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Interviews Spirits

Booze interview with Ian Buxton

I am delighted and honoured to have Ian Buxton as guest on my blog. His new book, Whiskies Galore: A Tour of Scotland’s Island Distilleries, comes out this month. It’s an idiosyncratic and often very funny stroll around some of Scotland’s most romantic distilleries. There’s some autobiography, some history and a whole lot of whisky but what I like the most about it is Buxton’s constant questioning of the sheer amount of bullshit that surrounds Scotch. And yet for all the iconoclasm not for a moment do you doubt Buxton’s deep love for Scotland’s greatest export.

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When did you first realise that whisky was something special and can you remember the whisky that triggered this feeling?

Many of my fellow whisky writers appear to be able to recall this with blinding clarity as some sort of Damascene moment.  I fear I cannot offer any such startling revelation, though it was a happy day when working in the whisky industry paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

What was your first job in the whisky business?

It was in the late 1980s for Robertson & Baxter the blenders, now more or less subsumed into the Edrington Group.  They were, though I didn’t realise it at the time, whisky royalty and behaved accordingly.  I thought it all rather stuffy. As they had come to the conclusion that food was the way forward they had an ill-starred project to buy food companies and, to my chagrin, I was involved in that side of the business more than whisky. It was not a happy time, and I left after a couple of years to join Glenmorangie as their Group Marketing Director.

That offered more whisky but even less happiness.

Do you have a favourite whisky?

Would it be too optimistic to suggest it’s the one you’re about to buy me?

I am a great fan of Highland Park and older Glenfarclas.  But I have taken a great partiality recently to better American rye whiskies, such as that from Michter’s.

Do you have a least favourite whisky?

Can’t say I do.  But I completely fail to see the point of vodka.  Will that do?

Which whisky country are you most excited about?

Curiously, almost everywhere, but especially the new wave of ‘world whisky’ producers in countries such as Iceland, Finland, Taiwan, France and so on.

And which distillery?

I was an early fan of Kavalan in Taiwan and I’m delighted to see how far and how fast they have developed. Teerenpeli in Finland make whisky which surprises all who try it – and I have very high hopes for the English whisky due any day from the Cotswold Distillery.

What is it about island distilleries that make them so romantic?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of this in my new Whiskies Galore book.  There is an inherently romantic appeal to islands, especially the Scottish ones, that seems to draw visitors from all round the world, and the more urban and congested their home environment the more the isolation and open spaces attract them.  But it was not always thus, and in the book I recall a time, not so very long ago, when island distilleries were closed and virtually abandoned and their whisky all but unsaleable.

Does the salt air really affect the taste?

I doubt it, especially as most of the whisky made there spends most of its life far from the sea.  But, then again, Highland Park and many Islay whiskies have an undeniable, indefinable salty tang to them.

You have in the past been quite vocal in your criticisms of the conservatism of Scotch whisky, what do you think they could do to be a bit more innovative?

My consultancy services are available at very reasonable rates.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle of whisky?

This information is classified, particularly from Mrs Buxton.  But actually, not a great deal.

What do you think of the prices of say old Macallan? $25,000 for a bottle of 50 year old.  

They are certainly beyond my pocket.  In the near future I doubt they will come down as demand evidently exceeds supply.  But I fear this is a bubble, driven by fashion and spurred on by those with a vested interest, that will eventually end in tears.  And not to pick on The Macallan particularly, but I cannot help notice the vulgarity and excess of the packaging of many so-called ‘luxury’ whiskies and wondering how much of the cost is accounted for by the hand-blown bottle; silver decoration and undeniably lovely oak boxes and so on, and how much by the whisky.  And that is before we mention the percentage margins applied all through the supply chain to the retailer’s shelves.

What’s the most memorable whisky you’ve ever had?

That’s a score draw between a very old Bowmore drawn directly from the cask in the No. 1 Vaults (a most atmospheric space) and a cask-strength Glenfarclas from 1953.  And, thinking about it, the very old expressions Glenglassaugh were quite special.

