Thursday, 17 August 2017

From D'Or to door – it's wine through the post

It’s years since anything remotely interesting has come through our letterbox, as it seems that the only people who use the postal service nowadays are charities, estate agents and Virgin Media.

So how about wine?  A flat, plastic ‘pouch’ of wine through your letterbox? This is the premise of Decanting Club, whose subscribers are posted a 150ml sample of wine each week. 

There will be those who see this as an ideal way of “exploring” different wines, which can then be ordered by the bottle. Then again others, of an indolent nature, will see it as an ideal way of drinking wine without going further than their hallway.

Sot let us persevere with this concept. After all,
it would appear to remove the anxiety associated with courier deliveries. And which of my generation, raised on Ice Pops in plastic tubes, will even need a glass?

The trouble is, there is something disturbingly surgical about these pouches. The red looks and feels like a blood transfusion bag. The white as if it should be attached to a pole as a saline drip. Or, worse, to the receiving end of a catheter.

One of my first thoughts was that they could be an ideal way to smuggle wine into venues where bottles are banned. Concerts, football matches, airline flights etc. On a cursory pat-down body search, it would just feel like the blubber of overweight. Or, for a certain section of the wine-drinking ‘community’, a breast implant.

Unfortunately you would then have to get your pouch open. There is a knack to opening plastic packaging, which I do not possess. Witness the half-destroyed blocks of cheese, or the frozen peas bursting from their bags as I wrench them open. Sealed to convey wine through the post without leakage, it will clearly take more than my fingers and teeth to open a wine pouch. – and in the present climate I do not intend trying to get a pair of scissors past that same security search.

So home drinking it is, then. Where I did try drinking the wine directly from the pouch, and made a complete mess of a perfectly good shirt. You try drinking from the corner of a plastic bag.

Does the food-grade plastic taint the wine? No. That concern surely faded years ago, when we started drinking water out of plastic bottles, where I suspect taint would be rather more noticeable than in an industrial-strength Red.

I was posted a perfectly serviceable, fruity yet taut Vinho Verde, which they then sell at a slightly ambitious £10.92 a bottle; and a repellent Valpolicella (£12.59), with a bouquet of stuffed toys and  bizarre notes of peanut and cardboard. But the intention is that you drink it (from a glass) in the week it arrives; do not assume, like me, that any modern wine packaging, like wine boxes and sealed goblets, is all about preserving wine indefinitely. This one may have suffered while I was distracted drinking other wines from actual bottles.

The Decanting Club costs from £4.50 to £6.50 per 150ml pouch, depending on your subscription. This, they say, is “cheaper than a glass of wine in a pub”, which it probably is. It depends on your pub. And the size of their glasses.

But £6.50 in the supermarket would get you an entire bottle, with just as good a chance of liking the result. Only, if you do like it, you can then drink the full 750ml. You can cook with the rest if you don’t. Or, if you’re CJ, drink it all the same.

Of course, these are not wines you will find in the supermarket. Which reinforces the idea that you are “exploring wine”, by trying “rare grapes from undiscovered regions”, and sharing details on their website. It’s a poor substitute for the sort of “exploring” of “undiscovered regions” I was brought up on, Boys’ Own stories of proper explorers, like Livingstone, Scott and Shackleton. But then I suppose their kind of exploring has become somewhat tiresome (“Oh no, not another unaided charity walk to the South Pole with a novel kind of hindrance…”). So we’ll have to make do with staying on our sofas and exploring the world of wine. That or the world of Haribo.

With an increasing number of wine merchants offering Enomatic tasting in store, there is competition in the sampling market. But the idea of wine coming through your letterbox each week? It’s all good fun, until someone loses an eye.

But in the end, of course, you’ll still be buying and getting a case of wine delivered, which will inevitably arrive when you’re out or in the toilet.

Unless they post you 60 pouches through your letterbox instead.


PK 



http://amzn.to/2tlJ9dy



Thursday, 10 August 2017

Unpacking: Minus Tricastin

So back we come from the shattering heat of the South of France, the car weighed down on its springs by cheap espadrilles and bottles of French shower gel, and recollect the following:

- Why does anyone bother to maintain a vineyard? We rumbled, stupefied by our own air-conditioning, past hectare after hectare of the things, all baking in the dust, all perfectly green despite the near-drought conditions, but thought: this must be about the most arduous crop you could choose to rear, notwithstanding sorghum, rice or alfalfa. The ground the vines stand in is either an interminable grey clay (in the wet) or a crumbling parched mantrap, painfully impossible to walk across, whether kept free of weeds or blanketed in the things. The fruit hang at knee-height, sheer back-breaking agony to tend. They require constant care and inspection, but even the most persevering cultivator will wake up one day to find a whole year's worth gone, chomped by a tiny insect or overwhelmed by blight. And if you manage to harvest the grapes (please God with one of those mechanical harvesters) all that happens is that your pride and joy disappears into a huge tank along with everybody else's and the local co-operative takes the credit. Yes, vineyards look lovely, but they're madness, just madness.

