Categories
Restaurants

Passive aggressive BYO policy

Whilst in the impressive wine section of M&S Lewisham on Sunday, I marvelled that such riches were available on Lewisham High Street when all around were pound shops and stalls were you can unlock your or indeed someone else’s mobile phone. I assume someone must be buying the Greek whites and Lebanese reds or they wouldn’t stock them. I returned home and read Nicholas Lander in the FT/ Jancisrobinson.com. One of the restaurants he mentioned was a place that has opened not far from Lewisham called Peckham Bazaar. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting a bit of it:

“John Gionleka is the Albanian-born chef at Peckham Bazaar. His repertoire extends, however, across the cooking of his native country to Turkey, Greece and Iran and he is ably supported by his sommelier, Florian Siepert , who has carefully put together an unusual wine list from Greece, Croatia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary and Turkey.”

Sounds good doesn’t it? About my two favourite things are grilled Ottoman things and East European/ Levantine wines so immediately I went to their website to find out more.

On it was the following statement:

“Free BYO Saturday lunch only. Please no supermarket wine. Please.”

No supermarket wine. Seems on odd sort of instruction. I love the second ‘please’ as if even the idea that someone might argue with them is too painful to contemplate. You can see the owners closing their eyes and shaking their heads wearily as they utter these words. It’s not going to be an easy one to police. When someone comes in with a bottle of Wolf Blass Chardonnay are they going to be given a grilling (pun intended) about whether they bought it from a cornershop or the local Tesco’s Metro?

It’s hard to know why they have this instruction. Is it on aesthetic grounds? Would a bottle of commercial Malbec upset their carefully constructed flavours? I rather think though it’s on ethical grounds perhaps with a side order of snobbery thrown in. The owners think that supermarkets are a bad thing.

I don’t want to get into an argument about the ethics of supermarkets. On the whole I think they’re a good thing for the customer. Moreover, people like them. I’d say that nearly 100% of Peckham Bazaar’s potential clientele are supermarket shoppers. If they want to serve all the local community rather than just the dedicated foodies then they are going to have to put up with people who don’t share their views on supermarkets.

And this is the odd thing about it: they’re trying to impose their personal morality on their customers. It’s like a vegetarian restaurant not letting people in who wear leather shoes. Either have a BYO day or don’t, but don’t have one and then tell people where they can or can’t buy their wines.

The sad thing is that you can sort of see what they’re getting at. Support your local shopkeeper. If you are lucky enough to have good local shops, then for God’s sake use them as much as possible. If there is a good local wine shop why not ask them to offer a small discount to your customers on BYO day? It’s really not that complicated. You can spread a little bit of happiness through the community without having to resort to passive-aggressive diktats.

I’m still planning to go because the food sounds too good to miss. If i’m feeling brave I might even try to smuggle a bottle of M&S Xinomavro past the door police. As they open it, I’ll feel like I’m striking a blow for the ordinary folk of South East London.

 

 

 

 

 

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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:

 

 

Categories
Wine articles

Mouton Rothschild – an affordable luxury

unnamedIn 2012 I won a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1996 in a writing competition on Jancis Robinson’s site. When we moved house last year I didn’t trust the movers with it so I wrapped it up in layers of bubble wrap and carried it myself. Since then it has been sitting under the stairs looking for an excuse to be opened. Last month I learnt that my book will now be published so I invited my parents over for a celebration. It seemed as good a time as any especially as the cupboard under the stairs is too warm for long term wine storage. That was when the worrying started: I worried that it might be a bit young; Jancis Robinson recommended not opening it until 2015; I worried that I might drop it; I worried about what sort of food I should have with it – my wine books said lamb or beef but my wife is off the lamb and my mother doesn’t eat beef. I worried so much that I almost gave up on the whole thing. Eventually I pulled myself together, went to the butchers and bought a loin of pork.

