Thursday 29 August 2019

Thursday 22 August 2019

A wine for "wine lovers"

The whole notion of “wine lovers” is an odd one. I don’t particularly like the idea of belonging to some chummy little group of people with an arcane and specialist “love”. It sounds like being a follower of an endangered pursuit, or a lesser-known pop group. And perhaps there are similarities; I imagine “wine lovers” trading arcane information about, say, cork varieties, just like fan club members trading arcane information about Ringo’s breakfast.

But I’m particularly suspicious about the use of the term “lover” in this context; it’s similar to that lazy trope which now requires any follower of a football club to have that club described in interviews as their “beloved” team. I’m a wine drinker, definitely; but I’m not sure that enjoyment, indulgence and appreciation add up to love. “Lover” is one of those words I don’t wish to see appended to “wine”, like “wine gadget”, “ wine buff” or “wine finished”.

Still, the term “wine lover” seems to have gained traction, perhaps understandably with a generation who regularly abuse the related term “passion”. (“I have a passion for accountancy” – no, you don’t.) And so it was inevitable, I suppose, given the prevalence of the term, that someone would actually label a “wine lovers” wine. The only surprise is the way in which they’ve done it.

What drew me to this "wine lovers" wine, leering at me from the bottom shelf, was the distance between the image on the label, and that to which I aspire. This character is described by the Spanish winemakers as “Macho Ibérico”. His only redeeming characteristic, it seems to me, is his resemblance to the great Hunter S Thompson. And the great Hunter S Thompson would have said that this was the sort of creep for whom Mace was too good.

I mean, look at this guy, with his smarmy grin and his LA cop sunglasses and his Simon Cowell chest rug and Hamlet cigar combover. Is that what a wine lover is supposed to look like?

Please, tell me it ain’t so, or I might swallow my toothpick. I am relieved to say that, if the police were using this as an Indentikit picture, I don’t think I would be troubled by questioning. The thing which is troubling me is how anyone might have thought this an image of a typical wine lover.

I have since discovered that there are a further two characters in this series. There is a woman, on the white wine in both senses. She’s described in Spanish as a choni, a stereotype notorious for excessive jewellery and makeup, very revealing clothing and being ignorant, loud and obnoxious. Not at all like Essex girls.

And there is a “hunk” with a tattoo escaping above his neckline, and a disturbing semi-wink, making the internationally-recognised gesture for “Call me!”. A stud in his ear as well as his dreams.

Now obviously there have been satirical images of what might have been called “wine lovers” before. From the quaffers of Gillray, through the men and women brilliantly depicted by Ronald Searle, to the cliché of the bloated, upper-class wine drinker, red of nose and trouser.

But those were not actually being used to sell wine. And I am genuinely mystified as to the message these horrible label images are meant to convey to a potential buyer. Perhaps there is something amiss with my social inclusivity, but surely these are all utterly hideous people? I wouldn’t wish to see any of them around my dining table – so why would I want to see them upon it?

Are they supposed to be representative “wine lovers”? In which case I am further encouraged to resign from the category. Or is there some kind of irony here, that I’m meant to drink the wine despite, rather than because of, the images on the labels? Which leads us down a road of labelling wine with the kind of medical pictures now used on cigarette packets.

There’s only one thing to be said in favour of this particular label. I did taste this blend of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and merlot (go on, chuck the lot in, why don’t you?)  And I can tell you that the character on the label, in a very real sense, appears to be an accurate reflection of the oily, industrial wine itself.

Pretty repellent.


Thursday 15 August 2019

Chilean Merlot: Cracked Cup

So I'm at the cinema earlier this year, watching, very possibly, The Favourite (if you haven't already seen it, don't) and I become aware of something cool and damp spreading around my upper right thigh. The first thought that goes through my head is Well, when you get to my age, you have to expect these things. I sit there, fairly stoically, wondering if this is going to be the trend from now on: bus journeys, crowded lifts, standing onstage in front of three hundred people, all the time wetting myself - when I realise that the top of my right hand is also damp. Spooky, I think for a time. Then, This is really challenging my preconceptions of incontinence.

Finally I work out that the plastic wine glass I acquired on the way in - containing a good measure of Chilean Merlot - has a crack in it and the contents are slowly running down my hand and onto my trousers. On the one hand, Thank God for that; on the other, I have to drink this fucking Merlot really fast before it does any more damage AND not spill it over my shirt in the process. So instead of tippling restfully in front of the movie, normally one of my favourite occupations, I have to get rid of the booze as fast as if they've just called last orders, at the same time trying to locate the area of damage while simultaneously working out if it'll be dark outside when we leave the cinema, in order to hide my shame. This has never happened before.

