Thursday 31 October 2019

Excuse me, sir…

There is an alarming tendency now for news programmes to go out and seek the opinions of “ordinary people”. These are known in the media as “vox pops”, and this “voice of the people” was once summarised as “the man on the Clapham omnibus”. Nowadays it’s more likely to be the woman in a Leicester market, the man in Tunbridge Wells, or the couple who stray into the Ground Zero surrounding any broadcaster’s HQ, within which an interview team can work and return without missing their lunch.

Ordinary people have a great deal to offer, but insightful and well-informed views do not seem to be among them. Yet for some baffling reason these cost-saving, time-filling commentaries persist. And what if these vox pops, which seem to have replaced informed political, economic, even sports comment, replaced wine commentators too?

“They’ve been coming over here from France and Italy and Spain for years. Now they’re coming from South Africa and Australia and South America. Honestly, I saw some from China the other day. I mean, we’ve got to do something about it.”

“Wines? They’re all the same, the whole bloody lot of ‘em.”

“Yes, they asked us what we wanted. But people simply weren’t told what kind they would be getting. You can’t just ask people whether they want wine or not, you have to tell them what kind it’ll be. Now that we know what ‘wine’ really means, they should ask us again.”

“I’ve lost faith in the whole system, frankly. We told them what we wanted, and they said they were going to deliver it back in March. It’s now October, and they’re saying that we might have to compromise and accept alternatives. Why can’t they just deliver what they said they were going to?”

“Well I don’t know that much about wine myself, but I know what I like.”

“To be honest, I’m just sick of hearing about wine. These so-called ‘experts’ go on and on and on, it’s like they talk a different language, and they never really answer the question, do they?”

“It’s shocking. You’ve only got to look at our High Street. There used to be a wine merchant on that corner, but it’s gone now. It’s a shame really. I mean, obviously I get mine from the supermarket, ‘cos it’s cheaper, but I used to like looking in the window.”

“No, that sort of thing is unacceptable, really. It’s just not the way to discuss these things. They ought to know better. We used to discuss it properly, we’d say it was ‘splendid’, or ‘not quite right’, and that was enough. All this stuff that’s going on now, the language, the spitting and all that… There’s really no need for that.”

“It’s all very well saying give ‘em time. But if they’re not improving, something’s got to change. There’s only so long you can wait. Because at the moment, they’re just waiting there in the box, and nothing’s happening. In the short term, you’ve got to go out there and spend. Maybe bring in some Italians with a bit of flair, or some heavyweights from Spain. Long term, like, we'll just have to hope the young ones come through.”

“Don’t talk to me about wines. They’re all as bad as each other.”


Thursday 24 October 2019

The Winemaker's Shirt

This week's style icon: Roland Barthes

The winemaker's shirt embodies a contradiction. The winemaker himself belongs to a priesthood largely unknowable to those who drink his wine. His shirt, it will be readily admitted, is therefore a garment whose sacerdotal power belongs to a whole typology of priestly raiments, including copes, cassocks, wreaths, stoles, sacred threads, birettas, clothing whose emblematic function serves both a reality (the authority of a state religion) and a condition of submissive dreaming, a rêve from which the element of transubstantion is never far. 

As in a dream, the priestly garment must be perfect insofar as it can never be other than its perceived lineaments suggest: there is an iconographic component in every button, every seam, in the way the shirt hangs negligently and yet without apology from the shoulders of the wearer (and what shoulders must they be, to sustain such an item of clothing?). The psychology of the dream in itself repels the secularization of the everyday.

This is of course necessary, given the mythical status of the wine which is being created. It is well known that wine, far from inheriting the morphological birthright of a Proteus or a Zeus, has always created the conditions in which its seemingly galvanic powers generate reversals or alternative modes of existence. When we drink wine, we engage with an archetype whose singularity lies in its ability to contain a multiplicity of outcomes: good cheer, aggression, lacrimosity, invention, nostalgia, amorousness, candour, somnolence and so on. Just as it inhabits two planes of existence in the ritual of the eucharist, so it antithetically liberates and enslaves at the moment of earthly consumption.

Capitalism, on the other hand, insists that the image of the winemaker should express not only a sense of ritualized condescension on the part of the wearer, but of social communality, a sense that We're all in this together and that We all drink wine because it is understood that it would be wrong not to. The morphology of the shirt therefore embraces a type of synesthesia in which the sacerdotal garment elicits feelings of shared purpose, of routine experience at the same time as it invokes the mystery of the altar. 

In photographs, the winemaker's shirt is not always properly ironed; sometimes it is neatly tucked into the waistband of the trousers, sometimes left outside, as if the wearer has been in too much of a hurry to get to work to dress properly; sometimes the shirt is clearly a business shirt casually opened at the neck (once back from his business meeting, comfortably at the locus of his authority, framed by casks and stone floors, he can devote himself to his calling) in order to evoke the human tensions the winemaker encounters every day.

