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

 

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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. . . .

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Some very clever marketing going on at Majestic

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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 Jancisrobinson.com 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

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Don’t be snobbish about blended whisky

January 25 is Burns Night, Scotland’s annual feast to celebrate its greatest poet, Robert Burns. Whisky is an integral part of the evening, and Burns, a famous whisky lover, has for years proved a useful ambassador for his national drink. So much so, in fact, that a recently re-launched whisky called Usquaebach uses a quote from the Burns poem Tam O’Shanter in its marketing: “Wi’ usquabae (sic), we’ll face the devil!”

For whisky lovers in North America and Britain, Burns Night is a good excuse to crack open a decent bottle of single malt whisky—which has long been seen as the gold standard for the drink. But Usquaebach, like many other excellent whiskies at the moment, isn’t a single malt—it’s a blend. In fact, this is how most people take their Scotch. Single malts, which come from one distillery and are made entirely from malted barley distilled in a traditional pot still, make up less than 10% of global whisky sales. Blends, which are made of different malts and usually blended with grain whiskies, comprise the rest.

Don’t be snobbish about blended whiskies. The best blends contain a high percentage of quality aged malts. And blending several malts with some lighter grain spirit can enhance a whisky’s depth of flavour. Big brands do not mean bad whisky. In fact, without the big brands, most single malts would not exist—because many Scottish distilleries were founded to provide malt whiskies for blends. The backbone of one of the world’s bestselling whiskies, Johnnie Walker Black Label, comes from three distilleries, Dailuaine, Mortlach and Benrinnes.

Blending together disparate whiskies into a consistent and harmonious whole is an art, especially as the brands are made in huge quantities. (Case in point: Diageo make around 20 million cases of Johnnie Walker whisky a year.) Whiskies vary in flavou

r and availability, so producers have to keep tinkering to keep the taste consistent. And woe betide you if you mess with someone’s favorite. Dr. Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo told me: “We have to get it right every time. If you get it wrong, there’s always an old customer who will pick up on it.”

Blends were created in the 19th century to be an easily enjoyed product for export around the world, and different whiskies sell better in different markets. “When in different cultures, brands takes on a life of their own,” said Morgan. Grand Old Parr, barely available in Scotland, is now so part of the culture in Colombia that there have been folk songs written about it. Another Diageo product, Buchanans, became popular in South America because its creator, James Buchanan, was a regular visitor in the late 19th and early 20 centuries to buy horses. It’s now America’s fastest growing brand—largely thanks to the Latin American market. Last year, Diageo ran a Spanish-language ad for Buchanan’s entitled “Es Nuestro Momento” (it’s our moment) during the World Series. It’s a long way from Tam O’ Shanter.

Blends aren’t just about big brands, however. There are blenders producing whiskies every bit as exclusive as the rarest single malts. The Blended Whisky company produce a Half-Century Blend containing whiskies with a minimum age of 50 years. It’s meant to be a taste of how whisky was before production techniques were modernized in the 70s and 80s, and it retails for around $1000. A snip compared with the Last Drop’s 50 Year Old Blend—which comes in at $4500 a bottle.

More down to earth are Compass Box, a small blender who have taken the whisky world by storm since founded in 2000 by John Glaser, an American. The company sources aged whisky from big boys like Diageo and John Dewar, but they also buy new make, i.e. clear spirit, and age it themselves so that they can control quality of the cask. Jonathan Gibson, their head of marketing, told me: “We’re fanatical about wood. It’s at the heart of what we do.”

Whereas there might be 40 components in a commercial blend, “our blends are much simpler,” Gibson told me. “After more than 10 whiskies, you can’t taste the subtlety. Put too many colors together and you get brown.” Most blends don’t tell you exactly what’s in them, but Compass Box provide as much information as they’re legally allowed to.

There’s no reason why a blend shouldn’t be as complex or stimulating as a single malt. Gibson pointed out to me that a single malt “is also a blend—a blend of different ages, casks, etc., to make a consistent product. The difference is we blend from different distilleries too.”

