Thursday, 19 April 2018

More Gin

So a couple of our chums were giving us a meal a few weeks ago (I mean, top-flight stuff, fennel and blood orange, salmon, Pouilly Fumé, it's that good) and to start off, we get a gin and tonic. But not just a Weybridge G & T, no, this one is a rhubarb gin, made by Slingsby's of Harrogate and presented in a frosted glass bottle like a bumper of perfume, topped off with fresh Fever-Tree tonic, American-sized ice cubes and slices of a kind of lemon/lime hybrid which I have never encountered before but which looks a bit like a tiny watermelon. We grasp our fabulous, scintillating, very slightly pinkened tumblers and get stuck in. And it is beyond delicious. In fact it seems to be the most delicious drink I have ever drunk. I can't believe how life-enhancing and yet thirst-quenching it is. And it has rhubarb in it. How can this be?

Normally I would worry about a gin with rhubarb in it. There are so many gins, so many craft gins, so many craft gins with stuff in them (cherry and almond, strawberry, orange, rose, honey, pomegranite, sprouts, cornflower, yacht varnish, you name it), all crossing some unhappy conceptual divide between adult tastes and the world of the nursery, that anything resembling them (with rhubarb in it, let's say) sets my alarms ringing. But what do you know? The rhubarb lends tartness to the mix as well as a kind of supernatural earthy fragrance: this is G & T taken to a new level - impeccably served, let's not forget - and I never want to drink anything else. Light, clarity and ebullience fill me from top to toe. It's a revelation.

Of course, gin is always doing this, surprising me with its fabulousness - from the Martinis I made earlier this year (with a gin given me by the rhubarb gin lady, a lady who really understands and appreciates her gins) to my tour round the Sipsmith factory three years ago: it keeps jumping out like an implausibly happy memory. And my response is always to wonder why I don't drink gin for ever after, in all its permutations, and kiss tiresome, unpredictable, overpriced wine goodbye.

So I think for a bit. And then I get it: tragically, I realise that the reason I can't get by on gin alone, is because it doesn't go with food - not that much, anyway. I hate to sound like PK with his endless hypothetical dinner parties and his fine wine appreciations, but there is an issue, here. The only food I can think of, off-hand, that goes well with a brimming G & T is curry - not least because of the colonial overtones. Other than that? I'm open to suggestions, but doubtfully. Also it only really works as a big, sparkling G & T, unless you're making cocktails, but who does that on a Tuesday evening at home? If you want it at room temperature and not long, what else is there but wine?

Oh, but of course: whisky. Whisky! Why didn't I think of this before? It goes long, it goes short, there are all sorts of different styles of whisky, you can take it at any temperature you like, even hot, and it lends itself precisely to the sorts of foods they might traditionally consume in Scotland - beef, salmon, lamb; arguably, raspberries and tayberries. I suppose, porridge. Dundee cake. Haggis for sure - in fact you're meant to pour whisky over the steaming concoction before you start eating it. I even like haggis, which I like to think gives me some perverse currency, somewhere, almost certainly not in Scotland itself. In fact I can't think off-hand of anything I wouldn't drink whisky with, although pasta might be a stretch. Damn! The answer was there all along! Gin and whisky! All right, maybe an occasional beer, because who doesn't like beer? Gin, whisky and beer! The tyranny of the wine rack is a thing of the past! It's 1957 and I'm going to have a party. Just you watch.


Thursday, 12 April 2018

Home Alone

Mrs K is out for the evening, at a musical, which I think avoids the need for any further explanation as to why I have stayed home alone.

So I have choices of both food and wine. On food, I can take the high road, put in some effort, and enjoy the things which Mrs K eschews, such as venison, black pudding and custard, although probably not all at once. Or I can take the low road through quick and easy eating alone options, like fish fingers, pasta with pesto, and ice cream, again probably not all at once. (Although let’s not limit my creative options here; I’ve been watching Masterchef.)

But of course, the real question is on the wine front; and again, it’s whether to take the high road or the low road. Should I enjoy a good wine on my own? Or settle for something mediocre because I’m drinking it by myself?

I have always been wary of the argument that “life’s too short to drink bad wine”. If anything, I have argued that life is too long to drink the good stuff now. That would simply decimate my cellar, and leave me with little to look forward to over the coming years beyond mental and physical decline – incompetence and incontinence.

What about that bottle I have earmarked to celebrate my 70th?  Am I supposed to drink it now, in fear that I may never reach that milestone? And then have nothing worthwhile left to drink if I do?

So when I look at my cellar for solo drinking, my eyes tend to race over the (few) really good bottles. Better to save them for some special event. Cometh the hour, cometh the corkscrew. And while I might get to enjoy twice as much of their contents by drinking them alone, much better to share them, talk about them, enjoy them with someone else.

Drinking alone per se has accrued an image of sad self-destruction, of the drinking into oblivion of Nobby No-mates. But I cling to the belief that there has to be a difference between drinking wine alone, and drinking, say, vodka by yourself. Surely the consideration and appreciation of good wine, even by yourself, is a different matter?

The prohibitionists would make no such distinction. The government measure of drinking by units of alcohol renders all consumption the same, whether it’s white Burgundy or White Lightning. Am I simply clinging to justification by pomposity, like Randy in South Park: “I’m not ‘having a glass of wine’ – I’m having six, it’s called a tasting and it’s classy.”

Surely not. I read what Roger Scruton has written in I Drink Therefore I Am, his Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, about the pleasures of drinking good claret. “Always in good company,” he writes, “which does not, of course, preclude drinking it alone, if your own company reaches the required standard (which, after a glass or two, I find, mine does).”