But what is more characteristic is the fact that we consume the shirt at the same time as we consume the wine made by the inhabitant of the shirt. It is a bourgeois necessity to appropriate and envelop: the shirt becomes part of this process of consumption, which is why so many winemakers submit to this iconographical levelling, demanded by the business they work in. Without his shirt (if such a condition were possible) the winemaker would merely be another artisan; with it, he is elevated to the status of creator, the shirt, as we have seen, endowed with true gestural significance. This, then, becomes the contradiction: the winemaker's shirt endows him with a mythical otherness at the same time as it renders him indistinguishable from his peers; while simultaneously advertising his sacrificial materiality, a materiality which is both necessary for the gratification of his customers and for the process of winemaking to be reborn, year after year.

Translation: CJ

Thursday 17 October 2019

Wine in Succession – Power meets Pinot Noir

If you ever needed a lesson in the social signalling of wine, Succession has provided it. The Netflix HBO drama, following the maneouverings and manipulations of the rich and powerful Roy dynasty, has featured wine across both of its seasons so far – as a revealing backdrop to the behaviour of the impossibly rich.

Because despite what we are often told about the sobriety of successful Americans, the Roys certainly seem to pile into their wine. There’s none of that abstemious drinking of water or iced tea. Indeed, one of the ways in which a putative CEO, Rhea, an outsider, was crushed by the Roy siblings, was when a waiter was halted from topping up her champagne glass with a cry of “No! She doesn’t drink!”

The irritated look from magnate Logan Roy said it all. Expensive wine is one of ‘the King’s favours’. “Look at the fucking wine I’m serving you!” he once berated a recalcitrant banker. “I’m fucking wining and dining you!”

But is that wine, like so much else in the Roy lifestyle, ultimately about the money?  Marcia, Logan’s third wife, savoured the French wine at a patrician family’s dinner; asking the waiter for more, she grumbled that her husband’s cellar is “all New World, so it doesn’t suit me”. Surely the ultimate putdown of a nouveau riche? Or, as Time put it, “a first class burn for the one percent set”.

Logan’s son Kendall, in an adulatory rap, praises his father’s “A1 rating, 80k wine”. But what kind of connoisseur spends $80,000 on New World wine?

And Logan’s eldest son Connor “hyperdecants” his Burgundy – which means putting it into his kitchen blender. “I hyperdecant,” he declares proudly. “You don’t hyperdecant? You’re just doing regular decanting?”

(This process was “invented” by Nathan Myhrvold, formerly of Microsoft, a man who also, presumably, has more money than time, and better Burgundy than you or I. Wielding his blender jug, Connor claims that “it softens the tannins, ages the aromas. You can age your wines five years in ten seconds, truly.” Which shows that wealth and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand.)

In the first season’s finale, the ‘wining and dining’ came to an abrupt end for one character, as Tom forced his bride’s former lover, Nate, to pour his glass of banquet wine back into the bottle. What better signalling of banishment from the kingdom?

And this week’s season finale did not disappoint with its wine moments. There was former country Cousin Greg, sunbathing on the family’s yacht, the wine in his ice bucket illustrating his final ascent from distant relative to inner family status. “What are you drinking, Greg?” Tom asks him.

“This is…I’m not sure…it’s a rosé…it’s not my favourite.”

“What?” Tom exclaims, “You’ve got a favourite champagne now?”

“Well,” says Greg, “You can’t help noticing…it’s fine, I’ll drink it. But it’s not my favourite.” Welcome to the family.

In which Connor Roy, asked by a waitress what he would like to drink with breakfast, replies “I will take a full bottle of Burgundy please, thank you.”

“For breakfast?” queries his anxious partner, Willa. Was it the Burgundy she was concerned about – or the “full bottle”?

“Well yes,” Connor replies. “For breakfast. Why not?” And who will gainsay him? At least he didn’t ask for it to be hyperdecanted.

Over the two fabulous seasons to date, it was of course an English woman, Lady Caroline, who used wine to deliver the perfect social putdown. For if the English know anything about the super rich, it’s that money can buy them wine, but not class. “So kind of your parents to have paid for all this delicious wine,” she says to future son-in-law Tom at his wedding rehearsal.

“So clever the way they’re letting every single person know.”


Thursday 10 October 2019


So the problem is this. On the one hand, I have a chirpy little article in front of me from the Waitrose food & drink magazine urging me to enlarge my beverage horizons. Love pinot grigio? it demands - then why not, it wants to know, try a Waitrose & Partners Petit Manseng at £9.99 a bottle, instead of the £5.99 a basement Pinot Grigio will normally cost you? Love valpollicella (and who doesn't)? Then it's a Waitrose & Partners Mencia, from Spain, apparently, also £9.99. Love côtes du rhône (no capitalisation on the R)? Cannonau di Sardegna, only £8.99. And so on.

