Booze interview: Fergus Butler-Gallie

This week I’m delighted to have writer, man of the cloth and most notable ambassador for the double-breasted blazer since Jerry from The Good Life as guest on World of Booze, Fergus Butler-Gallie. You might know him as one of the funniest people on twitter, he recently created an infographic to show how far on foot each C. of E. Diocesan Bishop has to walk from his cathedral to the nearest Nando’s, important stuff, I think we can agree. By day he works as a curate in Liverpool while finding the time to write two books: Field Guide to the English Clergy, an extremely funny look at the great eccentrics from the Church of England, and Priests de la Resistance, about the clergy who fought fascism. The former is one of those books perfectly-formed books that you’ll keep wanting to read bits out to your wife/ life-in-lover/ congregation, and it’s so good that she/he/they won’t mind. Favourite entries include the Right Reverend Howell Witt who entertained his rural Australian parishioners by dragging up as the Dowager Duchess of Dingo Creek, and the Reverend Harold Davidson, the lady-loving Rector of Stiffkey, who was eaten by a lion at a circus in Skegness. As you might expect, there’s quite a bit of booze, so I thought that the author would be just the person to talk to us about drink.

HGJ: When did you first realise that wine was something special? Was there a particular bottle that was an epiphany?

FBG: There was, I remember a particular bottle- a deep brown Australian pudding wine (its provenance beyond those details I forget) which I pilfered from the back of the parental drinks cabinet whilst I was at school and then drank with my friends (as was our custom instead of, well, doing any work). I remember it being such a marvellous change from the warm gin and half-curdled limoncello that such heists normally provided us with; warm raisin flavours with all the datey stickiness of a nursery pudding. I suppose that was, in its own way revelatory, but it didn’t stop us from returning to the warm gin and bootleg whisky the following week.

Jerry Leadbetter from the Good Life

HGJ: Did you have a similar epiphany about becoming a priest?

FBG: There was no burning bush moment for me, rather a slow, dawning sense that this was a vocation I should take seriously (a task I am still working on if I’m honest). It was something I would joke about but, as I became more convinced of the claims of Christianity, the joke, as is so often the case, became a reality. There are various points where that sense became clearer- experienced everywhere from Kent country churches and soaring Oxford chapels to the back streets of Prague and freezing French mountainsides. My conversion though, perhaps unusually, was always in head before heart, and it’s something I hope I’m still working on. They say God calls those to priesthood whom he cannot save by other means, and, whilst slightly facetious (and exhibiting a profoundly dubious soteriology) there’s an element of that which rings true for me.

HGJ: How does one become a priest?

FBG: Blood, sweat, tears etc. Really it’s a series of initial hoops to jump through, followed by filling in the same form multiple times, being locked in a retreat centre/borstal in Staffordshire for three days, followed by three years at a theological college (though one can get time off for good behaviour). Then it’s up to the bishop and the imparting of the Holy Ghost.

HGJ: What’s your favourite hymn?

FBG: This is a tough one- I’m afraid I’ll have to be very C of E and not commit to one but rather provide a list: Thine be the Glory for Easter, When I survey the wondrous Cross for Lent, Lo, He comes with Clouds descending, for Advent, All Praise to Thee my God this night for the saintly insight of Bishop Ken, Jerusalem the Golden for its vision of the Heavenly City, And can it be for Wesley’s ingenious distillation of the miracle of Grace. Frankly, as befits an innately negative person, I actually find it easier to name my most hated rather than my best loved.

HJ: Who was the booziest clergyman you encountered in your research?

FBG: Plenty of live ones, but I feel I ought to redact this part of the answer for legal reasons. In terms of the dead rather than the quick it was either The Reverend Dr Edward Drax Free, who locked himself in his rectory after stripping his own roof of lead to cover gambling debts, and only came out and surrendered to the Bishop of Lincoln when his wine cellar ran dry or Canon Felix Kir, a Roman Catholic cleric of Dijon who drank so much blanc de cassis that they simply cut out the middleman and named the drink after him.

HGJ: I like to imagine being in the Church of England is a bit like the scenes in Father Ted when Ted goes to Dublin ie. lots of excellent port. Is it anything like that?

