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Books

Is there such a thing as good taste?

In this essay, I put on my thinking beret, stroke my chin and delve into the vexed question of to what extent taste in food and wine is entirely arbitrary.

“Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron

At a local Chinese restaurant there are asterisks by certain dishes with an explanation underneath that reads simply: “not recommended.” The asterisks appear next to delicacies such as chicken feet or cold jellyfish salad so what I think they mean is not recommended for non-Chinese people. It made me realise that much of what we think of as good taste is cultural. The Chinese appreciate the chewy and the gelatinous, urrggh!, but isn’t it equally strange that we eat what is essentially rotten milk in the form of blue cheese?

classic statue of Socrates

Wine can be equally counter-intuitive. I remember my first glass of claret drunk at Christmas. I expected it to taste sweet and fruity but it was earthy, bitter and full of mouth-drying tannins. Why would anyone drink this? As a student I would grimace my way through French reds rather than the sweet jammy, and lets face it much more appealing, Hardy’s shiraz that everyone else was drinking. Later I drank bone dry fino sherry whilst thinking, is it really meant to taste like  yeasty water? I taught myself to enjoy vermouth and Campari, olives and anchovies. But why?

As humans we naturally crave sugar and salt but bitterness warns us about poison and high acidity means something isn’t ripe. Our tastes, however, can be perverse perhaps because as omnivorous hunter gatherers we had to be adventurous in what we ate. We like spicy food because our bodies produce opiates to counteract the pain in chillies and some have suggested that eating bitter food gives us a frisson of danger.

Many people, however, don’t push their tastes. They don’t want bitterness or astringency and they couldn’t give a toss about a long finish. You can put this down to different palates, some people crave sugar in particular whilst others are abnormally sensitive to bitterness. 

But if I’m being honest with myself there was more than a little snobbery in my acquired enjoyment of difficult flavours. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste wrote that good taste is about getting acceptance from our peers. I worked in the wine trade after university and based my tastes on people I admired, and, importantly, defined them in opposition to people I didn’t.

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We think our tastes are timeless but look at pictures of 1970s food especially anything by Fanny Cradock (above with husband and sidekick, Johnny) and tell me they don’t look revolting. And today’s Jackson Pollock-esque splatters from Masterchef will look similarly inedible in ten years time. In the Middle Ages, luxury food would have been cooked with lots of sugar and expensive spices as a way of showing your wealth. Bottles of champagne opened recently from a ship that went down in the early nineteenth century contained a dentist-worrying 150 grams of sugar per litre, modern day champagne contains around eight grams.  Sweet wines went out of fashion as sugar became the fuel of the masses. Food that we dismiss as well, a bit common like a plain white bap from Gregg’s would have been miraculous luxuries to our ancestors.

Luxury today is about being close to nature. The latest thing in wine is ‘natural’ wine, made without additives but more importantly difficult for the uninitiated to understand as much of it smells like scrumpy. Chefs too bang on about sustainability and seasonality, some even forage for food, but in the past haute cuisine was about breaking free of nature. Only the poor would have eaten seasonally. In an essay on taste in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik cites the example of the poet Lucien in Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions who is forced by lack of funds to eat in a restaurant that “has only local and seasonal produce.” He goes on to describe: “the shame and suffering that the diners feel in having to eat in so peasant like a manner right in the middle of Paris.” 

Whereas nowadays we pay through the nose at the River Cafe to eat authentic Italian peasant food but I am sorry to say that authenticity like good taste is largely made up. Most traditional foods and drinks are relatively recent creations. In The Discovery of France, the historian Graham Robb writes “the Dijon area was not particularly rich in blackcurrants until an enterprising cafe owner made an explanatory trip to Paris in 1841, noted the popularity of cassis and began to market his own liquor as a regional speciality”. 

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So is it all pointless then then? Should we just crack open a bottle of Blossom Hill and settle into a KFC mega bucket? Well if you want to go for it. But just because taste is cultural and changeable doesn’t make it pointless. Think of it as learning a language (a rapidly evolving one). You can appreciate the beauty once you have learned the rules, just don’t pretend there’s anything natural about them. 

Developing ‘good taste’ can be enjoyable, it should be an adventure, and I find the awareness that it’s made up liberating. I can appreciate haut cuisine but I know that the cheap restaurant from the acclaimed chef will be more fun than the three star temple of gastronomy, that bottle of chilled red had on holiday in Sicily with my wife will always be more delicious than first growth claret drunk surrounded by hedge fund managers, and there’s nothing better with a cup of tea than a McVities Hobnob. Don’t worry about what others think. Go with whatever you fancy which means you don’t have to try those local delicacies, unless you’re dining with some Chinese businessmen who you want to impress. 