Some days later, it occurs to me that I now invest so much expectation, so much humble desire for a given experience when I take my drink into the local arthouse cinema that when something goes wrong my whole week is ruined, to an irrational degree. My whole month. I decide that, like war, this must never happen again. But how?

- Proper glass glasses in the cinema: almost certainly prohibited, on account of safety (a glass gets left on the floor, is trodden on, causes injury, panic) and public order (incredibly middle-aged, middle class, arthouse audience riots at the wholesale witlessness of The Favourite, starts throwing glass glasses at the screen). But worth keeping in mind.

- Tin mugs: unbreakable, not much use as a weapon, cheap and serviceable. Not too bad for drinking wine out of, either, if the enamel's still there, although you tend to feel like a character out of a Hemingway novel.

- Plastic feeding tubes which emerge from the armrests. Dial up your favourite beverage from your phone - using the handy app - and start drinking! Unlikely to become a reality, not in my lifetime. Also, disgusting.

- The Totnes solution. A couple of weeks ago, the wife and I were in Totnes, Devon, and I can tell you that not only is Totnes a ton of fun - picturesque, quirky and stuffed with bars and restaurants - it also has one of the most terrific cinemas I have ever come across. You enter through a diminutive street entrance (see pic) go along a slightly Expressionist passageway and at last emerge into what was, until relatively recently, a public library, now hollowed out into barn-like space with a full-service bar, tables, chairs, sofas and whatnot, all very companionably dotted around - and behind the bar, a really big cinema screen. You get your drink, make yourself comfortable at your preferred seating position and watch the film unfold in a completely relaxed and slightly deconstructed fashion. Genius. Not only that, but the films on offer mix the current (Rocketman, when we were there) with the classic (The Blue Angel; Wages of Fear) so that you'd have to go back every night, practically, to keep ahead. Genius, again. Movie and drinks combine in an equivalence of pleasure, rather than subordinating the booze to the level of mere plastic-glass add-on. I'm sure there are other places in England that do something similar; but it's the first time I've actually seen it. The fact that it's still slightly a work in progress - rough-hewn timbers, industrial nuts & bolts around the place - only makes it more fun, more delightfully spontaneous. Back at my local bioscope, I think they'd have difficulty tearing out the seats in order to make enough space: but it's got to be worth looking into.


Thursday 8 August 2019

A chocolate teapot in anyone's language

What is the most useless thing you can think of? A chocolate teapot, perhaps? A chocolate fireguard? A pair of spectacles for a one-eared man? Append your own – but I think I have found a new and singularly useless thing, and it’s in the world of wine.

The world of wine has, of course, been responsible for some spectacularly stupid items, many of which we have highlighted in our annual Xmas Gift Marts.  But surely this takes the (chocolate) biscuit.

It is an augmented reality app, which translates wine labels.

Created by two immensely hairy men, their spiel suggests that this app might ultimately provide users with a load of the other stuff which a winery often wants to show you, but you really don’t need to see; probably sunset over their vineyard, or gnarly old peasants picking their grapes, or a trendy-looking winemaker swirling, sniffing and tasting their own product with smug satisfaction. Rather like a dog. But let’s focus on this translation business.

Why oh why would you want to translate the name of a wine? Surely the name of a wine is its brand – you don’t want it translated. A bottle of Sides of the Rhône, anyone? Vineyard of the Sun? Écho Cascades? Would anyone, anywhere ask for a bottle of Latour as a bottle of The Tower? Or for that matter, La Torre?

Translating a wine’s name strips it of its authenticity. There may be some people challenged by pronouncing Casillero del Diablo, but that’s its name, and there’s no reason to translate it into The Devil’s Cellar. And if you did, no wine merchant would have the foggiest idea what you were asking for. If you asked a wine merchant for holy wine, would he give you a bottle of vin santo or just a very funny look?

No, this app is of no use to consumers, partly because you need to have the label, and therefore bottle, in hand in order to scan it. You can’t just point the app at a distant bottle behind a bar, or up on a shelf, in order to discover how to ask for it. In fact, even if you could, why not save the download time and point at it with a finger?

And by the time you have it in hand, why would you need to translate its name? No further discussion is needed. Brandishing a credit card is usually sufficient for a perceptive retailer to grasp the idea that you wish to purchase something. Or you can do that traditional mime of someone signing a cheque, surely due to be replaced by a mime of someone keying in their PIN.

At most – at most – a winery itself might want to translate the name of their wine once, in order to communicate with markets unfamiliar with their native alphabet. But if we wanted apps we would use only once, we would all have installed iBeer.

