In the February issue of Wine & Spirit, the monthly magazine currently on sale in the UK at W H Smith and so for which I first tried desperately to write about wine back in 1975, is a very generous review of our Vintners’ Tales DVD by editor David Williams:
Sexist, nepotistic and snobbish it may have been, but there’s no doubt the British wine trade used to be a far more colourful place. Such, at least, is the impression you get from re-watching Vintners’ Tales, Jancis Robinson MW’s landmark series of televisual pen-portraits of notable wine trade figures, which is currently available once again via www.jancisrobinson.com in aid of Wine Relief [the wine fundraising arm of Comic Relief].
Although the oldest of the two Glenfiddich-winning series is only a decade and a half (the first series was screened in 1992, the second in 1998), almost all these 10-minute tales seem to depict a much earlier era; a time when names were double-barreled, suits Saville Row and the claret still largely bought for consumption rather than investment. In the case of wine writer Edmund Penning-Rowsell and Harveys of Bristol driving force Harry Waugh, we really are talking about another era, both having passed away in recent years after enjoying very long and distinguished careers.
The Penning-Rowsell film could almost be taken as a satirical skit on the old school wine gent, with Penning-Rowsell coming across as a Norrington Blitt-type figure played by Peter Cook in full-on Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling mode – someone who “cultivated the country life punctuated only by visits to his London club”. Penning-Rowsell’s eccentricities, as lovingly revealed by Robinson, his one-time protégée, included some “iron rules” about food. “Meat should be unadorned, cheese should be hard. Nothing sweet – no sauces, no horseradish, no redcurrant jelly – should be allowed to disturb his beloved claret.” But he was also, as Robinson points out, one of the world’s “most unlikely hardline leftwingers”, a “conservative in everything except his politics”, who didn’t see “why the Tories should get all the best wine”. He’s far from the only eccentric on view, however.
The magnificent Mississippi-born English wine pioneer, Carla Carlisle, of Wyken Hall in Suffolk, is interviewed in her beautiful country home, as she languorously strokes a chicken on her lap. John Avery is so comically disorganised whole sections of his vast country house (it appears that access to a country seat was something of a pre requisite for the wine trade in those days) are off-limits, so full are they of unidentified piles of stuff. “I wish I could be more organised,” he says, and reveals he once took on a French girl because, “she had trained to be an air traffic controller in Caracas, and I thought, if she can do that, surely she can deal with me.” (She couldn’t).
Then there is Bill Baker, joyful bon vivant par excellence, who relates a tale of literally eating his way through a debt he was owed by a top restaurant. Though Robinson does a fine a job of teasing out these eccentricities, you never get the sense she’s laughing at her subjects.
The guiding emotion is affection, rather than mockery or resentment. And, like the subject it deals with, there is a sense that this is programme- making from a bygone age – a time before the malign influence of reality TV had spread throughout the schedules, when commissioning editors were still prepared to take a punt on subjects outside the mainstream, and when programme-makers still had faith in their audience’s attention span.
So, although the production values are much higher in the second series, there’s no fast-cutting, no intrusive music, no injection of spurious narrative and faux-drama a la Oz ’n’ James. All you get is Robinson and her subject chatting amiably and maybe having a nose around a cellar, office or, of course, a beautifully appointed country home. Indeed, with the exception of the film on the vastly successful and, to the traditional wine trade, vulgar broking firm Farr Vintners (who, with their televisions perpetually tuned to the Ceefax share-prices page, clearly represent the white-hot technological wine trade of the future when compared to Bill Baker and his carbon-paper invoices), the compilation has a distinctly elegiac tone.
This, clearly, was a rapidly changing trade, one where, as Robinson says, the colourful characters were already getting lost in “a morass of middle management”. In doing so, she suggests, the trade may well have become more professional, more egalitarian. But it also, indisputably, lost some of its soul.