A version of this essay appeared in Boat Magazine.

Categories
Wine articles

World of Booze returns

Merry Christmas! Here’s a picture of what I drank over the festive period. Obviously, we drank a lot more than this but these were the highlights:

crop xmas

But I’m not writing to show off the fine booze consumed. Well, I am actually but I’m also writing to say that Henry’s World of Booze is back. The blog, which has been going since 2010 (which is at least 63 in terms of the internet which works like dog years), was getting very patchy when I was writing my second book, The Home Bar (which came out in September 2018). I then stopped updating completely in summer 2018. I had just got a job as features editor on the Master of Malt blog and then about the same time I was asked to write a book for Mitchell Beazley, The Cocktail Dictionary (coming September 2020).

So I got out of the habit but also it felt like blogging was sort of over. At least the personal, amateurish sort of blog that I wrote. Most people got their fix of interaction with like-minded individuals from social media rather than the comments section on blogs (or even met them in real life). I look back to the kind of in-depth discussions that used to go on in the comments sections and marvel; I know friends who met in the comments section! But then it was all about social media, why get into arcane arguments about who invented sherry or the correct way to fry an egg in the comments when you could do it on twitter?

Actual photo of recent twitter spat

And this was all great for a while but gradually the people who one used to have fun conversations with became obsessed with bigger issues. Which is fine. There’s a lot to get exercised about but twitter etc. stopped being fun around 2015 and seemed to be more about competitive frothing at the mouth than the good-natured banter of old. Naming no names. I now find that I spend less and less time on social media. During big events like elections, I don’t go on at all and it’s like taking a long hot bath with a glass of armagnac. Yes, there’s instagram which is great for showing off fancy bottles of whisky but I’m not really suited to it. There’s my complete inability to take a decent picture for starters but also I find I enjoy a bottle more if I’m not thinking about how to brag about it online. The sweetest meal is usually the unphotographed one.

So I’ve started blogging again. I’m hoping blogging will make a return in 2019 as everyone leaves twitter, realises that things aren’t so bad and get back to discussing more important matters. The reason I started the blog originally is because I had a head full of thoughts about drink that needed letting out. And once again my head is filling up and I need to relieve the pressure. I drink a lot of interesting booze of all sorts and meet interesting boozy people, and not just in the pub, so anything that won’t make a proper feature for my employer, Master of Malt, will work here.

There will be lots of good fresh locally-sourced content as well as some reheated articles. ‘Tis the season for leftovers after all. Or I might just draw people’s attention to things that I find interesting. It’ll be mainly about booze, naturally, but there might will be some food stuff and maybe some Kenty things, I have just moved to Faversham after 19 years in London.

Please do subscribe and comment or just email me at henry g jeffreys at gmail dot com (I’m writing it like that to dissuade spam though god knows I get enough of it. Mainly mature Russian lady dating.)

Here’s to a boozy bloggy happy 2020.

 

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Books Wine articles

Booze interview – Glen David Gold

Glen David Gold is probably best known for his debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and its follow up Sunnyside. When I was in publishing I worked on the publicity for the latter and we spent a very pleasant, at least for me, few days together when he came over to England for publication. I didn’t know him well but he always came across as about the nicest most relaxed author one could wish for. Note for readers here, not all authors are nice and they are very rarely relaxed. There’s a very good line in his memoir, I Will be Complete, which comes out this month:

“When I describe what happened, people tend to ask ‘but how did you end up so – ‘ they dance around the world ‘ normal’. then realise it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, ‘so nice’?”

I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy.”

Glen David Gold c. Sara Shay

Glen David Gold looking happy. Credit: Sara Shay

Glen was brought up in affluence in southern California but when his parents broke up he moved with his mother to San Francisco. By the age of 12 he was living much of the time by himself whilst his mother was in New York. His relationship with his unstable and increasingly erratic mother provides the engine of the book. As a memoir it bears comparison with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and in a neat link, Glen was taught by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey at the University of California who himself wrote a memoir about his bizarre childhood called the Duke of Deception. Glen’s book has the fluency of the former and the honesty and hard-won wisdom of the latter but with a strangeness and, at the end, a darkness, that is all it’s own. It deserves to sell by the container load as well as win every prize going.