While it was roasting, I gingerly opened the bottle, poured myself a tiny glass and had a sniff. It smelt extremely powerful and worryingly, very oaky. Had I opened it too early or perhaps I just wasn’t going to be to my taste? I decanted it, kept the sediment to make gravy and put the decanted wine in the fridge to cool slightly. Meanwhile I washed the delicate Riedel glasses that I never use as the last time I did I broke one.

How could a wine that I had approached with such reverence fail to be a disappointment? click here to read more at Tim Atkin’s site. 

Categories
Books Wine articles

The heyday of wine publishing

I have a bit of thing about old wine books. I can’t resist picking them up no matter how rubbish they might look. My latest acquisition from  Oxfam is called Supernosh by Anthony Worrall-Thompson and Malcolm Gluck. It features the authors on the front cover resplendent in brash 80s clothing (though it was published in 1993 – the 80s carried on well into the 90s in some parts of the wine trade) both looking a bit tipsy with looks on their faces as if to say: “I can’t believe we’re being paid to write this shit”. Inside there’s some spiel about how the book was cooked up by their agents over a boozy lunch. Unbelievably it’s published by the house of TS Eliot, Faber & Faber. Looking back now, the 80s and 90s were a golden age to be a wine writer. Newspapers were expanding their wine coverage, there were regular wine slots on television including lavish BBC series and wine publishing was booming. It was the age of Oz Clarke’s New Classic wines – proper well-researched wine writing, written for a mainstream audience, and the Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson seemed to have a book out every year (plus ca change one might say). Faber’s wine list headed up by Julian Jeffs had off-beat personal books such as Patrick Matthews’ the Wild Bunch and Mitchell Beazley were in their pomp. Wine writing was the new food writing.

It all seems a long time ago. Faber sold off their wine list to Mitchell Beazley in 2002.  I spoke with a mole at Mitchell Beazley who wished to remain anonymous. He (or perhaps she) told me that when he started at Mitchell Beazley in the late 90s, he pretty much only worked on wine books.  Now it was mainly food books. According to him, Mitchell Beazley published too many wine books including some that were too specialist – trying to sell a book devoted to Canadian wine in 2005 seems particularly optimistic. Having a full time specialist editor was expensive for the rare successes such as their New series including Andrew Jefford’s the New France (still one of my favourites). In some ways the decline in wine books just reflects the decline in publishing in general, the decline of bookshops, of newspapers, but this isn’t the whole answer because food books currently buck this trend. The Mitchell Beazley wine list is now principally Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson with a few specialist books including, of course, Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. Their last attempt at building a new mainstream wine writer was Matt Skinner who they thought was going to be the Jamie Oliver of wine. He wasn’t.

Nowadays the idea of a Gluck/ Worrall-Thompson type affair being cooked up over a long lunch belongs to another age. In fact the idea of having anything cooked up over a boozy lunch is unlikely as most publishing lunches these days are dry. When I was trying to shop my history of modern Britain told through wine around, my agent was adamant that we mustn’t let anyone think it was a wine book. He positioned it as a sort of Giles Milton-esque narrative history thing with added alcohol. Even so, despite a lot of positive noises, no publisher picked it up.

I’m now doing my book, Empire of Booze, through Unbound, a crowd-sourcing publisher. The future of wine books is now outside the mainstream publishing. You can self-publish like Neal Martin did with Pomerol or Benjamim Lewin with Wine Myths and Reality, you can crowd source like I’m trying to do with my book and Wink Lorch did with her book on the Jura, or you can do it with the help of Berry Bros like Jasper Morris did with his recent Burgundy book. Publishers are finding it increasingly hard to connect with readers, but wine writers know their readers and can find them. At least I hope they can.

The one problem with this new world is that the big mainstream books, the sort that need lavish funding, will not be written (unless they’re by Jancis Robinson and/ or Hugh Johnson). There is no new Jancis, Oz or Hugh. I’m dying to read books such as New New Classic Wines – perhaps looking at Eastern Europe, the Levant and South America, or the New New France, but these are the kind of projects that only a big publisher can bankroll.