Which writers do you think write well about drink?

Those who have served a proper apprenticeship in the industry – on whisky, Charles MacLean and Dave Broom come to mind; the late Michael Jackson pioneered writing on both beer and whisky; I enjoy Alice Lascelles’ journalism and the trenchant, cutting commentary of The Whisky Sponge.  Will Lyons happily avoids the pretension that accompanies quite a lot of wine writing and Jonathan Ray’s column in The Spectator offers excellent buying pointers.

And there’s a new Henry Jeffreys fellow who can be quite droll.  I like what he’s doing these days.

Did I mention that I’ve got a new book out?

Ends (tearfully)

Thanks Ian! Buy the book here

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Interviews Wine articles

Wine interview: Eduardo Porto Carreiro

This week I’m delighted that top sommelier (sorry wine guy) Eduardo Porto Carreiro has agreed to take part in my booze interview. Originally from Brazil, Eduardo was sommelier at Grace and then Lukshon in Los Angeles and has recently moved to Bar Boulud in New York. 

What was the first wine you had that got you hooked?

I don’t think I can pinpoint exactly one wine that got me “hooked.”  I recall quite fondly growing up and always sneaking sips from my mother or father’s glass at the dinner table.   If I had to pick one specific event: it would have to be when I was in college and I went on my first winery visit.  I was in the Finger Lakes region of New York and had the opportunity to visit Hermann J. Weimer (one of the top Finger Lakes wineries) — there I tasted through a huge spectrum of Rieslings from dry to sweet.  I was amazed how complex and versatile just one grape variety could be… For the first time, it was both an intellectual as well as a hedonistic fascination.

I’ve been told you prefer the term wine guy to sommelier.  Why is this?

Fundamentally, “wine guy” and “sommelier” are really the same thing.  However, I feel that most people become more relaxed chatting about wine with someone when titles and oft-perceived-as-pretentious terms are thrown out of the window.  I don’t change who I am to play the role of the wine guy or the sommelier, but it does seem to change the guests’ view as well as their comfort level.

You started your career as a wine clerk at Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles.  Which of their sandwiches is your favorite? 

Greenblatt’s Deli is a fascinating place.  I was lucky to have landed there. Not only has it been one of the top wine stores in Los Angeles for the past seven decades, it has also been the home to some of the best Deli Sandwiches in America.  Without reservations or hesitation: my favorite of the Greenblatt’s sandwiches is their Corned Beef & Pastrami Combo Reuben (corned beef and pastrami! ed.) It’s heavenly decadent.

Which reds would you suggest to those who think they only like white?

Wine drinkers who prefer to drink whites seem to do so, because they don’t particularly like the bitterness that tannins lend to a wine and have a preference for fresher and brighter profiles.  I would recommend young and vibrant low tannin reds that could be served with a bit of a chill.  A great young Beaujolais, or perhaps a Frappato from Sicily, or a Poulsard from the Jura would be good options.

Which wine makes you inwardly groan when customers ask for it and why?

I’m upset to admit that every time someone asks for a Pinot Grigio, involuntarily, my guard does go up a bit.  In the ten years that I’ve been in the wine business, Pinot Grigio has easily been the most requested white wine. It’s a grape that I don’t have much fondness for and that is so widely available, it saddens me that people don’t move beyond such an obvious option.  That being said, every time someone asks for a Pinot Grigio, it does give me the opportunity to turn them on to a different grape that may appeal to them even more.

What has been the least popular wine that you have listed? Do you regret listing it?

I’ve listed several “orange wine” style bottles on lists that I’ve curated that don’t tend to be terribly popular.  And I don’t regret listing them.  For the small niche of people who do appreciate these wines, and for the guests that we get to turn on to this unique style — we win regulars and repeat customers for life.  There’s nothing quite like dealing with adventurous wine-drinkers and it’s these less popular wines that make for great little victories along the way.

What’s the hardest dish you have had to match?

