Wine articles

You can’t appreciate wine without getting (at least a little bit) drunk

If an alien came down tomorrow and read Decanter magazine, he or she (or perhaps some new completely unthought of sex from the Alpha Centauri), would never guess that the subject being written about was not only meant to be fun but was in fact an intoxicant. I’m not singling out Decanter for special criticism, almost all wine writing no matter how vivid and evocative is written from the point of view of absolute sobriety. I can think of no other activity where the literature on the subject is so far removed from most people’s everyday experiences.

We enjoy wine because it is alcoholic. None of the culture built up around wine would exist if it weren’t intoxicating. As much as we might like to think that wine tastings are in the words of Dr Frasier Crane “just about wine and clear constitutional procedures for enjoying it”, we should be honest that the reason most people attend them is at least partly to get drunk. How drunk though depends on the crowd. Before Christmas I put on what was grandly billed a “port masterclass” at a shop in Brockley. The audience consisted largely of grandparents of my daughter’s friends. Most had polished off a bottle (not of port I hasten to add) before I attempted to talk them through the ports. Needless to say there were no spittoons; teenagers on a school trip would have been an easier audience to control.

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Artist’s impression of last year’s Brockley wine tasting

Michael Broadbent certainly wouldn’t have approved. He wrote that “it is nothing short of ridiculous to drink one’s way through a tasting.” Of course there’s a good reason why pros don’t taste like south London winos. I don’t want the buying team at the Berry Bros half cut when assessing the new Burgundy vintage.

There is, however, a happy medium between Brockley Bacchanalia and the asceticism of the professionals. A wine tasting when done properly works like an ancient Greek symposium in that you have a formalised way of talking, in this case about wine, and you all drink at the same rate. Overt drunkenness is frowned upon but so is total sobriety.  A degree of intoxication helps British people to shake off their self-consciousness and talk freely about wine. Wine talk doesn’t seem so pretentious when you’ve had a few in like-minded company. If you taste sober you miss the true joy of wine appreciation which is the interplay between wine’s intellectual and visceral side

Recently I had been forgetting this important fact. ‘Tasting wine with you isn’t fun anymore’ my wife told me. At wine events which were meant to be social, I spent my time frantically scribbling notes, spitting, trying to get round quickly and getting impatient with lingerers. I was tasting like a pro when I should have been drinking like an amateur.

Interestingly it is only wine that has this gap between how a professional and an amateur function. You can’t properly assess a whisky without gauging how it goes down the throat (or so the experts claim) which is why whisky tasters rarely have more than ten in a flight. It’s the same with beer. I judged a beer competition recently where I tried over a hundred beers and didn’t spit once. Which is perhaps why you rarely meet a thin beer writer. Can it be a coincidence that beer and whisky are seen as fun and unpretentious whereas wine still suffers from accusations of snobbery?

You’d never guess it from attending most professional tastings but people in the wine trade can be quite fun. You can catch a glimpse of this by reading Noble Rot magazine, a small circulation publication which is something of the in house magazine for the wine trade. Alongside suitably reverent features about cult Burgundy producers are pieces written from something of an off-duty perspective ie. no spittoons! In fact the amount of feasting and drinking in its pages would probably give the British Medical Association a collective apoplexy.

But the best writing on wine has often been done by amateurs, Roger Scruton for example, because they don’t have the disconnect between wine appreciation and intoxication. It’s the same with television. The most entertaining programme made about drink in recent years was a Christmas special presented by restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian Alexander Armstrong. There was not a spittoon in sight. It just goes to show that wine can be fun as long as you remember to swallow occasionally.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Oldie. 

Film and TV Wine articles

You know you’ve made it when you’re cited on Wikipedia

The most popular article I ever wrote was something examining what sort of sherry Niles and Frasier drank on the sitcom Frasier. As you can see it attracted a fair amount of comment. Well now that article has been cited as a source on Wikipedia:

‘Frasier and Niles Crane frequently consumed sherry, perhaps Bristal’s (sic) Cream, on the TV sitcom Frasier.’

Scroll down and you’ll see World of Booze cited. Now I know that Wikipedia does have a bit of a reputation for unreliability but it’s still surprising that someone used a blog as a sole source and even then got the name of the drink wrong. That’s the last time I use Wikipedia when arguing in the comments section on the Guardian about Palestine.


Wine articles

A year in booze

frasierIt’s been a year since I started World of Booze. The inspiration came from a friend of mine who thought it funny that my main interest was shared by none of our friends. Well then, I would find some like-minded people on the internet! My hope was that this site would become a civilised symposium at which people from around the world would share stories about wine. To some extent this has proved so but most people who come to this blog do so because they are trying to find out what kind of sherry Frasier drank. My post on this very subject gets three times more traffic than the next most popular post. Those curious Frasier fans have made this site one of the most read wine blogs in the UK. For a while this perturbed me, I felt like one of those third generation immigrants trying to launch himself into society and desperate to hide that his family money came from loo paper (not that the Frasier post had made my fortune but I do get the occasional freebies and invites to wine tastings). None of my top five most read posts contain any specialist wine information. They are: 1) Frasier , 2) Farewell Oddbins?, 3) The first rule of wine club , 4) English Champagne  and 5) Real Ale Trendy Wankers

The lesson here is that the less I write about wine in detail the more people want to read. If you want high-minded wine information then you’d go to one of the many wine writers who really know what they are talking about. World of Booze is for my drunk-sodden meanderings. Now I just need to decide what to drink to celebrate my blog’s birthday. Perhaps a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream in honour of my benefactor Dr Frasier Crane.