Categories
Wine articles

Bordeaux: dad wine

Every new generation rebels by rubbishing its parents tastes. Apart from me, that is. My only rebellious act was to not play golf. My grandmother once said to me after my grandfather’s death ‘he (my grandfather) always worried about you not playing golf.’ It was as if ‘not playing golf’ was symptomatic of other great failings.

‘How’s your grandson Henry?’ one could imagine someone asking him at his golf club.

‘He doesn’t play golf, if you know what I mean.’

‘Oh dear, oh dear, a non-golfer in the family. Very rum.’

Anyway Bordeaux. This region is much disparaged by the Young Turks of the wine world. It’s seen as out-of-touch, expensive, elitist etc. Most wine writers define themselves against the great Robert Parker Jnr (not the composer of the Ghostbusters theme tune but the world’s most influential wine writer.) He made his reputation on Bordeaux and made a lot of Bordelais very rich. He’s the daddy of wine so it’s little wonder that people want to rebel by having nothing to do with his favourite region. There’s been some debate about this on the world wide wine web recently. I’m not going to paraphrase the arguments, you can read Jancis Robinson & Jamie Goode on the subject.

I don’t have much to add except to say that I really really like Bordeaux. It was the wine that I was brought up on and the first wine that I learnt to appreciate. The main criticism of this region is that it is now, thanks to Ray Parker Jnr, too expensive for ordinary drinkers. And indeed for the famous names this is true but every so often I come across a really delicious sub £10 claret.  Here’s one:

Chateau Puy Garance 09 – if you’re looking for good value Bordeaux, Cotes-de-Castillon is the place to go. This is amazing stuff with very ripe fruit but then lots of leather and pencil shavings. All this for £6.95 a bottle from the Wine Society. I really cannot think of a better wine for the money. Also pretty good is the Chateau Meaume. I had the 09 recently but I think Majestic are now onto the 10. 

We always drank the house claret when my grandfather took us  for Sunday lunch at the golf club (known as The Club.) It usually consisted of over-cooked roast beef with prawn cocktail to start. The wine wasn’t that good either being thin, underripe stuff of the sort that sent thousands of British drinkers into the arms of Australia and Chile. How much better it would have been if we’d had the Puy Garance. I might have even stayed for a round of golf.

Categories
Wine articles

Technically neither (or partly both)

In 2011 I worked with a writer called Elif Batuman on her book The Possessed. (Perhaps my proudest moment as a publicist was having a cameo role in a Guardian article she wrote at the time which has oddly been taken down from their website so here’s a link to something else.) Most of the time we were together she was being plagued by fact checkers from the New Yorker magazine asking her how many pins Russian plugs have or some such. The constant questions were driving her mad but I just thought how cool would it be to have the New Yorker bothering you about things. British papers famously aren’t such sticklers for accuracy, except it would seem at the Lady. Every week I file a column of the usual conjecture, half-truths and gossip, and they call me up and ask whether champagne was really invented by Alexander de Tocqueville or port a traditional East African cure for Bilharzia. More often than not, I am wrong so I’m glad that they do check or I’d lose my hard won credibility in the wine world.

Last week I filed a column rhapsodizing about a wine called Domaine L’ Aigueliere Grenat that I’d drunk 15 years ago and never forgotten. In it I blithely stated that Grenat was Occitan for Grenache. The Lady fact checkers pounced. They couldn’t find any mention of it. I was sure that someone had told me Grenat was a local dialect word for Grenache and as it comes from a formerly Occitan speaking area I made a leap of logic/ imagination. Turns out there is absolutely nothing to back this up. Grenat in French means Garnet – a red gem stone (of course you knew that but I didn’t, I’d heard people calling wine garnet-hewed in the past and had not a clue about what they were talking about.) I spoke to two authorities on French wine, Louise Hurren , a wine PR person and writer, and Julia Harding MW from Jancis Robinson’s site. They both said that Grenat was a term used in the Roussillon to describe a non-oxidised style of fortified wine. They both sent me a link to the Appellation rules which I pretended to understand; my French never really progressed beyond the ‘you are writing to a penfriend in La Rochelle’ stage. The thing that I did pick up is that to qualify as Grenat it has to be made from at least 75% Grenache.