In my correspondence with Glen I discovered that he is a fairly recent but already hopeless wine bore so here he is talking about one of his passions:

Hello Glen, what are you working on at the moment?

My memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE comes out June 26th and although there’s very little (no) wine in it you may very well want to pour yourself a glass while reading it. I’m writing a few brief essays to support it, I’m starting research on the next historical novel, and I’m looking to sit in a writers room for a good TV show and play in someone else’s kingdom for a while.

You mention your father has got into wine at 80, was that your work?

A little bit. My brother Seth started a rum company, SELVA REY, and spent five years coming over to every single family gathering with samples to test on us. My dad is a collector at heart and he loves the stories behind things, so he was a perfect sucker for the small batch bourbon thing. Like myself, he loves stories of growers and stories that begin, “This wine is now $100 but when I bought it en primeur it was $40,” but as you know those stories are very rare. His favorite wine is now Myriad Cabernet Sauvignon. (Update: I think the Sarah Francis Beckstoffer GIII now wins.)

Would you say wine has brought you closer together?

Yes but so has age. He’s a good dad for an adult.

What are you drinking at the moment? 

2016 Henri Boillot Bourgogne. That interview with Mike D in Noble Rot tipped me off to how to surf Burgundy by getting the $20/30 Bourgognes and Bourgogne Blancs of high-end producers, and as a result I am beginning to understand why that region is so terrifying. Dujac’s Bourgogne Blanc is hypnotic, delicious, has massive bottle variation and is utterly unavailable. Is there anything else to know about Burgundy?

Was there a eureka moment with wine or was it a gradual process?

Very gradual. About eight years ago, my friend David came to a party with three William Selyam pinots from different vineyards. He had a complicated experiment he wanted to conduct involving decanting and the terroir of single vineyard designates. Unfortunately another friend saw what he interpreted as giant glasses of wine, and he literally upended an entire, to the brim glass, said “wow, that’s great,” then took down the next one, and the next. I wish you could have seen the solid O of horror on my friend David’s face.

Maybe a year later, I was at a restaurant called Prospect in San Francisco. They’re friendly to me there and someone had left without finishing his bottle of 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Pinot Noir, so they poured the rest of the bottle for me and my date, and I was intrigued.

About a year after that I had a 2009 Clos St Julien, which is a fairly weird St Emilion, and I realized I was in love with how I was tasting something I was unable to describe — just experience. My writing powers were nullified. Huzzah!

Who do you think writes well about wine/ drink?

I like how detailed Chris Kissack gets in his reports on producers, though he and I don’t have aligning palates.  I also like Kermit Lynch’s book — he was my local wine shop long long before I understood anything about what I was drinking.

Do you have a favourite drink scene in literature?

Wilton Barnhardt has a novel called LOOK AWAY LOOK AWAY about the contemporary American South, and there’s a lovely scene in which a rich relative works dark magic on a family meal, gleefully giving glasses of 1989 Lynch Bages to people who don’t know what they’re drinking. Quite the indictment of social mores.

What’s your favorite everyday wine?

I try to not have an every day wine. When I don’t crave a spectacular experience, but a familiar one, I’m drawn toward gamay in the summer months and older cru bourgeois bordeaux at other times — the 2010 Senejac, which was $17 a bottle, is a stupid value right now. 

Do you have a favourite restaurant for wine?

In St Helena there’s an unassuming place called COOK on the main drag; we’d been told to go in for a bite and a glass. The wines were written on a dry erase board because they changed daily, and sometimes hourly. I recognized some of the names but not all of them. I asked the waiter what we should have and he brought out…something. A cabernet with a little age on it. It was outstanding. What was it? He said not to worry about it. His old landlord owed him some money and had paid him in wine instead. What wine? Oh, something he’d taken in trade for a job done. There was a label on the bottle but it didn’t explain much. It wasn’t a label I ever saw again. And it was perfect.

Do you have a dream wine?

That’s interesting — because of their prices and everyone else singing their praises I’m curious about 1961 first growths and good vintages of Jayer and DRC and all that, but the wine I’m hoping someone will open for me one day would be a 1990 Henri Bonneau Celestins. I’ve had his basic Chateauneuf, and his Marie Beurrier, and even the vin de pays, but I haven’t yet managed to get near his grand achievement, which the ecstatic tasting notes suggest will put you through puberty all over again.

 

You live in San Francisco? Do you often visit nearby vineyards if so which ones?