Wine articles

Old wines

About ten years ago a friend of mine inherited a country pile from a misanthropic great uncle. The place was a bit neglected so he planned to sell off some of the accumulated loot in order to pay for renovations. Sadly the chap from Christie’s was not impressed: the paintings were minor works and all the good wine had been drunk.

This weekend we decided to prove Christie’s wrong. The collection reminded me a little of my grandfather’s cellar (see post on Frasier’s sherry): there was a magnum of Liebfraumilch 1985, two bottles of Manzanilla sherry too dirty to read the label and a bottle of supermarket non-vintage Soave. There was also a few bottles of Chateau Lascombes 1963, a bottle of Chateau La Grand Maye, Cotes de Castillon, 1975 , four bottles of Malartic-Lagravière 1961 bottled by Herbert Fender of London W1 and a wine with no label in a Moselle green flute.

Seeing as 1961 is a famous vintage we decided to open the Malartic first. First signs were promising. The level in the bottle was high and the cork came out whole. I poured the wine through some cheesecloth into a jug. There was surprisingly little deposit. Gingerly I took a little sniff expecting a waft of vinegar or worse. Instead I got wine. ‘It’s still wine’ I cried ‘and look at the colour!’ It was a deep dark red only slightly browning at the edges. I poured a little into a glass and inhaled: the nose was earthy, a little vegetal with a bit of damp wood. Next a little sip. Initially the tannins were unyielding; this was still a muscular wine. What must it have been like when young? After about 20 minutes it relaxed and became savoury, refreshing and extremely moreish. It wasn’t hedonistic or particularly long. Instead it reminded me of a quote from Hugh Johnson ‘freshness is the touchstone of any great Bordeaux.’ This 49 year old wine tasted young and alive.

After such a treat the other two clarets were inevitably a disappointment. The Cotes de Castillon was orange with a vague watery sweetness. The Lascombes though well past its best had some charm and complexity. Later in the spirit of drunken experimentation, I mixed half a glass of the Lascombes with a little Bodegas Palacio Rioja Reserva 2005 from Morrison’s. It may have been the late hour or my inebriated state, but the two seemed to meld seamlessly together to become greater than the sum of their parts. I felt like the master blender at Gonzalez-Byass.

Finally the Moselle. I was hoping that it might be an auslese from a top vintage like 1976. Sadly the stench of rot and vinegar on opening it suggested that it must have been something closer to Liebfraumilch.

Bodegas Palacio Rioja Reserva 2005 available from Morrison’s It was reduced to £7.49. Excellent as it is or even better mixed with an old Lascombes.

1961 Malartic-Lagravière will be harder to get hold of. If you can find any, I imagine that it would cost about £250 a bottle. My friend’s are not for sale.

Film and TV Wine articles

What kind of sherry did Frasier drink?

The sherry marketing board should have made more of the Crane brothers’ love of sherry. In every episode of the long-running sitcom Frasier there they were with their decanter and little glasses. There wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be solved by a drink and some up-market badinage. I occasionally used to speculate about what sort of sherry they would drink. The quality would be impeccable of course; Frasier only drinks the best wine. They do, however, get through a lot of it so that would rule out the more austere amontillados. It would  have to be something fine but extremely drinkable with an amber burnish.

I can now reveal what they were actually drinking. . . it’s Harvey’s Bristol Cream. In Season 6 episode 9 Frasier decants a distinctive blue bottle. No wonder he decanted it. I cannot see that bottle going down well at his wine club. It seems odd that someone as pretentious as Frasier would drink something as everyday as Bristol Cream.  There can be three possible answers: 1) Daphne bought it in place of his usual sherry and Frasier and Niles cannot tell the difference; 2) the producers of the show just assumed that all sherry is the same; 3) Frasier likes Bristol Cream.

I like to think it’s number three. Bristol Cream is a comforting drink that invites conviviality rather than reflection. No wonder it is always served at funerals. Apparently if  you cellar it for 5 years, it loses its slightly cloying initial taste and becomes rather elegant. I haven’t tried it though I did try something similar a few years ago when my grandfather died. In his cellar, amongst the half bottle of 1937 Army & Navy claret, a 1982 Mouton Cadet and an ancient Beaujolais Villages (all vinegar), we found a magnum of Williams & Humbert Dry Sack. My father estimated it had been there for 20 years at least. There was a lot of sediment but the wine once decanted was lovely – gently fruity, nutty and off dry. Just the kind of thing I imagine Frasier would have taken comfort in after another humiliating date.

Harvey’s Bristol Cream is widely available for about £7. Harvey’s used to sell a ready aged 5 year old.

Williams & Humbert, produce a Dry Sack Fino and Dry Sack Medium both for about £10. I imagine the latter is closer to my grandfather’s. Very nice now though even better if kept for 20 years.