Film and TV Wine articles

Skin Contact – LIVE for one night only

For my first job in publishing, I worked as an assistant for a woman who really should have been a Blue Peter presenter. She was never happier than when cutting up bits of card to make into elaborate press releases or decorating rooms for launch parties. There are a lot of people with frustrated showbiz urges in publishing but that’s nothing compared with the wine world. Both Oz Clarke and Olly Smith were former actors, Charles Metcalfe was an opera singer, Pierre Mansour from the Wine Society used to DJ at the Ministry of Sound and let’s not forget about Jane MacQuitty’s time as a dancer with Chic.

This means that there’s a lot of larger than life personalities at tastings. It also means that when someone forms a group to raise money for charity, then the musical standard is likely to be quite high. Richard Hemming who writes for Jancis Robinson’s site has formed just such supergroup called Skin Contact who are to perform a one off gig on the 9th March at Vinopolis. All proceeds go to Wine Relief which is related to Comic Relief rather than being a benevolent fund for bibulous wine merchants.

Richard has put together a formidable line up including former member of Gene and Curiosity Killed the Cat. Sharing vocal duties will be Joe Wadsack (currently gracing, perhaps gracing is not quite the right word, BBC 2’s Food and Drink program), Charles Metcalfe and others.

To get you in the mood here’s Curiosity singing Misfit:



Wine articles

I love Australia!

I thought Australia Day would be a good moment to repost this.

Henry's World of Booze

A couple of years ago before I was an enormously well-respected wine writer with my own column in a prestigious magazine, I replied to something written by Tim Atkin on which wine region or country I could do without. I suggested Australia. It seemed an obvious choice. When the world of wine had so much to offer why would you buy Australian? The burly Australians that my colleagues (or fellow drunks as they were officially known) at Oddbins raved about, Dead Arm Shiraz etc., seemed monstrous parodies of wine.

Now I’m excited by Australia. So what’s changed? Well for starters, I’m less of a pretentious little twat. In the late 90s when I got into wine, I had an indie music approach to drinking. Anyone who read Melody Maker in the 80s and 90s will remember how important it was to hate bands on principle. You were defined more…

View original post 397 more words

Books Spirits

The Provisional Wing of the Amersham Scottish Association

This is my latest Empire of Drink column for the Guardian. To listen to whilst you read is Kenneth McKellar singing A Gordon for Me, a song my mother would sing to us in the car on the long drive up to Aberdeen.

My parents used to be enthusiastic members of the Amersham Scottish Association. My mother is from Aberdeen and my father likes drinking whisky and doing the Gay Gordons. On St Andrew’s Day evenings or Burns Night they would come home late, tipsy and giddy like a couple of teenagers. One year, however, they returned without the usual gaiety in their step. Their club had been taken over by a clique of Scottish purists. I imagine them today as a cross between Miss Jean Brodie and Mrs Dooms-Patterson from The Good Life. The kind of people for whom sex was something that coal came in. Now at dances my father’s galumphing feet and my mother’s giggles were met with stern Calvinist frowns; on Burns Night, the speeches became windier and the whisky didn’t flow like it once had.

I like to think that Burns would have preferred my parents’ irreverent approach, though he too may have winced at an Englishman massacring the traditional dances. We do know Burns was a great whisky enthusiast.

Wine articles

How I made a (very) small fortune in wine speculation

For Throwback Thursday I thought I’d republish one of my favourite articles. It’s one that nobody read at the time so thought I’d give it an outing. The wine I bought for £135 a case is now worth £189 according to the Fine and Rare website. Just call me George Soros.

Henry's World of Booze

I decided to squander/ invest the last of my redundancy money on some En Primeur Bordeaux. I know that makes me sound like a former Goldman Sachs employee splashing out on a case of Le Pin but sadly my budget was more modest. My parameters were these: I mustn’t spend more than £500 (very easy when you only have £500) , I would only buy wines from chateaux I knew and I would buy more than one case. There were very few wines that fitted the bill. I was tempted by Poujeaux and Potensac but in the end went for the second wine of Gruaud Larose – Sarget de Gruaud Larose having recently drunk and loved the 2004.