I mean, you can't blame them for wanting to upsell until we're sick of living, but quite apart from the sheer nakedness of the endeavour, the business of moving me into new and exciting realms gets up my nose not least because it has taken me years, years, to reach the point where I stand a more-or-less evens chance of identifying a Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Merlot, or a Sauvignon Blanc, or, maybe , just maybe, a Shiraz, without looking at the label on the bottle. And I am not going to endanger that footling semi-ability by trying to get my head round a petit manseng or a mencia or an arinto from Lisbon, assuming such a thing even exists. I know, I'm closing myself off from a world of extravagant novelties, but penury, anxiety and small-mindedness make powerful allies in this case.

Added to which, and on the other hand: I have a sack of beetroot to deal with. I mean, it's fantastic beetroot, don't get me wrong - given to us by some pals in Cheshire who grow a superabundance of fruit and veg in their loamy Cheshire soil, some of which has made its way back to our place clinging to these gigantic beetroots, as big as cannonballs, not even beetroot-shaped, but full of cavities and whorls, like Barbara Hepworth sculptures in places, crowned with topknots of leaf stems, elemental beetroots in fact - and it's as much as I can do to cut them down to size, stick the pieces on a roasting tray and hope for the best. Seriously, it's a good half-hour of slashing and hacking with my biggest, most urgent, knife, just to get them into some kind of order. The kitchen's covered in red juice; it looks like the site of a gangland slaying. Which then compels me to ask myself, Which wine, of the handful of wines available to me, would go with an incredibly bloody mediæval beetroot? It's a real-world problem and one not helped by all the beseechings from Waitrose.

I sit down and gnaw at the issue. After about three-quarters of an hour I get the beetroots out of the oven, a cloud of steam emerging with them as if a boiler's exploded and I stare at my handiwork. They still look savage and undignified, even cut into bits and shimmied around a bit on the roasting tray. They are, to be frank, unreconstructedly Northern European. Bruegel would have recognised them, possibly stuck them in a corner of one of his larger compositions. They speak of mud and cold and tragedy. They are simply not a wine-related foodstuff. Down in the south, heading towards the Mediterranean, they get truffles and aromatic herbs. They have wine. Up in the north, in parts of Cheshire, they get dahlias and beetroots. What to do? Somehow honour the rootsiness of the beetroot by nipping out and buying some beer? By dousing myself in warm gin? I can't see a bottle of Cannonau di Sardegna fitting in, even if I wanted to make that effort.

As it happens, I find a couple of duck legs, roast them up too, and, with blank inevitability, reach for a half-finished bottle of generic Australian Cabernet Sauvigon which has been sitting around for a few days and let it fight it out with what's on the plate. I call it food pairing. It's okay. Can we just leave it at that?


Thursday 3 October 2019

That which makes me pour

An odd thing happened this week. I poured myself a second – or was it a third? – glass of wine. I looked at it. And then I poured it back into the bottle.

Was this abstemiousness? Parsimony? Senescence? (Or have I just suffered a bad case of orotundity?)

Why did I pour it in the first place? Well, it’s that automatic hand again, the one which always moves to take another handful of nuts, another crisp from the packet and another glass from the bottle.

I could, perhaps should, have drunk it, of course. When you pour a glass of wine, you feel you’ve made some kind of commitment to it. I’ve started, so I’ll finish. It’s a bit like beginning a cycle on the washing machine; God knows what’s going to happen if you just terminate before completing the process. 

But when it was sitting there, I just looked at it, and thought… no. And I carried bottle and glass into the kitchen and carefully, over the sink, poured the wine from the glass back into the bottle.

What else might I have done? Some people could have just thrown it away, I suppose. But that’s such a waste, of wine and of money. There’s a couple of quids’ worth of wine in that glass. I’m not made of money. And, despite the osmosis which must have taken place over the years, I’m not made of wine.

Is it a sign of age not to finish a glass that you’ve poured? I’ve put in quite a bit of practice at this drinking malarkey over the years, and thought I had it cracked. But then, I’ve also started making involuntary noises when I put on my shoes. Is a failure to anticipate consumption a similar indication of the encroaching years?

Of course some people might positively flaunt it as impressive self-control. Look at the way I can pour out a glass of booze, look at it, then pour it back again. I don’t need to drink another glass. Dependent, me? Clearly not. Even if I am already thinking about tomorrow night.

Because by pouring it back into the bottle, I would have enough for the following evening. I hate that thing of drinking 2/3rds of a bottle. Because when you hold the bottle up to the light next day, you see there’s only 1/3rd of a bottle left, and what can anyone realistically do with that?

So there could be an element of forward planning involved here. There must be a Biblical parable about keeping stuff back for the next occasion. Something about loaves, or talents, or indeed bottles of Campo Viejo.

That must be it, then. Now it sounds rational. Nothing to worry about. Move along.