I am struck by a vision of myself sitting in my armchair, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets in hand, Beethoven’s Op 132 playing in the background. Yes, a bottle of good claret would indeed raise the company in this “evening under lamplight” to my own required standard.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be reached, what with the toll exacted by grilling fish fingers and all. In my hand is more likely to be the television remote. And in the background that classic episode of Grand Designs which they seem to repeat constantly.

(You know, the one they’re always showing, where the build goes on over the winter, and the bloke runs out of money and starts working on it himself, and his wife gets pregnant, and Kevin ends up saying “I was always nervous about this build, but d’you know what, this house made of rice cakes actually works…”)

So it’s a bottle of the rubbish stuff for me. The standard of my cooking, the quality of my own company, the cost of good wine, and the selfishness of solo consumption, all point towards a bottle of the trolley fodder. I reconcile myself to a bottle of Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference. (Mmm, certainly can…)

At least I can pride myself on avoiding the embarrassment of serving it to somebody else. Heaven forbid they might think that I would drink this stuff myself.


Thursday, 5 April 2018


So my old Ma has got these bottles of red wine sitting in one of her dank, mouldering, cupboards, but has no use for them. Since she's been existing for the last few years on a diet of brandy and Pringles with an occasional glass of Echo Falls on special occasions, I feel no shame in taking the reds away for my own consumption. And they look well posh: some Dourthe Montagne Saint-Emilions and some Gérard Bertrand Minervois, both 2015 both getting okay write-ups from the wine-spotters on the internet. How the hell did they end up in my Ma's hideous cupboard? I must have bought them and dragged them over for Christmas lunch, or maybe Easter 2017, whereupon they weren't drunk.

Only snag: they're standing up. How long has this been the case? Last time I thought to look I could have sworn they were lying down, in a midget bent-metal wine rack dating back to the 1970s. Somehow they've been translated into the vertical, possibly by my Ma's Stakhanovite cleaning lady, probably not by my Ma herself who can barely get out of her chair. But when? Fear very slightly eats my soul: how much difference is it going to make to these nob wines that they're been pointing upwards?

Of course I get them home and forget about this tiny agony, preferring to gaze on their handsome bottlings and their sleek red capsules among my usual dead man's screwtops and telling myself that when the time comes to drink these wines, I'm going to be living the good life.

Not so, as it happens. First time I get stuck into the Dourthe Saint-Emilion, it tastes of insoles, quite clearly - only I refuse to believe the evidence of my mouth and keep determinedly drinking as if I've been told it'll do me good. After a bit I can't separate my lips on account of the pucker and even I have to conclude that something's wrong. I'm forced to tip the rest away at the same time telling myself that it's a rogue and that the next will be fine. Next bottle, some days later, is one of the Minervois. Not as much deep cack as the Saint-Emilion, but, you know, it too has a wrongness about it that I can't rationalise away. No. 2 son has given me for Christmas a rather excellent wine aerator which has had some success moderating my usual gutbucket stuff, so I force the Minervois through it in the hope of shaming it into good behaviour. And, yes, maybe it's a tiny bit less undrinkable; or maybe it's wishful thinking.

Either way, the next bottle of Saint-Emilion only goes to show that, no, it wasn't a one-off and the whole lot (four bottles, I might add) is probably on the fritz. Same for the Minervois, I'm guessing, although for some reason I'm consoled by presence of a Vizigoth Cross on the label; I mean, it looks as if it really might intercede on my behalf in some way.

But then again, how long can you leave a bottle of wine upright? Internet wisdom has it at a few weeks, not much more - although there seem to be plenty of contrarians who argue that it's okay to leave a bottle upright for years and that all fears are baseless. And once, years ago, we opened a magnum of Moët & Chandon which had been standing tall in an overheated room for ages and it was quite drinkable. In other words, the Minverois and the Saint-Emilion might well have been buggered by storage; or they might not. But if not, why are they so awful? I know my sense of taste is arbitrary at the best of times, but I don't think I'm that bad at knowing what's poison and what's not. I don't think I'm choking and spitting on anything really decent. Which means that - in this case - it only takes a month or so of verticality to make a hash of quite a few quid's worth of drink: a notion which I find slightly disturbing, given my tendency to acquire and then forget almost anything that comes in a bottle. Unless, of course, I just stick to spirits, which can take any amount of punishment: a drinking programme, in other words, for the progressively senile. Like my Ma.


Thursday, 29 March 2018

Another Fine Mess…

My local Sainsbury seems to have abandoned its “Fine Wine” cabinet. They previously used this wood-effect shelving unit, which fooled no-one, to segregate their supposedly “Fine Wine” (ie anything costing above about thirteen quid) from whatever you call the other wine.

There are, however, no special cabinets for fine beans or superior sausages; and tubs of posh organic ice-cream sit contentedly in one freezer cabinet alongside extruded vanilla-flavoured gloop. Now it looks as if the “Fine Wine” has lost its First Class compartment, and will have to jostle for unreserved accommodation with the Off Peak night-in riff-raff.

But was the presence of “Fine Wine” in a supermarket ever really credible? Was it akin to finding a cabinet in Poundland labelled “Precious Stones”?

“Fine Wine” was once something to which I aspired. The finer things in life – what are they, I pondered? Well, here was one thing which was bold enough to actually declare its superiority, like fine china. Surely it would be a mark of achievement when I could eventually understand, appreciate and indeed afford “Fine Wine”?

