The Joy of Wetherspoon’s

Of all the stories I’ve heard about the fallout from Brexit, families divided, work jeopardised, friendships ended, the saddest was someone on Facebook who announced that he would never visit  a Wetherspoons because its proprietor, Tim Martin, was involved with the Leave campaign. This seemed to me the very definition of cutting your nose off to spite your face, imagine turning down cheap beer because of the European Union. But it also disrupts one of the fundamentals of a liberal society, that you do business even with those whom you strongly disagree. Voltaire marveled at this concept on his visit to the London Stock Exchange: “Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.”

But it’s not just over Brexit, it’s long been fashionable to sneer at Wetherspoons. Perhaps it’s because they sell such cheap beer. In London a pint in Wetherspoons will cost you less than ⅔ of what you’ll pay in the place with gastro pretensions up the hill. They can offer these prices because they have massive buying power. There are now 1,000 Wetherspoons around the country. It’s a far cry from when Tim Martin bought his first pub in 1979 and named the company after one of his old teachers who couldn’t control the class, which was how Martin felt about trying to run a pub.

It has to be said, those cheap prices do mean that you get some, ahem, colourful characters in a Spoons. The one in Liverpool Street station is particularly intimidating, full of big loud men with shaven heads having a few before getting the train back to Billericay. The pubs are often in converted cinemas, banks and churches and can be rather cavernous. You’re not going to get the quiet burble of conversation, the crackle of an open fire and a shepherd’s pie prepared by the landlord’s wife.

So by the standards of that mythical pub we all have in our minds, Wetherspoons falls short. But then so do 99% of pubs. Most are owned by  chains. One of the biggest, Mitchell and Butler, also own Nicholson’s, Harvester and All Bar One. Many pubs that look independent aren’t: our local in Blackheath, the Hare & Billet, is owned by the Metropolitan Pub Company. Being part of a chain doesn’t stop your average Wetherspoons being something of a beer drinker’s paradise. Whereas until recently many pubs considered doing real ale something of chore, Wetherspoons have always prided themselves on their selection. And because they don’t play music or show sport you can enjoy your pint in peace. The food, particularly the curries and the meats pies, isn’t bad either. In a strange town a Spoons can be a refuge.

As with all chains, there are good Spoons and bad. The best have a sense of community lacking in their more upmarket neighbours where the old regulars have been priced out.  I experienced the full magic recently at the Brockley Barge in south east London when we popped in one night after a meal. The beer, of course, was good and remarkably cheap but even better was the atmosphere. There were postmen enjoying a post-work drink, students, old men eking out their pensions and chubby girls on a night out drinking pinot grigio by the bucketload. People were smiling and talking to each other. Maybe I’d had too much discount real ale but that night I felt like Voltaire at the London Stock Exchange. However you voted in the Referendum can we at least agree that being able to buy a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord for £2.50 is a wonderful thing?

This article originally appeared in the Spectator


Wine articles

Wine in Lebanon – hope and foreboding

If you ever need a new nose for your 1983 Mercedes 230E, Chtaura in the Bekaa Valley is the place to go. It’s full of workshops keeping Lebanon’s extraordinary range of 1970s and ‘80s European and American cars on the road. Yet, while this area looks like the last place you’d expect to find a world-class winery, at the edge of town, set back from the road, is a fine collection of 19th-century buildings that make up Domaine des Tourelles.

At one point, this winery would have been somewhat isolated, but gradually the suburbs of Chtaura have engulfed it. The surrounding air is heavy with pollution and the roadside strewn with rubbish. Noticing my attention on these unsightly piles, Michael Karam, our Anglo-Lebanese guide — and probably the world expert on Lebanese wine — mutters that “Lebanese people always talk about their country being the most beautiful in the world, but they’ve ruined it.”

The ugliness of much of urban Lebanon, however, points to something else: people want to live here. Everywhere, there’s money to be made, whether from high rise hotels or spare car parts. Meanwhile, this country of 5 million citizens – that’s about the size of Connecticut – is also struggling to deal with some 1.5 million refugees (estimates vary) who’ve fled to their land to escape the war in Syria.

From Domaine des Tourelles, we take the road south towards Kefraya. . . .

