frame in which to make its investigations. I may also have to get Inner Goals to do some initial hands-on research into fatter and thinner beers, in an effort to manage the potential weight gain downside. At the same time, will I be a more or less objectionable human being if I drink less wine? If I've spent the evening tucking into a 14% red, the following morning can find me, frankly, both stodgy and unattractive. I know this and I'm not proud of it. But I have a feeling, an intuition, that staying with grains might improve (or should that be limit?) my performance in the loathsomeness department, to the extent that someone else might notice this improvement/limitation, specifically my domestic coalition partner or wife. So that's another one to watch (not sure how to quantify this: maybe with output from Inner Goals? Or input from External Relations?). The input, or do I mean output?, from this is going to be particularly interesting.

One other area to focus on in these, the initial stages of transitioning: the cultural inheritance. The less garbage I have to read about wines - fine or otherwise - the happier I will be. On the other hand, there's plenty of sanctimonous high-end guff written about whisky, gin and beer: earthy and fresh as a forest; some talcum powder in the semi-dry finish; jasmine, muguet and foaming butter, I'm not making this up. There is a large and pretentious cultural hinterland associated with even the dumbest ales and this, while not a deal-breaker in its own right is not something to ignore. So it's one for the Arts and Culture Sub-Committee to keep track of, reporting directly to the Steering Committee, naturally, but with a slightly different remit from those embraced by other sub-committees or input/output groups. Which reminds me: what does the Strategy Mapping Group actually do?