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Sally Ann Lasson: My Passion for Wine

The newspaper cartoonist loves talking about wine almost as much as reading about it – a pity her friends don’t, she tells Rosi Hanson

In one of Sally Ann Lasson’s cartoons, a man asks his friend what the saddest film he’s ever seen is. ‘Sideways, when he drinks that 1961 Cheval Blanc with junk food’ is the reply. Tragic, they agree. It’s a view their creator shares.

‘Wine enjoyment to me is all about wine and food. My idea of absolute happiness comes at the end of October – some sort of roast pheasant with a bottle of St-Estèphe. Food is so crucial’. The design of labels, too, is important to her. ‘They have a life of their own – it’s the romance.’

The four characters who appear in the regular As If… cartoon strip, which has featured in The Independent since the newspaper began in 1986, arrived complete in her head, and haven’t really changed. Even her dog stars in it.

Her work has appeared in numerous papers and there is a collection, published as That Old Chestnut. Her subject is relationships and affairs of the heart, depicted in a wry and acerbic way. Characters are often depicted crying into their wine, or nursing hangovers. Her fans would not be surprised to learn that she is keen on wine. Her taste is as quirky, and her opinions as pithy as you would expect in one of her characters.

Growing up in London, she studied at Central St Martins College Of Art. Her father, a half-Russian, half-Danish antiques and art dealer, was fond of wine, although he doesn’t seem to have influenced her choices as an adult. ‘He always had Burgundies, because he was foreign – the English drink claret, don’t they?’ She rarely drinks anything else.

‘St-Estèphe is my chosen area. Montrose was the first thing I properly noticed – my favourite wine in my price range.’ She claims to have no sense of smell, so maybe it is its chewy, textural nature that attracts her. Although more or less self-taught when it comes to wine, as a young woman she had the luck to drink great vintages of first-growth Bordeaux, courtesy of Douglas Bunn, founder of showjumping at Hickstead.

Finding herself next to him at dinner and knowing nothing about horses, she talked to him about the wines. She was rewarded with 1964 Mouton-Rothschild and 1962 Margaux among others, that helped form her taste. That taste is extremely defined: French, a few classic whites, but almost entirely claret. She can ‘hardly be bothered’ with other regions, let alone New World wines.

Her first ‘formative moment’ occurred aged 22, at a party held by affluent hosts, ‘yet they were serving horrible wine – an awful Valpolicella. I thought, “What’s the point of that?”’

Ten years later, living in New York, she read an article about Robert Parker. Two things impressed: his reputed ability to identify wines in blind tastings, and she was convinced of his complete honesty. ‘He is my living god. I’ve only got room for one expert and it’s him.’ Later she admits to having a soft spot for Hugh Johnson ‘because he’s portable. His Pocket Wine Book is just right for reading in bed’. She loves reading tasting notes, especially from Farr Vintners.

Few of her friends share her passion. She knows hardly anyone, she says, who wants to talk about her favourite subject for more than two minutes. ‘Opening a bottle of fine wine is not a social activity; it’s best done on your own.’

She takes a copy of Anthony Trollope’s The American Senator from her bookshelf and quotes: ‘There is a difficulty in the giving of dinners…what service do you do to any one in pouring your best claret down his throat, when he knows no difference between that and a much more humble vintage – your best claret – one which you feel so sure you cannot replace?’

Recently at her Oxfordshire home, with her ‘only wine friend’, journalist Robert Sandall, she chose a 1986 Haut-Brion. After decanting the wine, she went to change, only to come downstairs to find, to her horror, a couple of early guests helping themselves.

I am not sure whether it was the fact they were quaffing it unthinkingly or that it hadn’t had time to open up that upset her most. But in future, she will be buying cheaper mixed cases for such guests and saving the good stuff.

Written by Rosi Hanson

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