Thursday, 24 May 2018

Of Harrods and hoodies

It may surprise some of you to discover that I am not a regular customer at Harrod’s. But I hope that may be understandable when you see what the regular customers at Harrod’s are like these days. However, it was time for me to visit, because the Fine Wines and Spirits Rooms at Harrod’s have received “a conceptual and visual makeover”. Although the main concept still seems to be the sale of Fine Wines and Spirits.

I am delighted to see that the idea of a wine department has actually survived, whereas things like a shirt department have vanished. Like most stores, Harrod’s has succumbed to the power of brands, with each brand being given its own specific location. So if you want to buy, say, a tie, you have to trail around every single brand in order to see if they sell a tie – whereas once there was a thing of customer service and colourful beauty called a tie department, which gathered together for comparison all of the ties by all of the brands which the store was selling. May I suggest such a thing to the current owners?

Although to be fair, the store is now selling very few ties. In fact the wine room is sited in a disturbing location, at the back of a basement area offering three-figure baseball caps and four-figure hoodies, in what appears to be designer thugwear. Foolishly I had dressed up in my best bib and tucker, in order to get a bit of respect from the staff, whereas in fact I could have swaggered in looking like a mugger and been completely a la mode. (And if you ask what kind of mugger wears a £730 baseball cap, the answer presumably is a rather successful one.)

One of these gentlemen may have bought their outfit from Harrod's…

But unlike certain daunting upmarket wine merchants, where your entrance is announced with the ting of a metal bell, there are no doors here. You can just meander in to the wine department, as if you happened to have wandered past while looking at sweatpants – Hmm, perhaps the Magic Stick drop crotch sweatpants, which look to me like, well, sweatpants, but supposedly “transcend the classic style of the off-duty staple”, for just £525.

So in I drift, carefully dropping neither my crotch nor my aitches. First impressions are that this wine room is far less bling than its predecessor. Tasteful, limed oak shelving is discreetly lit, there’s a patterned marble floor, and there are “secret cabinets”, labelled with a winemakers name, which open when you touch them to reveal bottles within. (Unfortunately they are so secret that while I was there, an assistant went round touching them and leaving them ajar, because otherwise none of the customers realised they were there.)

The tables host absurd steampunk devices which look like something out of Professor Branestawm. Through these you can sample scents, like coffee. In case you don’t know what coffee smells like, you can stick your nose into a brass trumpet like Nipper the HMV dog and find out. Or visit the coffee bar.

Then there’s the wine. Of course a lot of it is preposterous ostentation. There are ridiculously expensive bottles here; not just the obvious DRCs, the predictable Petrus, Le Pin and pals, but a bottle of 1959 trockenbeerenauslese which is £28,000, or just under £1500 a character.

And the sizes! There are bottles here the size of milk churns, bottles like oxygen tanks, bottles which resemble household Calor gas cylinders.

But they’re not tucked away inside a daunting special glass room, as the finest wines were in the old Wine Department (or still are at Berry Bros). No, they’re on display alongside their affordable alternatives. And there are affordable wines, priced in the teens, for sale here. There are even wines which I consider laughable (Clarendelle? Mouton Cadet?? Really???)

So it’s worth a trip. You can drool at the cars outside. In fact, you can drool at the cars inside  – there’s a new Porsche currently displayed in one of the windows. (Either that, or there’s been a pretty upmarket ramraid.)

Saunter past the designer thugwear – sorry, “modern streetwear/luxe mash-up” – and into the Wine Room, with no door to dissuade you. And you can pass a pleasant half hour browsing, without obligation, imagining how you might spend £28,000 on a bottle of wine. Or you might actually spend a tiny fraction of that, one two-thousandth to be precise, and buy yourself a perfectly decent bottle.

Which will leave you change for some sweatpants.


Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Further Complications

So I'm ranting and raving about the need to transition from a wine-based monoculture to one which was shared more evenly between wines, beers and spirits; and someone calling themselves Anonymous writes a comment at the end of the last rant which is so on the money, so neatly-turned, that I'm going to quote it in full:

'What would a 50-50 split actually mean? What are you measuring? Volume of liquid, volume of alcohol, time spent drinking, financial outlay, pleasure returned? A few months ago I tried moving away from wine to a largely gin and cider based diet (different nights), but it was a statistical nightmare. Whatever the merits of other booze might be, absent of any Exchange Rate Mechanism back into wine, they don't seem worth the admin.'

There you have it. Long-term satisfactory booze modification turns out to be a much more enduringly complex problem than it at first appears - almost impossible if you include pleasure returned as an essential criterion. Years ago, when Sediment was young and full of certainties, I came up with a cockamamie notion called The Great Wine Graph, plotting price against sensation delivered as a way of generating some kind of standardised cost/pleasure dataset against which to judge just about any drink I stuck in my mouth. After a couple of weeks, of course, I forgot about the scheme and that was that. 