Szechuan Dan Dan Noodles.  Numbingly hot.  Dry wines are a terrible match; as are most off-dry wines.  It has to be a very specific kind of fruity Riesling or aromatic white Belgian ale.  Very tough to match!

Do you think that sommeliers have a great influence over what the average wine drinker buys?

I think sommeliers do have an opportunity to influence drinkers.  Most importantly, though, I think that sommeliers play a pivotal role in empowering average drinkers to trust in their own palates and push their boundaries with regards to what kind of wines to drink.

Have you ever told a customer that he’s wrong?

No.  I honestly believe that there is no right or wrong with regards to taste.  It’s entirely personal and individual.

How did you become a sommelier?

I fell into it.  I was a waiter at a restaurant with a great wine program and asked a lot questions.  My interest was rewarded when I was asked to help out with the wine program, eventually becoming the Assistant Wine Director.

What’s your big tip for this year?

Keep an eye out for wines from Corsica.  The regions of Patrimonio and Ajaccio have some fun little wines coming into the market.

What bottle are you most looking forward to drinking?

There’s a 2002 Ambonnay Grand Cru Champagne from Marie-Noelle Ledru in my fridge right now that I cannot wait to open.  It’ll be perfect for a lazy Sunday brunch at home.

Who is your favorite drinker in literature and why?

Henry Chinaski (Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical main character in the novel Women).  This character drinks like there’s no tomorrow and reminds one that moderation isn’t so bad after all.

You own a wine label, Angelica Cellars, with your best friend, Ben.  How did you two decide to go into business together and how involved with the making of this wine are you?

Ben (Feldman of ‘Mad Men’ fame, ed.) and I have been great friends for a very long time.  We always used to drink together (even before it was legal to do so) and eventually came to a place of imagining what it might be like to get into the production side of things.  We did a lot of research and ended up deciding that we should make a wine that we both would love to drink because if all else failed, we could always drink up the inventory.  Long story short, we found a great little vineyard in Santa Barbara County that had the right clone of Syrah and the right climatic conditions, and we found a co-op winery that would help us with our project, and we haven’t looked back.  Ultimately, we make all the big decisions regarding wine-making, packaging, marketing, etc.  But, thankfully, we have a great team that looks over our barrels when we’re not around and effectively allows our vision to become a reality.

Do you have an aversion to ‘wine talk’? Are there any wine words or terms that annoy/ baffle you?

I don’t mind wine talk if the person I’m talking to comes from a real or grounded place and is using it because of a passion for a particular wine.  I have a real aversion to wine talk, if the person who is using it wants to somehow show off or elevate themselves above others.  That said, the word “filigree” to describe a wine has always confounded me (no idea either ed.)

What Californian wine would you recommend to someone who thinks that all US wines are jammy and brash?

Today there are quite a few up and coming producers such as Broc Cellars out of the central coast of California and Arnot-Roberts out of Northern California that could easily dispel notions that American wines are jammy and brash. But there are also older and more established wineries that could challenge those assumptions.  Try to find a bottle of Hanzell Pinot Noir from the 70’s — it would easily hold up to any Old World wines.

Finally if you had one wine to drink for the rest of your life what would it be?

If I were a man of means and had to answer that question truthfully, the one wine I’d drink for the rest of my life would be Champagne. There’s nothing quite like a great bottle of Champagne and there are few wines that are as versatile and can be drunk morning, noon, and night.

You can find out more aboutAngelica Cellars here.

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Interviews Wine articles

Wine interview: Caro Feely

Before giving it all up and buying that plot of land in France, I’d advise you read Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France by Caro Feely. Caro and her husband Sean originally from South Africa but both doing something lucrative and consultative in Dublin bought, seemingly on a whim, a run-down estate in Bergerac. Neither of them have any experience of viticulture and they have two young children. It almost ends in financial, medical and matrimonial disaster but by luck and determination/ bloody-mindedness they have made the estate a success. I found the sheer complexity of running their domaine fascinating. The wines of Chateau Haut-Garrigue are now available in Britain and Ireland and have picked up some good notices in the press. I’m particularly looking forward to trying their Saussignac, a sweet wine made with nobly-rotten Semillon and Sauvignon grapes. Caro Feely has very kindly agreed to take part in a Q&A.

