My passion for wine: Ronald Searle

  • Tuesday 30 January 2007

One of the world’s most brilliant cartoonists is also an impassioned
wine lover. Jeff Cox meets a man who loves wine and hates pretensions

One of the world’s most brilliant cartoonists is also an impassioned

wine lover. Jeff Cox meets a man who loves wine and hates pretensions

You may not recognise his name, but you’ll instantly recognise Ronald Searle’s wickedly energetic style. Scratch this cartoonist and you’ll also reveal one of the world’s most impassioned wine lovers.

Searle minces neither words nor images, but his barbs are so witty they cause as much delight to his audience as discomfort to his subjects. In the prologue to his 1983 book, The Illustrated Winespeak, he calls the majority of wine writers ‘that grotesque international band of snobbish inarticulate sponges, incapable of thinking beyond their incestuous little circles, [and who] do as much harm to the world of wine as they do to the language’. This fills me with confidence for our encounter.

If Searle comes equipped with sharp words and pens that bite hard, he’s earned the right to use them. He was born into a working class family in Cambridge in 1920, was drawing fairly well at five, and earning his living with his drawings at 15. Income from his drawings put him through art school. World War II intervened, and in October 1941, he shipped out for Singapore. One month later, Singapore fell to the Japanese and for almost the next four years, he managed to stay alive in a Japanese prison camp despite unimaginable horrors, beatings, malaria, beri beri, and a guard’s pickaxe in the back. (His memoir of the time, To the Kwai and Back, has just been reissued by Souvenir Press.) During those horrible years, he never stopped drawing.

‘When I returned to England in 1945, my first ambition was to indulge,’ he says. ‘Since then, I think I’ve eaten in virtually every restaurant of interest, standing, quality and value in London, Paris, Berlin and New York. After scanning some 60 years of wine lists at a certain level, it’s inevitable that some understanding of perfection in wine would brush off. I’ve drunk my way through some remarkable bottles and am still standing.’

Like all great artists, his work (pictured right) embodies the seemingly disparate qualities of careful control coupled with total freedom, never more evident than in his books on wine, Winespeak and Something in the Cellar... His quivering tipplers, buxom ladies and caricatures of wine drinkers are immersed not only in wine, but in explosions of mayhem, joy, and desperation. He pokes fun at everyone in the world of wine – straight to the nose of the pretentious. He achieves this with only one eye – his left. ‘And I am notoriously left-handed,’ he says. ‘With that hand I manipulate my steel-nibbed pens, my brushes and my sculpting tools.’

After many years living on the Left Bank in Paris, he and his wife Monica ‘settled in Provence some 30 or more years ago in a tiny village 2,000 feet up in the mountains – as far away as possible from the Cote d’Azur and its repellant so-called people.

‘Our village is almost entirely medieval, and our house has a vaulted cellar from the 11th or 12th century where the temperature remains constant throughout the year. The 400–500 bottles ranged in it contain little exotica. Deliberately. We can no longer face entertaining at home and stick to local restaurants. So the wines we have are for daily drinking. Of course there are a few great-year Yquems, some Krug, and Roederer Cristal. But most are for short-term enjoyment.

‘Here in the south we tend to drink cool. We have a lovely Rhône rosé that goes with anything: Domaine Remejeanne from Cadignac/Sabran.’ Other favourites he cites are Henri Bourgeois’ Sancerre rouge and blanc , plus his ‘remarkable’ Pouilly-Fumé.’

For someone aged 86, Searle’s workdays are long, a testimony to his love of drawing – or perhaps his inability not to draw. ‘I drink quite a lot of Champagne. My daily dose is an extremely delicate, delicious, quite cold Billecart-Salmon brut rosé around noon. Otherwise – as I am working more or less from 9am to 6.30pm – I don’t drink until dinner.’

His irreverent attitude towards wine and the people who love it is so refreshing that his friend of 20 years, John Goelet of Clos Du Val in the Napa Valley and Taltarni in Australia, uses Searle’s drawings in winery promotions and even on labels of special bottlings. ‘Sure,’ Searle says, ‘there are those who think wine is God-like and shouldn’t be sent up. But wine is all things to all men, and the basis is that of love of the grape.’

Asked to elaborate, he continues, ‘Every wine drinker has his own exclusive – and to him or her unique – insight into perfection in the bottle. It’s all very egotistic in that wine drinkers/snobs/connoisseurs are totally convinced that their special bottle is the One and Only, into which they have the insight.’

As a child in a modest family in East Anglia, wine was not in Searle’s world. But long ensconced in Provence, it is part of the rhythm of life. ‘In our small village, wine is drunk as an essential part of the meal, without pretension. At noon the village is silent. Everyone is at table: the masons, the gardeners, the workers in the fields, the labourers, the children, the postman, the drain cleaner. The chat, if any, is about food or crooked politicians. A table wine from the local minuscule ‘Superette’, a wild boar stew, bread, cheese – that’s it. Wine here – and probably all over the French countryside – is a part of life. And after all, isn’t that the root and the basics of the grape and the natural enjoyment of it?’

Tasting Notes

What did you drink last night? With the remains of a cold chicken and a tomato salad, half a bottle of Beaujolais (Juliénas 2002 from Domaine Gérard et Nathalie Margerand), sent by a friend.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle? This family does not go in for exotica. The most it has ever spent was on two bottles of Yquem 1967 which, I am often told, was a year of years. It was also the year we were married. I can’t tell you how much was paid because it was a present from Monica.

What’s your Desert Island wine?

The above, naturally

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