But it would be one way to tackle the ongoing question, How much am I enjoying this? - which in turn boils down to Why am I even doing this?, which in turn boils down to Why bother living?, but anyway. Boiled all the way down, I end up working not with a graph but with gut feeling, figuratively and literally - a yearning for the sort of things an old man might yearn for: predictability and value for money. In other words, last night I drank whisky and soda, the whisky being the legendary High Commissioner, a massively uninvolving mainstream blend that you find in corner shops and left-behind supermarket chains all over the country. I forget how we came by it. It was okay. It had been professionally made. It tasted like whisky.

On the other hand, a couple of days earlier I had brush with that awful Chateau Pey La Tour stuff - which I feel certain I've bleated about before but can't remember when - which I keep buying because I fall for the name (sounds like something good, but what? What?) and the smoothie packaging and the crap prize at the bottom of the front face, Concours des Grands Vins de France a Macon, Medaille d'Argent, see pic, I mean, what a heap of dross it turned out to be, very nearly (but not quite) undrinkable, and I paid something for it, way more than I should have, how credulous could anyone be? I could have been complacently drinking a bland, completely non-contentious mass-market whisky for a fraction of the price.

And then the whole mess is compounded by a bottle of rosé I knocked off last week, preposterous name - LeBijou de Sophie Valrose - apparently a Cabrières, tasted fantastic. I love drinking wine, I solemnly reminded myself as I slurped through it. I think it cost about the same as the Pey la Tour but it was as high on the value/deliciousness scale as the Pey was in negative figures. You see where this is heading? Beers and spirits are going to be predictable and as satisfying as I want them to be, with occasional outbreaks of sublimity in the gin section and, I'm hoping, in the whiskies. Wines, conversely, you never know what's going to happen. I want reassurance, at a price, not endless leaps into the unknown, except when that's exactly the thing I do crave.

Which brings me back to Anonymous and his intervention: I think my division of wine/non-wine is going to be on a crudely pragmatic day-to-day basis (yesterday I had beer; today, therefore, wine) with, as the central unit of critical judgement pleasure returned, which neatly incorporates price, predictability and taste, whatever that is. It's somewhere on the cusp between art and science, but leavened with that key ingredient: futility.


Thursday, 10 May 2018

Let's discover the world of wine! (Or not…)

The cheap wooden wine cabinet in my local supermarket has a new heading. Regular readers (bless you all) may remember that it once housed their so-called ‘Fine Wine’, before becoming some kind of dumping ground. Now, it bears a simple imperative: ‘Discover’.

Discover – what does that mean, exactly? I’m old enough to feel that there’s an abuse of the verb going on, old enough to have grown up with images of proper explorers, in pith helmets, leading a train of luggage-bearing servants through a jungle somewhere. And here is a supermarket, trying to make you feel similarly daring and exploratory, with little more challenge than trying a grape like vermentino.

This notion of ‘discovery’ is peculiar to wine. I don’t see many retailers offering an invitation to discover the world of trousers. Actually, I’ll confess that I’m pretty complacent when it comes to trousers, and perhaps I should be looking to see if there are varieties with unequal leg lengths, or magnetic flies. (“Warning: Unsuitable for customers with certain piercings”)

But I really don’t feel any need to head out and 'discover' uncharted territories of trousers. Or, indeed, wine. Which must disappoint the marketing whiz who clearly thought it would sound an exciting proposition Whereas in fact, a suggestion to ‘discover’ is one of those foreboding phrases, like “I thought we could try something unusual…”, which can make your heart sink whether it’s in connection with wine, seafood or sexual intercourse.

So what is this, a carefully curated selection of unusual grapes and challenging flavours? Or perhaps a journey around the world’s wines, featuring lesser-known regions? (Which, I tend to find, generally have a very good reason for remaining lesser-known…)

Let us tip-toe with trepidation, out of our comfort zone, across its top shelf, to discover the unfamiliar wines of, er… France. Of that rarely encountered region, Bordeaux. There’s an example of the possibly less well known Chinon, but then back to a Bordeaux, cleverly labelled as claret in case that makes it seem like a different wine.

Then there are three Kosher wines, whose presence might be explained less by an initiative to discover Middle Eastern wine, and more by a desire to shift leftovers from last month’s Passover.

Below that you can discover their own-label champagne, which is cheap, and their own-label cava, which is cheaper. Oh, and a sauvignon blanc. From Bordeaux.

Go on, you say, discover! Try something different! What have you got to lose? Well, about £13 by the looks of things, for a bottle of Chablis (ever heard of it?), where the only discovery will be of how much more than usual I can spend on a supermarket wine.

Tucked away near the bottom are some genuinely unusual wines, a Sierra de Andia from Navarra, and a Paso Robles Zinfandel blend, both in Sainsbury's own-label Taste the Difference range.  But does anyone still consider Argentinian Malbec much of a discovery? I mean, even CJ discovered that, ages ago. He, of course, would explore anywhere in the world that could possibly offer drinkable wine for less than a fiver. But Lord Sainsbury’s expedition doesn’t seem to have gone that far.

So what have we discovered? Little, beyond the low estimation in which supermarket winedrinkers  are held. Discovery, it seems, is small, confined and unsurprising. A bit like discovering your downstairs loo.