Lampooning the wine world

The Royal Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things was adjourned forever in 1970, when the Staffordshire delegate sheepishly proffered that ‘the whole thing’s a bit silly'. This was despite – or perhaps because of – the president having proclaimed that ‘this year, our members have put more things on top of other things than ever before’.

You can watch a recording of this historic occasion here:

Occasionally, at a busy London wine-trade event, or in the middle of a formal tasting at a winery – or in fact anywhere that wine professionals come together in self-conscious solemnity – I rather sympathise with that Staffordshire delegate.

Suddenly, everything seems not just a bit silly but downright ludicrous. I might catch myself deliberating over whether to compare a wine’s texture to polenta or clay, for instance, or overhear someone saying that Brunelli makes Brunello but Boroli and Barale make Barolo.

Such splendid absurdity neatly defrocks the wine world of its sophisticated veneer, revealing little more than the babbling lunatics beneath. It also provides for a great deal of fun. Once, during an MW student seminar, some of us tried to shoehorn Beatles song titles into our tasting notes.

The alcohol and acidity really come together.
Crude oak spice suggests Norwegian wood.
It’s reductive yet transparent – like a glass onion.

Most of them passed unchallenged. After all, tasting wine is entirely a matter of opinion, and as we all know, opinions are like olfactory bulbs: everybody’s got one, and they all smell.

Moments of clarity such as these feel almost like an out-of-body experience and it's surely no coincidence that they occur most frequently during large tastings, where a curious sensation of lightheaded tipsiness gradually pervades the room. It isn’t outright drunkenness, but it definitely registers somewhere on the inebriation scale. The English language already has scores of words for insobriety, but it needs another one for ‘the effects felt at a wine tasting, despite your best efforts at spitting everything out’. Expisstorated, maybe, or spittoonified.

Many moons ago, