Wine Tast­ing Henry Jef­freys


If an alien beamed down to­mor­row and read De­can­ter mag­a­zine, it would never guess that the sub­ject be­ing writ­ten about was not only meant to be fun but was, in fact, an in­tox­i­cant.

I’m not singling out De­can­ter for spe­cial crit­i­cism; al­most all wine writ­ing, no mat­ter how vivid and evoca­tive, is writ­ten from the point of view of ab­so­lute so­bri­ety. I can think of no other ac­tiv­ity where the lit­er­a­ture on the sub­ject is so far re­moved from most peo­ple’s ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence.

We en­joy wine be­cause it is al­co­holic. None of the cul­ture built up around wine would ex­ist if it weren’t in­tox­i­cat­ing. As much as we might like to think that wine tast­ings are, in the words of Dr Frasier Crane, ‘just about wine and clear con­sti­tu­tional pro­ce­dures for en­joy­ing it’, we should be hon­est that the rea­son most peo­ple at­tend them is at least partly to get drunk.

How drunk, though, de­pends on the crowd. Wine buffs tend to hold back but, for some, it’s an ex­cuse to get stuck in. Re­cently, I put on what was grandly billed a ‘port mas­ter­class’ at a shop in Brock­ley, south London. The au­di­ence con­sisted largely of grand­par­ents of my daugh­ter’s friends.

Most had pol­ished off a bot­tle (not of port, I has­ten to add) be­fore I at­tempted to talk. Need­less to say, there were no spit­toons; teenagers on a school trip would have been eas­ier to con­trol.

The wine critic Michael Broad­bent cer­tainly wouldn’t have ap­proved. He wrote, ‘It is noth­ing short of ridicu­lous to drink one’s way through a tast­ing.’

Of course, there’s a good rea­son why pros don’t taste like south London winos. I don’t want the buy­ing team at Berry Broth­ers half-cut when as­sess­ing the new Bur­gundy vin­tage.

There is, how­ever, a happy medium be­tween the Brock­ley Bac­cha­na­lia and the as­ceti­cism of the pro­fes­sion­als. A wine tast­ing, when done prop­erly, works like an an­cient Greek sym­po­sium, in that you have a for­malised way of talk­ing – in this case, about wine – and you all drink at the same rate.

Overt drunk­en­ness is frowned upon; but so is to­tal so­bri­ety. A de­gree of in­tox­i­ca­tion helps the Bri­tish shake off their self-con­scious­ness and talk freely. Wine talk doesn’t seem so pre­ten­tious when you’ve had a few, in like-minded com­pany. If you taste sober, you miss the true joy of wine ap­pre­ci­a­tion, which is the in­ter­play be­tween wine’s in­tel­lec­tual and vis­ceral side.

Re­cently, I had been for­get­ting this im­por­tant fact. ‘Tast­ing wine with you isn’t fun any­more,’ my wife told me. At wine events, in­tended to be so­cial, I spent my time fran­ti­cally scrib­bling notes, spit­ting, try­ing to get round quickly and get­ting im­pa­tient with lin­ger­ers. I was tast­ing like a pro when I should have been drink­ing like an am­a­teur.

In­ter­est­ingly, it is only wine that has this gap be­tween how a pro­fes­sional and an am­a­teur func­tion. You can’t prop­erly as­sess a whisky with­out gaug­ing how it goes down the throat (or so the ex­perts claim). It’s the same with beer. I judged a beer com­pe­ti­tion re­cently where I tried more than a hun­dred beers and didn’t spit once. Which is per­haps why you rarely meet a thin beer-writer. Can it be a co­in­ci­dence that beer and whisky are seen as fun and un­pre­ten­tious, whereas wine still suf­fers from ac­cu­sa­tions of snob­bery?

The best writ­ing on wine has of­ten been done by am­a­teurs – Roger Scru­ton, for ex­am­ple – be­cause they don’t have the dis­con­nect be­tween wine ap­pre­ci­a­tion and in­tox­i­ca­tion.

It’s the same with tele­vi­sion. The most en­ter­tain­ing pro­gramme made about drink in re­cent years was a Christ­mas spe­cial pre­sented by restau­rant critic Giles Coren and pre­sen­ter Alexan­der Arm­strong. There wasn’t a spit­toon in sight.

It just goes to show that wine can be fun, as long as you re­mem­ber to swal­low oc­ca­sion­ally.

Bill Knott’s wine col­umn ap­pears in this is­sue’s Christ­mas Gift Guide

‘I was in ENSA dur­ing the war’

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