I then went on to ask about what the word Grenat meant in this case, did it refer to the colour perhaps? I was told that it was a term used in Rivesaltes etc etc. It turned into quite a circular discussion. I then asked ‘so when a Rivesaltes is called Grenat – is the word referring to the fact that its made from Grenache or the colour’, the reply from Louise was ‘technically neither (or partly both.)” I had flash backs to wrestling with Foucault and Derrida as part of my English degree. I retired defeated. The funny thing is that there are other wines not fortified described as Grenat such as my Domaine d’Aiguliere and this unusual Vacqueyras which is made from noble rot-affected grapes.

So what does the word Grenat actually mean when it comes to wine? Nobody seems to know but one thing I’ve learnt if it says Grenat, the wine will be mainly Grenache. I hope one day to get to the bottom of this but for the time being, I just want to thank the poor over-worked fact-checkers at the Lady for stopping me making another mistake and opening my eyes to another layer of mystery in the mysterious world of wine.

Categories
Beer Books Wine articles

Booze book round-up for the Guardian

This is the uncut version of an article that appeared in the Guardian on Saturday:

Oddbins stocked a wine in the late 90s called Kiwi Cuvee. It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the South France designed to taste as if it came from New Zealand. This summed up the direction wine was going at the time. For supermarkets flying wine-makers made products around the world to a formula and at the top end highly-paid consultants created lush ‘iconic’ wines for collectors. There were still plenty of interesting wines out there but the received opinion, not least from the European Union, was that unfashionable vines such a Carignan should be ripped out to be replaced with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This homogenising trend is over. Variety is now everything. Whereas before the concept of terroir – a sense of place – was mocked by Anglos as a marketing device invented by the French to sell wine without any fruit character, nowadays it’s a term used even by Australians. It’s telling that it is no longer italicised (though my spellcheck still tries to change it to terrier).

It couldn’t be a better time, therefore, for Jancis Robinson & Hugh Johnson to publish the latest edition of their World Atlas of Wine Atlas. It’s a very different book to the last edition in 2007 and now includes small scale maps of some of the most exciting emerging regions such as Croatia, around  Mount Etna in Sicily and Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne which is rivalling Burgundy for its elegant Pinot Noirs. The book is a celebration of terroir and a logical companion to Robinson’s Wine Grapes (2012) – an expensive and exhaustive encyclopaedia of every grape variety in the world. More than just being thorough, there’s an infectious sense of glee about this new Atlas. One gets the impression that Johnson and, in particular, Robinson with her humorous pedantry, really enjoyed writing it. The other new edition of a classic that is well worth buying is Alex Liddell’s Madeira, the Mid-Atlantic Wine. Madeira is a wine whose long and colourful history you can actually taste – 19th century wines from this island are still good to drink. Berry Bros & Rudd stock an 1875 D’Oliveira Malvazia for £689 a bottle.

It’s not only wine in which variety is being rediscovered. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t easy to find a of decent pint of bitter in London but recently a new wave of pubs have opened dedicated to craft products. Cider, for a long time a joke drunk by teenagers in bus shelters and the Wurzels, is now attracting serious attention. Best known for his beer writing, Pete Brown, has produced World’s Best Cider with Bill Bradshaw. Although it looks like a coffee table book with lots of, often stunning, photos it’s also written with wit, knowledge and passion. You might even go as far as describe Brown and Bradsaw as the Johnson and Robinson of cider. I had no idea that cider was so widespread outside the three cider superpowers of England, France and Spain. The Germans make cider and express surprise that anyone else does, the Irish drink the most cider per head and in Quebec they make a super sweet ice cider. It’s not all good news though, it’s shocking how few actual apples go into some commercial brands. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that cider is currently the most exciting drink in Britain and it will improve as growers match the best apple varieties to the right land just as the French did in Bordeaux and Burgundy generations ago.