- I hadn't properly taken on board the fact that the wines of the Tricastin region are now known generically as Grignan-les-Adhemar. Of course, when it was pointed out to me that the whopping great nuclear power station at Tricastin had more or less screwed the area's branding, it made sense. I gazed down on the nuclear site, plus the TGV line, plus the A7 autoroute and the Rhône itself, from one of the delightful hilltop villages on the eastern side and had it recalled to me that in July 2008, nearly five thousand gallons of Uranium solution were accidentally released into the Tricastin enviroment; and that was the end of Côteaux du Tricastin as we knew it, a pained reinvention as Grignan-les-Adhemar following not long after. So that was where it went, I marvelled, realising that, yes indeed, I hadn't seen any around for a while. The other thing is about this is that no-one, not even the producers, can get on with the new name. And if the French find it a mouthful, what chance have we got? And - see above - how would you feel about your precious vines - which might, just for once, be in a state of rare perfection - being rendered unsellable by your own Government's nuclear programme?

- When we got to Calais - for the boat back - I couldn't find a wine warehouse to get some cheap grog in. Rather, my wife glimpsed one on the outskirts in what struck me as a slightly unpropitious spot, so I announced that we would press on towards the ferry terminal because there were bound to be a couple more at that end of town, which made more sense to me, insofar as anything ever does. Then we got to that end of town, only to find a hellish new road layout, kilometres of reinforced fencing with barbed wire on the top, a load of French squaddies wearing fatigues and carrying machine guns, and that was that. What was once the Calais Jungle has been turned into a little piece of off-limits Nevada and so, it seems, has everything else. Too late to turn back to try and find the original warehouse and anyway, has the Booze Cruise had its day? My Brother-in-law swears not, but I remember a time when you couldn't move in Calais for roadside hoardings and giant parking areas and huge, tatty sheds, all dedicated to crummy wines. But now?

- On the other hand, once back, I discovered that the completely excellent Janelle Shane - about whom I've already written - has been hard at work again with her neural networks, this time coming up with a slew of devastingly right-on, completely artificially-induced, beer names. So many terrific ones to choose from, but my top five are:

Juicy Dripple IPA
The Actoompe (a Strong Pale Ale)
Cherry Boof Cornester (ditto)
O'Busty Irish Red (an Amber Ale)
Pimperdiginistic The Blacksmith W/Cherry Stout

Sheer genius: and, yes, the wines demand her attentions even more than before. I am going to get in touch with her right now and see what she has to say. If wine is to have any future at all, this - the world of neural networks - is, I am convinced, where it will lie. Such excitement!

CJ



http://amzn.to/2tlJ9dy

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fresh, tasty, authentic, vine-ripened… wine?

Tasty, home-made, hand-picked… food products seem to have adopted a whole range of product descriptions, presumably after the lengthy customer research which food marketers can afford. In some cases (see pic) these are presumed to be such potent messages that they dwarf even the flavour or the brand of the product. If they’re “hand-cooked”, who cares what they are? 

So. if these food marketing messages are such customer magnets, could some of them possibly work for wine?





 Home-made
I have never understood why a biscuit made at home would necessarily be better than one made in a biscuit factory. After all, the biscuit factory is dedicated to making biscuits, whereas a home must also function as a hotel, storage facility and entertainment complex. The biscuit factory has skilled, experienced biscuit makers; home has me.

And who would want a home-made television, say, or home-made shoes? Or home-made condoms, with their concomitant product, home-made fingerless washing-up gloves? No, I think we can do without “home-made” products, and that absolutely applies to wine. No-one is going to pay for home-made wine. There are far better, dedicated places to make wine than in someone’s home. Unless you’re talking about the Bordeaux home of the Rothschilds.






Vine-ripened
Unlike tomatoes, wines do not make a song and dance about the fact that the obvious place to ripen their grapes is on their vine. Effectively, all wine is vine-ripened. It’s hardly a selling point. It only raises the issue of where and how the other tomatoes are ripened.