Wine articles

Some very clever marketing going on at Majestic


I’ve been on Majestic’s mailing list since I’ve been legally allowed to by wine, or so it seems. And as far as I can remember, the months offer has always been The Ned Sauvignon Blanc for £7.99 and Berberana Reserva for £5.99 when you buy a certain number of bottles. If you find old Majestic price lists from the 1930s, there will probably be Ned and Berberana on offer in pre-decimal currency.

It’s not as if I don’t shop at Majestic but lately I’d found myself getting in a bit of rut, Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone and that Spanish Grenache with the tree on the label whose name escapes me. This month, however, Majestic did something a bit crazy, amongst the booklet advertising Ned SB and Berberana was a little leaflet called with the word “Wigig” at the top. This stands for When It’s Gone, It’s Gone. It’s a slightly gimmicky way of saying small parcels or even odd bins. It’s the sort of thing that Majestic used to do really well with their Swedish claret and mature German rieslings (though didn’t the mature German rieslings go a bit off the rails towards the end?)

So my curiosity pricked, I went to my local shop in Greenwich. Rather cleverly they not only had the advertised wines in stock but on tasting. A young man with the improbable name of Basil talked me enthusiastically through the wines. Here are two I tried:

Rojalet Montsant 2015 £7.99 when you buy a mixed 6

Carignan and Grenache from Catalonia, ripe and full but with plenty of freshness and an earthy quality. Massive amounts of flavour or the money. I’d love to see how this ages.

Capatosta Morellino di Scansano 2011 £11.99 for mixed 6

Like a good Chianti (it’s made mainly from the same grape, sangiovese) that went on holiday somewhere further south, the fruit is sweeter (but not jammy), it seems more alcoholic too but it’s still got a nice firmness to it.

Reader, I bought some wine. It was a marketing clean sweep: quality bumf, distribution and some top salesmanship at the final hurdle. Well done Majestic! Now I’d hurry before they run out.






Film and TV Wine articles

Nelson, Marsala and the Mary Whitehouse Experience

I wrote something for History Today magazine on perhaps my favourite place in the world, Sicily, and Marsala, its rather forgotten fortified wine. There an extract below which you can click on it to read the entire thing. This probably dates me terribly but I can’t think of History Today without thinking of that sketch from the Mary Whitehouse Experience:

Anyway! Here’s the article. . . .

Dotted around the vineyards of Trapani province in western Sicily are ruins that look so Georgian they would not look out of place in Bath. These are the remains of baglios, or wineries, from the marsala industry. They are a reminder of an almost forgotten moment in history when the British occupied Sicily.

Sicily has had more than its fair share of invaders: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Normans, Spaniards, Venetians and Neapolitans. The British were there briefly, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but there was talk of the island becoming a British colony, like Malta or Cyprus. ‘It would be the jewel in the Empire crown after Ireland,’ one commentator remarked, which seems ironic considering how British rule in Ireland is remembered. Beyond a few ruins, there is very little to see from Sicily’s British moment, but you can taste it in marsala wine.


Wine articles

Who will be the next Robert Parker?

Photograph by Christopher Barker

Searching around for a sequel to Empire of Booze, my book about the British and alcohol, the obvious choice is to look at other countries and their influence on what we drink. A friend suggested Khanates of Booze. There’s potential for dozens of books: Duchies of Booze, Republics, Sultanates, Oligarchies, Kleptocracies of Booze! First though, here’s a look at America’s influence on wine, the Republic of Booze:

It’s easy to see the American influence as solely about homogenisation. When we think of Americanisation it’s Budweiser that springs to mind, drinks made simpler, blander for the big broad American palate. Yet the American influence is far more complex than that.

American wine hit the headlines in 1976 for the first time with the so-called Judgement of Paris. This was arranged by English wine merchant Steven Spurrier. He pitted the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy against the best Cabernets and Chardonnays from California. The wines were tasted blind by a mainly French judging panel. The winners were both Californian. The outcry was immediate. Many of the judges thought they had been somehow duped. It is the tasting that inspired a thousand articles and put Californian wine on the map as well as making Spurrier’s career.

