30 December 2020 Republished free, reviews of Jamie Goode, Tony Aspler, Noble Rot and a classical view of drinking.
20 November 2020 Memories, manifestos, what to think and how to drink – all the vinous mentorship you'll ever need in the books below. See this guide to all of this season's book reviews.
The Goode Guide to Wine
A manifesto of sorts
University of California Press
It’s a small, sturdy book, almost pocket-fitting size, with thick matt paper, a retro look to the cover and retro font. Perhaps ironic pastiche, but definitely going for a certain ‘feel’. Even if that feel is one composed of laid-back diffidence and modesty that is somewhat at odds with the rather grand choice of ‘manifesto’ (a public declaration of policy and aim, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
Goode, as most of us know, is a scientist with a PhD in plant biology, a 15-year career as a science editor and got into wine in 1992 thanks to Pouilly-Fuissé and a 1991 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz. He started a hobby wine site on GeoCities in 1996 and wineanorak.com in 1999. In 2008 he gave up his day job and swung full time into wine-writing action. With 20 years of wine writing and five books to his name, he’s earned the right to a few opinions (and perhaps even a manifesto).
He explains that he’s written this in ‘an attempt to gather together some of my thoughts about wine, in a series of short, targeted chapters’, going on to say, ‘My approach to wine is a bit different, and I think it is quite unique. And worth reading.’
(Of course, you could go to his blog, wineanorak.com, if you wanted to read his thoughts on wine without paying for the book – much of the content is reflected in the blog; some chapters in the book are lifted directly from the blog, word for word. But there is something quite satisfying and intimate about this little hardcover that elevates it above the blog. Plus, you can avoid the top picks from Waitrose.)
The question is, then, whether his approach is as different, unique and worth reading as he claims.
What I found was a delightful book that is like a jumble sale: rummage around and you’ll find some really awful, trite, clichéd stuff; you’ll find some well-used but useful bits and bobs that are a little bit mundane, certainly not original, but solidly made; and then there are the absolute gems. These are the kind of treasures you want to hug to your chest and not tell the seller how freaking thrilled you are in case they up the price. This is Jamie’s car boot – packed to the rooftop with all three categories.
It’s a snappy format. The 55 chapters are on average less than four pages long (small pages). A book to read in short bursts while waiting for the kettle to boil or in the COVID-distanced queue at the supermarket. I like that. It also means when it turns fustian, the rants are mercifully short. On the downside, several chapters are really just saying the same thing, in a different way.
The chapters seem to be in no apparent order, fitting in nicely with the jumble-sale theme. I couldn’t help wondering whether the chapter titles had been popped into a hat and drawn at random: ‘Hm, third chapter is going to be … let’s see … ah! “Soils matter”! Excellent. You pick number four.’ I should point out that Goode says that the first half of the book is aimed at the wine drinker and the second half at the wine trade – roughly the case, I’d say, but with plenty of overlap.
If you like soap boxes, the book satisfies generously. It delivers articulate philippic against tasting notes, other wine writers, commercial palates, commercial wine, spoofulation, scoring, small barrels, wine judges, cheap wines, chemicals and more. Halfway through the book he dutifully pulls himself up from yet another diatribe about inferior wine (having devoted a significant portion of the previous chapters to the problem) and declares, ‘but I’m not going to make moaning about bad things the theme of my writing, and I’m not going to waste my time writing about such bottles’. But the temptation proves impossible to resist. Eight pages later he devotes an entire chapter, entitled ‘Beer is better than wine’, to complaining about cheap, commercial, industrially produced wines (while, ironically, extolling the virtues of cheap, commercial, industrially produced beer).
There is plenty of hardly unique opining on terroir, authenticity and how rubbish other wine writers are. (Apparently, they write ‘hideous’ tasting notes … If I collated all the passive-aggressive stabs wine writers make about other wine writers while ‘inadvertently’ putting their own particular style on a virtuous pedestal, they would fill a book.) So, yeah, yawn, yet another wine writer saying that his style of tasting notes is the Only True Way Of Communication With The Masses Who Long For Uncorrupted Authentic Wisdom.
Surprisingly, he accuses scientists of ignoring the influence of soil chemistry. I’m not sure how plant-scientist Goode could have missed the dozens of books and articles on how soil, in particular the microbial life of soil, has profound impact on not just plant health but on food flavour. It would have been much more informative for all of us if he’d investigated the research that is happening in that direction rather than trotting out threadbare arguments on terroir.
