Thursday 28 March 2019

Terminal Two

So Majestic have started to crumble, apparently. There you go. Six years ago (Six whole years! Why did nobody tell me life would be like this?) I droned on about the collapse of the high street wine store and the ever-so-slightly faded retail experience that was Majestic (who were nonetheless picking up on the sales of their departed rivals). Slightly less than four years ago, PK droned on about a) Majestic's then-new single-bottle sales policy and b) yes, what a drag it was to visit one of their shops. Now Majestic are trying something else again, a spot of reverse engineering, tying themselves more visibly into their own latterday online grog floggers Naked Wines, while getting rid of some of their draggy retail premises. Is this is good thing?

Well, I hate to admit it, but I'm so unlikely to buy anything off Naked Wines it's down to a near-zero probability. I get the message - sign up for a monthly £20 payment into the kitty and enjoy a discount on your otherwise not especially keenly priced booze; and have the stuff brought to your house - but it doesn't really do it for me, especially given the fact that every time I order any wine online in any sort of quantity, there's a fuck-up with the delivery. So I can't see my old relationship with Majestic being leveraged into a new one with Naked, however relevant Naked may be to my wine needs.

More dismally, I have no relationship with Majestic for them to leverage. I can't remember the last time I went there (2013? It's possible). All I can summon up is nostalgia, the last thing anyone wants - an inner trip to the 1980's, when the absolute summit of gratification was to have a Golf Gti which you, or indeed, I, filled up with candidly unfamiliar wines from this wild new Majestic Wine retail opportunity and brought home to cries of admiration and surprise. I mean, it was a ton of fun, I had some great times and it was thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, it's hard to shake off the feeling that sooner or later Majestic are, like their defunct rivals, going to dwindle into non-existence. A tart assessment of matters by The Drinks Business sees them struggling to offload the retail sites they need to offload, given all the other expired wine retail sites clogging the place up after Threshers, Victoria, Wine Rack, Unwins and, more recently, Oddbins, gave up the ghost. It also points out that Naked, now the motive force behind the whole operation, leans a lot on international sales for its profits. Which is fine, but doesn't make it sound especially like a business with its full focus on the dumb British punter. Another, even tarter assessment, sees only cynical marketing and poor value as the main winners, whoever's buying. The upshot? Right now, we're given a reasonably comprehensive everyday service by the supermarkets, along with a handful of chi-chi wine specialists of the sort that PK patronises, plus the internet as all-purpose hilarity bazaar for anything else. Which I suppose means that Naked might survive for a while; breezeblock-and-tin-roof Majestic, less so.

As it happens, the branch of Victoria Wine at the end of our road, which closed ten? more? years ago - is finally being turned into something else, emblematically. In the second half of last year you could still peer through the abandoned, grimed, windows and make out old price tickets and point of sale boosters littering the floor. Now the scaffolding's gone up and the site's on the verge of becoming something mixed use, or just living spaces, or with another retail dead zone on the ground floor. It doesn't have one of those ads telling you to reserve a duplex now, posted on the cladding, the site's too small. All we can do is guess. Given the attrition rate of retailers and restaurateurs in our neck of the woods, you hope they don't build anything commercial into the property, it's too depressing. Also the parking's terrible just there. 

But if the same thing happens to the hundreds of ex-wine shops around the country, who am I to argue? At least it's something rather than nothing; and we need housing; and we can move on from the decline of the dinosaurs; and not even Majestic lasts for ever; and it's 2019, what do you expect? Or was it a Threshers?


Thursday 21 March 2019

PK is away…

… indulging himself.

Thursday 14 March 2019


So it's another heady session of wine-tasting for PK and me, taking in some mixed Italians in the Institution of Civil Engineers' overweeningly terrific Westminster HQ (see pic), followed by a Barolocentric tasting at the Royal Horticultural Halls, just round the corner. It's all good. Who doesn't like Italian wines? And rain isn't even forecast.

Thing is, of course, I'm still fingers and thumbs at these wine-tastings, even after years of trudging along to them: big, small, classy, middle-of-the-road, you name it, I still freeze very slightly as I approach the table with the sample bottles and a tensely smiling winemaker/distributor on the other side. My mind blanks. I have no wisdom, no learning, nothing to say. I might as well be the spit bucket for all I contribute to the encounter.

No such problems for PK, who actually quickens his step the nearer he gets, beadily gesturing to the absolutely most expensive wine in the selection. Not only that, but he has the chat. At one table among the mixed Italians he lobs in a smartalec remark about burying a cow's horn on account of the biodynamics, which is returned quick as a squash ball by the lady behind the counter; an agreeable moment of banter ensues. I stand to one side, perfectly mute, inwardly interrogating myself about cow horns and what in the name of God can they mean? PK preens himself very slightly. I just move along, two paces behind, avoiding eye contact.