When did you first realise that wine was something special and can you remember the wine that triggered this feeling?

When I was about 18 and in my last year at school my sister Jacquie introduced me to good things like Boschendal Blanc de Noir and Twee Jonge Gezellen TJ39 and less fancy wines like the famous Tassies or Tassenberg – a favourite of students in SA as a local song goes: ‘dis nie goeie vyn dis nie goeie vyn maar dit proe eerste clas,’ (my afrikaans spelling is no doubt incorrect so apologies) ‘it’s not good wine its not good wine but it tastes first class’ especially when you are a student on a tight budget. Then in my first couple of years working in Johannesburg I shared a house with a fella who was a master of wine and he had a cellar worth about 10000 euro in the house: a source of more fine education on wine. This was probably when I began to understand just how much variety and interest there was in wine and it was around that time I met Sean whose grandparents had been winegrowers in the Cape.

Before your change of career, what was your favourite wine region?

I don’t recall being particularly for one region or another. I loved the wines of South Africa like Springfield Life from Stone and Fairview’s Mourvedre blend, wines of France from the small producers in Languedoc, Loire and Bordeaux.

You don’t flinch from describing quite how hard the life of a vigneron is; if you knew then what you know now would you have bought the property in Bergerac?

No way! But I am pleased I didn’t know and that we did it as I think we are ‘stronger steel’ having been through the fire now.

You also don’t flinch from criticising your husband Sean. How did he react when he read the book?

He knows he can be pig-headed sometimes… He thinks it’s a good book. Being an ex-journalist and English major for his first degree he’s one hard task master. His reaction to an early draft was far from positive but hard feedback from him and 2 other journalist friends were necessary but nasty medicine to helping me find my voice.

You have taken to biodynamics in a big way, what do you think yourold self would say about ‘crystal spectrums’ and burying cow horns in the ground?

I was very sceptical. I think once you have worked with nature everyday the way we do it is impossible not to be convinced. When I walk out and smell extremely strong floral perfumes I know it is a flower day and hey presto the calender confirms it is, when I smell super earthy smells it is a root day. I could go on for hours… There is way more to life than our current tunnel vision approach to science explains. For the wine tours and classes we offer I talk biodynamics very practically.

From reading your book, I can tell that you take enormous care over every aspect of the wine-making process and yet you machine harvest for most of your wines. Do you think there is a contradiction here?

We do about half and half. The higher volume production like our core merlot and most of our dry white are machine harvested. This is because these are picked relatively early in the season so there is generally less need for sorting (no rot – although we do do what we call a negative pick by hand to remove what we don’t want harvested the afternoon before eg unripe or overripe bunches). It also means we can harvest in the cool night and being mid-September days can still be very hot. Hot harvest means more oxidation more need to SO2, more manipulation and shock to cool it in the winery and potential cooked aromas. We don’t want this. For us for the moment this is the good solution but overtime we would like to find a way to be able to hand harvest everything. There are pros and cons to the two options. For the top end reds where we harvest later and for the dessert wine it is all hand picked as here it is more important to sort bunch by bunch and even berry by berry (as with the Saussignac) plus the days are a bit cooler (October).

Who makes wine that you admire?

Strohmeier in Austria

Klur in Alsace

Kathleen Inman in the Russian River

Are there any wines/ regions/ countries that you avoid and if so why?

We tend to drink only organic and biodynamic wines knowing what we know about what goes into the rest….

What is the most that you have ever spent on a bottle of wine, what was the wine and was it worth it?

For one of the grand cru classé classes I gave at our wine school . I bought a Mouton 93 for around 240 euro and it was interesting for the occasion but I wouldn’t buy it for myself (I see it is worth way more now so maybe I should have held it to resell!).

What are you most looking forward to drinking from your cellar?