There are flashes of acerbic humour – I particularly enjoyed his satirical letters to detractors of natural wines and wannabe published wine writers. The inclusion of that wonderful, hilarious passage in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in which Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte teach each other to taste wine, was sheer genius.
Goode has always used metaphor and analogy very well and this book is no exception, offering analogies that are both clever and useful. Terroir, for example, is the radio signal and the winegrower tunes the dial to pick up the strongest, clearest signal. We should be as willing to pay restaurant mark-ups as we are willing to pay an extra £6,000 for a business-class ticket – same plane, same destination/same wine but different experience.
Some of the more philosophical topics are valuable for the discussions they (should) provoke. Is taste a property of the wine or a property of our interaction with the wine? Should we use the word winegrower rather than winemaker? Are we too reductionist in our traditional approach to tasting and assessing wine? Balance isn’t always in the middle. Credentialism is a barrier.
In a good car-boot sale, the real fun is poking through the piles of random stuff, dismissing half of it as utter rubbish (and feeling superior for having done so), picking up a whole lot of things that you didn’t even know you needed and won’t know what to do with when you take them home, and espying that one thing that makes all the time and effort worth it. In any car-boot sale, someone will look at you clutching your prize and think, ‘What on earth made her buy that piece of tat? And why on earth did she disregard all those really valuable items in that boot?!’
My advice is, get the book. Rummage around. You’ll find something.
(PS There is an audiobook if you want to hear Jamie read.)
How to Drink
A classical guide to the art of imbibing
Vincent Obsopoeus (edited, translated and introduced by Michael Fontaine)
Princeton University Press
This seems to have been the year for venerable authors, with at least three octogenarians (one below). But no one comes close to this author, who is 522 years old.
Vincent Obsopoeus was a Renaissance humanist, translator and neoclassical poet born just before the start of the 16th century. As the rector of a prestigious high school in Ansbach, Franken, he was alarmed by the patterns of consumption he saw in his native Germany. He wrote The Art of Drinking (De Arte Bibendi) in 1536, an attempt to help people manage their drinking with dignity.
Michael Fontaine, the translator and editor of this English version of the 16th century book, is Professor of Classics at Cornell University, New York. Obsopoeus (whose name, he helpfully tells us, sounds like ‘Job? So pay us!’) published two editions of the book and Fontaine has treated this translation as a third edition, omitting what he refers to as ‘a gigantic insertion’, ‘a long digression’, two prefaces and most of the liminary poems. His aim, he explains, was not a slavish translation, but to ‘transmute Obsopoeus’ thought and spirit into clear and idiomatic English as it is spoken in the United States today’. It’s a modernised translation with the original Latin on the facing pages.
His introduction touches on the parallels he sees between the ‘binge and bro culture’ in the US today and a ‘he-man prowess’ that began in Germany 500 years ago. Per capita consumption in Germany at that time was six times higher than it is today. The Crusades were over, people were purposeless and bored, and a culture of competitive drinking and gambling had swept the nation. The more inebriated you could get, the more manly you were.
Fontaine points out that Obsopoeus drew on Ovid’s Art of Love as inspiration and his book contains a handful of allusions to the original poem, but unlike Ovid, The Art of Drinking is not ironic – it is written with serious moral intent.
However, this is no call to asceticism. Fontaine describes it as an attempt ‘to devise a total system for channeling primal energies that are typically regarded as ungovernable’, encouraging not abstinence but ways to truly enjoy and get the most out of wine without it getting the better of you.
It all sounds very serious and I braced myself for a weighty wade through 270 pages of rectorly advice.
By page 17, I was beginning to grin with amusement. By page 27 I was cackling quietly. By page 77 I was laughing out loud – so much so that my husband looked at me from under his headset (endless conference calls; poor sod has a cranial dent) with an alarmed, raised eyebrow. I think he thought I’d gone into second-lockdown lunacy.
For a start, it’s quite clear that Rector Vincent Obsopoeus adores wine. A large portion of the book is a starry paean to the glories of Bacchus. He exhorts us to drink it. Drink it with friends, colleagues, at parties, on holidays, with your superiors and, above all, drink it with your wife. He waxes quite lyrical on the benefits of the latter.