It’s odd — only an hour trip, but I always felt like I needed to mentally prepare for a day before going. It was like visiting Comicon. My two guaranteed stops were at Acme Fine Wines, which is the Sun Records of St Helena, and the To Kalon vineyard. There is a lovely man, Tom Garrett, who runs DETERT, a very small winery, on something 17 acres of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His wines are extraordinary and close to unknown, which is bizarre to me, given his location. We also visited CARTER (the name is a coincidence), as their wine maker, Mike Smith, does some of my other favorite California Cabernets via MYRIAD, SCARLETT and BECKLYN. That varietal can be loud, obnoxious, clever yet facile, designed for mass appeal and have a finish that’s far too long (I have just described every Marvel movie, haven’t I?) Mike’s work is intriguing — it flirts with all that stuff before veering into a better place. But if you want to try something that is far more St Julien like, the final wine maker on my list is Massimo Di Costanzo of DI COSTANZO wines, whose work is exceptionally elegant.

 

Thank you Glen! Some greats tips there. Now everyone, buy the book.

 

 

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Restaurants Wine articles

An evening at Pied à Terre

Regular readers will know that blind wine tasting is not one of my fortes. You can read about my misadventures at the Oxford vs Cambridge annual wine competition here. But I think when the pressures off, I might actually be getting better at it.

My wife and I were invited down to Pied à Terre – a Michelin starred restaurant in Fitzrovia – for a meal. I’ve noticed that other wine bloggers such as The Wine Loon have also been down so it seems that Pied à Terre are doing some of PR push with London’s influential wine blogging community.

We sat in the front of the restaurant in a cosy little room. In fact cosy would be a good way to describe the whole experience, there was none of the starchy formality you usually get in Michelin-starred places; nobody interrupted our conversation to explain the food. Just to give you some idea of how non intimidating this place is, one of the sommeliers looked just like cuddly comedian Michael McIntyre.

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I won’t go too much into the food but it was also nicely unfussy: a huge octopus tentacle with romesco sauce and squid ink tasting much like it might in a good restaurant in Barcelona despite the Jackson Pollock presentation, and the partridge breast cooked rare and served with a confit leg and red cabbage was almost like something you might get at Rules.

Rather than Mcintyre man, we had an avuncular Frenchman, Emanuel Hardonniere, as our sommelier and in a non-competitive he way brought out wines and asked me to guess what they were. I started badly thinking a white Tokay was Burgundy, I got better with a Cape wine guessing, sorry deducing, correctly that it was a Muscat.

And then I literally caught fire correctly identifying a Greek grape variety, a Xinomavro; next he gave me a wine to try which I thought was a St Emilion but turned out to be a Lalande de Pomerol, very close, though I did guess the vintage correctly, a 2010; my last near triumph was with a sweet wines served with the pudding which I thought was a Jurançon but it turned out to be a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, again very close, both are from South West France and made from Gros and/or Petit Manseng.

The only off note in evening was a natural Gamay from Serbia with a serious dose of hamster or goût de souris as the French call it – some sort of yeast or bacterial infection that you only notice as you swallow. It’s something not uncommon in ‘natural’ wines – come on lads, just use a bit of sulpur!

We finished with one of my favourites, a Rivesaltes served with pear cooked in port and thankfully by this stage of the night M. Hardonniere was no longer playing games with me.

Below are the bottles we tried. All were good in their own way except the Serbian Gamay (top row centre right) though I have heard good things about it when it’s not infected with the stench of rotting rodent.

 

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This Week I'm Drinking Wine articles

This week I’m drinking. . . . . port

Me last Christmas: I can’t understand why I’ve put on so much weight. We didn’t do that much feasting.

My wife: yes but after every meal you had cheese and port

My problem with port is that I find it a bit too delicious. If there’s a bottle open in the house then I’ll want a glass every evening and when you’re having a glass of port you’ve got to have some cheese. And then it all starts to add up. So I’m taking  a port break until Christmas proper kicks in when I’m going to go a bit mad.

But before I take my port holiday, I have to tell you about a special offer at Tesco. They are selling Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny for only £16 until 11th December. It normally sells for at least £20. This is one of my absolute favourite fortified wines. I love the combination of bright strawberry fruit and then layers of walnut and tobacco. It’s one to give to people who think they don’t like port because it’s much lighter than vintage or vintage style ports – though still 20% so don’t knock it back like claret like I did one year.

I did a talk recently with Slightly Foxed magazine with some Taylor’s tawny for the audience to try and everybody loved it. In fact it completely upstaged me as everyone just wanted to talk about how good the port was.

