Tuesday 23 June 2020

I’m Going To Get Lit Up

So the plan is this, when this whole damn thing comes to some sort of end: 

- I shall get my hair cut while having a glass of wine. I’ve actually done this before and it’s pretty good. Unless I’m wearing a mask, of course. Could try and drink through the mask; but then what’s the point of the mask in the first place? Maybe the hairdresser needs to stand back while I lower the mask, take a swig. Surely if I’m steeped in alcohol, that makes me less infectious?

- I shall peer through the windows of recently-reopened shops while holding a glass of wine. Although possibly not drinking from it, depending on local by-laws and restrictions.

- I shall sit down heavily on a pub bench and drink beer and eat crisps, sighing audibly and saying I can’t remember the last time I did this. The fact that I can’t remember the last time I did anything is in no way going to subdue my enjoyment. The sitting down heavily is also very much part of the experience.

- I shall attempt to drink whisky in a moving lift. I’ve heard of people doing this and it’s always struck me as the height of cool. Going up or down, though? Or both?

- I shall stand around in an art gallery at a private showing, drinking wine, if anyone ever asks me to a private showing at an art gallery again. Failing that, I shall have a drink before going into any old gallery and a drink when I come out. The term Gallery, so far as I’m concerned, includes car dealerships and shoe shops.

- I shall accept tasters of beverages in supermarkets instead of pretending that I’m too pressed to hang around drinking free samples.

- I shall, God willing, drink something, anything, in someone else’s house, before, during and after a meal. Probably not tea, now I think about it. I’m assuming masks won’t be compulsory when going round to someone else’s house to eat and drink. But then, see the hairdresser, above.

- I shall attempt to sell my wine-making kit on eBay.

- I shall drink wine in the front garden. I’ve only ever drunk coffee in the front garden, never booze. Why is this? Because I don’t want to get a reputation as the kind of guy who drinks in his front garden? I mean, I’ve drunk gallons of drink in the back. Why not the front? It’s not as if I’m sitting on a park bench or on a canal towpath or in a graveyard, drinking from a bag. Although it is close.

- I shall lean on the taffrail of an ocean liner, holding a glass of champagne.*

- I shall stop saying I shall on account of it sounding so affected. Instead I shall say I’ll. No, better, I’m going to. I’m going to: it sounds as if I really mean business. Seriously.

- I’m going to do all the things listed above.

- I’m also going to have a beer, one day, on a cross-Channel ferry. The way one used to as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

- And I’m going to listen to the fabulous Caroll Gibbons and The Savoy Hotel Orpheans with their version of I’m Going To Get Lit Up When The Lights Go Up In London. This is such a wonderful song - written by Hubert Gregg in 1940 - it should be mandatory listening across the nation just before the ten o’clock news. As the lyrics point out:

You will find me on the tiles

You will find me wreathed in smiles

I'm going to get so lit up I'll  be visible for miles


And before the party's played out

They will fetch the Fire Brigade out

To the lit-est up-est scene you ever saw

That’s what I’m talking about.


* For taffrail of an ocean liner, read: back of our thirty year old sailboat. Also, for champagne read: gin.

Thursday 18 June 2020

Wine porn

The wine list was long, but you felt excited about spotting that particular wine. Now, carrying the bottle, the waiter returns to the table, offering the label for inspection like a newborn. You nod, and smile. Yes. Flicking open his corkscrew, the waiter skirts the foil cap with its blade, slipping it off in a single piece which he pushes into the front pocket of his waistcoat. Twist, twist, twist, the corkscrew squeaks into the cork; then, still holding the bottle in his left hand, with the handle of the corkscrew over the back of his right, he smoothly performs an elegant, two-stage removal of the cork. Pop.
    Now it’s your part in the choreography. The swirl. The sniff. The sip. The moment’s consideration. This time, the nod you give affirms not just that the wine, but that life itself, is good.

This is wine porn. This what it has come to.

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed drinking wine at home for the last couple of months. Of all the things you can do by yourself, drinking wine is probably the second most pleasurable.

But the lockdown has really brought home just how much of the pleasure of wine is about company, and travel, and eating out, none of which we’ve been able to experience for months. A recent ad for a Sicilian Nero d’Avola claims that for £6.99 a bottle, it is “almost as good as going there.” No, it isn’t.