Drink it, he says,
- to spur the bard within you (wine alone, he passionately declares, is the father of learned poets)
- to escape the wife (conversely, but only if you have a ‘beast’ like Socrates’ wife Xanthippe, who was, apparently, worse than a black demon)
- for a change of scenery (it’s only ‘listless turtles’ who have no problem with staying locked indoors forever … ‘but gentlemen belong out in the light’)
- to decompress (we shouldn’t work all hours – ‘a bow cracks when hands are constantly stretching it and musical strings snap when they are overtightened’)
- to avoid misanthropy
- for self-improvement
- to attain wealth, good career moves, promotions and other social advantages (drink with the rich and powerful).
He’s got a lot of advice on choosing drinking buddies – this is a vital element to drinking moderately. Aim for similarity not diversity (hookers should drink with cozening whores; undertakers with morticians; doctors with doctors). Look for drinking buddies ‘whose minds aren’t in thrall to dunderhead superstitions’, who are educated in classical Greek and Latin, who have been endowed by gifts from Apollo, the Muses and other such deities (gifts such as lyre playing, poetry writing, oratory, modesty, easy-goingness and a compassionate worldview). Avoid, at all costs, buzzkills, belligerents, blowhards, bloviators*, ex-monks, heretics, hypocrites and gossips. But …! ‘But Catholics are okay.’ In his experience this ‘cowl-clad crowd are rewardingly generous with their top-ups and only pour from big bottles’.
Other advice for moderation includes:
- avoid bringing books to parties – it’s attention-seeking and you’re wasting your time anyway
- keep bodily functions under control – no buffoonish gestures, farting or anything genital-related
- sing, but don’t overdo it – don’t ‘drone on forever, deafening our thirst-cracked lips with all that bellowing’
- don’t succumb to peer pressure – say no. But if they insist then drink so as not to offend them … ‘Do like me’, he advises, ‘and knock back a hundred drinks rather than let someone get too upset’
- if you’re playing drinking games, then he suggests that you quietly sneak out before the end (but only once you’re bloated and sodden)
- cheat: drink sweet wine ‘trust me, the sweet stuff doesn’t make your thinking as drunk’
- go out often for a pee which buys enough time to get your drink knocked over or miss your turn
- pretend you’re in pain
- wear an amethyst ring – the gemstone is the guardian of eternal sobriety and the enemy of drunkenness
- eat radishes, cabbages, onions, chives and a nimble cow’s roasted lung – they all ward off drunkenness (and are the poor man’s substitute for the amethyst)
- avoid spices which are performance enhancers for weak wines so heaven forbid what will happen if you consume them with strong wines.
He does, every now and then, ameliorate his advice: ‘You weren’t embarrassed to get hammered at holidays, Tibullus, and I shouldn’t be embarrassed to get hammered at holidays either.’
Of course, it’s not all funny. He laments that ‘nowadays, getting hammered is regarded as the greatest virtue … no one’s good or considered tough if they can’t waste a ton of wine by downing it’ and he gets quite screechingly wound up by the sight of disgraceful drinking parties, howling in a primal scream (his words, not mine) that they are a ‘revolting mess of thyrsus-swinging weirdos’, pigs and cattle. I had to look thyrsus up, although I’m sure you all knew exactly what it was.
He is unbridled in his contempt for the ‘bro culture’ of habitual, bragging drunkenness, which, he says, does have to be punished. Pages of the book spew out contempt for the binge-drinking culture and he doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the signs of alcoholism, one of which is ‘the famously stinking breath of the mouth (it’s rare for a sewer line to smell that bad)…’. He is as bluntly candid about the damage that habitual binge drinking wreaks on health, family life, friendships, society and reputation.
I adored this quirky little book. It’s half a millennium old and relevant. It’s vulnerably human, capricious, mercurial, inconsistent, wise, ridiculous, passionate and poetic. It’s unintentionally hilarious. I wish I could create a pack of a hundred wine-themed greeting cards stealing quotes from its pages. We need a satirist to sketch it. We’re all about to become ‘listless turtles’ in lockdown, but you can certainly cheer yourself up with some occasionally hammered advice from a 500-year-old German high-school rector.
* awesome word!