Perhaps that could be the advertising line for the Port Marketing Board – the trouble is it tastes too good – and then adverts could show the havoc caused by the irresistible port. I don’t think it’s been done before.

Port Foxed

Photo of me sitting on a throne whilst high on tawny port.

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This Week I'm Drinking Wine articles

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

Image result for vina majestica rioja 2010

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?

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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. 

Categories
Wine articles

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing

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Wine lists can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand. One restaurant in Los Angeles, Hatchet Hall*, has taken this a step further: not only is their list incomprehensible to the general public, it’s incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t work there. Rather than name producer, region, vintage and grape variety as is normal they’ve come up with cryptic descriptions such as “Ham wine” or “Vieilles Vignes  (old vines) 13”. It’s more like a crossword puzzle than a menu. The whole thing smacks of an in-joke but it actually serves a very serious purpose. It means that the even the most wine literate diner needs someone to decode it for him. It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing battle to keep wine unintelligible.

In the past wine knowledge was linked to class.  This is why it lends itself so well to British comedy which is often about social status. Think of Basil Fawlty saying to an upper class guest at the hotel: “It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who appreciates the boudoir of the grape. I’m afraid most people we get here don’t know a bordeaux from a claret.” This link between class and wine knowledge began to unravel with the rise of American super critic Robert Parker in the 1980s. He not only pronounced in an authoritative fashion on wine but he scored them out of 100. Many decried this a philistinism, asking whether you would score a Velasquez or a lover, but wine buyers loved it because it simplified or seemed to simply wine. Armed with a bit of Parker, the average wine drinker could now begin to navigate his way around a wine list. Sommeliers and merchants were still useful but customers could always appeal to a higher power like the European Court of Human Rights. Yes, you like it but what does Parker think?

In the 90s and 00s the public became better informed and wine democratised. Supermarkets began selling classed growth Bordeaux off the back of Parker scores.  With one super critic in place and good wine seemingly available everywhere, the professionals were losing their grip. Something had to be done. The answer was Natural Wine. This was ostensibly a reaction against the sort of wine that Parker liked, powerful, oaky wines made in a Bordeaux meets California style. But just as important, the producers were obscure and you couldn’t buy the wines in Oddbins. A new generation of writers, sommeliers and merchants staked their claim as keepers of arcane knowledge. Visiting a wine shop or bar now became like visiting an independent record shop. Asking for a wine Parker liked would be like requesting a Dire Straits record in Rough Trade.

Nowadays there’s a whole network of bars, shops and restaurants in London, New York and especially Paris selling Natural Wines. A further advantage of these wines from the perspective of the initiated is that some of them taste awful but they are meant to taste like that so when customers try to send them back, they can be put in their place with a “you just don’t get this wine, man.” It saves on wastage as nobody knows if a wine was faulty or not. With Parker retired, sommeliers have become the new trendsetters. When Wine Australia launched a campaign to convince the public about the merits of premium Australian wine they didn’t do it through retailers, they put on tastings for sommeliers.

But this power is under threat from technology. In 2003 a website called Cellartracker was founded by an ex-Microsoft man called Eric LeVine. Here members of the public log the wines they have tried and rate them out of hundred. We are all Parker now. There are now nearly 4 million notes and around 290,000 registered users. It really came into its own with the development of apps such Vivino  where you can scan wine labels and automatically link to reviews. The savvy wine lover can now bypass the professionals entirely. Hence the Hatchet Hall website. It was designed to be smartphone proof.

Sommeliers need not hang up their spittoons just yet because they have an ace up their sleeve: matching food and wine. It isn’t a coincidence that as public wine knowledge grows, this has become increasingly elaborate with tastings menus with a wine for each course. Wine writers devote columns to the quest for the perfect wine to go with chicken tikka marsala. There is an element of pseudo science about the whole thing. Putting wine and food together is such a personal matter, one man’s match might be another person’s clash. For the customer, it adds another element of uncertainty which is of course just what the experts want.

I’m not saying that wine is straightforward. It is an immense subject and changing the whole time, you can now buy wines from Croatia, Georgia and Greece at Marks and Spencers. And most wine professionals do do their best to illuminate but the truth is we don’t want people to find things too straightforward.  This ongoing battle between the public and professional knowledge reminds me of a passage from Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That: ‘Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.’

*Hatchet Hall now have a more conventional wine list. Boring!

This article originally appeared on Tim Atkin’s website. 

 

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Wine articles

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. . . .

Categories
Wine articles

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.