Competition – Mark Henderson

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Mark Henderson describes himself thus: 'Late '50s, born and bred Kiwi, father of one, part time wine retailer, part time wine writer and part time house-dad, with wine an all-consuming passion (some would say obsession!) in my life. Wine has afforded me the opportunity to meet, socialise, taste, and work with a vast number of incredibly passionate people all around the world, and has utterly enriched my life. In one sense, wine keeps me poor, yet in another, rich with friendships and experiences, and my thirst for knowledge remains wonderfully unquenchable as there is always something new to learn.' This is his unedited entry in our seminal wine competition.

My own watershed moment in wine came from a rather humble bottle; however, the impact was anything but.

In the southern hemisphere summer of 1987/88, I found myself hitchhiking home one day after a visit to see friends. Hitching was commonplace for me then, as not only did I not have a car, but I also hadn’t yet gotten around to getting a drivers license. On this particular day a couple had dropped me off at a crossroads (a metaphor perhaps for what lay ahead?). As I waited for a lift, another car stopped and a young woman alighted. We chatted and I discovered that she was also hitching to Dunedin, before she, in the unwritten rule of hitching (as second person on the spot), moved slightly ahead up the road to stake her place. After quite a period of time with many passing cars and no sign of a lift, I hatched a plan. As many drivers feel more secure picking up a couple rather than a solo traveller, I approached her and suggested that we might chance our arm hitching together. She happily agreed and a lift duly ensued.

Over the duration of the journey I discovered that she was Swiss and did not have any particular plans for accommodation that night other than checking out the Youth Hostel. I suggested that my flatmates were an amiable bunch and that she was very welcome to stay on the couch in the lounge for free, to which she agreed. From this unremarkable start, over the course of the day, a romance blossomed: brief, intense, yet tempered by the knowledge that she was shortly due to return home. On her final night before departing, I decided to shout her a nice meal at a good local BYO restaurant: she insisted on providing the wine.

Up to this point, beer and spirits had been my beverages of choice; wine making only fleeting incursions into my life initially, though one or two moments had led me to question. An earlier beau and I had made a regular Friday night habit of a bottle of sweet Asti Riccadonna. With a swish dinner coming up, I had bought a bottle of Dom Perignon (at great expense!) as I had heard that this was supposed to be something rather special. Our waiter was certainly impressed and rushed off to find better glassware, but the wine itself left us wondering what all the fuss was about, being so far out of our comfort zone.

A couple of years later found me working at a Toby Inn restaurant in a Charrington’s pub on the outskirts of London. Eager to help out the owner, I had discovered a stash of wine from earlier wine lists that was sitting there unloved and unwanted and resolved to clear this inventory, making these bottles a ‘special’ on the wine list. One of these wines elicited a surprising number of favourable comments from the diners, causing me to buy one for myself. A couple of years in bottle had rounded up this elixir into something rather supple and delicious and whilst I cannot remember the vintage, that bottle of Mouton Cadet definitely posed questions that I was unable to answer? Did all wine get better with age? Were the years actually different? Was there more in this wine thing than I realized? Perhaps I was channelling the XTC single ‘Senses Working Overtime’, which had been part of the soundtrack of that 1982/83 winter for me. These thoughts though, slipped into the back of my consciousness as I continued my work and travels in the Northern hemisphere with wine gradually playing a greater part, but as a small fish in the larger sea of wine, I remained a bottom feeder.

By that summer of 1987/88 I was flatting with three delightful young women and the three-litre cask of wine had become a staple part of the flat weekly shopping list. Many was the flat cooking night hugely enlivened by that cask on top of the fridge, while wine was beginning to edge beer as my beverage of choice when dining out.

That fateful summer night more than thirty years ago was filled with mixed emotions: passion, lust, and poignancy at my friend’s impending departure for Switzerland, so no doubt my senses were once again, working overtime. At the restaurant, the bottle was opened, and it was like nothing that I had ever experienced before, with a power, intensity and impact that I didn’t realize wine could offer. After the insipid cask wines that I had been drinking, this had flavour, and lots of it! The flavours in that Collards Rothesay Sauvignon Blanc were like a jolt to the senses and remain in my mind to this day: gooseberry, nettles, tropical fruits, smokiness with an almost electric current coursing through it. It was revelations chapter 1, verses 3-5 and this inexpensive bottle flicked a switch in my brain. It was indeed a crossroads in my life and I took the path to wine. Over the ensuing years, I joined wine clubs and private tasting groups, toiled happily on weekends at a friend’s vineyard, found my holiday time more and more devoted to wine regions, devoured books on the subject, began to build a cellar and even studied winemaking by correspondence, leading me finally to work in the wine industry. Sadly; the Collards winery closed its doors in 2009 yet I owe a great deal to them (and to my Swiss friend) for that humble bottle of Sauvignon Blanc that quite simply, changed my life.