Tasty
This childish epithet has always troubled me. What are the alternatives? Tasteless? And its crude simplicity would sit particularly unhappily with the supposed sophistication of wine. Imagine grand Burgundies and distinguished clarets, all shelved under a sign shouting “Tasty!” With perhaps a little shelf off to the side for Pinot Grigio.






   
Essential
Wine is essential.
Move on.

















Hand-picked
The idea of hand-picking takes on completely different connotations when it is on food packaging as opposed to a UKIP leaflet. And of course hand-picking is equally attractive for wine, where the mass-production alternative has a vehicle trundling along the lines, effectively hoovering the grapes off the vines – along with any birds, small rodents, insects etc who happen to be in the vine at the time. “Tasty”. Whereas at Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the grapes are not only hand-picked, but hand-sorted and individually examined for health. So hand-picked wine? Yes please – if not at £3,000 a bottle




Fresh
What, like Beaujolais Nouveau? 

 






 
 

Specially selected
Not just ‘selected’, like everything else on the shelves. Funnily enough, when this epithet appears on wine labels, “specially selected” is always in the cheaper ranges, never the good wines which discerning customers specially select for themselves. 








Responsibly sourced
Have you been sourcing wine irresponsibly? Buying it from the corner shop? Buying wine from the property said to be ‘next door to’ the celebrated vineyard? Ordering one of those ‘mystery’ cases, which ‘might’ contain bottles worth some phenomenal amount of money, but will probably contain the bottles which couldn’t otherwise be sold? If you don't source your wines responsibly, you deserve all you’ve got coming.

("Handcrafted, responsibly sourced salad"? Give me strength…) 




Authentic
What actually is it that makes a pasta “authentic”? Italian flour? Italian eggs? Combined in a factory in the Midlands, but by someone called Elena? By these loose kinds of criteria, pretty much all wine is authentic wine. Unless it has another term attached, like “Chocolate”, “Fruit” or “Alcohol-Free”.

Or, of course, if it’s fake. It’s not just expensive wine which gets faked; the authorities once uncovered a line of fake Jacob’s Creek. The bottles could be distinguished because they had misspelt ‘Australia’ as “Austrlia” on the label, a mistake many of us might make after a few bottles of Jacob’s Creek. No wonder they didn’t attempt to fake Trockenbeerenauslese.



Market
Ah yes, “market” produce, always a winner. Market fruit, with its attractive manhandled bruising; and market vegetables, quite possibly past their sell-by date but you wouldn’t know because they haven’t got one. Call any corner of a modern city a Market and you’re quids in, as long as you take your produce out of its hygenic plastic wrapping and display it on a slab of wood.

But what kind of market might we be talking about for wine? Perhaps one of those weekly affairs in a little French town, with local wines for just a few Euro? Oh yes! Count us in! Just beware of “market” wine labelled with a bit of brown paper and only the word VIN in felt-tip. They’ve probably just soaked the labels off some fake Jacob’s Creek.

PK



Thursday, 27 July 2017

Clutter

So I'm picking through the factor 15 and the inappropriate shorts and the lengthy novels in translation, all the crap one has to take on holiday, and I think to myself, well, this is a time of departures and interventions, as good a time as any to check the bookmarks in my browser and throw out the stuff that I meant to find a use for but never, for whatever reason, did. 

I want that fresh, unencumbered Glade feeling, free trom things like Drip-Free Wine Bottle Makes Us More Grateful For Science Than Ever Before, one of those headlines which draws you up short at the same time as it leaves you with no inclination to find out more (a physicist at Brandeis University, as it happens, who's inserted a two-millimetre anti-drip groove in the neck of the bottle, who'd have thought?) while reminding you at the same time that this story fits somewhere into the larger pantheon of non-spill, non-drip, non-spatter, non-stain, non-marking, non-smear, non-streak products whose existence makes up at least a third of the internet. 'As yet,' concludes the HuffPo, one of several sites to cover the story, 'there's no news on whether the product will be adopted by wine makers'.

Similarly, How Women Are Changing Champagne sounds appealing, but adds pretty much nothing to the compendium of women-changing-the-face-of-wine stories which have been floating around for, what? A decade? A century? 'The rise of women winemakers will certainly change champagne,' apparently, 'though exactly how is yet to be seen.' Why did I think there was something worthwhile in this? I mean it's always good to celebrate the increasing importance that women play in industries traditionally dominated by men, but I can't help thinking that I allowed myself to be suckered in by some kind of human interest story that wasn't really there. Or worse, that I let myself be beguiled by the idea that something might be remarkable simply because it's done by a woman.