Perhaps even more influential was the American wine critic, Robert Parker. Parker deliberately styled himself as the anti-British critic, not that he was anti-British, well maybe a little, but that he was the antithesis of the clubbable British wine critic. Parker saw this type as being far too close to the trade to give an objective assessment of the wines. He had in his sights someone like Hugh Johnson who, as well as producing innumerable books, is also the chairman of the Sunday Times Wine Club, makes his own wine and used to own a shop on St James’s selling wine paraphernalia. Parker saw himself as the champion of the consumer. His newsletter (now a subscription website) takes no advertising and he doesn’t accept hospitality from producers or merchants. He instituted a system for scoring wines out of 100 (well out of 50 really as the score starts at 50.) Wines that scored more than 90 sold out quickly.

Parker championed wines made by growers. All over the world, but in France especially, growers were bypassing the power of merchants and bottling their own wine. The adulteration scandals in Bordeaux and Burgundy made wine lovers think that the only way to guarantee quality was to go directly to the grower. Wines were increasingly bottled at the châteaux, rather than in London. Whereas previously most Rhône and burgundy would have been sold under the name of a négociant, now it was the producer. Parker and other American wine critics enabled customers to cut out the middlemen and some of these growers became very wealthy indeed.

You can see Parker as he sees himself as a true American maverick who shook up the wine trade, but I see continuity in his approach. The wines that he was most confident with were ones that would have been familiar to a Victorian drinker: claret and claret-style wines (Napa Cabernets), port, and wines from the northern Rhône. Like port shippers and British wine writers before him, he was simplifying wine for English-speaking people who didn’t know that much about it. His scoring system was a master stroke. Now there was a seemingly objective way of measuring how good a wine was. I don’t like this wine, Parker gave it 93, I’ll take two cases. Most controversially, Parker actually changed how wine was made. It was noted that he often gave the highest scores to the biggest, most alcoholic and oaky wines and some producers began to make wines in this style. They cut yields drastically, left grapes to ripen longer, extracted heavily and then lavishly matured it all in new oak. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to curry his favour or just the way that fashions in wine were going anyway isn’t always easy to judge, but wines did get bigger when Parker was in his pomp. We can criticise these wines, but this is how the new wine drinkers of America and the world liked them. The analogy is with the change of port from a dry to sweet wines or the sort of burly adulterated clarets sold in London. It was a very British attitude to wine: we won’t learn to appreciate the difficult wine, make it bigger, sweeter, stronger and more oaky to suit us. Many British wine writers held their noses, preferring a more classic style of wine, not realising that Parker was merely following in the footsteps of the British market. Parker, and he would probably hate me for saying this, has very British tastes.

The Judgement of Paris, too, was also more evolutionary than revolutionary. You can see this as a victory for California and evidence of the decline of France, but you can also see this as a continuation and affirmation of British tastes. The Californians were comparing themselves against wines created for the British market. They won because they tasted like claret and white burgundy. Both Parker and Spurrier played a part in the revival of Bordeaux which had been in doldrums since the late 19th century. The 1980s, 90s and 2000s were a period of astonishing prosperity for the top châteaux.

Driven partly by consumer champion’s such as Parker and by advances in technology, wine at all levels is now of a quality that would amaze the 19th century British drinker. It is very rare to have a bad bottle these days (though quite easy to have a dull one.) Much wine is now sold by big brands such as Penfolds in Australia or Casillero del Diablo in Chile. In 2004 a film was released called Mondovino about the globalisation of wine. It claimed that producers all over the world were creating wine in an international style. There was even a word for this “Parkerization” – wines made to appeal to Parker’s palate. The film was a cri de coeur arguing that if we didn’t act soon then the local, unusual or difficult styles would disappear under a wave of oaky Cabernet. It never happened. At my local Marks and Spencers supermarket in far from fashionable Lewisham, south-east London, I can now buy Greek, Croatian, Turkish and Georgian wines made from indigenous grape varieties. In the 1990s southern Europe was alive with the sound of chainsaws grafting Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot onto rootstocks, now there is interest in previously neglected grapes such as Cinsault, Fiano and Xinomavro.

Now no one country, style or man can be said to dominate. Parker has been unseated or rather stepped down, he sold his website in 2012 and is now in semi-retirement, and his place taken by a thousand bloggers, writers, sommeliers, importers, winemakers and enthusiasts. It’s worth reading this article by Simon Woolf on on where the next Robert Parker might come from.

This is a very heavily edited version of the afterword from my book, Empire of Booze