And one day, I might join the gilded society of those who can stand with their trolley before the “Fine Wine” shelving, flaunting their wealth and refinement, and eschewing those like CJ who stare in bafflement and penury at the “other” wines.

But now, the phrase has a tawdry feel to it. “Fine Wine” is something which appears in news reports about fraudsters and expense account fiddlers. The nouveau riche lifestyle of crooks and ne’er-do-wells always seems to involve spending on exotic holidays, fast cars and “fine wines”.

And that’s not because those crooks’ palates have suddenly developed, or that they’ve now grasped the basics of the 1855 Bordeaux classification – it’s because “fine wine” has simply become promotional shorthand for “expensive wine”.

No wonder shops have been so keen to tempt us with it. Retailers like Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Majestic have seen that the way to make more expensive wine appealing is to call it “fine” – and to present it, not on their regular, white, metal-supported, wipe-clean shelving, but in a special wooden (or wooden-effect) section.

Because everyone knows that “fine wine” comes in wooden cases and not cardboard boxes, and is sold in dusty old, pre-industrial wine merchants, not efficient modern stores. So surround your wine with wood, whether it’s shelving, cases, worn floorboards or wood panelling, and it magically becomes “fine”.

“Majestic are the specialists when it comes to fine wine,” I read, a claim which might carry more weight had it not been made by Majestic. “Most of our stores have dedicated fine wine shelving…” It’s as if the shelves themselves confer status.

Of course, “fine wine” has no precise definition. You can stick the adjective “fine” in front of any wine, just as you can append credibility (and a higher price tag) by waving the word “vintage” in front of an unpleasant old tie.

I once thought “fine wine” was about issues like complexity, or balance, or ability to age. Or heritage, behind a label which had earnt its stripes over centuries of excellence. But then along comes some jumped-up New World product, with its perfect varietal simplicity, tiny output, long waiting list and huge price tag, and bingo, that’s “fine” too.

Then there is the abuse of the term “fine” itself, as in “fine dining”. This has now become the Masterchef criterion, to meet which food is sculpted, tweezered and coiffed into absurdity, the basis for judgments such as “I’m afraid in fine dining, those peas would be peeled…”.

On the Mr Porter designer menswear site, you can’t buy watches – only Fine Watches.  And people like the “fine wine and spirits boutique” Hedonism don’t have a Fine Wine list at all; they presumably wish us to believe that all of their wine is fine.

So wine joins a world of marketing in which certain adjectives become permanently, pointlessly attached; where all wines are “fine”, all apartments are “luxury”, and all labels “designer”, even when contradicted by common sense. (A fine wine for £10? A luxury apartment in Peckham?)

We’re back in the land of the nouveau riche, where merit is purely a function of price. Except that with “fine wine”, that also seems completely arbitrary. At Majestic, the “fine wine” selection begins at £17.99; but at Waitrose Cellar it’s £11.99, and at the Wine Society it’s just £10.50.

Wine is a field in which many descriptions – geographic, varietal, etc – are regulated and precise. Yet the only commonly recognised description of quality has been abused to the point of worthlessness. Perhaps more retailers should simply abandon it, and let expensive wines compete on their merit alongside the cheaper ones?

Which would be just fine.


Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (10): Black Tower

So, guys, what do we make of the Black Tower reboot? Clear bottles? Half black half clear? Upscale imagery? No crackle finish? Softened typeface? Clive? Does it do it for you? I know, I know. It was a real thing, back in the day, of course, it had presence, right? Exactly. It looked like a thing. Like a what? Say again, Pyotr? It was like piece of an exhaust pipe? On a car? It was, wasn't it? Like part of the silencer, maybe. Or the catalytic converter? I don't know, Clive, is that what they look like? I thought they looked like boxes. But you're right, a big black bottle that didn't look like a bottle of wine. So cool. Pyotr? It looked like something you could throw, exactly, a missile. What would you throw it at? A shop window? Really? You'd throw it at a vegan wholefood store? Don't say that in front of Morwenna. He's kidding, Morwenna. No, seriously. I'm practically a vegan myself. You know that. Or an explosive device? Mm. Clive? Like something the Nazis would have used in World War Two? Yeah, I guess. Tell you, there was a word going round, couple of years back, they were going to up the Germanic. Heavy up the typeface, really scary black tower, and they were going to rebrand it as Der Schwarze Turm. That's what I heard. Exactly! Standout on the wine rack! Iconic! Really menacing! No, Clive, they weren't going to use the SS flash insignia, fuck's sake. Tell you what I would have done, though. I would have gone down the whole Seventies kitsch thing. Heyday. Seventies. Ford Capri, yeah, rubber plants, flares, James Last, lasagne, exactly. Total retro, niche, but so niche. And Peter Wyngarde! What do you mean, Peter who? YouTube the shit out of him, Morwenna. Wyngarde or Jason King, face hair, gappy teeth, velvet three-piece. He's the bomb. Totally off the chain. I would so have him upfront, the face of Black Tower. Is he still alive? Oh. Had to be, I guess. Anyway, that's my dream, but no, they've gone beige, Easy ends the day, that's the strap. I mean, is that really a thing? Get pissed, it's gone six o'clock, I mean is that a narrative? Oh, oh, it is. Okay, guys, you're ahead of me. But - and you probably know this - the weirdness is that at the same time, same time as they're saying Get pissed, depressed lady, they've gone in with this Tough Mudder outfit as wine partner. Anyone know anything about Tough Mudder? Yeah, it's some kind of assault course thing you do for fun. Yeah, seriously. I don't know, has anyone been on it? I think you crawl through mud and jump over walls and beat yourself up like you're in the Marines, only you pay to do it. Seriously. Yeah, it's a big thing. So you do that and at the end you have a glass of Black Tower. So it's like Black Tower is suddenly the 4 x 4 of white wines, like a Toyota Land Cruiser. It's like a total Man Wine. It's called Tough Mudders cause of the mud, Clive. What? It's like saying Mothers in a New Jersey accent? Mudders? Mudderfuckers? Clive. Morwenna, he's just being obvious. Okay? So, anyway, all that taken together, what do we think? I mean, you know, Blue Nun, they tried a reboot on that, I don't think it's going that great, to be honest, but Black Tower? New Black Tower? You think it's got traction? Maybe. Say again, Pyotr? Have I ever drunk Black Tower? Hahahahahahahahaha. Have I ever drunk Black Tower? Seriously?


Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (9): Blue Nun

Hard as it may be to understand now, this was once the definitive taste of white wine in the UK. If today it is Sauvignon Blanc, and yesterday it was Chardonnay, back in the 1970s the popular white wine was sweet and German.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Kingsley Amis in 1972, on serving white wine at home: “My advice would be to stick to hocks and moselles, which everybody likes, and avoid white burgundies.”

Back then, as Hugh Johnson recalls, "no great dinner could begin without its Mosel … or Rhine Spatlese." And not just “begin”; Blue Nun’s marketing slogan was “right through the meal”, aimed at allaying any anxiety that we novice drinkers might have about the correct order of wines. So it was Blue Nun throughout, even if your starter was carpaccio, your main course steak and you finished with Stilton. You could, according to another ad, confidently ask for “Blue Nun and the menu”.

Let’s briefly scamper through the history of Blue Nun. It was created by Hermann Sichel following the “famous 1921 vintage”. Why a nun? Well, “liebfraumilch” (which it was) is a medieval term that describes the "milk" from the convents and monasteries in the Rhine Valley. Turn that into marketing speak, as a Blue Nun representative did years later, and you could claim that "The monks and nuns of the Middle Ages knew how beneficial a glass of good wine was for the harmony of mind and body."

And why Blue? It’s possible it was a printer’s error; legend says that it was meant to be the brown of a traditional nun’s habit, until a printer misread “brau” as “blau” in Sichel’s handwriting. Or perhaps one of them was smart enough to realise that it would sound rather more appealing than having a Brown’un.

It was certainly one of the first examples of a smart branding exercise. For as Kingsley Amis also observed, “Whatever the men in the know may say, a German wine label is a fearful thing to decipher.” And that’s from a chap familiar with Welsh railway stations. The success of Blue Nun and other subsequent branded German wines, like Black Tower and Goldener Oktober, with a generation of novice wine drinkers, lay in the approachability of their names as much as that of their taste.

The complications of language and labelling were just part of an eventual triple whammy on German wine. It’s hard to be a popular success if ordinary folk can’t understand or pronounce the words on your bottle. And for a generation raised on Commando comics, German wines sounded a little too much like barked instructions to present your papers.

Then there were adulteration scandals, just as we were becoming aware of a world of alternative wines beyond Germany and France. And there was also an inevitable progression, like teenagers who begin drinking Southern Comfort and end up enjoying Chablis, away from those sweeter flavours. Today in
that barometer of middle-class English taste, my local Waitrose, they have labelled sections for wines from virtually every country in the world – but not Germany.

Blue Nun was sold in 1996 – and you can find reports of a “makeover” in 1998; a “resurrection” in 2001; a “reinvention” in 2010.  The nun herself was transformed over the years, from the one I found disturbingly come-hither in my youth, through a drawing with a Florence Nightingale vibe, to the shallow designer motif of today.

And in 1997, they introduced a blue bottle. Well of course they did. A distinctive bottle is a sure-fire sign of a wine sold by marketers rather than winemakers. 

I would employ the adjective “hideous”, but this blue bottle is inevitably described as “iconic” by Blue Nun’s marketing people, who wouldn’t know an icon if it came up and bit them in Constantinople.

And how do those marketers now position their product? “Whether you like to enjoy your Blue Nun wine after shopping, for dinner, getting ready for a girls night out, or staying in with your friends, Blue Nun goes with every occasion,” they say. Well, when I get ready for a girls night out, it’s by checking that Mrs K is taking her keys.

Ignoring their clumsy hints at gender targeting, if Blue Nun goes with every occasion perhaps I could work it into the bin routine on a Tuesday night. And I quite like the idea of a glass after shopping, especially if Sainsbury’s car park has been a bit challenging.

And when it’s time to move up to more sophisticated things, Blue Nun now produce other varieties, including a Gold Edition sparkling version containing flakes of 22 carat gold leaf, which presumably provides potentially rich pickings for your dental hygienist.

Unnoticed amid all this loss of dignity, they changed the actual blend of Blue Nun itself, to become less sugary, and redefined it as a Rheinhessen Qualitatswein, rather than the currently scorned Liebfraumilch. But it was too late. By the turn of the millennium, according to their website, Blue Nun had become “the best distributed German wine in the world.” You somehow know a brand is in trouble when their claim to fame is that their lorries are better than yours.

Ironically, despite that famed distribution, Blue Nun is incredibly hard to find in the UK. On the Blue Nun website, you can choose countries from Norway to Korea, but not Germany itself, who presumably get it “distributed” out of their own borders asap. But after visiting numerous off-licences, convenience stores, and a succession of grim, bunkerlike supermarkets, I only saw one of their “varieties” on a UK shelf, and not Blue Nun itself. Of course it’s online, should you wish to order an entire case. But once you’re online, I find it’s surprisingly easy to search for and order something else instead.