Rather as I allowed myself to be slurped into a micro-story involving some very rich guy called T. J. Rodgers (who also cropped up here, as well as lots of other places), the main eye-catcher being, in all honesty, the word billionaire, rather than the fancy tech he's using to make an impossibly perfect Pinot Noir. What do I really care that he has a mathematical formula to deal with every element of production, including 'root density, siphon run-offs, wine press effectiveness'? I don't even know what these terms mean. Out it goes, along with an Andrew Jefford threnody concerning the impossibility of wine writing ever positing a true equivalent to literary writing ('supportive intimacy' is a great phrase, though) and this chestnut - from the Evening Standard - about how drinking wine may be good for your brain. What's the ratio of wine-is-good-for-you stories to wine-is-bad? About two to one in favour of wine-is-bad? Someone, perhaps at Brandeis University, will know.

And so it goes on, until only two bookmarks remain; but these I keep. Both are cognate, in that they fool around with the idea of artificially-generated word formation - a little niche of AI which will eventually put all writers and journalists and, indeed, Sediment, out of business. The first is the legendary Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator, randomly creating on-trend menus for imaginary hipster eateries (Pan-seared water as a starter from your local Gerritson and Stockon, for instance). The second is this excellent blog from a young California scientist, who uses some rather deeper coding to create names from scratch. Paint colours is a particularly fruitful area (Sandbork, Flumfy Gray, Nungle, Shy Bather, Parp Green, Breedly Burf, to name but six) but she's also done action figures, heavy metal bands, bad recipe ideas and terrible Broadway musicals (my pick of the last? The Wither Bean, followed by The Burking Ding of 190 Bour Dadige, a comedy).

You can see where this is going. Let the neural network loose on wines; let AI come up with some really Twenty-First Century drinks. Dr Janelle Shane, the person responsible for the latter website, actually invites suggestions for her next spree - the only problem being (for me, at any rate) that she needs a plaintext dataset of 1000+ existing names for the AI to use as self-training material. But wine! It demands to be done! Does anyone happen to have a plaintext dataset of 1000+ existing names? How hard can it be to get one? Will it be waiting for me when I get back? 

CJ

http://amzn.to/2tlJ9dy







Thursday, 20 July 2017

It's here! The Sediment book in paperback!

http://amzn.to/2tlJ9dy

“It’s the funniest wine-book I’ve read in a long time. Not just laugh-aloud funny but snortingly, choke-on-your-cornflakes funny – up there with Kingsley Amis and Jay McInerney.”  
Julian Barnes



“A very funny book to dip in and out of and would make the perfect present for the wine bore in your life”  
The Independent, Drinks Books of the Year



"Read this book, but not on public transport. Achingly funny."  
Joanna Simon 


– | –

CJ: So the rumours were true, then? 

PK: Yes! A paperback edition of our André Simon award-winning book – and it’s out now!

CJ: Paperback, eh? So it’s cheaper than the hardback?

PK: Well, as I’m always saying, price isn’t everything. But yes, it is cheaper. The cover price is just £8.99. It’s selling for less than a decent bottle of wine!

CJ: I wouldn’t say that personally, but…

PK: What would you say personally?

CJ: All the goodness of the original Sediment hardback, refashioned into a handy yet glamorous paperback.

PK: I think you’ve said that already, in the new introduction.

CJ: Oh yes, it’s got a new introduction. And, bringing our motto to the fore, a new title.

PK: A bit like renaming Chateau Bahans Haut-Brion as Le Clarence de Haut-Brion?

CJ: You tell me.

PK: But it’s what’s inside that’s important. It’s had the time to mature, like a good claret. I knew it would benefit from laying down for a bit. Like its authors. It’s clearly one of my kind of things.

CJ: Well, I’d say it was one of mine, actually. It’s more mass-market, it’s easier to handle, and it’s cheaper. You can afford to enjoy it all by yourself.

PK: Or give it as a gift! It’s a much better gift than the bottle of wine you could get at that price!

CJ: If you say so…


– | –



AVAILABLE HERE AND NOW! I've Bought It, So I'll Drink It: The joys (or not) of drinking wine, by CJ and PK, £8.99 (Metro)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Berry Bros. & Rudd: My Secret Pride

As readers will recall, CJ finally visited the historic premises of wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd, at No 3 St James’s Street – and was too daunted to enter.

I understand. There are places I’m daunted by – like fishmongers’. 


But what CJ deemed inaccessible, I had always seen as an aspiration, the epitome of wine merchants with ampersands whose respect I wanted to earn. I always felt significant when I stepped through their doors.