Wine From Another Galaxy
Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew
Not many books get pre-publication rave reviews from Yotam Ottolenghi, Kermit Lynch, Keira Knightly, Rajat Parr, Caitlin Moran, Nigella Lawson, Jon Bonné, Mike Diamond, Diana Henry, Simon Hopkinson and Brian Eno. Stephen Harris writes the foreword. The pages are thick, and I mean thick, with photos of all their adoring (ing not ed) celebrity fans. I’m under no pressure to rave … am I?
If you live in London, you’d be living under a rock if you didn’t know Noble Rot, the wine importer, wine bar and wine magazine. Nick writes a bit about the story behind their first wine bar/restaurant, but in a nutshell, Dan Keeling comes from the music business (ex MD of Island Records) and Mark Andrew comes from the wine business (ex Roberson, although prior to that he worked in a pub where he had his face licked by Liam Gallagher. Top that …). The two of them started one of the industry’s most edgy, rock-punk-rebel wine magazines in 2013, getting famous chefs, actors, comedians, musicians and wine writers from around the globe to contribute. You would be forgiven for thinking it would be all cover-and-cleb, but it’s an articulate, sharp, witty, incisive look at the wine world, offering education, opinion, humour and satire.
From a little stapled-together fanzine to importers to serious magazine to wine shop to restaurant, they’ve covered a hell of a lot of ground in just seven years. And now we have the book.
The marketing bumf from the publishers tells me (in bright pink capital letters) to FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT WINE. It describes Noble Rot as ‘a place of pilgrimage for wine worshippers worldwide’ and that ‘in the Noble Rot galaxy, the usual clichés and rules don’t apply’.
I feel like I might need to go and get dressed in something a bit more Trekky for this review.
The foreword starts – no word of a lie – with the words, ‘A black Aston Martin pulls into …’. I definitely need to get changed into something more glamorous. Please hold on, I need five minutes. I must have heels somewhere in the back of my pre-lockdown cupboard, gathering dust. Thank god I only have to wobble downstairs and get to my desk.
Billed as a definitive guide to tasting, ordering, buying, talking about and stripping back the bullshit of (Jon Bonné’s word, not mine!) wine, it starts off less guide, more autobiography. The Keeling/Andrew/Noble Rot story. A Guardian masterclass in starting magazines, InDesign, a phone call to Mike D of the Beastie Boys, a recipe from Stephen Harris, £500 for printing costs and hand-delivering stock round London, and the boys were in business.
Kickstarter got them their first £11,000, Lily Allen interviewed for issue three, they both passed their WSET diploma, Keeling did training stages in the kitchen of The Sportsman in Seasalter and they started working with magCulture’s Jeremy Leslie on design. In October 2015 they picked up the keys of an ageing wine bar in Lamb's Conduit Street. The acerbic Fay Maschler gave it four stars, Giles Coren wanted to pass out there over Thursday lunch and not be found until Sunday, A A Gill used their ‘bread board as a metaphor to argue against the impending Brexit vote’. Noble Rot had ascended to aristocracy.
In Galaxy, The Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin writes the first chapter. Why not? She says it’s one of her favourite places on the planet. But the guide proper kicks off with a chapter on ‘How to order wine in a restaurant without fear’. Here goes. I’m seriously cynical about whether even Vino-Rock Stars Keeling and Andrew can come up with something original on this topic.
OK, the first thing that I like (makes me laugh) is their declaration: ‘Here are our tips, so you can rise to the challenge without regurgitating hoary old clichés such as, “I don’t know anything about wine, but I know what I like”. Have some self-respect, for Christ’s sake.’ I might even read on …
It’s good advice. I won’t tell you what it is – buy the book – but I have one criticism: the advice depends entirely on having a very good wine list in your hands. In which case, anything you choose should be a great choice. But maybe I say that because I am comfortable navigating my way around a good wine list (I tend to freeze in terror when handed pub lists and last year in Arkansas I gave up asking for the wine list and ordered cocktails – I’d love some advice for the secret to those kind of wine lists). This is good advice for someone at a good restaurant with an adventurous, savvy beverage manager.
Advice comes in the form of buying, serving, faults, storing, ageing and tracking down special wines in shops and restaurants. Little of it earth-shattering (you can find most of it on the Learn section of JR.com, to be blunt). But their chapter on bottle labels was exactly what you would expect from the home of one of the most insolently, nervily designed wine magazines in distribution today. Andy Warhol would have enjoyed it.
