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’