So if anything, their announcement of a new shop, just around the corner at 63 Pall Mall, had filled me with trepidation. Especially when their CEO, a former Tesco executive, was quoted as saying that the new store would be “much more finely attuned to modern retail.” What, like Tesco?

Of course, CJ was completely unaware of this new shop when he visited the old. The original premises carried no indication of the nearby new shop; not even, CJ told me, a suitably historic maniculum to guide the way.


So despite my misgivings, as CJ had visited the old premises, I felt I must visit the new. The first issue was what to wear.

Cue snort of incredulity from CJ. But look, even he wouldn’t go to church in a singlet. I always feel that, like any appointment with a professional, one should show a modicum of respect for knowledge and experience. So I would have worn to the old premises what good restaurants now describe as “smart attire”; I hoped that would be appropriate for the new. Although I might be overdressed for Tesco.

Well, the new shop is certainly smartly attired itself. It has stone floors and beautiful wooden shelving, with each bottle displayed in an individual section. It’s tastefully modern, luxurious but thankfully without any trace of objectionable bling – it’s Heals, not Harrods. 


And it is a browser’s paradise, something which could never have been said of the old premises, where you literally had to ask in order to see a bottle. There are the best and longest descriptions and tasting notes I have seen anywhere, beside every single bottle, no matter what its price. In that sense, it’s the most egalitarian of wine shops, treating all its bottles (and, therefore, its customers) equally. The only betrayals of status are the occasional security tags.

(Tags? In St James’s? Really?? Yes. I understand some bankers are wearing them nowadays, too…)

There are wines you can taste from an Enomatic, and chairs to sit in while you do. There are shelves of accessories, and tools, and wine books. And the (welcoming but not intrusive) staff wear rather fetching aprons, giving them an artisanal air. Having said that, the chap who actually served me was wearing a suit; when I asked why, he said “I don’t always work here, I’m based in No 3.” Which says it all, really; aprons in the new shop, suits in the old.

And of course I succumbed, and bought a bottle of claret, as one does at Berry Bros. It was a “Staff Recommendation”. Which at one time, of course, every bottle was.

The one niggle is… this thing about earnt access. Earnt not through an accident of birth or wealth, but through learning. I feel that over the years I earnt my access, to Parisian restaurants, to Savile Row tailors, to book dealers and shirtmakers and, yes, St James’s wine merchants, by learning to speak their language – what to know, what to wear, what to say, how to behave. And I can’t help feeling sorry that something to which I felt I had earnt access, somewhere I finally felt confident enough to enter but CJ did not dare to tread, has now been thrown open to all and sundry. That’s all.

I walked back along Pall Mall, past the club to which I have the right to belong, the club to which I used to belong, and the club to which my father-in-law would like to propose me to belong. Perhaps as daunting to some as the original Berry Bros premises. But while the doormen of St James's would turn up their noses at CJ’s shorts and sockless sandals, I reckon he could comfortably enter 63 Pall Mall. This new shop is egalitarian not only in the wines it sells, but in the way it has opened doors – of Berry Bros, of St James’s and of wine itself.



PK

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Blueberries

So it's too hot to do anything. The sun burns down. Our pals are on a visit from their place in the South of France and they're complaining about the heat. Just sitting in the back garden, staring at the opal sky, takes it out of me. The birds fall silent. I blink at our dripping bathroom overflow and wish I could stand underneath it.

Then, an idea: I have some half-finished Asda champagne sitting in the fridge (Henri Cachet, recognisably a champagne and only £14) and some blueberries. I shall recreate a drink I once enjoyed (at a boat show, don't ask) in which a well-known champagne maker dished out free samples of his product in giant plastic glasses etched with the company logo, but - and this is the point - made them go much, much, further by the addition of some ice and a couple of blueberries in each glass. Sounds disgusting? At the time, it was heavenly and I could even sit down while I drank it and watch millions and millions of pounds' worth of yachts fail to get bought. What's more, blueberries are a good source of vitamin K (helps wounds heal) and antioxidants (might prevent or delay some types of cell damage). Let's do it again, I vow, reeling back into the house and towards the kitchen.

Nothing could be simpler. In go the ingredients, the blueberries ever so slightly bruised, just in case this helps, and I return to the garden with my champagne glass. I take a swig. Do you know what? It works. This is not least because, after a day in the fridge, the Henri Cachet, while still about zingy enough, has nevertheless taken on a certain flabby, caramel, quality, something for the bite of the blueberries and the moderating effects of meltwater to get to grips with in an entirely beneficial way. See pic.