Also, I’m afraid it’s not even very good at translating. I’m no multilinguist, moi, but even I know that if Pinot Noir appears on a Spanish wine label, it should remain exactly that on a French label – and not be “translated” into the utterly meaningless Pilote Noir. You had one job…

Heston Blumenthal did actually create a chocolate teapot, for Easter last year.  It was, said his Fat Duck Group, “filled with whimsical wonder”, which I suppose makes a change from sweets.

(“A surprise awaits chocolate lovers,” they said, “who are able to actually eat the sweet teapot.” In what sense is that a surprise? What are you supposed to do with something made of chocolate – drive it? A far greater surprise would have awaited chocolate lovers if it had been made out of bacon…)

Anyway, a chocolate teapot (not one of Heston’s) was actually tested for its efficacy, by filling it with teabags and boiling water (as opposed to whimsical wonder). It was found, perhaps not surprisingly, wanting. “The first evidence of loss of containment was observed at approximately T+5 seconds,” it was reported. “This had reached catastrophic proportions by T+15 seconds, with total loss of H2O containment.”

The researcher concluded that, “On the basis of this test we felt it safe to conclude that, in respect of its suitability for the role that its design suggests, a chocolate teapot is of no use at all. As such, such an item should serve as an excellent baseline of uselessness against which to compare other, similarly dysfunctional, items.”

Like this app.


Thursday 1 August 2019

Beer: Gipsy Hill

So a pal of mine in south London says I ought to come and try this place near where he lives, where they make beer and sell it at the brewery tap. It's just your sort of thing, he says, which normally makes one's heart sink, but still.

Gipsy Hill, SE27 - it's that deep - is the place and the Gipsy Hill Brewing Company is the outfit that makes the beer. I've never heard of it, but then I never hear of anything; so I make it all the way across town to SE27 and the pal's place and we limp off in an elderly way and get to a little light industrial estate not far from Gipsy Hill station and what do you know? It is only the most excellent thing I've seen for ages; probably one of the top five encounters this year, in fact.

I mean, it doesn't look like much - it looks like what it is: a big parking space surrounded by tidy new sheds, all part of the brewing operation, with pallets stacked up here, metal kegs over there, a van or two, other bits of light industrial miscellany, pretty much what you'd expect, except for the fact that one shed has its doors wide open and a few tables and benches outside and this is the Taproom. We enter. Inside, the theme continues: it's mostly a big metal shed lined with pipework and barrels and bits of machinery which hiss and clank from time to time, plus some more tables and benches, a few galvanised light fittings, some dainty flowers in vases and a couple of fairy lights to soften the edges and - presiding over it all - a fabulous bar, made of yet more bare wood and metal, alarmingly provisional in some ways, utterly purposeful in others, with various beverages written on a board behind. And a guy waiting to serve us, because it's a warm day and we look like a couple of tragic, parched old men.

We get our drinks. First up is a pint of Hepcat IPA at 4.6%, one of Gipsy Hill's core beers. Given that this is a modern take on the IPA theme - complete with knowingly quirky name - I'm slightly fingers and thumbs, but you know, it wins me over. Citrussy, lightly hoppy, golden colour, smallish head, that kind of thing, not a trad brown pub ale but one with a tendency to interrogate you just a little bit before settling down. A couple of swigs in and I conclude that it is delicious. My pal makes himself comfortable, burps and starts going on about post-War cinema which is normally a good sign. The Taproom (which has only just opened for its evening session, I might point out) starts to fill up.

I move on to a pint of Beatnik Pale Ale at 3.8%. I can see a family resemblance with the Hepcat, anxiously noting Bit more hoppy? while reserving the my doubts as to what I actually mean by hoppy. But it too is a winner, cool, very slightly distant in its manner, but with plenty of narrative drive nonetheless. Everything is increasingly haloed in wellbeing. A woman sits at the next table with a bulldog which comes and sniffs our shoes, just to make sure we're on the level. A wood oven pizza van starts up outside. The place is getting busy, now: hipsters abound. My pal leans heavily against some fairy lights.

At which point I decide that it's not just the beer - which I now feel deeply attached to, treasuring it above all wines and many spirits - but the whole setup, the whole taproom experience. All pubs should be like this, I sigh into my glass. The Gipsy Hill people have turned metal sheds, tarmac, scaffolding and clamps, uncompromising brewery kit, into a place of deep funky geniality, something between a fashionable club and an exhaust replacement centre. Everything about it entertains - but there's nothing frivolous, apart from the fairy lights. And they make the beer right there, right under your nose, giving an extra sense of meaning and purpose to the encounter, an additional validation. And they've got another outlet just down the road, near Penge. I mean, what are the trains like from here to Anerley?