So how should you drink your blended whisky? Morgan told me that lighter whiskies such as J&B or Cutty Sark are designed to be drunk with mixers: “Look at old ads. When you see whisky, there is always a soda siphon in the shot. Many people miss the point and complain that blends aren’t that good on their own.” The best blends, though, can be drunk neat as you would a single malt, but their strong flavours also work really well in cocktails. At Duke’s Hotel in London, the legendary barman Alessandro Palazzi made me a special negroni with Grand Old Parr in place of gin. It tasted sensational—though perhaps not one to give to Scotch traditionalists on Burns night.

Click on the Food & Wine website for some recommendations:

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The ultimate Bouef Bourgignon

How good does a wine have to be to cook with? I remember talking to a wine writer a few years ago and he went to a very posh restaurant in Paris. He ordered a dish that came with a reduction of Hermitage, the only problem was that the cook had used a corked bottle. I think he ended up sending the dish back. My schoolboy French would not have been up to”Waiter, my gravy is corked!”

The story illustrates the point that the most important thing when choosing a wine to cook with is that there aren’t any odd flavours, corked for example, or those strange rubbery taste you sometimes get in cheap wine. Or not so cheap wine. Avoid Pinotage at all costs! If your wine is a little stinky or rubbery or has clumsy oak flavouring, then that will come out in your dish. You don’t want anything too sweet either as that will make your dish taste weird.What you need is a reasonable quality wine, one that will provide a good winey flavour and plenty of acidity. Things like Cotes du Rhones, Barbera d’Astis, beefier Beaujolais are perfect for this. Nothing too fancy though subtleties will be lost in the cooking process.

Far more important than the quality of the wine, is the quality of the meat. I made one earlier in the year with meat from Tesco and then one at the weekend with meat from the butcher in Blackheath. The difference was startling. Not just richer tasting meat but a much deeper flavour throughout the dish. It was like the different between eating in a caff compared with a fancy Paris restaurant.

This is the recipe I used, it is based on Elizabeth David’s. It’s absurdly easy to do. You cannot fail as long as you use top quality meat. The wine can be a little more humdrum.

Ingredients:

2 kg of stewing steak cut into thumb-sized chunks

1 large onion quartered

Stick of celery

2 bay leafs

Fresh parsley and thyme (and rosemary)

1 bottle of wine. I used Ultima Edizione Quatto Uve – a blend of grapes from all over Italy – lots of guts, fruit and flavour, no weird smells.

400g button mushrooms

400g shallots or baby onions

8 rashes of unsmoked streaky bacon

4 cloves of garlic

Small glass of port or other sweet wine (optional)

Brandy (optional)

Two carrots (optional)

plain flour

salt and pepper

Serves six or eight at a push

Put the beef in a large saucepan with the quartered onion, 2 cloves of garlic, one bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, some parsley stalks and a little rosemary if you have it. I find rosemary can be a bit overpowering so would rather leave it out rather than put in too much. Season, cover pan and leave overnight to marinade or for at least four hours.

Drain, keeping the marinade and beef but discarding the vegetables, herbs etc. Dust beef lightly with flower. Cut bacon into lardons and fry until crisp and the fat has come out.Leave lardons to one side. Now brown the beef in the bacon fat in batches and place in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When all the beef is browned put the heat on low, add a splash of brandy and set alight (not essential but great fun.) Now add the marinade wine, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf and two peeled cloves of garlic. Don’t add any salt at this stage. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and leave for two hours. Check occasionally that it is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Peel the baby onions/ shallots and quickly fry them in bacon fat, olive oil, butter or a combination of the three. Add to the beef. Quickly fry the mushrooms and add to the beef. Add the chopped cooked bacon. (If you want the stew to go further you could add some roughly chopped carrot at this point.)

Cover and leave on a low heat for one more hour. Now taste, add salt if needed. The meat should be melty. If it isn’t then the stew might need longer. At this stage a small glass of port or similar really lift the whole dish and brings out the winey flavours.

Ideally you’ll now leave it overnight somewhere cold. Any excess fat can be removed when it has solidified. When it’s time to eat, gently bring the stew to a simmer. Add a handful of roughly chopped parsley,  black pepper and serve with mashed potatoes and something green, cabbage is nice.

You’ll want to eat this with something far better than you used for cooking: Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundy all go well though I had this recently with a bottle of Chateau St. Thomas 2001 from Lebanon. They were spectacular together.

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