Now to actually buy the stuff. I intended to go to an old-school wine merchant such as Justerini and Brooks but they had sold out so instead I went to Fine and…

View original post 230 more words


Two takes on Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

My latest Guardian column is on Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. After writing it, I noticed how similar the opening was to an old article from my former East Asian correspondent, Victor Crabbe. I wonder what happened to him. Anyway, it would seem that it was quite common to drink Foreign Extra Stout after a hard night on the town. You can compare the two articles below. I think Mr Crabbe’s is better. I should get him to write for World of Booze again.

Victor Crabbe:

One of the things I appreciate about living in Singapore is living somewhere foreign enough to make Guinness Foreign Extra. When I was a younger man, walking home in the small hours along the Kingsland Road, I would pause from time to time at various off-licences and fortify myself, needlessly, for the remainder of the journey with a dark malty bottle of the stuff: the fact of its availability seemed exotic, as if a case or two had somehow been abducted from its proper location of Nigeria or Jamaica. It seemed as cheeky as the shop owners’ attitudes to the licensing laws. It never occurred to me that the UK was somewhere that could be exported to just as well as more remote places, despite evidence to the contrary to be found in every shop and newsagent nearby.

And mine:

When I moved to London about 15 years ago, I spent many lost weekends at warehouse parties in the East End. On my way home through the cold mornings, I would invariably stop at one of Hackney’s grocers to pick up a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. I drank it for the alcohol – at over 7% it’s much stronger than normal Guinness – but it also provides some serious sustenance. It felt like an antidote to the rather louche life I was living at the time.

This always happened whenever I had a Guinness 

Wine articles

I appreciate wine; you like a drink; he is an alcoholic

Here’s something I wrote for Tim Atkin on Dranuary or whatever it’s called. Oh and while I’m here, my very funny friend Worm has come up with these themed months for 2015 to compete with Movember, Stoptober etc:

James May

Can’t wait for Whoreguest! Anyway I digress, here’s the article:

I’m sure you’ve already had your fill of writers telling you that they’re giving up drink for January or that they’re not giving up anything for January because they’re different. Instead I thought it would be interesting to reflect on how easy it is to drink too much when you’re in the wine business.

The man who interviewed me for my first job was an alcoholic. Not just someone who really liked a drink but a proper if he didn’t stop he’d die sort of alcoholic. Just before we met he’d been in rehab and had now resumed his job selling wine. It seemed a mad decision but he was very calm about the whole thing. I later learned that this was not an uncommon problem at the company for which he worked (alright, it was Oddbins). Certainly everyone drank heavily. Not just us youngsters straight out of university but also the managers who were mainly very bright men in their thirties or early forties with an air of thwarted ambition about them.

There were strict rules about staff drinking – nothing alcoholic before 11am. The first drink of the day was known as a ‘morning sharpener.’ This was normally a small bottle of French lager but might also mean sharing a half bottle of manzanilla. I dimly remember for someone’s birthday sharing six or seven bottles of wine between the two of us over the course of a day’s work. Not all the shops were this boozy. One manager managed to enforce a no drinking whilst at work rule though he was partial to a bit of herbal refreshment on Sundays. That shop, however, was very much the exception that proved the rule. It’s a dangerous recipe to make staff work long hours, pay them very little and then surround them with alcohol the consumption of which can always be excused as ‘tasting.’

I lasted two years and rose to the dizzying height of assistant manager. I was by now drinking a lot. I had to get out so I moved into publishing where I worked for long hours for very little pay but there were lots of parties with lots of wine and it could all be excused as entertaining or staff bonding. By my early 30s I was tired. I’d probably drunk an average of a bottle of wine a day for ten year – a mere apéritif for Gérard Depardieu but too much for me.