FBG: Ha! The reality is a little more prosaic- especially up here in Liverpool where there’s a little more ‘front line’ work to be done than elsewhere. That said, there are moments where a nice glass of something can be enjoyed- I was recently sent a bottle of 1977 port (so encrusted with cellarial goodness that the label had malted off, but I am assured it is good) from the Dean of Emmanuel College in thanks for giving a talk to the clergy of the parishes where they are patron. I’m hoping to enjoy that soon.

HGJ: Does the C. of E still have cellars of old wines like Oxford colleges or gentlemen’s clubs?

FBG: I fear these days it’s more a case of grabbing a Pinot Grigio from the inside of a fridge at the end of a long day for many clergy! That said, I’ve rarely been served bad wine when dining with clerics. I know an archdeacon with an excellent collection and we try to serve decent wine when we have events at Liverpool Parish Church. We are lucky to have a first class wine merchant round the corner who does us excellent deals on various bottles.

HGJ: Do you still get offered sherry when you visit parishioners?

FBG: Absolutely- I always assure them that they’re very much on trend when they do. In my experience all Shoreditch is now alight with Fino pairings.

HGJ: Where do you buy your wine from? Do you have a favourite merchant?

HGJ: I use Berry Bros in London and both Cultural Wine and R&H Fine wines here in Liverpool. Cultural Wine introduced me to Txakoli (perfect for a working lunch) and converted me from Rioja sceptic to fan and R&H have some of the best priced Sauternes I have ever encountered, as well as being my source for the odd bottle of really farmyardy Jura.

HGJ: What’s your favourite region?

FBG: Depends- I love a white Burgundy. I was in Chablis last summer and could have quite happily drunk myself to death there. Red wise, I adore any of the heavier, tanniny, headache inducing left bank clarets. A proper hangover soup.

HGJ: What were the highlights of your Christmas drinking?

FBG: I actually didn’t do a huge amount of Christmas drinking! The job rather prevents too much of that. That said, my sister recently returned from the Lebanon and so my parents sourced some Chateau Musar from her which I had a tipple of on a brief New Year visit home. It was sublime. Otherwise I spent Christmas with some parishioners who furnished me with excellent champagne all day and then on Boxing Day evening I visited some friends and had a glass of a positively geriatric armagnac, whose appellation escapes me, it was nectar.

HGJ: Where’s your favourite place to drink in Liverpool? Or anywhere really.

FBG: Too many places, arguably! The city is awash with absolutely first class pubs- Ye Cracke, The Roscoe Head, The Baltic Fleet, Peter Kavanagh’s, The Belvedere Arms- all are on my standard tour of Liverpool for a newcomer. Otherwise it is the Artist’s Club on Eberle Street- a venerable city institution where an afternoon can easily dissolve into a bottle of excellent red. Otherwise, the Rose and Crown in Oxford was my go to for my student years- I still kiss the threshold on arrival. In town I have a softspot for the Prince Arthur, tucked away in a housing estate north of Old Street, Kentish ales on tap and where the regulars have named chairs, the French House in Soho for as many Pernods as is necessary to get me speaking French, The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town, for pork sandwiches, beer after beer and hours lost to endearingly stupid arguments among friends or the Pride of Spitalfields, a proper boozer I’ve only recently been introduced to but think very fine.

HGJ: Who do you think writes well about wine and drink in general?

FBG: Review wise, about the only thing I read in the Spectator now is Bruce Anderson– whose wine column has the glorious air of a pub conversation, wending its way, eventually to the real matter in hand, the booze, and Tanya Gold (who although she strictly does the restaurant reviews and so just about qualifies as ‘writing about drink in general’)- her reviews manage that perfect balance of giving you an exact sense of what the place is like, whilst refusing to get bogged down in boring detail- whimsical, informative and sharp at the same time. Perfection. Naming Kingsley Amis on Everyday Drinking might be a cliche but it’s such a wonderful piece, funny and so familiar to any seasoned drinker. Ned Ward’s London Spy, a piece from the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, is first class too, giving such a clear picture of how nocturnal drinking and later staggering hasn’t changed a bit.

HGJ: And finally, can wine or drink in general bring you closer to God?

FBG: If Christ saw fit to make wine his Blood and to turn mere water into booze (when, as the Gospel reminds us, they were already well drunk) then I think the answer must be an unequivocal yes.

