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30 October 2020 Tales from three very different wine writers.
The Story of Wine
From Noah to now
Académie du Vin Library
In the mid eighties, Hugh Johnson managed to persuade producer Michael Gill and Channel 4 to let him make a TV series on the history of wine from its birth to the (then) current craze of Beaujolais Nouveau. He employed a young Cambridge history graduate to assist him with the research and then set off on a trip round the world, from Georgia to Japan, with a camera crew in tow. Two years later, thousands of hours of work boiled down to 13 half-hour episodes. It was, he noted, 100 weeks of work for six and a half hours of story. ‘I couldn’t help thinking [this was] a mighty inefficient way to tell a story … Books are quicker.’
Helen Bettinson (now Dr, and still at Cambridge) had given him what he described as a library of material, and that was something that the inveterate raconteur could not bear to waste. The Story of Wine was published in 1989. It was the history of wine in technicolour. It won every wine-literature award going.
Johnson had never planned to update it. He explains, ‘History, after all, never stops. But stories do, and the conclusion of my stories is the state of the wine world when I met it, and when it first beguiled me.’
He didn’t bargain for the wiles of Steven Spurrier (who finally persuaded him to do it) and the growing Académie du Vin library. So The Story of Wine is back – in a beautiful new format, not quite hardback (the covers are firm, but bend), not quite glossy, with a spine that opens flat making it a delight to handle and read. It has a new forward by historian Andrew Roberts and a new introduction. The stories it tells, though, have stood the test of time. ‘This is’, Johnson writes, ‘the reason why [wine’s] own story is worth telling and retelling. Why, indeed, I believe this book is as valid now as it was when I wrote it.’
For those who didn’t read the book first time round, the book starts in Georgia, with Jason and his Argos, grape pips and archaeological digs, qvevri and Noah. It wends its way through Egypt and Greece, Rome and France, across Europe, across the seas to the New World and all the way back home.
It’s the story of religion and politics, poetry and war, greed and power, creativity and passion. He paints with broad brushstrokes one moment, and the finest pointillism the next. He digresses, throwing in asides on things totally unrelated to wine, and then focuses back on the task at hand with laser-like concentration.
You’ll laugh at the 18th-century German visitor to Constantia who described the sound of fermentation as ‘an irritation in the barrel as though it contained crabs’, and at Nelson, who called the Cape an ‘immense tavern’. Not something you could accuse it of today, with their months of Prohibition-style lockdown. And at Berry Bros & Rudd, who claimed, in 1933, that a drop of Tokaji had brought a dead man back to life.
You’ll be amused that it was itinerant Scotsmen employed by Polish wine merchants who travelled to Hungary, Greece and Moldova to buy wine, turning Kraków into the centre of the wine trade in the 16th century. You might be horrified at the seven litres of wine per day prescribed for German hospital patients in the 15th century. And maybe you’ll relate to the Fourth Earl of Salisbury, who was billed extra for wine deliveries to his cell in the Tower of London – lockdown consumption indeed.
Only Hugh Johnson could write a serious (and seriously long) book totally focused on two subjects best served up to nerds and geeks – history and wine – and yet somehow manage to create a merrymaking romp of a book. He writes with sheer pleasure. You can almost feel him smiling as the words roll out in front of you.
It’s not a history book. It’s not a wine book. It’s a love letter. It’s a celebration of the stories that became wine. Wine is Johnson’s prism, words are his light. He’s just handing out illuminations to his readers.
His book On Wine, published in 2016, delighted me. I’m glad I’ve waited long enough to read The Story of Wine for the first time, second time around. It too, has delighted me.
Memoirs of a Freeloader
When I reviewed The Wines of Austria in 2015, I wrote, ‘he has a way of taking himself out of the limelight and letting Austria take centre stage’. I was, of course, talking about Stephen Brook, author of about 35 books including The Complete Bordeaux (first published in 2007 with the third edition published in 2017). This most aptly named book is described as ‘an episodic and anecdotal tour of a writer’s long career’ and, as befits a sort-of autobiography, Brook does, this time, take centre stage. But if lime light is as acid-sharp as lime juice, he’s not the one standing in the limelight. Read on.
Brook studied what was then known as ‘Moral sciences’ (now Philosophy) at Trinity College, Cambridge. He learnt to negotiate a wine list as a publisher’s editor who had to wine and dine authors on the job. One thing led to another and he became a freelance writer, mostly on travel-writing freebies with a lot of booze thrown in. Travel and booze segued into food and booze until, eventually, wine emerged as the winner.
Thirty, forty years in the wine industry is not to be sniffed at. Brook may have started off at a place where, as he writes, ‘my knowledge of wine was less impressive than my enthusiasm for the product’. But he certainly knows his stuff now.
