Even before its future plans were revealed to us exclusively this week, Oddbins’ story had become stranger than fiction.
The wine trade is frequently accused of offering the best career in the world. Because the grass is always greener on the other side, the best career in the world is usually anything that isn’t your own.
It is always interesting when industry competitors come together to fight a common enemy. The latest such venture is the recently launched Let There Be Beer campaign.
What’s the point of wine? If you’re Catholic wine is for communion but for some Muslims it’s for infidels. For collectors wine is self-fulfilment, but for alcoholics it’s self-destruction. For some, wine is for quiet contemplation, for others it’s for spraying over people in nightclubs to show you’re classy.
It is hard not to imagine yourself as a film star when you enter BAFTA’s plush headquarters in London’s Piccadilly and tread the same carpet such distinguished thespians as Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis and Helen Mirren have previously graced. A place that celebrates the finest achievements in acting is a fitting setting for the Wine & Spirit Trade Association’s annual conference.
“A vineyard planted at the gates of hell”, doesn’t sound like the most promising source of fine wine. You’d expect it to make a pruney, full-bodied red or a fiery fortified at best. But the 1.4 hectares of field-blended Semillon Blanc, Semillon Gris, Muscat and Palomino that grower Dirk Brand cultivates on his wheat and rooibos tea farm near Elands Bay on South Africa’s West Coast produces one of the Cape’s most refined and minerally whites instead.
Welcome! Bienvenidos! Thobela! Using a modern day riff on Joel Grey’s famous song in Cabaret, The Beautiful South held its first, keenly-awaited tasting in London last week. If you’ve not heard of the initiative, it is a genuinely groundbreaking collaboration between three Southern Hemisphere countries: Argentina, Chile and South Africa, two of whom are historic enemies.
“What’s wrong with France?” asked the distinguished journalist Christine Ockrent in a recent think piece in Prospect. Her analysis, which is worth reading in full, begins at the top. Président François Hollande, whose popularity has trawled unprecedented lows in opinion polls, lacks the “grandeur, energy and panache” that the French expect from their leader. But his problems are part of a deeper malaise. France, argues Ockrent, has to face reality. Like its political class, it is frequently arrogant, averse to change and incurious about the outside world.
Time to raise a dram to the Scotch Whisky Association for its inventive approach to creating concise statistics that strike decisively to the heart of the issues currently at play.
It’s not so long ago that all the chatter about Bargain Booze was whether it was destined for a sell-off and who would be brave enough to take it on.
I’m not sure if Peter Lehmann and Tim Hamilton Russell ever met, but I like to think they would have got on, despite their very different personalities. One was a slightly gruff, chain-smoking winemaker who never went to university, the other an urbane, Oxford-educated advertising executive. What they had in common – and would, I hope, have established a bond between them – was a love of wine and an ability to take risks, flouting rules if necessary.
If proof of the effectiveness among brewing lobbyists were ever needed, it was on full view at the 20th annual dinner of the All Parliamentary Beer Group in Westminster last week. Senior MPs rubbed shoulders with brewers in a resplendent display of back-slapping over the successful abolishment of the beer duty escalator.
Ever felt like making your own wine? If you work in the business, whether as a retailer, sommelier, importer or impoverished hack, the chances are that you’ve entertained just such a dream.
Last week I was an invigilator at the Master of Wine exam in London, supervising a tasting paper that I’d helped to set.
Traitor or patriot? Whistleblower or scoundrel? Depending on your point of view, Edward Snowden, the man behind the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance techniques, is either a hero or a villain. Whatever you think of the guy – not least the fact that he has disclosed the contents of top-secret documents – you have to admire his courage. “I do not expect to see home again,” he has admitted from his hotel room in Hong Kong.
How conservative is the wine busisness? Less than it once was is the obvious answer, at least in the UK. When I started writing about the subject in the mid-1980s, a pinstriped suit and a tie were de rigueur at tastings, and that was just for the women. The New World was all but ignored – it was famously covered in a morning at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust – and innovation was frowned upon. It was a world of claret, Burgundy, port, sherry, Rioja, Hock and Moselle.
When the London International Wine Fair closes its doors at Excel next Wednesday evening it will mark the end of a short and not particularly distinguished era in the show’s 33-year history.
Stroll through the vineyards at Il Paradiso di Frassina in Montalcino and the sound of Mozart soothes your ears. If you like Beethoven, Bach or Boulez, not to mention Miles Davis, Madonna or Motörhead, you will be disappointed. Musical variety is not the point here. The Sangiovese vines are given a permanent aural diet of Mozart, pumped through 58 strategically sited speakers, and nothing else.
Moaning about the weather is practically a national sport in England. There’s a bit of me that thinks that we enjoy being grumpy, “coveting disappointment” as the comedian Bill Bailey once put it. And yet the last 12 months have been anything but enjoyable. The rain, the snow and the lack of sunshine would have tested the optimism of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, who famously declared in Candide that, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore once did a very funny sketch as Derek and Clive about what they considered the worst job in the world. From memory, their choice involved working for Jayne Mansfield – I’ll spare you the anatomical details – rather than being a traffic warden, refuse collector, VAT inspector, estate agent, politician or journalist. And yet most people would place these half-dozen professions at the bottom of the career ladder.
Brunello and Bordeaux, Bordeaux and Brunello. Italy and France’s most famous wine regions have a lot in common, not least that they both hold high-profile tastings in the first part of the year. If it’s February, it must be Tuscany, invariably in the snow; if it’s April, it must be the Gironde, accompanied by spring flowers and, if you’re lucky, deckchair weather.
A favourite Paul Simon tune was at the top of my iPod playlist last week. When Numbers Get Serious isn’t as famous as The Sound of Silence or Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, but it has a hidden message for the wine business. “When times are mysterious,” sings Simon, “serious numbers will always be heard.”
How hungry would you have to be to eat a spaniel? What about a monkey, a camel or a rat? During the siege of their city in 1870, starving Parisians consumed all those things and more. Horsemeat, first introduced four years previously as what the historian Alistair Horne called “a cheap provender for the poor”, became a comparative delicacy. To this day, it is much favoured in France, where boucheries chevalines still exist, as well as Italy and Belgium.
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