The ex-England rugby hardman tells guy woodward about his alter-ego, Gollum, and his love-hate relationship with the French
We had to relax our selection criteria for this month’s subject. People connected to the wine trade are generally disqualified, so no chefs, no wine writers. and certainly no winemakers. Ex-England rugby player Brian Moore fancies himself as all three.
The part-time wine critic for UK tabloid The Sun, he recently helped devise a wine the paper launched, a quirky Vermentino-Viognier blend. ‘It was a terrifying process – realising people were actually going to make it; it was going to be sold,’ he says. ‘It brings it home that someone has tried to do their best with every bottle you drink. Mind you, you do wonder sometimes what the hell they’ve been doing.’
The sudden shift from empathy to hostility is typical Moore. Renowned for his on-field aggression, he is equally combative off it, notably in the commentary box. All the more surprising, then, that within 15 minutes of us sitting down, he’s confiding to me his insecurities. Moore puts much of his argumentative nature down to a need to prove himself, which he traces to a feeling of rejection and shame stemming from two events that shaped his childhood – being put up for adoption as a baby, and suffering sexual abuse nine years later.
The revelations are made in a raw autobiography, Beware of the Dog, which also shines a light on what Moore admits is his split personality. A Tolkien nerd, he refers to his angry alter-ego as ‘Gollum’, a destructive presence that constantly undermines him. ‘Sometimes I wake up and Gollum will be there. Why?’ he asks. ‘Describing this, I’m trying not to sound schizophrenic. Or mad.’
It’s an affliction he’s been unable to fully resolve, though he says he’s less combative than in the past, when he would respond to every critical comment to his media columns (he also writes on sport for The Daily Telegraph). ‘Being a trained lawyer doesn’t help – I’d go round in circles arguing.’
So does Gollum influence his wine tastes? ‘He’s more likely to manifest himself in an extravagant purchase than a style of wine,’ he says. ‘Then I’ll be determined to enjoy it, but as I’m not judging the wine by normal criteria, he wins.’ Alternatively, Moore feels pressure to be unduly adventurous in his purchases, to counter accusations in his head of being boring. So he’ll buy something offbeam. ‘And again, Gollum wins.’
That said, Moore makes a virtue of being open-minded. ‘I never say, “I don’t drink this or that.” Cover the bottles up, and there are always wines that surprise you. It’s intellectually stupid and impractical to discount particular wines. There are good vintages, bad vintages, too much rain here, not enough there – you simply can’t say “never this, never that”.’
Moore’s first exposure to wine came through a benevolent waiter at the England team hotel who would serve Moore and a few like-minded team-mates Clos de Vougeot and Château Palmer and put them through on the bill as house plonk. He started moving in wine circles and was invited to a trade dinner for sommeliers who tried to outdo each other by bringing along interesting bottles.
‘It was great – not because everyone brought expensive bottles, but because they brought interesting ones.’ He particularly recalls an Alsace. ‘I can’t remember what it was, but it was 20 years old and the colour of someone’s pee after two days in the desert. It had petrolly notes on top, but smelled of sugar. The first taste was blastingly sweet, but then it just dropped – bone dry, with massive length.’
The memory is typical of Moore’s approach to wine: governed by enthusiasm and interest rather than a need to tick off great names. He is particularly fond of St-Emilion, and has a case of 1989 from his favourite château among his collection at Corney & Barrow. And the château? ‘Oh, what’s its name? Just down from Cheval Blanc, lots of Cabernet Franc.’ ‘Figeac?’ I venture. ‘That’s it.’
Though he draws on an array of wines, and has a current fondness for Chile, it’s the classic French regions Moore comes back to
(notably the southern Rhône, especially Gigondas) – part of a love-hate relationship with the country that harks back to his playing days and sees him both inspired and frustrated by their idiosyncrasies.
‘The French aren’t helping by not putting varieties on the label. Why should consumers have to guess the difference between a Pouilly-Fumé and a Pouilly-Fuissé? But then, I love their attitude of “Sod you – I’m not doing it”. If a French shop owner wants to take a two-hour lunch break he will.
And if you complain, he’ll say “well, don’t shop here”. When the French really care about something, they do it better than anyone. When they’re not bothered, they make rubbish. And in the past, they’ve given us rubbish. Under £8, I wouldn’t buy a French wine – the New World is much more consistent. And only the British could race off to get Beaujolais Nouveau – the French must have been laughing their heads off at us with that!’
Written by Guy Woodward