There is bright sunlight on the wineglasses, a sparkle on the sea, and laughter in the hot, open air. The steel of the ice bucket is frosted with condensation. There is a delicious scrunch of ice as the bottle is removed, chill even in the grip of the thick, white, linen napkin. As it pours, the wine looks almost unctuous, and the wineglass itself puts on a mist of condensation to which a fingertip is irresistibly drawn. The wine has scents of grapefruit, apple and peach. It is crisp and clean as no other drink can be. It tastes of summer.

For weeks I’ve known that I’ve been drinking wine in the same way as everybody else, because we’ve all been forced into versions of the same at-home experience. So I’ve dreamt of drinking wine in those wonderful scenarios which enhance the wine-drinking experience.

But now this whole lockdown episode seems to be coming gradually, grindingly, to an end. Times may soon be precedented.

Which could mean people out there actually enjoying wine in those scenarios – going to those restaurants, raising glasses with friends, drinking on fabulous cliff-top terraces, hosting dinner parties…

You decanted it an hour ago, resisting the urge to taste but sniffing just to make sure, and yes, a rich, fragrant, elderly bouquet. It has sat there on the dining table, as your guests chatter over their remaining fizz. The time is now propitious. As you lift the decanter, you sense a couple of curious eyes upon it. You modestly tell the story of the wine as you do the rounds, until everyone raises their glasses and sips respectfully. And the smiles and the eyebrows and the gentle hums of pleasure say it all…

Of course, like most porn, this could all just be a fantasy. The dinner parties actually an amalgam of Downton Abbey and After Eight commercials; the guests, as CJ once observed, “wine connoisseurs, former members of the Diplomatic Corps, academics, senior police officers, Anglican clergymen, newspaper proprietors, Members of the Privy Council, international financiers, UN dignitaries and all the other inhabitants of the fiction factory inside PK’s head.” 

But the restaurants were there, I’m sure. I remember them, don’t I?. Surely the wine really was more enjoyable when the table was in a restaurant rather than in the kitchen? And the red wine in the candelight? The white wine by the sea?

Or had I drunken in my dreams?


Thursday 11 June 2020

Went The Day Well?

1) So, Sweden. Not only are people flocking to that country on account of it having kept bars and restaurants open throughout the crisis, it also has wine. I didn’t know this until a pal thoughtfully tipped me off about the Sav Winery. Apparently they make their stuff from birch sap, which, according to them, is an excellent source to make a well-balanced, crisp and fresh sparkling wine.’ Not only that, but, in in evironmentally conscientious way, ‘The birch sap is carefully harvested through small holes drilled in the tree trunk.’ It’s lightly sparkling and only 16. Beat that, Pol Roger!

2) Two bottles of my home-made muck still in the wine rack. I really must take a swig. I mean, if not now, when?

3) Three o’clock. Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do. An odd moment in the afternoon. Today it is intolerable. 

3a) So what would Sartre have drunk, in this state of unending global three o’clockness? I’m open to suggestions, but it seems that both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were not usually far from a bottle of vodka and both really enjoyed a party: ‘I liked having confused, vaguely questioning ideas that then fell apart’, Sartre said, alluding to the metaphysical playfulness which alcohol engendered. He also took amphetamines and psychedelics, but didn’t we all in those days?

3a) (i) Which still leaves the problem of the three o’clock drink implicit in Sartre’s famous quote. Yes, a cup of tea would be the sensible option but we’ve had three months of sensible. I’m sick of sensible and so is everyone else. Equally, I don’t want to uncork a bottle of dingy red (least of all my own, see 2) because by five o’clock I’ll feel like dropping down dead, even it’s a proper bottle, I mean, yes, one used to drink wine at three p.m. decades ago but then a lot of things happened decades ago, including dying at five o’clock. But, tea?

3a) (ii) But wait a minute. The Swedes! They’ve got the answer! Of course! A bottle of Sav 1785 Pétillant Naturel! It’s only 11.5%, which puts it only a shade over a strong glass of tapwater, so I can drink it at any time of the day or night. And it’s so wholesome, being organic, vegan, pesitcide-free, made using something they call the Méthode Suédoise, normally something you get from a physiotherapist, and bottled on site. You could sit around drinking fermented birch sap all afternoon and long into the evening without undue ill-effect. 

