With CJ away in Japan, I thought I saw an opportunity to beat him at his own game. In fact, to beat the wine business at its own game.
I persist, you see, despite all evidence, internal damage and sink stains to the contrary, in believing that I can find good, cheap wine. I continue to think that I will somehow spot a bargain on the shelves; that with the smattering of knowledge I have gained, I will spot a hidden gem, a fine wine ignored amongst the branded rubbish.
How will it have got there? Why is it unnoticed? I don’t quite know. And why do I continue to think that, in the wine trade alone amongst all others, this kind of thing is likely?
Is it remotely feasible that, for instance, on the forecourt of a secondhand car dealer, alongside the clapped-out Astras, a Porsche would be lurking, unnoticed and undervalued? Or that the secondhand bookshop wouldn’t spot a First Edition? Yet somehow, I imagine, I will find a fine wine at a bargain price, lurking somehow in the system like a Rembrandt in an attic.
And then, in CJ’s absence, I read online about some French wine, selling on a “French street market stall” in West London, for the astonishingly low price of 3 bottles for £10.
Now, given UK duty and tax, that price is absurdly low. There’s a semi-plausible explanation online about rejects from supermarket contracts, but that price is SO low that I managed to persuade myself something suspect might be going on. Perhaps it had come into the UK by some dodgy means, back of a camion, contraband Grand Cru hidden under a pile of charcuterie? Perhaps it really is good quality wine which just had to be offloaded from a short-lived stall? If it’s not obvious branded and blended rubbish (which I hope even I can spot), for £3.33 a bottle, surely it’s got to be worth a punt? And if I can find decent wine, for less than CJ’s optimum pricepoint, well…
The stall is there for only two days, so I interrupt my planned journey westwards that evening, and pay it a visit. I have encountered French markets in England before. Or, to rephrase that, I have encountered what appears to be the same French market, in various locations including Cheltenham, Hove and East Finchley. That particular French market always seems to sell the same combination of such vrai French produce as charcuterie and cheese, dried fruit, and an unusual combination of very expensive vegetables and very cheap soap. (In my cynical way, I do wonder about the authenticity of this produce, and whether this caravan of stalls really has come over from the doorsteps of wrinkled continental paysans, or has actually spent the morning stripping off packaging in a Lidl car park.)
However, the market in Hammersmith was a much smaller affair, with just a couple of stalls and no visible soap, but sure enough, a selection of wine, at 3 bottles for £10. And hiding behind persuasively strong French accents, the stallholders affected, with a great deal of Gallic shrugging, not to be able to explain its provenance. Which just encouraged me more.
There were around half a dozen varieties from which, using my skill and knowledge, I could choose my 3 for £10. The term “skill and knowledge” is used here in a similar manner to those old spot-the-ball contests, where it said, for legal reasons, that you used your “skill and knowledge” to guess where the football had been in the picture. Your “skill and knowledge” could not tell you that at that precise moment, the player was looking at a cloud while performing a back-heel…
My skill and knowledge told me in this case not to buy the vermentino/viognier blend, because my years in the assiduous pursuit of wine enabled me to observe on the back label the logo of The Sun newspaper.
No, I plumped instead for a Corbieres, Le Bosc, which I always think of as a gnarled paysan wine appropriate to a street market; a Merlot, Les Garrigues, because I spotted the Mont Tauch co-op logo on its label (rather more promising than the logo of The Sun…); and a suspect cabernet sauvignon called Le Lion et Le Rat, for no very good reason. (Like those buy two, get one free book offers, you always end up with one which is just making up the number…)
Well. The Corbieres did, actually, prove drinkable; a little thin, and too much alcohol in the balance, but it softened into a tolerable wine. Les Garrigues was suspiciously murky, like blood in a puddle; it twanged around the upper palate and tasted somewhat bitter. (A 2007, I suspect its best days were long gone). But Le Lion et Le Rat was violently unpleasant, with a threatening bouquet that actually made my eyes water, and an acrid flavour of burnt plastic. “Oh God,” said Mrs K after a sip, and I had explained the 3 for £10 offer, “Don’t say we’ve got another two bottles of this?”
Thankfully not. Of course, you could argue that if I’d bought 3 bottles of the Corb, the enterprise would have been just about worthwhile. But I still wouldn't have looked forward to drinking it each night. CJ probably would. Mind you, CJ would probably have grimly forced his way through 3 bottles of Le Lion et Le Rat (“I’ve bought it, so I’ll drink it…”).
But there was nothing of real pleasure in this experience. It just reminded me that wine is meant to be a pleasure, not a challenge. The slight feeling of fiscal accomplishment simply wasn’t sufficient to outweigh the disappointment with the wines. Nor, indeed, the disappointment that, once again, I had failed to unearth the vinous equivalent of the First Edition in the charity shop.