In 2001, its brand manager said "We are trying to get back to the situation when Blue Nun was a must-have item, high up on The Ritz wine-list." In that, they have failed.


Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (8): Martini

Martini is a mystery. It's one of the most familiar brands in the world, it's given its name to the most famous of all cocktail drinks, for some of us it still rings a distant answering bell as the quintessence of a certain kind of Eurotrash High Life, but how often have I ever drunk the stuff? How often have you? I mean, it's culturally ubiquitous but at the same time invisible. Just last weekend I made some - though I say so myself - killer Dry Martinis. The gin was Silent Pool (terrific) and the vermouth was Dolin (ditto). Plus a twist of lemon, not an olive, that's the way I roll. But not a drop of actual Martini. Maybe I should have announced these beverages as old-fashioned Gin & Frenchies but does anyone do that these days? And why do I feel no compunction at all about not using original Martini vermouth?

A five-minute trawl of Google reveals not much about the business behind the drink - Martini & Rossi - except the unsurprising truth that Martini began as an Italian vermouth company in the mid-nineteenth century, reaching the New York market in the late 1860s. The first Dry Martini cocktail arrived, probably in New York, at the start of the twentieth century - although the drink's name may actually be a corruption of Martinez, the guy who first mixed gin and vermouth together. Since then, interest has mostly swirled around the exact ratio of vermouth to gin, plus whatever interventions (brine for a Dirty Martini; olive or twist; vermouth mixtures, like two-stroke petrol; ice or no ice) the mixer may or may not be keen on. I am not much better off for knowing this.

So I go out and buy a whole litre of the stuff, in a blousy screwtop bottle slathered in Martini-isms and try it out. I know I've drunk it before, somewhere, but a kind of guilt obliges me to get the taste authentically, here and now. It's the Bianco, the one you're supposed to take long, with a mixer, or as it comes, with a lump of ice. I pick the latter, try and few mouthfuls and, yes, there are botanicals swirling around, plus an aromatic headiness, not necessarily in a good way, more like stale perfume on a cashmere sweater, but I suppose there might be times when that's the experience I might crave, plus a tough terminal coating on the back teeth. The label suggests drinking it long with tonic water but it's already sticky and sugary enough as it is and anyway, if I want to drink Sprite, I can. And now I have 90cl of Martini Bianco bulging away on the liquor tray and I can foresee the awful stuff going with me to the grave, endlessly undrunk, brassily insistent, and I paid £10 for it, on offer.

So it's not the taste and it never has been the taste. Which only leaves one thing to account for its bothersome presence in my mind and indeed in the mind of PK and others of our generation: the adverts. You know what I'm talking about, they're all over YouTube, It's the left's the right's Martini, we used to sing, back in the Seventies. Somehow these ads appropriated a particular iconography all for themselves - the Mediterranean sunlight, the fancy blondes, the fast cars, the megalithic tumblers chinking in close-up, the James Hunt costumed morons leering at the controls of a speedboat, the promise of a brown fortified wine to set your day straight. No-one else came close. And when this cataclysm of kitsch wasn't blaring at us in the cinemas we had it silently reproduced in full-colour magazine ads, a kind of top-up before the next time we went out to watch Diamonds Are Forever or Shaft. And yet - adverts and motor racing sponsorship: is that really all it came down to?

The answer has to be yes: so far as I can see, no encounter with basic, raw, Martini is ever going to be anything other than puzzling and inconsequential. Trouble is, I can't think of anything else - even allowing for the intercessions of time and senility - whose essence has been so mediated by the publicity that went with it - that exists, basically, as a thing advertised rather than as a thing. David Bowie? National Savings Certifcates? NATO? Fondue? Quadrophonic hi-fi? Any time, any place, anywhere...There's a wonderful world you can share... I'm wondering, could we just leave it at that? Keep these imperishable sentiments without having to tangle with the vermouth? On this occasion, isn't the advertising the thing with the real value?


Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (7): Paul Masson

There’s one thing which people particularly remember about Paul Masson wine, and it’s not the flavour, or the advertising, or the fact it was American. It’s that it came in a carafe.

Were we once really naïve enough in our wine drinking to find wine which came in a carafe more appealing than wine which came in a bottle? Did we believe that wine from a carafe was somehow more authentic? And as we grasped and hoisted it by the neck, just like a real carafe full of really decanted wine in a real “continental” restaurant, did we feel somehow more authentic?

Visit any student’s room in the late 1970s, and you’d see an empty Paul Masson carafe sitting on a shelf. Perhaps it was waiting to be used as a flower vase – of which, as they used to say, there were two chances: fat, and slim. Perhaps it was waiting to be reused as a carafe, in the unlikely circumstance that one would buy either a wine so good that it needed decanting, or a wine so bad that one wanted to pretend it was Paul Masson.

Or perhaps, without displaying the serried empty bottles of a dipsomaniac, we simply wanted to tell visitors that hey, I’m one of these new, cosmopolitan, worldly young Brits you’ve been hearing about – who drink wine.

The fact that this wine was American almost passed us by. For one thing, in those days, producers could throw around French terms like Burgundy and Champagne with impunity, so we didn’t really know what it was that we were drinking. A Rare Premium California Burgundy? If you say so… 

And also, the brand played itself off against Europe in its marketing. “Paul Masson is America’s best-selling premium wine in Europe,” ran one ad. “And you can’t fool Europeans about wine.” Well, back then you could stick wine in a carafe, and pretend that it’s the sort of thing served to a table in a continental café, and you could certainly fool us.

