Thursday 11 July 2019

In times of Waugh

Why on earth would someone republish an old book about wine? What use are pages describing wines which have either expired or become impossibly expensive; regions whose products have changed beyond all recognition; or prices which now look more like those in a sweetshop than a wine merchant?

The thought was raised by the news that, rather like bringing an elderly vintage up from the cellar, Auberon Waugh’s 1986 book, Waugh on Wine, is being republished.

Stifle the realisation that a treasured charity shop find of the original paperback has suddenly plummeted in value; copies have been on sale for upwards of three figures. For some years Waugh on Wine has been in the Sediment library, alongside Kingsley Amis and those few other wine books which, hopefully like our own, are predominantly entertainment rather than reference.

Bron, as some were privileged to call him, died in 2001, and is remembered by our generation as a journalist who was sometimes outrageously entertaining. Or, sometimes, simply outrageous. If someone could cause such offence in writing about wine that they were hauled before the old Press Council, clearly Sediment had something to learn.

Like Sediment, Waugh was open about his relative ignorance on the subject of wine, relying instead (again like Sediment) largely upon the experience of consumption. “I assumed that as a life-long wine drinker I knew all that anyone really needed to know about the subject,” he writes in his Introduction. “Those who knew more, and could talk about such things as grape varieties, were prigs and pedants.”

Still, he succeeded in writing about wine, in that brusque, brook-no-arguments tone of the English upper class. “I think I drank a good Chinon about twelve years ago…but my last five attempts have been failures, so now I have given up. People say it reminds them of violets and wild strawberries, but I feel they must be mad.”

He wrote for Tatler and later the Spectator, propelled largely by his pursuit of good Burgundy and his complaints about the price thereof. He constantly found reasons to grumble and moan, a condition which some us share but believe might be alleviated in themselves if they, like Waugh, had no less than five cellars full of fine wine.

He believed that “wine-writing ahould be camped up”, and his own employs the most extraordinary descriptive adjectives: “mushrooms, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of French railway stations or ladies’ underwear – anything to get away from the accepted list of fruits and flowers.”

But his writing is marked by a kind of national stereotyping we find uncomfortable today. “This is the sort of heavy oak-vanilla taste which the Spaniards think high-class,” he writes of one white wine, “but I prefer my Horlicks without dust and cobwebs.” We smile at the second half of the sentence while still wincing at the first.

Or how about venturing that some of the flavours we detect in a Burgundy are “…probably because of filthy French habits – not washing their hands before wine-making, working with a dirty, yellow cigarette hanging out of their mouths, breathing garlic over the wine-press, etc.”

And that’s as opposed to the Americans. “Even the best California wine has only one taste," he writes, "Delicious but homogenised, clean but somehow unexciting. One really can’t be more poetic about them than that. I am afraid it may be the result of too much hygiene.”

He was, of course, a deliberate provocateur. And he came from a different time and society; Waugh initially inherited his cellars from his father, the author Evelyn, a man whose social standing, Bron writes, was marked by (and mocked for) his pronunciation of ‘claret’ as ‘clart’. The Press Council let Bron off the hook for describing a wine with a particularly vile analogy, but it’s interesting to consider how his writing escaped greater censure, back in those pre-Twitter days.

Perhaps those observations which do stand the test of time justify rereading Waugh thirty years on. “Champagne is essential before any meal which is intended to impress,” he writes. Indeed.

“White wine is just as alcoholic as red and probably makes one rather drunker, as one tends to drink more of it.”

And “Investors are having as bad an effect on Burgundy as phylloxera ever did, and until one can convince the world that Romanée Conti is a wine rather than an investment bond, the future is very bleak.”

Plus ça change…


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