It’s a great time to be drinking but it’s not necessarily a great time to be reading about drink. I saw far too many books along the lines of ‘200 Wines to Impress your Father-in-law’ or a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Craft Beer’. Most were illustrated and designed to be easily marketed to English language readers worldwide. They’re all starting to look alike when the products they celebrate are increasingly diverse. Drink books are now either for gifts or reference. What is lacking is the sort of book that you want to read in bed; an Elizabeth David or Jeffrey Steingarten of wine, perhaps, to make you smile, think and, rather than trying to educate, assumes a certain knowledge and interest on behalf of the reader.  There are lots of people writing about drink in an interesting way on the internet. There are even some Americans trying to combine comedy with wine albeit not very successfully. None of these writers however, are producing engaging books for the general reader.

The two books that I enjoyed most this year didn’t come from traditional publishers. Don’t be put off by the rather exclusive title of the first, “Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues: 60 Years of the Oxford & Cambridge Blind Wine-Tasting Competition” shows how  wine writers can entertain when they’re given a bit of space to breath. It features noted wine types letting their hair down or at least giving their toupees a good airing. I particularly enjoyed Oz Clarke on sticking it to the toffs as a grammar school boy at Oxford and Will Lyons on claret and the Auld Alliance. The second is an ebook only thing called the Sediment Guide to Wining and Dining. It brings a mixture of seriousness and silliness to the strange ritual of the dinner party. In the right hands wine and laughter can go together. Maybe next year a publisher will have the nerve to commission a full-length book in a similar spirit.

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Categories
Wine articles

Reading and boozing

I’ve been sent a lot of books about booze this year so I thought it would be fun to drink as much as I could and then read them. Here are my thoughts:

The Champagne Guide 2014/2015 – Tyson Stelzer

There are many things to like about this book: the author sounds like a character from Money by Martin Amis; it looks beautiful with its understated art deco cover; but most of all Stelzer clearly knows a terrifying amount about champagne. I imagine he thinks of little else. My only quibble with this book is that you will think twice before buying another bottle because it reveals a shocking lack of consistency in this very expensive wine. Not only do bottles from the same producer with the same label vary wildly in age and quality but a large minority will actually be flawed.  If Stelzer is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt him, then there could be disaster on the horizon for champagne. Once it loses the sheen of quality, then champagne could go the way of sherry with collapsing sales and prices. His solution seems to be to drink Bollinger, which is fine by me. Oh sorry one more quibble, at one point he refers to ‘the Queen of England.’ As an Australian he really should know better.

500 Wines for 100 Occasions – David Williams

I think the author struggled to think up 100 occasions so along with the classics, 50th birthdays, weddings and Valentine’s Day, there are others that are a little over-specific such as wine to go with a difficult neighbour, wine to drink on a cruise and what to drink when your colleagues come over. They reminded me of that Fry & Laurie sketch with the condolence cards: ‘I’m right sorry to learn yer, that’s you’ve succumbed to another nasty hernia.’ Still Williams is a good writer and his recommendations are hard to disagree with.

Complete Wine Selector – Katherine Cole

Every year, someone produces a book like this that attempts to sum up wine for beginners. This one succeeds better than most. It’s clearly laid out, simply written and does a good job of demystifying the subject. It’s not really for me as I’m more into the mystifying but if you like simplicity, then you’ll like this. What gave it a little more personality than its rivals were the short interviews and quotes from well-known restaurateurs, cooks and sommeliers (though to my shame, I’d not heard of any of them.)

The World Atlas of Wine – Jancis Robinson & Hugh Johnson

Wonderfully thorough updated guide to the wine world. It’s also a beautiful-looking thing. If you’re interested in wine, you should have a copy of this. I’ve reviewed this and the one below for the Guardian so will put a link in when it’s up.