But they mainly used another, more famous advertising slogan: Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time. Was this really such a selling point? Just where exactly was all this immature wine we were being threatened with? Would we even have recognised immature wine if someone had sold it?

Paul Masson used Orson Welles in their advertising, a man whose girth was rapidly increasing in inverse relation to his reputation. In those days, tasting notes appear to have been refreshingly basic, but even so they were ripe for a sort of “cut through the bullshit” ad campaign. “Experts say Paul Masson Cabernet Sauvignon is a mature, complex wine with nice wood”, said Orson. (Perhaps “nice wood” is not a choice of words one would use today.) 

“What they’re trying to say is…it tastes good.”

Orson was eventually relieved of his duties, leaving behind an immensely entertaining outtake of one of his TV ads,  showing what happened when too much of Mr Masson’s product had been consumed. Or had it? One story is that Orson was abruptly fired for admitting on a chat show that he never actually drank their wine. But an account executive contended that Welles was dropped when Paul Masson introduced ''light'' wines: ''Obviously, that would not be appropriate.''

He was replaced by John Gielgud, repeating his role as a disdainful butler from the movie success, Arthur. Sir John took a $1 million fee, on condition that the ads would not be shown in Britain, a condition which YouTube now entertainingly flaunts. Gielgud is quoted as finding the filming sessions “exhausting and somewhat humiliating”; but the great actor said that in addition to the colossal fee, he found further compensation in the way that the Paul Masson agency paid “full attention to my comforts in the way of limousines, suites at the Savoy, flowers and cigarettes provided!”

Astonishingly to me, I could still find Paul Masson wines in their carafes today. Not in a suite at the Savoy, no, but in a convenience store in Hammersmith. The carafe used to have an embossed glass seal on the shoulder, presumably dropped as being too expensive now, but which reduced the container’s distressing similarity to a bottle for a medical sample. (This was particularly important with the white wine.) And the carafe seems somehow cruder, thinner, cheaper than I recall; I found myself tapping it with a finger to check that it is still, actually, glass.

The simplicity of the formerly oval, type-only label has also been replaced, with an awkward, assymetric job bearing an image of the original Paul Masson winery, where the wine is no longer produced. And there’s a plastic lid which you push off with your thumbs, and can pop back on. Am I alone in remembering a tear-off foil seal? I certainly can’t recall any resealing requirement back in the day…

The wine itself initially has the nose of a decent, fruity Pinot Noir. Hello, I thought. But that fades rapidly, and a taste of bitter cherries tips over into plain bitterness, a sort of wrestle between liquorice and a chewed aspirin. 

But the most disturbing aspect? It stained the carafe. It stained the carafe!! I don’t know whether to blame the wine, or the carafe, but… Yes, my liver’s suffered a bit of wear and tear, but can I let you know if it actually needs redecorating?

Once, it was as if there was another, wonderfully stylish world of carafes and the like waiting somewhere across the English Channel. Forty Years On – and we are so sophisticated, so continental ourselves, that “a carafe of red” is a routine offer in UK restaurants. But hopefully, it will not bear a Paul Masson label.


Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (6): Nicolas

Was Nicolas the first wine I ever drank? Could well be. It appeared at the family dining table four? five? decades ago and I was encouraged, in the French manner, to try it with water, half-and-half, as a way of developing a taste for wine without becoming a dipsomaniac before I'd even reached my teens. It's horrible, of course, red wine and London tapwater, but I went through with it because if that's what the French did, then it was not only the right thing to do, but the right Gallic thing, like the subjunctive mood. I wanted to be cool enough to be French, was what it came down to.

I still don't really know who or what Nicolas Wines is or are. They started in Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century - this much they claim on one of their websites - and were bottlers and distributors of their own brands as well as being merchants for other people's wines. Which makes them sound like one among thousands of others. The only difference being that in Britain, or at least in our morose trench of the North London suburbs, they were France itself, a metonymy which drove us wild over the roast beef and two veg when their product started to make its presence felt at mealtimes.

How did we know that Nicolas encapsulated the entirety of everyday French culture? Because the ads told us so. The Sunday supplements - in themselves an invitation to a new world of heightened awarenesses - ran these full-pagers depicting what looked like a Parisian milk float doing the rounds of an arrondissement - only instead of milk from the Unigate Dairy, it was delivering a litre or two of Nicolas, the stuff which, it seemed, kept every Parisian household en forme for the rest of the day. Nicolas' Vin de Table or Vin Ordinaire - terms which have tragically more or less vanished from the world of wine drinking - thereby combined the idea of wine - a costly, hedonistic rarity for most Brits - with quotidian necessity in a way which we'd read about or seen in the movies, but had scarcely, if ever, encountered. It was breathtaking in its relaxed, winey, maturity. Better yet, it was authentic in a way the other competition for our minds and stomachs - Blue Nun, Mateus Rosé, Goldener Oktober - could never manage. It even had a plastic bung rather than a cork: that's how real it was.

But then, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, France still had a stranglehold on the theory and practice of the good life. Any Gallicism you could think of was a glimpse of better things: savoir-vivre, couture, insouciance, crème de la crème, liaison, tendresse, Belle Époque, entre nous, avant-garde, chic, soigné; I could go on. A scant twenty miles across the Channel, the French were so different, so highly-developed, that the Lyons (as in Joe Lyons) coffee company actually advertised, in British publications, its fresh ground standard roast with the words Une recette qu'on ne trouve pas dans les livres de cuisine, a sentence now impenetrable to almost everyone. At the same time, French cinema still mattered, the true haute couture was French, gastronomy took its cues from French haute cuisine, the Citroën DS was still in production, the South of France was home to Picasso and Chagall, and Francis Poulenc had only recently died, in Paris. Nicolas was an ambassador, in its way, to all this. Did it even matter what it tasted like?

