The Wild Bunch by Patrick Matthews

This is the second half of an article that appeared in Slightly Foxed magazine last year. Click on Lynch’s book for the first part.

Kermit Lynch’s book, Adventures on the Wine Route, surveys a depressing 1980s landscape of French producers cashing in their birthright and homogenising their wines for the international market. Patrick Matthew’s 1997 book, The Wild Bunch: Great Wine from Small Producers, is about the fight back. He surveys small producers not just in France but around the world willing to take risks to make distinctive wines. It would be hard to think of characters less alike that Lynch and Matthews. Patrick Matthews is diffident, mischievous and not nearly as knowledgeable or sure of himself. This counts in his favour as one feels that Matthews is learning as he goes along and bringing the reader with him. That’s not to say that he is a beginner but where his knowledge is lacking, he doesn’t gloss over his ignorance in waffle or superfluous technical details, he makes it an asset. Endearingly, he even gets drunk at a wine tasting (something one cannot imagine Lynch ever doing) and argues with a buyer for a supermarket.

Matthews was not part of the wine establishment. I’m pretty sure that he was never invited out to Bordeaux to taste the new vintage. In the Wild Bunch he was looking to challenge received opinion but unlike some other self-styled ‘outsiders’ he never comes across as chippy. Take the vexed matter of scoring wines for example something that Lynch abhors. Instead of decrying it Matthews came up with his own idiosyncratic scoring system on the basis of two criteria: oddness and niceness. He scored them out of five instead of the more usual 20 or 100:

‘The quirk this creates is that a wine I like a lot can still get low scores: for example a neutralish white Bourgone Aligote which is neither very strange nor a real crowd-pleaser (1/5 oddness 1/5 niceness).’

Notice how his system tells you how the wine will taste rather than saying that one is better than another.

When the Wild Bunch was written the hot topic amongst British wine writers was something called the ‘Wine Revolution.’ This ‘revolution’ consisted of young, usually Australian wine makers overturning centuries of European lethargy and producing fruity wines that were named after grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay rather than places in Europe. This was the era of supermarket wine guides with names like Superplonk and Juicy! It was also the time when wine critics Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden competed with each other to come up with ever more outlandish descriptions on their television program. ‘Mmmmmm deck chairs on the Titanic’ was one I remember clearly. Matthews was not impressed. He was ahead of his time in championing the local, the diverse and the obscure. These terms are now platitudes; the stuff of lifestyle journalism. But when Matthews was writing this book he was championing something genuinely new. Today terms such as ‘organics’, ‘biodynamics’ and ‘natural’ wines are the new orthodoxy of wine with even industrial wine producers paying lip serve to them. Matthews is ever alert to how the best intentions can ossify into dogma: ‘there are echoes of cults, evangelism, even show trials’ he writes after interviewing a producer who had gone ‘organic’

Early on in the book, Matthews explicitly rejects the whimsical style of wine writing noting that: “these encounters (with wine makers) tend to be reported in a maddeningly sketchy way:   ‘her/senor/ monsieur so-and-so has some fascinating opinions which make a visit to his cellars an education in every sense!’ Like a good travel writer, he is able to capture the personalities of the people he meets with a few deft phrases. Here he is on Olivier Merlin, a young Turk from Burgundy, and his wife:

‘The couple personified the romance of wine. They were young 1980s people (something you could tell from Oilvier coloured-framed specs a la early Jancis Robinson) and they’d seized the moment.’

It’s not only people who shine out of the book, I know few writers who can capture a place so elegantly:

‘The sherry bodegas have something of the air of Oxbridge colleges with their courtyards and immaculate displays of flowering plants (not to mention the all pervasive smell of Sherry)’

Here he manages to be witty without ever being flip or facetious. The book is often very funny but you never doubt how seriously he takes his subject. It is based mainly on interviews with notable people from within the wine business. Matthew’s frame of reference, however, is much wider than this. To back up his points, Matthews calls into service the likes of Flaubert, Pliny, Bob Dylan, Arabic lyric poetry and a novel by Dorothy L Sayers – ‘the only detective story I know that turns on the sleuth’s unerring palate.’

Whereas Lynch is a pillar of the wine world and his book a bestseller, Matthews is a more shadowy figure. The Wild Bunch, originally published by Faber, has been out of print for years though it is easy to get hold of second-hand. He published another book called Real Wine in 2000 for Mitchell Beazley and later a book called Cannabis Culture. He then seems to have disappeared. Perhaps the precarious life of a wine writer did not appeal. Certainly one cannot imagine him having a weekly newspaper column recommending supermarket wines or appearing on Saturday morning cookery programs. Last I heard he was running a falafel stall in Hoxton Square. I hope that he is happy wherever he is and still enjoying good wine.

Since this was published, I have been in touch with Patrick Matthews. His falafel business, Hoxton Beach, is thriving, I often have lunch at the stall on Goodge Street, and he is still enjoying good wine, we had a nice Marcillac, some rare old amontillado and a surprisingly good supermarket own-label Sauternes when I saw him last.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
This entry was posted in Books, Wine articles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Wild Bunch by Patrick Matthews

  1. worm says:

    great stuff! I am currently about half way through Adventures on the Wine Route as my bedtime reading, it is pleasingly soporific

  2. Henry says:

    You should try the Wild Bunch, it’ll really make you think.

  3. Pingback: Undrinkable beers | Henry's World of Booze

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s