The bad old days of wine
- Friday 30 January 2009
The poet Auden came to stay with us, at my parents’ house in Birmingham, some time in the mid-1960s. My father was an academic and had written a book about his work, so proposed him for an honorary degree. The deal was that, to save the university money, you put up any graduand you had nominated.
Auden had been raised in Brum and was delighted to visit the place again. He was also an enthusiastic toper. A group of friends were to come round to meet the great man, who prepared himself for the occasion by taking a three-pint jug from the kitchen, pouring in a bottle of gin, adding a whole sliced lemon, a tray of ice and one capful of dry vermouth.
He placed the jug in front of him, and that lasted him for the party. The guests left and it was time for dinner. My parents had organised a single bottle of wine. This wasn’t because they were tight-fisted, it’s just that in those days one bottle between three struck most middle-class people as ample.
Wine wasn’t cheap. Most people bought one bottle at a time. Two glasses each was per fectly adequate. The poet did not share this view. Having polished off his own, he topped himself up from the bottle. When that was empty – there was no sign of fresh supplies as there probably wasn’t any more in the house – he reached out for my father’s glass and
The meal having come to an end, he took my mother’s glass and marched upstairs to bed.
I mention the story only to illustrate the huge gulf in wine enjoyment since those days. Visiting my parents, say 25 years later, therewould be a row of bottles at every
meal, making sure that there was not the faintest possibility of anyone running out.
Now, when my wife and I have people for dinner – eight round the table altogether – I would expect to provide two bottles of Champagne beforehand, two or three bottles of white and two or three bottles of red, plus a sweet wine. A bottle per head is actually more than it seems, since usually some people are driving. But, of course, there’s a decanter of port on standby for those who are still thirsty.
I was on holiday from university when Auden came round. Students didn’t drink a lot of wine then. You went to the pub for beer. If you did drink wine it wasprobably thin hock, Liebfraumilch, or the dispiriting Mouton Cadet. Only later did we discover that even on a student budget you could afford the occasional bottle of something worth drinking.
I was particularly fond of Antinori from Tuscany – only 10 shillings a bottle, but with a depth and savour that the cheap wines never had. I suppose that was the awakening of wine consciousness.In 1968 I joined The Guardian as a trainee and was quickly sent to Northern Ireland where the Troubles were just beginning.
Ulster was a vinous desert. Once I was invited with Robert Fisk – now The Independent’s controversial Middle East correspondent – to dinner at a mutual friend’s house near Belfast. So we popped into the Crown Bar, one of the most beautiful pubs in the UK, and
the perfect place if you fancied a pint of stout. We asked for some wine. They sold us Mundy’s South African wine.
Bottled by E.D. McLoon & Co, Shipquay St, Londonderry. We took a few bottles to the friend’s house. The first sip revealed that this thick, sweet beverage-style substance was unsuitable for any purpose except, possibly, scouring old car batteries. We poured it onto the fire where it burned red, blue and green, like the aurora borealis.
I discover Latour
The centre of all journalistic activity in Belfast was the Europa hotel, described as the most bombed hotel in the world, an honour for which it vied with the Commodore in Beirut. It did have a proper wine list, and I discovered something called Château Latour, listed at £5 a bottle. This may not seem a lot, but it was then.
When I took a girl out, I used to reckon on £5 for the whole meal, could be served quickly. There was lots left over, but the rule was strict – all unused wine to be poured away before landing. It was a terrible waste, so in New York the cabin crew would buy litres of Paul Masson – anything with a replaceable cap – drink in their hotel, then smuggle the empty bottles on board in their hand baggage, to be filled with the good stuff at the end of the flight.
If BA had had security staff who could tell Meursault from jug Chardonnay, that mini-scam would have ended quickly. As it was, when Concorde screamed overhead I knew I had 20 minutes before going to the chippy. I’d arrive back at her flat the same time she did, and we would eat a fish supper washed down with Brane-Cantenac from a Paul Masson flask. Not exactly an ideal pairing, but a memorable meal.
The dream job
This led to occasional articles about wine, and one of my favourite wine moments.
A colleague had arranged to take me to Loeb, the celebrated German shipper. As we sipped something from Saxony, he swirled it round, then said, ‘That is delicious! But I don’t think I’d want toswallow it,’ and instead of laughing in his face, everyone murmured in agreement. It’s become one of those phrases in our family, the ones you have to explain to other people.
Including drinks, for both of us – £6 if I really had hopes. I tried the Latour on a few contacts and it seemed to have a magical effect. People were more helpful, more frank, eager to tell me what was going on. Soon it seemed every politician, army officer, civil servant who might expect to be dined by anyone at the Europa would hint heavily that they would like some more of that lovely Château Latour. Round about this time The Sunday Times ran an article about the incredible rise in the price of first-growth clarets. Why, it said, some London restaurants were charging as much as £25 for Château Latour.
I realised it was my duty to my paper to save money by acquiring plenty at the Europa’s prices. Next I became a political correspondent in London, and began to go out with a British Airways stewardess. (I’d like to claim I used my smooth charm to pick her up on a flight, but I’d known her long before she took the job.) She was upgraded to first class and the airline insisted she took a wine course. She was worried about that, so I offered to help.
That’s when my real wine education began. The centre of learning was, oddly, the Army & Navy Stores, a five-minute walk from the House of Commons. In the 1970s they still bottled their own fine wines. Under a nondescript salmon coloured label you could buy all but the greatest names in Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Their Château Pavie was £2 for a half bottle. Apart from the Latour, never had I had such joy in a glass, such perfume, such fleshiness, such velvety richness. Their own-bottled Santenay was a Burgundy you could really afford. The DRC wines were, of course, bottled where they came from, and the prices looked horrible.
But I wish I had tried a few, even if it meant not eating for a week. The wine course went well,though my girlfriend got increasingly angry when she told me what we were having for dinner, and instead of saying, ‘Sounds delicious, my dear,’ I would ask anxiously, ‘Will it go
with the wine I’ve bought?’
She was promoted to Concorde, on which they had to open six or seven bottles at a time so that all passengersLater I was lucky enough to be offered the job of wine writer for The Spectator when Auberon Waugh, a hugely popular columnist, defected to The Oldie. Nicholas Soames MP had done it for a year, but hated the writing, the paperwork and, as he put it, ‘having to drink wine worth less than £15 a bottle’.
Conrad Black then bought the magazine. He assumed everyone who worked for The Guardian was off-the-clock left wing, and asked: ‘Why have you appointed a Communist as my wine writer?’ There was a difficult pause, broken by the business manager saying, ‘Oh, I’m sure Simon won’t only write about red wine...’ I kept the job.
And it’s a wonderful job, too. In the four decades since I started drinking wine, the standard has improved quite beyond recognition. Supermarkets now offer more choice than all but the most expensive specialist merchants did back then. A small corner shop might have wines from 20 different countries. (We have an infinitely better selection than the French, who tend to assume any wine not made in their country is merely alcoholic grape juice.)
In real terms, the price of wine has fallen as fast as quality standards have risen. I personally think you would be crazed to buy first growths now when you can go down the list and get 90% of the quality for 10% of the cost. Now that even a modest wine shop has hundreds, if not thousands, of different bottles to choose from, it’s possible to go on making exciting discoveries week after week.
The great difference is that now anyone with a modest or middle income can become a real wine connoisseur, and enjoy the pleasure that even a short while ago was available only to the well-to-do.