Trouble is, I then feel a great and overwhelming need not to let things lie. Instead, I recall another use of blueberries, as explained to me by someone who knows their alcohol: this being a kind of micro-Martini, in which a measure of gin is joined by a chunk of ice and a couple of blueberries to hint at some other kind of aromatic intervention. It's the work of a moment. And yes, on the one hand it's delicious, mainly because a shot of Sipsmith on ice is always fab - I know, Sipsmith, so commercialised these days, but what a voluptuous gin they make - while, on the other hand, is not much more than that. The blueberries sit around looking enigmatic: fished out and eaten when everything else has gone, they do yield a tasty, steeped, mouthful, but I couldn't say that the drink as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now I'm frustrated. The heat and the gin are doing nothing for my better judgement. So determined am I to further the blueberries' talents in my own head, to insist on their suitability for all drinks and occasions, I dig out a work-in-progress three-day-old bottle of McGuigan Shiraz. I pour out a bit, lob in a couple more blueberries, watch them sink to the now-lightless bottom of the glass like paperweights. Tastewise? Well, the Shiraz has already got the miasma of envelope adhesive which three days of being opened will encourage and the blueberries, it seems, only add to that. I taste leather. I taste working man's gloves. It isn't any better than it was. In fact it might be slightly worse. I can't believe that the blueberries aren't working.

And so, like something out of Malcolm Lowry, or perhaps, simply, like Malcolm Lowry, I wander outside again, a haze of liquor coming off me in the desperate heat, disorientated, numb with failed obsessions. Why couldn't I just leave it at the champagne? No, but then, the champagne was a success, I mustn't lose sight of that. Such a success that I might make even a habit of it. Yes, that's important. I musn't forget it.

'It was a success,' I say out loud, to make it real.

CJ




Thursday, 29 June 2017

A travellin' man – and his wine

So I got back from my travels – but did my wine travel as successfully?

There was an old notion that a wine “might not travel”. Many a wine which tasted delicious abroad, with grilled sardines at a beachside table as the sun shone, tasted surprisingly rubbish back home, with tinned sardines at a kitchen table as the rain fell.

Yet still people brought wines back with them, souvenirs which were little more than the sombrero hats and straw donkeys of less sophisticated travellers.
 

That, of course, was in the days when you could carry bottles in your cabin baggage. You would haul a nylon carry-on through the airport, clanking and clonking with bottles of booze, each one in its protective little plastic mesh jerkin. Your bag was so heavy you were hardly able to lift it from the floor, let alone hoist it into the overhead lockers. But unless you actually dropped them on the airport’s terrazzo, you could be pretty sure of getting home in one piece as many bottles as you could carry. Assuming, of course, that HM Customs would accept that they were all for personal consumption. (“Just ask my wife, officer…”)

Those days are sadly over. And there is little to inspire confidence in the treatment of checked-in luggage, when you watch suitcases crashing and sliding from the cargo hold on to the Tetris of the baggage-claim conveyor belt.

But against this comes the siren call of the wheeled suitcase. With hotel lifts and burly taxi-drivers, the first time you lift your case yourself nowadays is to hoist it on to the tell-tale conveyor belt. Surely it could cope with a couple of bottles of wine?

Nowadays people are selling wheeled suitcases entirely designed to check in bottles of wine. These will indeed allow you to safely travel back with a dozen bottles.  I am not sure however what you do with the fortnight’s worth of clothes contained in the suitcase when you went out. Perhaps, if you are willing to be the least popular person on the plane, you make the return journey wearing all your (dirty) clothes at once?

(I also note that a reviewer of the VinGardeValise says “The customs people in Mexico were really interested in the case”. This is meant to be a five-star recommendation, but sounds to me like a prelude to sharing a cell  with El Chapo Guzman.)

Is it still worth trying to bring back wine? Is it any more than just a desperate urge to extend the very taste of a holiday?

Well, there’s the crude financial appeal. Here’s the magnificent Lacuesta Vermouth in London, at £8.95 a bottle. In the Spanish supermarket, El Corte Ingles, it is €4.95. Yes, that’s in Euros.

And visiting the most prestigious wine merchant in Barcelona (as of course I would), it seemed rude not to buy a couple of wines by Telmo Rodriguez, an exciting Spanish winemaker whose wines are hard to get hold of in the UK, and some of which are never imported. Except, now, a brace of them by me.

Some time ago I mentioned travelling back from Spain with bottles encased protectively in dirty socks. But that was unplanned. (And I would like to emphasise to past guests that soiled clothing obviously never touched the contents or indeed even the lip of the bottles. That’s what capsules are for.)
 