This week I’m drinking . . . . Viña Majestica 2010

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Note uninspiring label 

I almost didn’t try this wine because the label is a bit dull, it’s part of Majestic’s Definition Range. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover and all that but when there are 200 wines to try you have to make entirely arbitrary decisions. Then I noticed from the embossed bottle that it was made by La Rioja Alta, one of my favourite rioja producers so I had a small glass with my lunch (I would also recommend the sausage rolls at Lord’s cricket ground where the tasting was held) and I was extremely impressed. It has the classic tobacco, ripe strawberries and melty tannins that you’d expect in a far more expensive rioja reserva but it’s only £10.99 when you buy a case. I’m going to serve it in my 19th century claret jug which holds two bottles and my guests will think I am really spoiling them.

I was at La Rioja Alta recently and though I can’t make a direct comparison, from memory this wine could compare with far more expensive offerings from this producer. I thought it better than Viña Alberdi Reserva 11 – currently £18.25 at Oddbins – and more enjoyable than the Viña Ardanza 08 – £22 at Majestic. Though the Ardanza should improve with a couple of years in the bottle, if you want a rioja for drinking now the Majestic own label one is unbeatable. So unbeatable in fact that it seems rather foolish of La Rioja Alta to release a wine of such quality for such a low price. On my tasting note on cellartracker, someone called Slimes (an assumed name, I assume) wrote:

“I thought I’d let you know that the next vintage will be made by a different producer. When I first tasted the 2009 at the winery, the staff at RA seemed to be a bit miffed that this was going for £10.99, so it’s no surprise that Majestic will have to source this from someone else over the next few years. I’m sure if you speak to your local store, they’ll happily give you a call when there’s sign of a vintage-change.”

My advice would be to hurry down to Majestic and load up on the 2010 while you still can. Then all you need is a 19th century claret jug.

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Behold! The mighty claret jug. Doesn’t it look very Tyrion Lannister?

Wine of the Week: Definition rioja from Majestic

Do you remember the lure of warehouse outlets? Getting lost somewhere near Hemel Hempstead looking for a place that did Pringle seconds was an intrinsic part of growing up in the 80s and 90s. Majestic successfully applied this concept to wine. Those scruffy shops, wooden pallets and piles of boxes promised, though didn’t always deliver, bargains. Nowadays though we don’t need to go to Hemel because we have the internet. Majestic’s business model is looking a little outdated, squeezed on value by internet retailers and supermarkets who are getting better at selling small parcels of wine and on service by the revitalised independent sector.

Majestic have taken on Rowan Gormley founder of Naked Wines in an attempt to revitalise the company. They’re trialling selling single bottles, previously you had to buy six, and in some stores they’re ditching the warehouse look completely. The refitted Mayfair shop looks like a modern independent such as Bottle Apostle with its Enomatic machines and bottles displayed horizontally as if they’re rare books. Apparently this is meant to be less intimidating to customers though I’d say making your shops fancier would make them more intimidating. They’re still keeping the special offers which means that most wines are overpriced unless they’re on offer.

What I used to love about Majestic were peculiar one off parcels they used to have such as Swedish claret and mature Germans rieslings  At one point, about fifteen years ago, they had a large selection of good German rieslings for around £5 a bottle. These began to dwindle and recent mature Germans have been a bit disappointing. They do sometimes have some old riojas in. It’s worth getting on their mailing list to hear about new offers. One not so old rioja caught my eye recently. It’s from their new own label range called Definition. This is the first time Majestic have done own labels. They’re wines from classic regions and on the whole they’re pretty good if not exactly cheap. One really stood out:

Definition Rioja Reserva 2009 (£12.99 – £10 when on offer which is a total bargain)

This is quite superb rioja for the price. The contrast between the tobacco and leather and the bright red fruit reminded me of far more expensive producers such as La Rioja Alta. 

It’s worth getting lost in Hemel for.