I loved the salient quote from da Vinci that one chapter begins with: ‘An average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odour or fragrance, and talks without thinking.’ It powerfully made me pause. I also loved the way that chapter ended: ‘Nowadays most wines are competently made but that doesn’t mean you’ll like them. As Amy Winehouse remarked when asked if she would listen to her contemporary Dido’s multi-million selling music: “I’d rather pour bleach in my ears”’. (Jamie Goode, take note: you could have summed up 120 pages of your book in seven pithy words.)
‘The lexicon of usefulness’ is a chapter on writing about wine. Thank ye gods they don’t spend more than a couple of lines bashing the tasting notes of others (although, like every single person who writes in the wine trade, they have not been able to entirely resist the temptation – is this a kind of wine writers’ Tourettes?!). Instead they offer a refreshingly different way of looking at and trying to understand wines. Again, I’m not going to spill the beans. If you want to know, get the book. Their alternative aroma wheel, however, is something I wouldn’t tell you about because it would certainly get our website blacklisted by corporate firewalls as a porn website, and it most likely would result in at least one fewer member of Purple Pages. I shall leave their rather more salty interpretation to your imagination.
There is chapter entitled, ‘The restaurateurs’ guide to eating in’ (how very COVID-19). ‘All recipes feed six jolly imbibers’. I was sold on the intro about the fraught minefield of entertaining: ‘Does Anna eat gluten? Has Nick enrolled at AA? And why didn’t he tell us his girlfriend is a militant vegan who runs an animal sanctuary before we made foie gras parfait?’ Oh yes. Been there. Have the T-shirt. It not only establishes the readers as firmly middle class, but it credits us with a serious interest in food and global concerns. (Wait, was that tautology?) The four recipes are dead simple and so good.
Most of the book, however, is reserved for what they called the ‘Rotters’ Road Trip – the people and places behind our favourite wines’. This is where the gold lies. As with the rest of the book, as with their magazine, it is illustrated with exquisitely, achingly sentient, poignant photographs (most of which come from Juan Trujillo Andrades, and some from Tom Cockram, among others). Some of them were so intensely, richly human that they made me tingle. The photo of Anselme Selosse had every cell in my body grinning. The black and white of Jonatan García standing in his swirling, winter-ribbed Suertes del Marqués vineyards in Tenerife looked apocryphal, visceral, sinews and nerves transposed onto vines and rocks. It’s not only photos. They’ve somehow collected an essence-distillation of pithy quotes from winemakers. Do they travel with dictaphones?! As travelogues go, it’s up with the best.
I can’t do it justice, but here are some snippets:
La Paulée de Meursault: ‘By 12:15 pm the queue for the unisex toilets is snaking out of the château (whoever coined the expression “couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery” may have been French)’.
Savennières and Anjou, Richard Leroy’s Monbenault 2014: ‘so packed full of life and smoky bacon aromas that, if you put it under a microscope, you’d surely find a universe of merrily vibrating atoms’.
Champagne, Jérôme Prévost: ‘On the first day in his winery, Anselme taught me a lesson I will always remember … I had to pump wine out of a barrel to a tank, and as he started to explain he stopped and said, “Jérôme, when you do something to a wine, you have to think what the reasons are that you’re doing it.” … The question is always “Why?”’ A question we could all, perhaps, apply to what we do …
Côte d’Or, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair: ‘My family is quite simple – either you’re in the army or in the vineyards.’ He’s not the first winemaker to say, ‘A good bottle is an empty bottle’, but it’s a great line.
Mâconnais, Jean-Marie Guffens: ‘I wrote [to Parker], “We’re very pleased about your interest in our wines, but the only thing we know about you is that you can read English and count to 100.” That made me a lot of enemies!’
Jura: ‘The flavours of the Jura are visceral and alive: naturalistic, raw, sour, ugly and delicious.’
Jurançon, Lionel Osmin: ‘The problem around here is that we don’t have any problems.’
Tenerife: ‘Giants’ hair braids, rib cages, spindly spider legs – however your brain processes the ancient vines that line Suertes del Marqués’ steep Orotava Valley vineyards …’
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Joško Gravner: ‘Sometimes, when I think about it, I’m drinking my thoughts; there’s good and bad in all of them, an angel and a devil.’ Keeling and Andrew: ‘Talking about them feels like trying to discuss music in Japan when you can’t speak the language …’.