All of which would be fine, except for one problem. I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I haven't remembered more than there was to remember: that I'm indulging a false memory. For a start, can can you still get Nicolas? In this country? Well, yes, there are still Nicolas shops, but the things they sell under their own name are generic-looking Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs and Côtes du Rhônes, nothing to shout about, no sign of the big old bottles with the plastic bungs. Nor can I find any evidence of the advert which changed my life - the one with the wine float trawling the backstreets of the arrondissement. I've got one (see above) which ticks some of the right boxes, but it's not the wine float, it's just a bottle and a Duralex and a newspaper. And a piece of baguette. Which is good, but beyond that? Added to which, no-one I have mentioned the imperishable late Sixties Nicolas to, has anything like the same recollections of it, if any.

My memory is an undependable ally at the best of times and it's starting to look as if my whole wine-drinking life may be premised on an initial lie. Which then raises the question: do I prefer the lie to whatever the truth may actually be? How much do I want to cling on to this misapprehension? On this occasion, I think I'm going to have to say quite a lot.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (5): Beaujolais Nouveau

What on earth was all that about?

It was 1979, and I was in my first job, working on a magazine based in Soho, and trying hard to prove my credentials. So I was quick to go along when, one Thursday morning in November, not long after we had actually started work for the day, it was announced that we were all going out for a glass of the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Just around the corner, at a wine bar draped with tricolor bunting, there were people dressed like cartoon Frenchmen, in hooped jerseys and berets, serving a red wine to crowds of office workers who were spilling out on to the pavements. I had never seen so many people publicly drinking wine. And even to someone experienced in PBAB student party wine, this wine was peculiarly bad; but that seemed to be neither here nor there.

Because this wasn’t really about the wine itself, or even about the ridiculous ways people were racing to bring it over from France. It was the fact that Brits who rarely tasted wine otherwise would leave their offices in mid-morning, and go out together, to pay over the odds to drink this red wine. And not a delicious, can’t-possibly-wait-for-it red wine, but this particular, proudly immature wine, the tasting equivalent of consuming cake mix, rather than cake.

What on earth was going on? Bear with me on this one.

There’s a perfectly valid tradition behind the drinking of Beaujolais Nouveau – in Beaujolais itself. Back in the 18th century, the emergence of a fresh, new vintage, even if it was still fermenting in the barrels, was cause for a celebration, with the locals downing some of the barely-drinkable wine on the day of its release in November. 

This eccentric ritual only began to gain wider recognition during World War II, when journalists and exiles fled the occupation of Paris for the Vichy-governed and Beaujolais-drinking “free zone” around Lyon. There, they naturally joined in with the local celebration, and when they returned to Paris looked to continue the tradition; it was an excuse to raise a glass of wine on a drab day in early winter, and to swap tales of the Occupation. So Parisian cafés began to post notices on their windows, to announce by mid-morning of its release that “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé”.

In 1970, dining in Beaujeu the night before that release, were Joseph Berkmann, restaurateur and vintner, and Clement Freud, lugubrious politician and gourmand. Each of them argued that they would be able to drive their bottles back to London before the other. And so as midnight passed and the wine was released, they set off.

It wasn’t that much of a race, since both of them had to catch the same early morning ferry back across the Channel. But Berkmann won, largely because he was better at beating London’s rush hour traffic. The following year, Berkmann won again; and with word of their little competition spreading through their respective wine columns, Berkmann won for a third and final time in 1972.

But then a journalist offered in The Sunday Times the modest prize of a bottle of Champagne for the first person to bring a bottle of the next Beaujolais Nouveau to his desk. And the Race was on.

Like many British sporting endeavours, the aim of actually winning was soon to be ignored by participants more interested in entertainment. Increasingly absurd methods were used to bring the bottles back to Britain. Parachutists, fire engines, hot-air balloons, motorised bathtubs and the rest created a circus of publicity, which reached even those completely ignorant of wine – ie the majority of the British population.

Who would be able to drink the first bottles in Britain? Bizarrely, it seemed important at the time. There was an air of triumph, as if the wine had been somehow wrested from the French before they could drink it themselves.

It was the most enormous boost for the newly burgeoning wine bars. With many pubs still not serving wine, here was an ideal reason to visit Champers, and Corks, and all the other poorly-named wine bars then springing up around the UK. Yes, the wine was thin, harsh and, because of a particular yeast used to hasten the production of so much early wine, often contained the unlikely flavours of bananas or bubble-gum. But the taste was easily dismissed as the price of drinking the vintage so young. For some, the poor taste was part of the fun.

The race itself quickly collapsed. The French had always had a somewhat laissez faire attitude towards drink driving, but even they could not condone a widely-publicised road race through the night by hordes of Beaujolais-fuelled Brits. The French police cracked down and the press had to stop promoting it as a race.

But we Brits continued to drink the now efficiently delivered wine. The producers couldn’t believe it. In 1983 The Times reported on the arrival of a staggering five million bottles in Britain in time for breakfast. At its peak, over 64% of the entire output of Beaujolais would be sold early as Nouveau.

What could possibly burst such an entertaining and lucrative bubble? Ironically, it was the very growth of interest in wine itself.