A client gave me a bottle of Pontet Canet 2006 (organic and biodynamic grand cru classé Pauillac) that I am looking forward to drinking. I tasted it at the estate a couple of years ago and it was superb.

Thanks to Summerdale Press I have one copy of this book to giveaway. Just email me on henry g jeffreys @ gmail dot com to go into the prize draw or RT this article & follow me on twitter @henrygjeffreys

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Books Interviews

Michael Hodges – a great London boozer

Look beyond the expected guides to city life and you will be pleasantly surprised to find that Time Out has some rather good writers. One in particular stands out, Michael Hodges. For years Michael Hodges has chronicled London life through his weekly column, ‘Slice of Life’. Like many great Londoners, Michael is not from London. He’s from Scarborough and has a Northerner’s scepticism and bloody mindedness but also a poetic streak and an eye for the absurd. An eye for the surreal would be more accurate because he seems to attract strange people and bizarre happenings. Many if not most of Hodges’ columns are related from inside or just outside the pub and he has very kindly agreed to share some of his thoughts on boozing with us:

Can you remember what your first drink was?

If inside, then Piesporter with ham and egg salad, bread and butter at home. I was nine-years-old and discovering that the genius of these isles is our appreciation of the cheaper Mosels. If outside, a few summers later – a small glass of bitter shandy on the grass in front of the Joiners Arms, High Newton, Northumberland .

Did you enjoy it?

Immensely – have you never been to the Joiners Arms?

What was your drink of choice when you were 18?

William Younger’s Scotch or 80 Shillings. Bell’s whisky directly afterwards. Occasionally vodka.

Where’s your favourite place to drink and why?

I enjoy few places now because of the noise but if I’m slightly flush and gagging for gin and nuts then the upstairs bar at the Charing Cross Hotel.

What do you normally drink there?

Gin

What do you avoid in a pub?

Noise

If you had to drink one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I suppose a red, something inky and deep

What do you think the ultimate breakfast drink is?

Depends on the length and location of the breakfast. I actually prefer my early drink as a substitute for breakfast as don’t like all this stodgy full English business – as if there was such a thing as Englishness anyway – and Bloody Mary and blinis would make me vomit. A French plumber I once watched in a bar had it about right: one small coffee, several large cognacs.

And the ultimate bedtime drink?

Weak tea with large dark rum in (though this makes a pretty good breakfast as well).

Can you recommend a book about booze?

Brideshead Revisited is pretty much all drinking, though Waugh is open about the consequences. So that or, if feeling more proletarian, the opening scenes of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Going back to my earlier point, if there is such a thing as Englishness then it could well be Arthur Seaton on the piss.

Buy Time Out and you get to read Michael Hodges every week and also learn where London’s best car boot sales are. In addition he appears occasionally in the Financial Times, New Statesman and wrote a rather good book a few years back on the AK-47.

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Interviews Wine articles

M. Guibert’s philosophy

When a wine is labelled as organic or biodynamic, I tend to greet it with suspicion. This is partly my cynical belief that many producers describe their wines as such mainly for marketing purposes and partly a suspicion of movements in general that I alluded to in a previous post. Patrick Matthews in his book the Wild Bunch puts it well. He notes ‘echoes of cults, evangelism, even show trials’ in the language used by organics more dogmatic adherents.

As much as I don’t like organics as a movement or a marketing tool, I do like the philosophy behind it purely because it seems to make better wines. Or I’ll put that differently because there are some awful organic wines: the producers I like tend to either be organic or use such a minimal amount of fertilizer, fungicide etc that they might as well be. That is why Samuel Guibert from Mas de Daumas Gassac is a man after my own heart. When I asked him about organics he said that he wasn’t interested in politics, yes they farm organically but they don’t put it on the label. There’s no worthiness and no dogma. Many of the wines he enjoys are not from organic, biodynamic or ‘natural’ producers. He just wants to keep the family estate as nice as possible and that means not polluting the locale. He described it with mischevious gleam in his eye as ‘selfish environmentalism.’