3a) (iii) But on the other hand it might just compound the ennui of three in the afternoon on account of its very Swedishness. I’ve only been to Sweden once and that was to Stockholm for a long weekend; which was nice enough although a tiny bit underwhelming. All those meatballs and lingonberries. I’m also told that the definition of boredom is the drive from Stockholm to Malmö but I don’t mean to complain about a country so broadly unfamiliar to me. I can merely see that a bottle of Sav 1785 might dig me deeper into a pit of Existential despair rather than get me out of it.

4) Didn’t it occur to Sartre that three o’clock was the perfect time to take a nap?

5) Coffee with a dash of brandy. A caffè corretto in other words. Three o’clock in Italy, in the old days, they’d just have finished lunch and be readying themselves for a bit of quiet time in the afternoon shade. Of course. I can see it now, the terrace with a broad-leafed tree at its centre, the dappled sunlight, the view over the drowsing valley, the insects buzzing in the depths of the heat, the deeper shade of the house and adjacent buildings, maybe a fountain playing not far off.

6) Sweden! I must have been mad!

7) I shall now lie down and dream about this. Bonne nuit. Godnatt. Buona notte. Good night everybody.


Thursday 4 June 2020

A change of art

What could this label be saying about its wine? Modern, calm, understated, and quietly sophisticated, perhaps. It suggests the wine’s so good they named it more than twice. "It's Bandol on a budget’, with softer edges.” Pair it with Conran Shop tableware, David Mellor cutlery and Zalto wine glasses.


By way of contrast, what does this label say? It’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s lively, all positive attributes of certain kinds of wine. Perhaps pair it with colourful Tuscan crockery and maybe drink it from tumblers in a relaxed kind of way. Because “It’s ‘Bandol on a budget’, with softer edges.”


You’ve worked out where this is going, haven’t you? Of course; it’s the same wine. From the 2017 to the 2018 vintage, they’ve changed the label.

I got terribly exercised about this. I was upset, because I prefer the first label, which sits more comfortably on my table. Because I respect cool, austere design. Because that label looks sophisticated, which is how I like to see my wine, and now it looks loud, which is not. Because it’s now got yet another bloody animal on it.

(What is it about animals on wine labels? From birds and cats right down to frogs and penguins, you name them, you see them. There can only be a few genuinely unpleasant creatures left, which never appear on wine labels, because no-one has a good word to say about them. Like jellyfish. Oh.)

Anyway, I got even more exercised because, on a simple sales level, I could no longer see the bottle I wanted on the wine merchant’s shelf. I like to just pick up – or, in these awkward times, point at – the wine I want, in a knowledgeable, had-it-before manner. Instead of which I had to ask plaintively, “Oh, are you not stocking Talento any more?”, and then to feel ignorant because how was I to know they had changed the label?

I just wanted the same wine I had had before. And quite fundamentally, I don’t like change.. They say that a change is as good as a rest. Well, give it a rest.

But then, next morning, I thought about the way in which individual vintages change. The way in which, regardless of the (usually) consistent graphics of a wine’s label, the thing which really tells you about the character of a particular bottle may be the four little digits stating its year. That annual variation is celebrated by some wineries, as an aspect of their nature, a variation they proudly describe each year. (The only surprise being that it always seems to vary in a positive, purchase-encouraging way…)

So perhaps, if each year’s wine is genuinely different, the labels themselves should actually change each year? This is, after all, a new vintage (even if, to my palate, more like a boar than a bird). Perhaps the latest vintage deserves a new presentation, like the latest novel by an author, to show at a glance that it’s the same but different? Perhaps the misleading labels are the ones which don’t change, and suggest that the wine is essentially the same?

And then I got really philosophical, and wondered, can we ever drink the same wine twice? After all, a wine is constantly changing, not just from year to year, but even in the bottle. Even if the label is exactly the same, the bottle I opened last week is not the bottle I will drink tonight. Tomorrow’s wine must always be a little older, with a slightly different past. Like, indeed, ourselves. If Heraclitus had been having a picnic on the bank, before he considered whether he could ever step into the same river again, would he have stated instead that you can never drink the same wine twice?

Ah well. That’s what happens in lockdown, when you wake up early, and read Four Quartets outdoors, in a London profoundly quiet and still as you could never have imagined, while “Dawn points, and another day/Prepares for heat and silence.”

These days, eh?