Once, France was considered the be-all and end-all of wine, and the suggestion of a new French vintage might have carried an almost mystical significance. But by the late Eighties, there were decent wines increasingly available from all over the world. So the French had a new vintage – so what?

Not only did blended New World wines not even have a vintage – but they were consistently drinkable. What, really, was the point in overspending on a thin, immature French wine, when there were now thoroughly drinkable Australians or South Americans available?

Sales began to fall. In 1990, several big wine retailers decided not to sell their own Nouveau. And from the 13 varieties available in 1986, there is generally only one sold in the UK today.

A vintage or two back, I tried the Nouveau for old times’ sake. It was hard to find; the occasion is largely ignored now by actual wine merchants, and by wine bars keen to retain their hard-won reputation for connoisseurship. But I found a desultory display in one supermarket. It’s still pretty nasty; its thin colour and spritely nose lead on to a real collision in the mouth between a tart body and that notorious bubblegum fruitiness on top. Perhaps if you had a single quick glass, from a bottle shared with friends, it might be tolerable, but its fruit evaporates quickly to leave a ghostly, inky-flavoured wine. Nowadays, we expect more.

Beaujolais Nouveau could, I suppose, have put me off wine drinking for life. But in fact, it emphasised for me the importance of conviviality, and drinking together, in enjoyment of wine. That enjoyment has moved on to rather more mature tastes – which leaves Beaujolais Nouveau as something of a curiosity, sought out by nostalgists, its taste tolerated like that of a childhood cough mixture, as a transport to the past.


Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (4): Sanatogen

So what with one thing and another, I've been feeling a bit peaky. You know, colds and flu, the world situation, they get you down. And I thought, Well, I've tried almost everything except prayer, so I might as well have a glass of tonic wine - Sanatogen Original Tonic Wine, to be specfic, £6.25 for 70cl from Tesco. Sanatogen is one of those products whose essential redundancy has never stood between it and market share: it's one of the last of the great Tonic Wines, a drink which may or may not do you any good ('The name Tonic Wine does not imply health giving or medicinal properties' it announces darkly on the label) but which is 15% by volume and has a handy screw top for those really bleak moments.

In its heyday, of course, it was aimed at emotionally depleted British housewives who found themselves having difficulty with the modern world ('...all you have is an empty house. And the same dull round of household tasks...') or the business of child-rearing (' wears you out. And your husband wonders what's wrong with you!') or anything, in fact; and who needed a jolt of something to get through the day ('In no time at all you should feel your old self again'). Nowadays, half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc would do the trick, but fifty years ago, Sanatogen, or Wincarnis, or Buckfast Tonic Wine ('When everything's an effort'), or, even further back in the catacombs of self-medication, Phosferine ('Absolutely fit - Depression Banished'), Vibrona, or Winox ('40% richer than ordinary Tonic Wines in flesh-forming properties'), were the admissible routes to a more balanced worldview. Occasionally, the ads went as far as showing a picture of a doctor, or at least someone you might mistake for a doctor. So you knew you were in good hands.

What next? Feeling increasingly starved of essential get-up-and-go, I take my Sanatogen bottle, pour a decent couple of fingers, take a swig. Basically? Basically, cough mixture without the unctuous syrupy delivery. A horrible, horrible drink, really distressingly ghastly. Fruit Gums and silver polish; old rainwater, dental disclosing tablets, aftershave, granulated sugar; woodstain. I should spike PK's glass with it one day, it's that bad. And I have no way of knowing what's in it - imported grape juice is all the label admits to, but no sense of the mystery ingredients which transform it from a kind of Ribena into a full-blown 15% health drink. And what is its relationship with Sanatogen health tablets, invented by the Bauer company at the start of the Twentieth Century? Accolade Wines it says on the back, but no mention of the tabloid pick-me-up sold as much to men (Edgy Hubby - Your Chemist Understands) as to women, back in the day. It's an enigma.

All right then: in the dark as to what I've just consumed, do I feel any healthier or less depressed after I've made myself retch through a whole glassful? No. I feel queasy and miserable, not least because I now realise that not only can I not drink Sanatogen Tonic Wine on its own terms, I can't even stick it in a casserole or sauce or what have you, not unless the recipe calls for something sugary and emetic, the colour of a bloodshot eye.

Time passes, though (doesn't it always? And so fast, when you get to a certain age) and I can begin to see, in a larger, non-drinkable sense, some kind of justification for its existence: it's a living fossil, a reminder of a time when the British were still worried enough about wine - real wine, this is - to have to disguise it as something else. Not, obviously, that this is wine, but, like Babycham, it has enough of the characteristics of wine to allow it into that conceptual realm. The bottle looks a tiny bit like a bottle of wine, its contents are sort of wine-coloured, it's definitely not tea or coffee, and, best of all, it's got alcohol in it, that sovereign restorative which dulls the pain of existence just long enough for you to feel regret afterwards. In this guise, it conjures up a lost world of suburban evasions and bitter falsehoods, a place where sensual pleasures were borderline pathological, where certain kinds of self-indulgence had to be mediated by, say, the medical profession - a place where cough mixture met desire and everything was forgiven.

It also, given its original bias towards an unhappy female market, talks specifically of the oppressions of post-War women, stuck in an environment of routine and hobbled expectations, unable to self-actualise like their brainless husbands and forced, instead, to hit the bottle and shut up. It's not good. A patronising man doctor chides you gently about your consitutional emotional frailty? Sanatogen; or Wincarnis; or Vibrona: they'll put a stop to all your nonsense. As, indeed, they seem to have put a stop to mine.