Serendipity and the joys of old rioja

There are days when becoming a wine bore seems the best decision I ever made. One such time was last Saturday. My father had been to the local auction house and bought a job lot of old wine for £50. There were two cases. About half were probably undrinkable, ordinary wines that had been kept too long, but amongst the dross there were some wines with potential. I set aside some Apostoles Palo Cortado sherry, some old Vin Santo and Monbazillac but these were the wines we tried at the weekend:

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There are three riojas and a red burgundy. The 1990 Mercurey was amazingly robust with a great earthy taste, the Riscal Reserva was a disappointment, a ’99 and already on the way down, the Faustino I ’76 Gran Reserva was showing its age but still enjoyable. The highlight however was the Berberana Carta d’ Oro Reserva 1975. Wow, what a wine! It was the most beautiful colour, a vivid red with only  a little browning at the rim. One sniff and the aroma of cigars filled my nose. There was a touch of mushroom but no mustiness or vinegar. What was remarkable, however, was the vigour of the fruit, sweet ripe strawberries and a touch of orange. There was a hint of tannin and then the most gorgeous finish of walnuts and tobacco. This was one of the best wines I’ve had this year. My father described it as like a good red burgundy and there was definitely something burgundian about it though I’ve never tried one this old. Very very few burgundies would last this long.

What’s remarkable about the Berberana is that it was never an expensive wine. This wasn’t a Chambertin-Clos de Bèze or a Musigny. This wasn’t an artisan/ icon/ prestige wine. Berberana Carta d’ Oro Reserva costs about £15 a bottle these days. This producer doesn’t have the best of reputations. It may have been better in 70s but even then it wasn’t in the first rank of rioja producers. This wine would have been made in large quantities mainly from bought in grapes. It was a commercial wine, not the sort of wine that gets wine bores hot under the collar, but this must have been an exceptional wine when young to last this long and improve.

For some the joy of wine is about trying 100 point wines or cult producers but for me serendipity is the most pleasurable part of being a wine bore. I love going to friends houses and seeing if they have any gems lurking in their cellars or kitchen cupboards. From now on I’m going to be scouring the catalogues at provincial auction houses. £50 for a wine of this quality is an a bargain. And there’s still 20 bottles from my father’s haul to try.

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You never need to pack a wanker – or how I learned to stopped worrying and love sommeliers

Last year there was an incident in a French restaurant involving a notable wine-maker (I’m not allowed to mention his name for legal reasons), who sent back a bottle of wine saying that it was corked. The sommelier disagreed and refused to produce another bottle. Instead he offered the wine to other customers who pronounced it fine. The wine-maker’s table refused to pay and the police were called. But by the time the police arrived all the evidence had gone, drunk by the customers. I imagine that the French have specially trained wine detectives to deal with just such incidents.

I’ve had many terrible experiences with wine in restaurants, though thankfully none that required police involvement. The worst was at a Spanish place in Fitzrovia. I ordered a bottle of their cheapest Rioja. When it arrived I took a sip and it was hot. Not warm but mulled-wine hot. I asked the waitress to bring me an ice bucket — she refused, pointing out to me that it was red wine. I asked to speak to the sommelier. He came over oozing condescension. I repeated my demand for an ice bucket. His response was, ‘But sir, this is a red wine.’ ‘I know and it’s very warm so I want to make it colder.’ ‘But sir, this is red wine, Rioja.’ This circular argument went on for about five minutes until I said, ‘Listen! I don’t care that you think I am mad, just bring me an ice bucket!’ Eventually the ice came and I had to put up with pitying looks from the staff for the rest of the evening. I never went back.

No transaction has such potential for unpleasantness as ordering wine in a restaurant. To read the rest of this article in Spectator Life click here

Sediment: Two Gentlemen and their mid-life terroirs

I started this blog partly because I thought I’d spotted a gap in the market. I couldn’t find anyone who was writing about wine but also bringing in literature, history and a good dose of silliness. Most wine writers seemed to have their noses firmly in the glass. They wrote about terroir and malolactic fermentation, new oak and concrete eggs. This is not to dismiss proper wine writing, some do it superbly, and I do like reading in-depth stuff about flights of dry German Rieslings etc. I, however, was going to use wine as an excuse to write about myself. I started in October 2010 and despite a couple of quite boring posts, I quickly got into my stride and started to feel very pleased with myself. Imagine my horror when I found out that someone had beaten me to it. Sediment Blog started in July 2010. Not only were they doing what I wanted to be doing: writing about everyday wines, making jokes, complaining about impecunious circumstances but they were doing it really well.