World’s Best Cider – Pete Brown & Bill Bradshaw

In contrast this one is a bit of mess from the photo-shopped cover to the typographical chaos that reigns inside. The words though, are all top quality. Brown, author of some great beer books, writes in the sort of robust Anglo Saxon that would have made Orwell happy. It’s not only a guide to ciders from around the world, and it really is a global product, but a history of and implicit manifesto for this much-abused drink.

Boutique Beer – Ben MacFarland

Again this is not a pretty book (it’s from the same publisher.) As someone who doesn’t know a lot about beer beyond drinking the stuff, I found the layout confusing with beers labelled by seemingly arbitrary categories. The author writes distinctively, I think you’ll either find him funny or wish he’d just stick to the point. His discursive style reminded me of a 1990s music journalist. You can read him here getting worked up over the Imperial pint glass. Still the author has been voted best beer writer in the world many times so clearly knows his stuff and it did make me want to be a more adventurous in my beer drinking.

Pocket Beer Book 2014 – Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb

Does almost everything that Boutique Beer does but with a more logical layout and more relaxing prose. Also fits in your pocket if you’ve got very big pockets.

And then it all got too much. . . .

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Categories
Restaurants Wine articles

Is the Wine Society evil?

dr-strangelove_00337070Of course it isn’t! For a start they don’t have a Dr Strangelove-style war room in Stevenage with a world map covering in blinking lights. But if I was an independent wine merchant I wouldn’t be too happy with this institution. The Wine Society has an advantage over most other merchants for two reasons: 1) it has massive buying power being the second (or it might be the third) biggest mail order wine company in the country after Direct Wines (Laithwaite’s et al); 2) it’s a mutual society owned by its members so it doesn’t have to make a profit for shareholders. All the money is ploughed back into the society. In the £6-15 bracket, it cannot be beaten on price. Unlike other wine businesses with huge buying power such as supermarkets and Majestic, it does not discount so the price you see is the best price. I lose track of the number of times I’ve spoken to a wine merchant who has sighed wearily when I’ve pointed out how the Wine Society does it for £2 cheaper.

Where the Wine Society differs from other big institutions, Tesco’s, BBC, Amazon, who make it hard for smaller players is its lack of ambition. Whereas one imagines that Amazon does have a war room with each blinking light representing a bookshop to be snuffed out, the Wine Society are not planning to sell every bottle of wine in the UK and then Ireland and then Europe. They’re expanding very slowly. Nevertheless they do undoubtedly take business from smaller merchants and if I was a wine merchant I would avoid stocking anything that the Wine Society also stocks. As a wine writer whose readers are interested in value – I’ve been told off by the editor of the Lady for recommending anything too expensive – it’s often very hard not to write about them. It doesn’t help matters that their PR people are so good, their staff so nice and don’t get me started on the vast sums they pay me to write for their newsletter. Because of this temptation to stick with what I know, I make a conscious effort to sniff out interesting wine from small merchants. Not out of any patronising notion that I should support indies but because it keeps the column interesting. The reason I don’t feature many wines from supermarkets is not because they are big but because they’re not very interesting to write about.

One merchant, Red Squirrel Wines, has gone further and thinks that writers should not feature wines from the Society at all because it is a club. He likens a wine columnist featuring the Wine Society to a restaurant critic writing about Annabel’s. It’s a funny comparison but doesn’t really bear a closer look. To join Annabel’s you need a proposer, a seconder and then your membership application is put before a committee. You also need to pay £1000 to join and £1000 a year thereafter. Anyone can join the Wine Society for £40, you don’t even need a friend to propose you. If you’re interested in wine, then it’s not a big outlay. By Mr Red Squirrel’s logic, a television reviewer shouldn’t write about programs on Sky as you need to subscribe in order to watch them. 

Even if the Wine Society was as exclusive as Annabel’s, I might still like to read about it. I read restaurant reviews of places that my only chance of getting a table would be to sleep with the maitre d’ – and be really good.  I read Jancis Robinson’s vertical tasting of Sassicaia. I watch Jeremy Clarkson driving very expensive cars very very fast. I read about lots of things that I cannot or have no intention of sampling. One of the reasons that wine columns can be dull is that they’re perceived as shopping lists rather than entertainment.