This time, however, I planned in advance. I travelled with several large sheets of bubblewrap. 

“Of course you did,” scoffs CJ. But why scoff? Bubblewrap is practical, and weightless, and takes up little space when flat. It’s recycling all the stuff which people like Amazon have sent me. It’s forward thinking. And anyway, CJ scoffs at the fact that I take socks.

My bottles are packed encased in said bubblewrap, then inside plastic carrier bags (in the hope of containing the wine if they should break). These are sealed in place with socks. The base of the bottles are planted inside shoes, at the foot of the suitcase, to absorb any shock if the case is banged upright, and to stop them moving around. That whole lot is inside a big plastic bag. And then that is surrounded by clothes on all sides, to absorb any lateral impact.

See how much thought and planning has gone into this? Which is particularly reassuring when the case trundles off on its conveyor belt and immediately falls on its side. When it crashes onto the belt at Heathrow like a dodgem car. When the cab driver slings it into the taxi.

But mirabile dictu, the bottles survived the journey. I am proud, and CJ is jealous. You just need faith, hope and bubblewrap, these three. But the greatest of these is bubblewrap.

What do they taste like? Sorry, taste? Having gone to all that trouble, you don’t expect me to open them yet, do you?

PK

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Berry Bros. & Rudd: My Secret Shame

So PK has been on at me for ages, years, even, about Berry Bros. & Rudd, legendary wine sellers of Piccadilly, established in the seventeenth century, impossibly period retail premises, outrageous client list (Lord Byron, the Aga Khan, Napoleon III, the British Royal Family past and present), superlative knowledge of high-end wines (eight Masters of Wine working for them), history issuing from their eighteenth-century headquarters like an invisible gas, a surprising number of drinkable wines listed online for under a tenner, I mean, he says, why wouldn't anyone get down to 3 St. James's Street, SW1, and have themselves the heritage time of their lives and come away laden with drink? 'Go on' he concludes, 'you know you want to', the phrase he invariably uses for anything I really don't want to do.

How do I know I don't want to? Because I've been past the place plenty of times and everything about it puts me off, apart from the facade and a beetling covered alleyway next door which bears a plaque set on the jamb of its entrance arch: In this building was the legation from the Republic of Texas to the Court of St. James 1842 - 1845. Everything else makes my blood run cold. And yet, just to shut PK up, I will give it a go.

Give it a go is of course a relatively nuanced term. What it means in practice is that I stand at the windows (like the poop of a Napoleonic ship of the line, gnarled and lacquered with centuries of paint), peer inside and see nothing that appears to be a shop. In one part of the building there seems to be a sitting room, recently vacated by Beau Brummel or Queen Mary; in another part there is a Georgian office or counting house, a handful of scriveners seated at desks towards the rear of the space. The window displays contain a handful of sullenly impressive wine bottles, each poised on a single metal stand like a museum exhibit. There are no prices. Apart from the enigmatic bottles in the windows and the legend Wine Merchants in quiet gold lettering, there is nothing to make the uncommitted pedestrian believe that he is in fact passing a wine store. It might as well be an antiques dealer. And although this particular pedestrian knows that he is passing a wine store, he does not stop and go in; he just keeps moving. That's what the place is saying: nothing for you here, nothing you could make sense of.

What makes it worse is the fact that Berry Bros. & Rudd are not alone in this act of deadly hauteur. Next door is a shop owned by Dunhill, for the pleasure of extremely serious cigar enthusiasts. When I peer, hobo-like, through its window, all I see are three expensively-dressed men propping up a counter, talking; in the window it says Cigar Lounge; there is a humidor; I move away.

And on the other side of Berry Bros. are two even greater villains: Lock, the hatters (oldest hatmakers in the world, clients include Lord Nelson, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Kennedy, Winston Churchill) and Lobb the bootmaker (Queen Victoria, Frank Sinatra, Churchill again). Lobb scarcely announce themselves at all, their shopfront bare except for a couple of By Appointments over the doorway and a dusty shelf in the window bearing an assortment of single shoes, apparently dropped there by chance, and an old cardboard box. In other words, I am faced, overall, with about a hundred feet of pure retailing disdain. Why, exactly, am I meant to feel good about this?