Then they started being nominated for awards and proper journalists such as Nicholas Lezard, who is a sort of friend or maybe a friend of a friend, began to praise them. Who were these two people CJ and PK? After a bit of digging I was some relief to find out that they were actual writers. It would have been galling if such effortlessly funny prose was being created by people whose first writing experience was a blog. Every post was beautifully structured. It’s less like a blog and more like series of short essays using wine as starting point to explore ideas. After a while my blog changed as I got sucked into the wine world. I was no longer an outsider but someone who was sent samples; I got a job writing a weekly wine column for the Lady. I became a wine bore. But CJ and PK carried on loving wine but treating the wine world with the bemusement it deserved.

Earlier this year we took the almighty step and the three of us met for lunch. They suggested El Vino, where else? I expected PK, a lover of old claret, to be patrician and tall, whereas CJ a connoisseur of Aldi rioja, would be a non-nonsense working class type, maybe even Northern. Of course it was the other round. PK is a bit of geezer, the self-made man, one can imagine him in Charlotte Street in the 80s having three hour lunches and then making lager adverts, whereas CJ has a touch of the John Le Mesurier about him. We had pies which were excellent and an awful old red that had clearly been forgotten about in the cupboards of El Vino. They both seemed to like it. Over lunch they told me about the book they were writing.

Well it’s coming out this month and it’s very funny. You don’t  have to be interested in wine to enjoy it. I thought the sharpest essay was called ‘From Plonk to Plonkers’. It’s ostensibly a review of a book about wine by Jay McInerney but it really examines how lovers of fine wine sometimes have to put up with some disagreeable company. Most wine writers are nice as are most wine makers I’ve met (though normally in a very opinionated sort of way.) The problem is that if you want to drink very expensive wine somebody is going to have to pay for it and that often means spending time with rich people. Now I’m sure when they’re with their wives, ex-wives, children and dogs, rich people can be perfectly pleasant, but when they’re in groups waving their willies around and guzzling expensive wine, they are usually insufferable. It’s a very astute essay. McInerney’s articles on his adventures in the wine world should inspire envy but after reading Sediment, you see that’s there’s a melancholy about them:

“The actual price of drinking these wines is not the amount for which they are auctioned, but the time you might have to spend with people who wear window-pane sports jackets, crocodile shoes, and sunglasses formerly owned by Elvis.”

Not all the articles are as good as this one, sometimes they stray into pedantry or facetiousness but the strike rate is high. There’s nobody else doing what they’re doing in wine writing. Everyone else, including me, is just too close to the subject. Sediment are the little boys pointing out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

The Sediment boys are doing some readings accompanied by wine. More information here

What will Scottish independence mean for drinkers?

Every month or so the marketing bumf from Majestic Wine Warehouses comes through my door outlining their latest offers. It’s normally bargain rioja. If you read the small print carefully you’ll find that their glorious multibuy offers aren’t available in Scotland:

“The Alcohol Scotland Act 2010 disallows any alcohol promotion offering customers a discount for buying multiple products in Scottish stores.”

It seems peculiar that the adults of Scotland aren’t allowed offers that encourage them to buy wine in quantities of more than one. Isn’t that the whole point of visiting a wine warehouse? It’s like being forbidden from having seconds at an all you can eat buffet. Admittedly it’s probably healthier not to have seconds but shouldn’t that be up to the customer? The Scots do undoubtedly like to drink to excess, as do many British people, but it is unlikely that laws such as these are going to make people in the so-called Bucky Triangle drink less. If I lived there I am sure I’d need a bit of extra intoxication to help me through the day.

The devolved Scottish Parliament is an expert at such pointless legislation. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act makes it a crime to sing certain songs at football matches. Or the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act where every child born in Scotland has a guardian appointed by the state whose job it is to check up on the child’s parents and intervene where necessary.

I suppose the big question is after independence – should it come – whether the new Scottish government will continue creating unenforceable new laws or whether they’ll be too busy with the serious business of running a new country. I’d put money on the former. It seems crazy that Scotland’s leaders trust their people with a vote to break up a 300 year old political union but not to buy six bottles of rioja.

At the moment the Marques de Riscal Reserva 09 at £9.99 when you buy two or more looks distinctly good value. But remember, if you do take advantage of this offer, stay within the government’s drinking guidelines and for God’s sake don’t neck the whole bottle and start singing: ‘Boys from the Old Brigade’ – at least not if you’re in Scotland.