What sets this book apart is that Keeling and Andrew do something that only a few wine writers manage to do. Some are so gifted with their word-sorcery that I find myself reading them just to soak luxuriously in the sheer scalpel-sliced pain and beauty of their craft. Others are masters of journalism – facts and story are precisely encapsulated within the confines of perfectly crafted neutralism. Some are skilled in the delivery of large tranches of fact and science, such that it is neither bewildering nor patronising. Keeling and Andrew are simply minstrels – every meal is improv, every table is a stage, and they gather their liquid band of troubadours, push them into the limelight and then stand back, lift their fiddles to their chins and play while the wines sing their hearts out. Sure, they've mastered the lyrics and the music, the rhythm and the street cred. But when they recount the wonders of their wanderings, the wines are centre stage.
There are two other things to make note of. The quality of the writing is outstanding. This is not just two guys who tell a great story. It is the best of dry English wit; irreverent, informal, personal, educated, bald, blunt, elegant, highly knowledgeable, satirical. It is the high-wire trapeze act balancing succinct and verbose, intelligent depth and tongue-in-cheek facetiousness, couth and uncouth. And then there is the design of the book – too in-your-face to be ignored. Yet it’s subtle. It’s retro, yet it makes you want to go street dancing. It makes you feel young and it brings back memories. It’s cool and clever and it bites. It is achingly cool. I almost feel I should dock a point for being too cool.
I have a confession to make. Most of this review is simply stealing left, right and centre from the book. I’ve quoted and quoted. But I’m not feeling terribly guilty about it. There’s so much here that all I can offer is tantalisation. Therefore I am going to finish with wholesale theft.
Before my final robbery, I want to say this: Having just read another wine writer’s manifesto, I found some distinct parallels: opinion, guidance, philosophy borne out of many years of personal experience and knowledge. But herein, there is a difference: a refreshingly distinct lack of ranting, a lack of negative criticism about what is wrong with the wine world, and instead a celebration of what is good and beautiful. It reminded me, in a cynical, weary moment – when winter has just leaned in heavily with her darkness, her bone-cold, her colour-leached palette; when we’re trying not to obsessively track the agonising creep of vote-counting in Nevada and Georgia; when we’ve just gone back into lockdown; when my last rose has turned brown – that there is still so much to be thrilled about, to be alive for, to celebrate. Still so much beautiful wine to drink …
So, this is the Noble Rot ‘manifesto’ (although they are not so venerable as to call it that):
- ‘There shall be no fighting, biting or aggressive pours
- No barriques, no Berlusconi, or tutti-frutti tasting notes
- Numerical scores are for wine accountants
- Welcome early ravers on biodynamic Beaujolais
- Revelling in unfettered bacchanalian excess until kicking-out time
- Tannins like stardust found under the sofa [please, please may I steal this line?]
- Tweezing micro-ingredients expressly forbidden by management
- Monologues about sulphur additions surplus to requirements
- No frills, no fuss, just to drink honest, authentic wine with people you love’
(Confession 2: I was itching to slam a book endorsed by celebrities. I can’t bear BIRGing. But now I wonder if perhaps it's the celebs basking in the reflected glory of Noble Rot.)
Five Minutes More
A wine book for busy people
At age 81, Tony Aspler has a very long CV – 55 years of wine writing has racked up 20 books (including a series of wine murder mysteries, which is something not many wine writers can lay claim to), a haul of awards and medals, and enough magazine columns to wallpaper the Burj Khalifa. Although perhaps I should make that First Canadian Place, seeing as Canada is his homeland.
The idea of the original book, The Five Minute Wine Book, was a riffle through his archives of nearly 40 years of wine writing and arrange them into a book of short stories that took about five minutes each to read. A clever idea. A bit like Jamie Goode’s manifesto – bite-sized chunks you can inhale while you wolf down that lunchtime sandwich and coffee or tuck into while the kettle boils. Equally useful if you live with someone who faffs every time you need to leave the house together – distracts you from irritation while you wait in the car.
A bit like Jamie Goode’s manifesto, it is rich with rants. He kicks out with particular vengeance at orange/natural wine, which I found ironically funny as it came hot on the heels of Jamie’s equally snarky and vehement chapter/letter addressed to those who rant about orange and natural wines. Aspler predicts with great confidence that ‘this orange wine fad will not endure and I for one will not mourn its passing. After all, the first duty of wine is to be drinkable.’ Corkscrews at dawn, gentlemen?