He also knows all the gossip. He’s seen it all. He’s been on the wine trips. He’s trod the tasting circuit until his shoes could find their way home without him. He’s part of the inner male sanctum of the wine industry.
Before I get into much detail, I’ll say three things.
I laughed out loud several times.
I started off glued to the pages; I couldn’t finish it.
I’m glad he doesn’t know me.
Brook writes well. He has puckeringly dry wit and the penmanship one would expect of someone with a Cambridge degree and over 50 years writing and editing for a living. For a self-published book, the quality of the writing is exceptional – I found but a handful of typos and errors (which reminds me: palette instead of pallet?! Stephen, really!). It has the usual simple, cost-saving layout of a self-published book, eg narrow margins, annoying binding, no pictures. But the writing is strong enough not to need the fripperies.
So, what was so initially compelling and why couldn’t I finish it?
Quite simply, it’s a bitch fest. Name and shame.
To begin with, he’s quite self-deprecating – as all good Englishmen should be. As the book continued, it started to look a lot like false modesty. The acerbic pot-shots at other wine writers started on about page 12 and gathered in intensity until my eyes began to bleed.
It wasn’t just fellow wine writers. Travel writers, bloggers, tourists, winemakers, editors, PR people, regional officials, taxi drivers, chefs, TV presenters, husbands and wives of the aforementioned … everyone, it seems, bar Stephen Brook, is a drunken/bumbling idiot who cannot write/is on the scrounge/is annoying/cannot do their job.
Of course, I laughed.
Having been on press trips to Italy, I know only too well what the drill is like: random anonymous officials – who say nothing, contribute nothing but eat and drink everything – outnumbering the invited group five to one; seminars where the speakers speak for hours on something entirely unrelated and the translations are as unintelligible as the speech; being ushered into specially organised tastings where the crush of local dignitaries around the tasting tables is so dense that you end up tasting almost nothing.
I laughed about the portly Austrian wine writer who fell asleep in the middle of the meal because he’d drunk too much; and the hotel shower that jet-sprayed icy water; and the annoying fellow traveller who was always late to the bus when you had to get to the next tasting; and the brutality of having to eat dinner at 2 am and be ready for the next wine tasting six and a half hours later. Press trips are very far from as glamorous as they sound.
But as the book went on and on, his claws became sharper, and the sideswipes started to leave red welts: amateurish bloggers and their ‘moronic flattery’; a named colleague and his ‘amour-propre’; Asian bloggers who are ‘particularly idle’; a snide couple of pages entitled ‘Sommeliers: a love letter’, which was anything but. There is a long rant about people who freeload at wine tastings, in particular for the boon of a free lunch – this from someone who freely admits to convincing his editor that he needed to spend a few (well-)expensed days in Champagne in order to determine whether champagne really does go with food.
‘I sometimes grow impatient with my less dedicated colleagues’, he writes, and launches into catty accounts of other people’s behaviour on wine trips and at tastings. He accuses a Spanish journalist of being ‘an ace name dropper’ after dozens of pages in which pretty much every name of weight in the wine industry has been mentioned. Even Nelson Mandela, with whom he managed nothing more than an anonymous shake of the hand, gets a mention.
He also doesn’t forgive easily. (Perhaps I should take note.) Every wine producer who’s snubbed him along the way, all Italian and French wine journalists (apparently they ignore English wine journalists) and the Southwold elite squad have blotted their copy books.
Wine competitions, but in particular all other judges and organisers of such, are a joke. All wine writers who dare to use descriptors and metaphors in their writing, bar Oz Clarke, are worthy of nothing but mirth and derision. He reserves a full 10 pages for this particular egress of spite, lampooning everyone in general (and some in particular) with undisguised contempt for their factless ‘spew’ of ‘nebulous quasi-poetic prose’ that ‘thoroughly confuse[s]’ readers. Of course, he notes with emphasis that, ‘Myself, I’m more interested in the structure of wine than in its fleeting and evanescent fruit components.’ Having read his takedown, I can only assume that his tasting notes are exquisitely and flawlessly formed.
It’s not surprising that, being an insider account of the excesses of the circuit, some gender stuff would surface. Throughout. But it was the smirking account of Octagon (the wine-writers’ association set up by Stuart Pigott in 1987 to ‘cock a snook’ at the Circle of Wine Writers) that disturbed me most of all.
By all accounts (and not just from Brook’s book), there was a genuine call for an alternative to the CWW at that time. The sheer number of its officers and members involved in the trade rendered journalistic integrity meaningless. (Brook, by the way, devotes another 20 pages at the beginning of the book to the matter of conflict of interest, naming with canting relish his colleagues who have erred.)