Part of the problem is that I have never been much good at learning anything, so the endless minutiae of wines were always going to be beyond my reach. Another part of the problem is that I am now so old I forget whatever it was I did once know, apart from certain brightly-lit fragments which won't go away even if I try and make them. Given which, any new information - anything from the last ten years, roughly - is never going to gain much purchase inside my head; to the extent that I now discount the idea of trying to retain anything, using other people to remember for me or simply acknowledging that I will have to get along without whatever it is I am supposed to recall. The concept of super Tuscans, for instance. Take one of the pencils, PK keeps muttering to me. Write it down. You'll never remember. I just give him a placating look, calmly acknowledging that what we think we know is not what we actually know; at the same time, forgetting which wine is which and completely losing sight of the best Barolo in the room. After three mouthfuls I can't tell the difference anyway, so why bother to make notes? That said, I do take a picture of a notice for a seminar which promises to rediscover Valtellina's Heroic Alpine Viticulture - such a great line it should be made into a film. So I haven't given up completely.

But then the next day, I am confronted with an unsettling metaphor for my own gradual disengagement from the business of making a mental effort. It's time to bottle my DIY wine: for which purpose I have saved six bottles + six corks and am good to go, when I start the final siphoning from the demijohn (where the stuff's been for the last six weeks). But what do I find? I have enough wine for precisely five bottles, not the six I thought I was making. All right, some of it I had to leave behind in the first demijohn transfer as it was mostly sludge. And in the second transfer there were a couple of puddles I couldn't quite reach with the siphon. But a whole bottle? Did I not pour enough tap water in at the start? Did I not read the instructions thoroughly? I thought I'd measured it out just right, but no. A whole bottle missing.

Obviously, this has implications for the booze itself; I won't know how bad for a couple of weeks at least. More than that, the missing sixth bottle is a kind of objective correlative for my dwindling faculties. Instead of a sixth of my home-made crap wine it might as well be a sixth of my brain that's disappeared through neglect or inattention. It's not just a question of semi-intended negligence. I am losing touch. My head is filling with emptiness. The vacant section of the wine rack where the sixth bottle should be is the growing vacuity in my mind. There you go: I'm becoming senile. Sooner or later I'll leave the house without any trousers; or I'll have to be told who Huw Edwards is; or I won't even notice that I'm not finishing my


Thursday 7 March 2019

Gentleman winemaker Pt II

Last summer Jay McInerney wrote in Town & Country about a dinner hosted at Chateau Lafite by Baron Rothschild. “Clad in a slightly rumpled double-breasted navy linen blazer,” he wrote, “[Baron Rothschild] exudes a warmth that helps counteract his imposing height, good looks, and pedigree.”

Of all the descriptions applied there to Baron Rothschild, the only one which applies to me is “slightly rumpled”. Or, sometimes, “clad”.

Yet my progress towards becoming, like the Baron, a gentleman winemaker, moves on. For weeks of fermentation, my involvement in this home winemaking carry-on has been limited to mere observation. And this I could pursue in a gentlemanly manner, sometimes clad, and sometimes even in slightly rumpled attire.

There was little to report during this time, apart from a warm, yeasty smell, an occasional gurgle and, as the demijohn was sitting safely inside one of them, a critical shortage of buckets when it came to washing the car. I mean, how many buckets does the average householder possess?

But the time then arrived for the next stage of actual activity, in which the fermented wine has to be siphoned off its lees in demijohn 1 and into demijohn 2. This involves a sort of Professor Branestawm set-up, all of which has to be “sterlised” (sic). And to keep a certain other member of the household happy, I had to do it in the bath, in case there was any kind of spillage. Or, indeed, any remaining notion of sophistication.

Thanks to my Easy Start siphon, the “wine” (as perhaps I can now call it) surged through the tube. The key thing here was to banish from my mind the recurrent images of someone on the TV having a colonic.

The wine then had to be agitated at least three times a day for three to four days. Well, I tried telling it that Liverpool might win the Premier League, a notion which agitates me a lot, but it seemed that wasn’t sufficient. No, I had to hoist the demijohn up and physically shake it, the instructions say “for 3 or 4 minutes”. Do you realise how long that actually is? I mean, Bez or Baz or Bozo, whatever his name was, looked pretty knackered after shaking maracas on a three-minute single, and he was better fuelled than me. I’m really not up to hefting 4.5 kilos of wine around for 4 minutes at a time. I presume that Baron Rothschild has a machine to do this for him. Or a peasant.

So I decided that “3 or 4 minutes” was a euphemism, as in “I’ll savour this wine in my mouth for 3 or 4 minutes before I swallow it”.

I shan’t baffle you with the technical terms used by those of us in the winemaking game, but a sequence follows over several days of adding stuff, shaking, waiting, then repeating. In the end, you add some more stuff, which is clearly both non-vegan and non-natural and fine by me. Then “shake for ten seconds to mix, and replace cap.” What, you shake it for ten seconds without a cap? Are they mad? Never mind a demijohn of red wine, I wouldn’t do that with a recalcitrant ketchup bottle.

The next stage, bottling, will be pursued in about a week, “when the wine is clear”. Frankly, I may have no idea whether it is clear or not, because it is red. If it goes literally clear, something has gone horribly wrong. Or I have succeeded in turning wine into water.