And what a spectacular environment it is. Most vineyards are actually very dull. Vines themselves are not interesting to look at but at Mas de Daumas Gassac the vines are interspersed with garrique – the local name for the bush. They integrate into the landscape.  You can see the effect in this video of M. Guibert:

The red, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of many other varieties, is justifiably famous. I liked it a lot but would like to try it after at least ten years in bottle. You really need to treat it like a good Bordeaux. The white, a blend of Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Petite Manseng, Chardonnay, is more immediately accessible but will also age. The 2003 was delightfully nutty when I tried it recently.

The one I am going to recommend is a little bit different. I had it on New Year’s Eve and then again in France. It’s a fizzy rosé made from the Cabernet vines too young to go in the red and it is delightfully frivolous. So much nicer than those dreary rosé champagnes and only £15 a bottle. Sound too expensive? A decent rosé champagne would cost you at least twice as much and be half as much fun. It’s also six times more delicious than the best prosecco and eighteen times more stylish than cava. It will also make you irresitible to the opposite sex.

Mas de Daumas Gassac Frizant Rose 2008, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault Vin Mousseux

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Interviews Wine articles

Booze interview: Roger Scruton

Introducing a new occasional series – interviews with writers about their drinking habits. For my first guest I am honoured to have philosopher Roger Scruton. For many years Scruton wrote a column for the New Statesman. It was ostensibly about wine but in reality it smuggled subversive views about the family, religion and hunting into a left wing magazine. This makes him sounds like merely a mischief maker whereas his unselfconscious love of nature imbued the writing with a rare beauty. The columns are worth reading whatever your political persuasion.

When did you first realise that wine was something special and can you remember the wine that triggered this feeling?

When my mother was given a bottle of Burgundy by her step-father. She opened it, took a sip, and then put the cork back in. For several weeks it stood in the larder and from time to time I would sneak an egg-cup full, amazed by the thrilling sensation as it settled inside me, and largely unconcerned when, after a week or so, it turned to vinegar.

From reading your New Statesman column, I imagined that you used to drink most of your wine in the stable with your horse Sam. Is this the case and if so do you think this is the perfect way to drink wine?

I only would call on Sam’s help when tasting the second class wines judged appropriate to middle-income socialists. If anything good came my way it would be reserved for the dining table. Unfortunately Sam is now dead, but his help is no longer needed, since I gave up the column for the New Statesman.

What was Sam’s favourite wine?

Amethystos Rosé, from Oddbins. (nice to see that someone else appreciated Oddbins Greek range.)

From which region do you buy most of your wine from and why?

White from Burgundy, Red from Bordeaux. These are, in my view, simply the best crafted wines of their kind at the prices I can afford. But I say a lot more in my book, I Drink Therefore I Am.

Are there any wines/ regions/ countries that you avoid and if so why?

I tend to avoid Australian Shiraz, which I think is designed for the use of football hooligans.

What is the most that you have ever spent on a bottle of wine, what was the wine and was it worth it?

I usually arrange things so that someone else is paying. But I have, in my time, spent £35 on a bottle of Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru and of course it was worth every penny. But what after all is one comparing it with?

What are you most looking forward to drinking from your cellar?

There is a bottle of Chateau Palmer 1975 on which I have my eye.

What’s the most memorable wine you have ever had?

Ch. Lafite 1945, described in my book.

This is a terribly vague question but in general do you think that wine is getting better or worse?

Wine is one of the few things that are getting better in a world where everything worthwhile is in steep decline.

Which writers in your opinion write well about wine?

Evelyn Waugh, especially in Brideshead Revisited, Thomas Mann in Felix Krull.

Finally at the moment what is the current Scruton house wine?

Ch. Grivière 2001, Medoc, from Majestic Wine.

I have just ordered a copy of I Drink Therefore I am which I will review in my next round-up of wine books. I should also mention that the above Medoc is currently on offer at Majestic for £8.99. I’m going to buy a few bottles.