Octagon produced a publication called Whine: An Unofficial Octagonal Organ. Brook described some of the ‘marvellous material’ it contained: ‘special offers: a “Free Blow-Up Jane McQuitty” and “Vinodom” wine-flavoured condoms “as used by Oz Clarke”.’ Jancis graced the cover of one issue ‘which, in a skilful cut-and-paste job, presented her topless’. Hilarious. Marvellous.
‘All literature is gossip’, said Truman Capote. By that definition, this is a masterpiece.
The fading memories of a big man in the wine trade
Self-published (email: email@example.com)
£10 inc p&p
Christopher Fielden’s first job, in 1958, was as a clerk in Liverpool with wine and spirits importer Hall & Bramley, earning the princely sum of £312 a year. On day two he was sent off for basic WSET training; the Bordeaux class ended with a magnum of Ch Climens 1947. There’s a starter wine if I ever saw one. That WSET exam, he proudly declares, was the only wine exam he ever sat.
His ensuing 60-year career in wine (with a haphazard diversion into politics, as Conservative candidate for Blackburn) took him from Liverpool to Japan, Albania to Paraguay. He’s driven cars without gear sticks, been deported by armed soldiers from Gabon, been tapped up by the Ministry of Defence and been stranded in Palma with Mick Jagger. A flight from Djibouti (supplying the Foreign Legion and smugglers with Bass products) was in the company of half a plane of livestock, passengers on deckchairs and cigarettes offered with the inflight meal.
When it comes to booze, he’s counted it, warehoused it, invoiced it, delivered it, blended it, made it, sold it, researched it, written about it and drunk it. Plenty of it.
In fact, Fielden seems to be a man of plenty. He makes much (pun intended?) of his girth, volunteering that the late Tony Lord christened him El Gordo (The Fat One). Food features as abundantly as wine, from kippers with Krug for breakfast with Jancis and John Arlott to rubber chicken on Aeroflot, the latter under non-negotiable orders of an air hostess who looked as if she’d been ‘recruited from the ranks of wardresses at Lubianka gaol’.
One memorable meal was with Bill Baker in Cardiff. He’d persuaded the equally full-bodied wine legend to catch a train with him from Bath in order to have lunch at a Spanish restaurant which sold fantastic wines at ridiculously low prices. On the train, Bill produced a bottle of Ruinart and terrine to tide them over for the journey. Lunch finished with a £700 bill (of which £70 was food), including two bottles of Krug Clos de Mesnil for £50 each (price list error) and Bill’s Range Rover in the ditch en route home from the station.
During a stint at Ch Cantenac Brown in the dreadful vintage of 1960, the daily ration for cellar hands was four litres of wine per person. He was instructed to pour a sack of sugar into a vat on the understanding that, should questions be asked, he was an idiot English boy who didn’t understand French. ‘It must be said that my French vocabulary did increase considerably at this time, though I have not subsequently been able to make use of it in polite society’, he adds.
It was far from the only dodgy encounter he had. To be a smuggler in Paraguay in the early sixties you had to have a smuggler’s licence. The criteria for a smuggler’s licence was a turnover of $250,000 a month. The only person to achieve the licence was the president’s brother-in-law. He agreed to buy alcohol from Fielden. Not all of us can put ‘Pirate’ on our CVs.
There have been some serious moments. This is, after all, the man who introduced Jacobs Creek, Marqués de Cáceres and Sutter Home to the British market. He is a past President of the Wine & Spirit Association, author of the original WSET textbooks, was a trustee of the WSET and is a past chairman of the Sherry Shippers Committee. He’s also the author of 16 wine-related books, although he admits that the pocket book he produced for Sainsbury’s had an initial print run of 80,000, ‘which is probably more than all the others that I have written put together’. Unfortunately, he signed away the intellectual rights and royalties to that one.
And on another serious note, once again it struck me that behind another fabulous wine career, there was an almost anonymous woman who held the family together, was prepared to move and move (and move and move) and keep the home fires burning while he travelled extensively. (And, let me say with feeling, unless you’ve had a partner who travels a lot for work, you have no idea what lies behind that trite little expression). So I was grateful to read Fielden acknowledging the extensive level of behind-the-scenes organisation and sacrifice that Ann, his wife, had to make. I was glad that he wrote, ‘I could not have the career that I have had without her unwavering support. I say unwavering, but there must have been a number of occasions when there was a quiet waver.’ Are there rewards in the afterlife for the quiet and occasionally wavering spouses of the giants in the wine trade?
This tribute came in a chapter entitled ‘My old girls’. Perhaps after eight decades, all the women in your life could fall under the descriptor ‘old girls’. But did his chapter on all the women who’d supported him in his career (14+) really have to be called that?