I was bemused by his quaintly old-fashioned view that ‘white wine [is] foreplay and red [is] the main event’. Old dogs, new tricks? He does pass on some excellent practical advice from British author Gavin Lyall, however: ‘Always match the drinks to the colour of the carpet’. I wish someone had told me that years ago. I’d have saved the planet an ocean of Vanish.
But I would do well to remind myself that Aspler has loved and lived wine for longer than I have been alive. This is a little pocketbook of memories, like sifting through a box of photos that you had stashed away, finding some beautiful ones, some that transport you right back, some that are faded and some that you cannot make head or tail of. He’s certainly been lucky enough to have drunk some stunning wines in his time, wines that most of us in this modern world won’t even get to read about. Not many can claim to have wet the head of their new-born child with Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Cuvée Vieilles Vignes 1964.
He writes with rambling affection, sometimes in random directions and sometimes offering the most extraordinary stories. How he came to relinquish the cellar book of Queen Mary’s dolls’ house is case in point. As for the dolls’ house! I had absolutely no idea that it was quite so interesting to an oenophile! In its basement cellar: ‘The bottles are half an inch tall; each stoppered with cork and sealing wax and labelled with reproductions of real labels. They were filled with the actual wines – First Growths clarets and Montrachet. The Veuve Clicquot Champagne bottles each have their own straw sleeve – the old method of packaging champagne before moulded Styrofoam.’ A tiny hand-written cellar book tells us what the cellar contained: ‘The entire cellar amounts to 22 cases of Champagne, ten cases of claret, 14 cases of port, four cases of sherry, two cases of Madeira, four cases of white Burgundy, two cases of Sauternes, two cases of Graves, two cases of red Burgundy and two cases of hock; then it’s on to brandy (four cases), gin (four cases), rum (one case) Scotch whisky (one quarter cask and 13 cases), Irish whiskey (ditto), French vermouth (two cases), Italian vermouth (two cases), liqueurs (seven cases) and beer (17 cases and two casks).’
It's not all backward looking. He writes on a fascinating encounter with a couple making fermented tomato wine in Quebec, has interesting insights into the Canadian wine scene (which is where the book was at its best) and makes another bold prediction: ‘I’m going to stick my neck out and make a bold prediction. Please tear this column out and seal it in an envelope, put it in a safe place and don’t open it until 2054. I predict that within two generations China will produce wines that will rival the best that Bordeaux and Burgundy have to offer.’
In the chapter on biodynamics there is a bit of a muddle between biodynamics and sulphite-free wines as well as directly contradicting his earlier statements on wines made without sulphites (‘to forego the use of sulphur in the winemaking process is akin to walking around with body odour’): ‘Certainly, the concept of biodynamics is in sync with our contemporary concern with the environment as well as the romantic notion of a return to a simpler way of farming. But if you put two glasses of wine in front of me – one made without recourse to sulphur products, and one made the ‘traditional’ way – I don’t think I could tell the difference.’ Mr Aspler, I’m taking you to task. First, you surely know that biodynamic producers use both sulphur and sulphites. Secondly, one doesn’t use sulphur in winemaking, one uses sulphites. Thirdly, you said that sulphur-free (sic) wines smell like body odour, and then you tell us that you couldn’t tell the difference between them and traditionally made wines. Which is it to be?
Ah, here it comes! I partly cannot believe it, and yet should have known the inevitability of it … Chapter 8: other wine writers tasting notes are abysmal. I am so weary of this conceit that it almost makes me want to stop reviewing wine books. Are wine writers a particularly bitchy crowd? Or are they just insecure and scrambling for a higher spot on some proverbial human ladder that requires pissing on others to get them to move over? How about viewing it this way: diversity makes this planet physiologically and neurologically resilient and rich. Diversity is the key to survival and the key to learning. Can we please, please stop this unpleasant practice and instead celebrate the myriad ways there are of writing about wine? People can pick the one they most relate to. And that’s my rant over. I think I should write a manifesto.
But before I do, I’m off to find tomato wine and visit Queen Mary’s dolls’ house.
PS Just found a second chapter ridiculing other people’s tasting notes. Because one will not do.