Wine articles

Why I write about wine (apart from the free wine)

I found this introduction that I wrote when I became Lady wine critic in 2011 (I was fired in 2015). It still holds up for why I write about wine though I did break my own promises many many types with spuriously seasonal columns such as “the sun’s out, it’s time for rosé (again)”.

It is customary for new wine writers about to plunge into this crowded field to start with a preamble about how they are going to be different from everyone else. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in his new book, The Table Comes First, thinks this is due to a lack of confidence in readers’ interest:

“No subject produces a literature so anxious, expressed not so much in its grandiosity as in its defensive jokiness and regular guydom. A book on wine will always begin with the assurance that it is not like all those other books on wine, even though all those other books on wine begin by saying that they’re not like those other books on wine, either.”

Nevertheless I hope that this column is going to be a bit different. I am not going to pretend that wine is actually very straightforward. It isn’t. It’s a vast and still mysterious subject which is why it is so interesting. Unfortunately for the general reader, many writers feel the need to demonstrate their education. I have a great advantage here of not knowing that much. I am learning the whole time but I will try to never bore readers with newly-acquired facts about precipitation levels and soil types. I will also avoid extensive tasting notes. Putting flavours into words will always be underwhelming unless you have the descriptive powers of Milton.

I was brought up with the vague idea that good wine was something important. Beyond muttering ‘playful but not extravagant’ after a sip of claret my father was, alas, not much help in educating me. It was in my local branch of Oddbins when I was at university where I first started to learn. I spent so much time there that they offered me a job. After two years in the wine trade, I moved into publishing – the two businesses have an affinity for each other – but kept up my burgeoning love affair with wine through drinking and reading everything I could on the subject. My favourite writers on wine are not professionals but enthusiastic amateurs such as Auberon Waugh, Kingsley Amis or Roger Scruton.  

Like the work of these three, the primary function of this monthly column is to entertain, the secondary is to recommend good things to drink and if we learn something that will be a happy side effect. I hope that readers will write in with queries or tell me when I have confused Verdelho with Verdejo (both are grape varieties the first grows mainly on Madeira the second in Rueda in Spain). I’ll avoid spurious seasonal hooks such as ‘it’s May it must be time for rosé.’ Christmas, however, I have no such qualms about using as a peg. It is, in my memory, inextricably linked to wine: the mid morning champagne; the cut crystal glasses, useless for tasting but so pretty on the table; the sediment on the side of the claret bottle; and  best of all port’s yearly outing.

I’ll be posting some Christmas recommendations soon. 

Books Recipes Wine articles

Drunken cookery competition

One of my favourite ways of spending a rainy weekend is to cook a time-consuming though not particularly complicated dish whilst slowly getting drunk. Something like a Bouef Bourgignon with one bottle of wine for the dish and one for the chef. I’ll put some jazz on in the kitchen, Hank Mobley or Mose Allison perhaps, and get chopping and drinking. Hopefully there’ll be enough left in the second bottle for my wife and I to have a glass with the finished dish.

In my student days, I did things rather differently. We had blackened saucepan in the kitchen filled with old oil and after a night at the pub, we’d make chips. Not just chips, pretty much anything would go into that vat of boiling oil, onion rings, sausages, parsips, sometimes I’d spit beer into the oil and watch the explosions. It’s a minor miracle that no one got hurt. I did, however, get quite chubby so there was a consequence to my irresponsibility. When I was sent the Drunken Cookbook (sequel to the best-selling Hungover Cookbook) by Milton Crawford, I immediatly looked for the deep-frying section, nothing tastes better when drunk than deep-fried food. Mr Crawford is, however, a lot more responsible than I was, and warns against deep-frying when drunk. Happily there are lots of other great recipes to try when hammered or even just mildly tipsy. In fact the recipes are graded as to how drunk you could be to attempt them. He’s also mixed in some stories from well-known booze enthusiasts such as Kingsley Amis. It’s fun to cook from or would make a great present for the drunkard in your life.

Square Peg, the publishers, have very kindly offered me three copies to giveaway. Simply let me know your favourite thing to cook when under the influence or even a good anecdote about drunken cookery. I will be consulting with the author and anything that makes us laugh or salivate stands a chance of winning. You can answer below or email me at henry g jeffreys at gmail dot com.


Books Wine articles

Reading and drinking

One simply cannot have too many books about booze. I’ll even read those books about supermarket wine with titles like Easyquaff and Fruity! that were all the rage a few years ago. In particular I like ones from second hand bookshops by old buffers whose entry for California simply say ‘apparently some enterprising colonial types have planted vines. The wines are not undrinkable.’ See my post on Faugeres. Sadly today new wine books are in short supply. Faber & Faber dropped their list years ago and Mitchell-Beazley’s range is not what it once was. The last great wine book they published except Hugh Johnson’s Atlas was Andrew Jefford’s The New France. Here are a couple of books that I cannot do without plus a few newer ones that have caught my fancy. It goes without saying that all them are better sampled with a small glass of tawny port.

The Wild Bunch: Great Wine from Small Producers by Patrick Matthews. This one is out of print but thanks to the internet you can easily get hold of it. I reread it once a year and always notice something new. It was published in the mid 90s and examines the hidden wine revolution of small dedicated growers making their own wine outside the classic regions. In his quest for idiosyncratic wines, Matthews preempts the whole natural wine movement by a decade. If you want to know why wine is so exciting, read this book. The author’s curiosity makes him great company; as a reader you feel that you are learning with him rather than being lectured. The prices makes me a little melancholy: Ch. Musar at £9, Tahbilk Marsanne at £5.79. I wish an enterprising publisher would commission Matthews to write an updated version.

The Oxford Companion Wine by Jancis Robinson and her team of wine elves. If you are even slightly serious about wine you need a copy of this book.

Newer books:

The Quest for Wine and Love or How I saved the world from Parkerisation by Alice Feiring. Ignore the awful title, cover and the attempts by the publisher to turn this into an Eat, Pray, Love of wine, there is a brilliant book here fighting to get out. Feiring is furious about the increasing homogenisation of wine. If you wonder why premium wines are often undrinkable and Rioja isn’t what it used to be, then you should read this book. I am looking forward to what she does next.

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. The best of the wine guides.

Whisky books:

101 Whiskies to try before you die by Ian Buxton. This looks like a Megaquaff book for Scotch but it’s actually an opinionated, engaging and witty guide to the diverse whisky world.

World Atlas of Whisky by Dave Broom. If the Buxton book is the 12 year old malt that whets your appetite then this is the 18 year old aged in oloroso casks and packaged in a wooden box that marks the start of a serious whisky habit.

General Booze:

Cooking with Booze by George Harvey Bone. Top recipes interspersed with anecdotes from the author’s eccentric family.

The Hungover Cookbook by Milton Crawford . Inspired by P. G Wodehouse and Kingsley Amis this is an amusing guide to what to eat the next day after a night on the Bristol Cream.

Publishers and authors, please let me know if there are any that you think I have missed. I would love to be proved wrong about the lack of quality wine books out there.