Having said that, and having read this hot on the heels of Stephen Brook’s memoirs, it is a book blissfully free of bitchiness. I’ve never met Christopher Fielden, but from the way he writes his book, I get the impression of a genuine, genial, kind person. Even when being critical of someone, or writing about a negative encounter, he didn’t tear anyone down. No one was humiliated.
It has plenty of shortcomings, and I hope that the following criticisms in no way deter anyone from buying a book from which all profits (in typical Fielden generosity) go to the NHS. But in the way that my phlebotomist takes my blood, I’m going to try and do it as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
As with most self-published books, it lacks polish: there are typos, confusing sentences and a pronounced predilection for commas in non-strategic places. It would have been richer for photographs (and a map of his travels!), even as I acknowledge that for that, Fielden would be poorer. It is detailed, overly detailed, with names of people and places and events that are not interesting. There were some real story gems in here, almost lost in a sea of memories that would probably only be interesting to those who were there at the time, and some kind of historian researching the minutiae of the British wine trade between 1958 and 2000.
OK, needle out. Quick rub with white spirit and a little Band-Aid.
I am glad Christopher Fielden wrote down his memories before, as he himself suggests, they faded. And I love his last words, advice for someone wanting to get into the wine industry. It’s kindly, perceptive, direct:
- Learn as many foreign languages as you can – you will earn respect
- Travel as much as you can – gain experience abroad
- Get your hands dirty – work a vintage
- Start at the bottom
- Taste every bottle that you can – good or bad, it’s experience
The Wine Explorer
A guide to the wines of the world and how to enjoy them
University of Buckingham Press
I didn’t know of Graham Mitchell until his book landed on my desk. Apparently, I should have. His bio reads thus: ‘Graham Mitchell, also known as The Wine Explorer, is a unique after dinner speaker. Graham's father was a Member of Parliament and a wine trader for the first 33 years of Graham's life. His Great Grandfather, Sir Alfred Bower, established Bower and Company, wine merchants in the City of London in 1879, so you could say that politics and wine are in his blood!’
On his website, I read that, ‘This family business then went on to become known as El Vino Company. After four years in Corporate Finance, Graham then became a Director of El Vino Company for six years building up the family business and establishing a unique style of Wine Tasting events. He then followed his Great Grandfather’s example and set up his own wine business, The Wine Explorer in 2002 … His passion for wine and wit led to a regular wine slot on BBC radio between 2002 and 2008 and much lecturing and speaking at events as well as writing about wine in the press. His first book entitled, The Wine Explorer, with a foreword by the legendary Henry Blofeld, was published in November 2013.’
OK, so this is a second edition. I wonder what prompted the update?
The book is described as ‘a very personal account of the adventures that befall a wine merchant and after dinner speaker [I am itching to install a hyphen between after and dinner] in pursuit of the finest wines and extraordinary stories from vineyards off the beaten track’, and it was the phrase ‘very personal account’ that persuaded me to slot this review in with the memoirs rather than with the wine guides, which is what the subtitle suggests. Was I right?
Having read the book, I'm not sure. What I love most about it are the pencil sketches done by Mitchell’s late mother, only named as Pamela, and his niece Lizzie Fane. They are beautiful. I wish there were more. I would shamelessly commission a series of them for cards.
The rest of the book is a gloop of clichés, truisms and worn sapience of Buzzfeed depth.
I have no battle with Graham Mitchell. I am sure that when he writes, ‘while I was studying for the Master of Wine exam’ and mentions his seven years of wine study, he's highly qualified. But he’s not an MW. After-dinner speaking seems to be his forte and that comes through quite strongly in the style and depth of content in the book.
If you’re a neophyte to wine, and have yet to learn that there are delicious alternatives to mass-produced stuff; supermarket wine is dull; there is something beguiling about the juice of the vine; the price of the bottle of wine is weighted by tax; supermarket BOGOFs are a con; and (best of all) you don’t need to know anything about wine (‘it’s all about personal taste’), then Malcolm Gluck already wrote the book.
(I have to interrupt myself at this point. Have we ever clocked how contradictory and ridiculous this kind of advice is? – ‘Your own opinion and perception of this wine is the only thing that matters. Therefore I am going to tell you what you should drink.’ Anyway, I digress.)
I’d like to say that if you know nothing about wine, this is a good place to start because the book is all about the basics and the blanket truisms that make the complexity of wine easier to swallow. But I can’t. There are funnier memoirs, there are more moving memoirs. There are books for beginners that teach more, avoid the clichés, deliver substance.
Mitchell’s book is as harmless as it is pointless. Nothing wrong with writing it. But I’d rather he’d have saved some forest and some carbon.