Competition – Simon Dyson

Simon Dyson, seen here with his wife tasting wine in Yountville, Napa Valley, was an IBM lifer and currently holds all sorts of grand positions in golf and cricket, including being chairman of the Surrey Cricket Board. This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition

A chance meeting with Clive Deverall in the glass department of Heal’s department store one Saturday morning in November 1970, when I was looking for a Christmas present for my mother and he was running Grants of St James’s annual Beaujolais Nouveau promotion, led to a life dedicated to the love of Pinot Noir. 

At that point, aged 22 and living in Pimlico around the corner from Victoria Wine, my knowledge of wine was non-existent. The regular order was for litre bottles of Victoria Wine’s house red wine – I remember very well the plastic flip tops and the stars around the neck of the bottle.

I had only met Clive once before but I am sure he immediately saw in me a potential winner for the competition which he was running. The prize for winning the “multiple choice answer” wine tasting quiz was a weekend in Paris. His interest in me was entirely caused by his experience with the previous year’s winners who at dinner in Paris with their hosts from Nicholas Wines had insisted on drinking gin and lime!

I was due to play rugby that Saturday afternoon, and the last thing I needed was a glass of Beaujolais. Four glasses and thirty minutes later Clive had filled me full of information which it transpired would come in extremely useful when I took the quiz!

The phone rang the following week and a charming woman from Grants told me that I had won the wine tasting competition. Further, would I be able to bring a friend to Paris for a weekend in the New Year. Clive knew my partner (now my wife) Lynn very well, indeed she had been responsible for introducing me to Clive. Clive called to congratulate me of course!

A week later Grants called again and indicated that there was an “issue” with the competition! I immediately froze, thinking that maybe somehow Clive and I had been rumbled. But no, the charming woman at Grants simply enquired whether we could extend our weekend in Paris to a full week, so that we could also visit Louis Jadot in Beaune.

Clive then called again to ask if the arrangements were acceptable and to fix the dates. He also mentioned that he needed me to attend a lunch at Grant’s cellars in Whitcomb Street, just off Trafalgar Square, early in January. He apologised and said that it would be a rather boring affair with some journalists whose job was to write about wine; but his bosses had insisted because it was an important part of the Beaujolais Nouveau promotion. “Nothing to worry about Simon, I am sure you will be able to handle it, just a few questions on wine etc.”! That just about ruined my Christmas. By the time of the lunch I had at least looked up where Beaune was, and had read a little about Beaujolais Nouveau. Of course, on the day all the other guests turned out to be mates of Clive, and I was not required to “sing for my supper” at all!

So, in February 1971, courtesy of Grants of St James’s, Lynn and I found ourselves at the Hotel Lotti in Paris where the bathroom in our suite was larger than our entire flat in Pimlico. We dined at L’Escargot Montorgueil which was memorable because Lynn had interrupted the wine waiter who was filling her glass with a very expensive Cognac to say – “that’s enough”. But he thought she meant the opposite and proceeded to fill her glass to the brim. Lynn hated Cognac and I had never drunk it before. Manfully I drank mine, and then Lynn handed me her glass to finish. Our hosts, two very charming gentlemen from Nicholas Wines, never knew that I threw up the entire meal in the lavatory before saying thank you and goodnight.

The next day, after some Alka Seltzer (which was a constant companion for the rest of our trip), Clive drove us to Beaune. This is where our education about wine, and especially Pinot Noir, was to begin. The next day was very cold but we were soon walking through the frozen vineyards of Aloxe-Corton listening to Clive explain how things worked in Burgundy. We then made a short pilgrimage the land of the Gamay grape which was of course responsible for the whole adventure, and we got as far south as La Roche Solutré – great memories.

Mostly we lunched and dined as a threesome, and of course we spent a great deal of time studying the various wine lists and drinking vintage burgundy. I can still hear Clive chuckling as he ordered yet another expensive bottle from deep in the list! There was a lunch with some people from Louis Jadot when we had to be on our best behaviour, and we carefully avoided another Cognac moment.

Finally, Clive announced that we were going to Dijon for a formal dinner on Friday evening where the mayor of Dijon would be present, and I would be introduced as this year’s winner of the Grants of St James’s wine tasting competition. “…probably only about fifty people Simon, best to keep your remarks brief…”. Both Lynn and I had “O Level” French, but we could not speak a word. I vividly remember walking with Clive and Lynn towards the Town Hall in Dijon not knowing what I was going to do or say. “bonsoir and merci beaucoup” was all that I had written down! Needless to say the dinner with the Lord Mayor was complete fiction and I had fallen once again for one of Clive’s practical jokes.

When we got home, there was a case of 24 half-bottles of Louis Jadot Corton Pougets as a final gift. We have never looked back, and we have travelled the world tasting Pinot Noirs ever since. Clive sadly died earlier this year in Perth Australia. I know he would have loved to have read this short piece.

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