Yes, I know that high-end shops like to make themselves inaccessible and I understand that Berry Bros. aren't going to have a chalkboard outside shouting about a supremely chuggable pinot grigio, just to get me in. But there is a limit to the amount of patrician indifference I can put up with, not least because in the modern, disintermediated, world, Amazon (bless them) will supersubtly know what I want almost before I know it myself and silently and efficiently get it to me without my having to do anything more than caress my phone. Just the idea of an antiquated Piccadilly snob shop playing hard to get makes me mad. And a wine shop at that! Where the whole transaction is already rank with elitism, even in a high street outlet! What the hell kind of world are we living in? What the hell kind of world is PK living in? Not for the first time, I tell myself that I must never, ever, act on one of his suggestions again. Only this time I really, really, really mean it.

CJ






Thursday, 15 June 2017

Thursday, 8 June 2017

2014 Chinon: Cold

This week's style icon: James Joyce

CJ turned mulishly aside from his glass. Aversion to the smell of proofing. Messrs Wait & Rose, stockists. Indifferent cellarage, make a pretty profit of it, though.

- Tastes of rubber. Is there something the matter with it?

Outside the late sun freed itself from the clouds, shining dully on Victorian brickwork, London Stock, corporeal entity of Lud's Town.

PK cleared his throat.

- Sure, now, and there's a trick for that fellow. Chinon, it's a bloody mongrel unless you give it a spell in the cooler first. Give it a chance to reflect on its wrongdoings.
- Is that so?

CJ eyed him narrowly, twisting his glassstem by degrees across the deal tabletop: churchchurchchurchchur. Wonder does he drink all he says he does? Old was his mutton and his claret good. Toper's complexion, broadveined map of dissipation, d.t.'s in the fullness of time. She keeps him in line, though. Distaff's duty. Insurance policy. Which reminds me: did I renew? Hell to pay if not. Whole house burned to rubble, conflagration of London Stock, sea of glass mingled with fire, Oh Japes! There'd be some explaining.

- Take it from me, he said, half a day in the boreal, you wouldn't recognise it. In like a lion, out like a lamb. What is it they say about those wines? A thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the Loire? No, that's not it.

Mantling, PK recrossed his legs and plucked from the warp of his workingman's jeans a diminutive trace of lint; after which he folded his hands before him prelatewise. Claretfaced omniscience. A bearded panjandrum, his utterances never cease to amaze. One night only. Finest English wool.

- But you accept my point.
- It's a thing to take into consideration, CJ said. Why don't they advertise it?
- They do. On the bottle.
- Oh, blazes they do. Arp.
- There on the side.

Yes. He fingered the bottle, womanly shoulders, a white elipse, Domaine du Colombier. Refreshing if served lightly chilled. With stilted movements he spoke mutely of his disappointment, a sigh, lethargic. Birds descanted as the evening drew on, the garden outside slowly blackening in the windowpanes. Tremulous birdsong, nightjar, thrush, nightingale. Jug jug to dirty ears. Your heart you sing of. Skeins of nightfall, windingsheet of dark winding the dark world in.

- You have me.
- Like a Beaujolias.
- We could open another bottle. That. Behind you.

Eternal neophyte.

- What? This one? God, a Malbec: γνῶθι σεαυτόν! Did I ever tell you of the time we got lost in Bordeaux trying to find the football game? That was a shennanigan. The looks we got on account of having drink taken. Johnny Frenchman didn't know what to make of us.

PK shook, panting with soft laughter, his greying poll starting up behind. Terrible business! That Frenchie with his eyes like hatpegs at two in the morning. Forth, beste, out of thy stal! And they say we're finished! Three ruffians. No wonder he looked surprised.

- But the food was tip-top. No mistakes there.

Served lightly chilled: a motto for your escutcheon. How, in Latin? Vix gelidus. No, too cold. Like a Cava, icicles forming in the neck. Heat of Iberia. Great admirer of all that, he is. Wouldn't think it to look. Wears a hat on sunny days, aversion to ultraviolet rays is it? Attraction of opposites. German physicist, not Röntgen, X-rays they were, see the skull beneath the skin.

PK wrested the cap clear of the bottle and sentiently admitted half a gill of red wine to his glass, motioning thereafter in convivial dumbshow to CJ, abstracted at the furthest reach of the table. CJ, still frowning, pushed his own glass back across the soiled woodgrain. Tschink. Imperial purple.

- This'll bring tears to your eyes.
- So, in the refridgerator, then?
- It's your only chance. Unless you honestly prefer Caoutchouc de Chinon, that inveterate Gallic prank.
- There's no telling what they won't try, CJ said with forebearance. Mortification, did I pay good money for this?

From the street a motorcar sounded mockingly its horn.

- Confirmation! said PK. The divine afflatus! Oh, that's a good one.

CJ(oyce)