Categories
Books Wine articles

Hugh Johnson: A Life Uncorked

51RF055N6ELLast year I was briefly a wine merchant. I imported a few cases of Hungarian wine to sell to friends. One of my worries about this business venture was how  it would look  for a wine writer to be involved with selling wine. Obviously I wasn’t going to review my own wine, oh hang, actually I did review my own wine but I promise that was before I’d decided to import it though perhaps it was at the back of my mind to import it when I wrote the review so at a subconscious level my words could not be trusted. You see the problem? Once you become involved in other aspects of the business, you have to be very careful. One not only has to do the right thing but be seen to do it.

I was reminded of my own brush with disgrace whilst rereading Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked recently. This is a memoir of Johnson’s life in the wine business. Memoir isn’t quite the right word as we learn very little about Johnson’s personal life, sadly there’s nothing about his Studio 54 days with Bianca Jagger*, but we do learn a lot about wine and about Johnson’s take on it. It works in a way that some other attempts to weave wine and biography don’t as Johnson’s life has been so inextricably linked with his subject. Not only is he a writer and editor but he’s also involved with the Sunday Times Wine Club, helped draw up the British Airways first class wine list, owned a shop specialising in wine accessories, been a director at Chateau Latour and started the Royal Tokaji Company as well as owning his own vineyard in the Loire. In short, we should trust him about as far as we can throw him.

Johnson is just the kind of clubbable British writer that Robert Parker warned us about. Parker explicitly set himself up in opposition to the Johnsons of the world. Parker is the Eliot Ness of wine writing. His newsletter the Wine Advocate does not accept advertising. He has never worked in the wine trade, he does not accept trips at other people’s expense, his reviews are entirely disinterested. To quote Parker: ‘It is imperative for a wine critic to pay his own way.”

I should add that I trust Johnson implicitly. He has his reputation to consider and any hint of impropriety would be the end of him. But you do have to make that leap of trust, with Parker his scrupulousness is his calling card. Comparing Johnson, and Parker, however, is to miss the point because they are doing very different things. Ironically for someone who only makes a small part of his livelihood from writing, Johnson is the writer whereas Parker provides consumer advice. Parker’s rise coincided with the arrival in Bordeaux of new money from America and elsewhere. These people needed advice and it had to be utterly impartial and easy to understand. It was a the case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.

In contrast, you read Johnson for the language, the stories and because he makes you think. For someone who seems such a natural establishment figure, Johnson can be quietly subversive. He doesn’t layout a manifesto, instead he questions the importance of certain aspects of the wine world such as the wines of Etienne Guigal, the importance of Riedel glasses and giving wine a score out of 100. He has little time for fashion and received opinions. Whereas most writers chase novelty, Johnson sees things sub specie aeternitatis (with eternity’s gaze – a little Latin doesn’t seem too pretentious when writing about Johnson.) Johnson has managed the difficult job of keeping his various wine ventures separate from his job as a critic. I doubt I could.

Overt corruption in the sense of money changing hands for a good review is unusual but the issue of soft corruption in the wine world is a perennial one. Writers worry about whether they should accept flights from marketing bodies, attend often very lavish dinners and some even think that samples might be a step too far, forgetting or perhaps not realising that this is how literary pages function and nobody thinks that book reviewers are corrupt (though in Britain they’re rarely disinterested.)  Coming from bloggers and journalists with columns in low-circulation magazines this probity is rather touching but it makes the mistake of assuming that people are reading for impartial consumer advice rather than for amusement. In fact all this worrying assumes that people are reading full stop. Luckily you can normally tell when a writer has become a little too cosy with his subject as the resulting article will be boring. Johnson is never boring.

* This is a joke, as far as I am aware Hugh Johnson never went to Studio 54 with or without Bianca Jagger.