It wasn’t actually that hard to cut down especially as my wife who I married in 2009 drinks very little. It’s not much fun getting drunk on your own. I’d just managed to get on top of things when I started blogging about wine. I attended tastings. Here I recognised kindred spirits: people with blotchy faces and hangovers but most of all with that gleam in the eye, the gleam that says, I go on a bender at the drop of a hat. And then there were the samples! Some evenings without realising it I would have two bottles of wine. I’m not drunk, I’d say to my wife, I’m tasting! Then I’d put the Pogues on. Loud.

What I needed was some structure. I didn’t want to be one of those people, common also to the book trade and journalism, who has to give up drinking because it all got too much. I want to go on enjoying wine into my seventies. Some people try to stick to the Government recommended guidelines of 21 units a week for men and 14 for women. The trouble is that these figures are spurious. For some they’re laughably small, for others such as my wife, they’re too much. Richard Smith, who worked on the committee that advised the Government, admitted in the British Medical Journal that ‘we just pulled them out of the air.’ Even more ridiculous is the government definition of binge drinking, eight units of more at once, that’s four pints – hardly Oliver Reed territory.

Instead I have come up with my own system for managing alcohol intake. At publishing parties I drink beer so I know how much I’ve drunk (and the wine is normally filthy). I don’t drink at all on Mondays and Tuesdays. On other days if it’s just my wife and I, I’ll make sure we only have half a bottle by decanting half into a 375ml bottle to share the next night. Samples are tasted and then given to neighbours or poured down the sink (unless they’re exceptionally good.) On weekends and Friday nights I can drink more but having a toddler to look after the next day is a great disincentive to do an Oliver Reed. In truth I break these rules frequently but it’s good to have a bit of a framework. A good way of gauging things is if my wife is irritable, it means I’m snoring which means I’m drinking too much.

Even then I can take comfort from the following conjunction:

I appreciate wine.
You like a drink.
He is an alcoholic

Film and TV Spirits

Goodbye Pompous Chair, hello Guardian

Yesterday I threw out a favourite old chair that had become rather decrepit. My wife calls it my pompous chair. It used to belong to an aunt who worked in the antiques trade so had a good eye for furniture though it isn’t especially old. This is me in the chair about five years ago looking suitably pleased with myself.

pompous chair

Despite my fondness for it, it’s always looked a bit out of place in our flats. There’s something about 1980s Buckinghamshire furniture that just doesn’t work in 50s London council flats. As soon as I removed it from our little place in Lewisham, it was like the room breathed a sigh of relief and became brighter. The old Persian rug seemed so much happier now that it didn’t have to compete with the Pompous Chair (I feel I should capitalise it now.) I put it out by our recyling bins thinking that it would be there for weeks but it was gone in twenty minutes. In retrospect I should have put it on ebay but it was nice to contribute to our very active local furniture foraging community. We acquired a solid oak kitchen cupboard this way. It’s nice to put something back.

We tend to dislike in others traits which we see in ourselves and so with me its pomposity. I didn’t get were I am today without recognising my own pompous tendencies. So this year I’m going to make a concerted effort to be more open-minded, to listen more and to try to understand even if I disagree. One of my best friends thinks I’m turning into a barking old colonel and I want to halt this transformation or at least postpone it. Wouldn’t it be nice to still take a delight in new things well into my old age? Perhaps I could be the most open-minded colonel at the Conservative Club.

It’s apt therefore that this year I’m going to be writing a column for the Guardian. I’m hoping that writing for a paper with a different political outlook will make me more broadminded (or it could make me even more decisive. Hanging! no wait rehabilitation! Pride! sorry I mean guilt). I don’t expect to turn into Citizen Smith but it might curb my more Blimpish tendencies. The first column looks at Angostura Bitters and contains a non-alcoholic cocktail that I’ve dubbed the Phil Mitchell.

Here’s to a less pompous 2015!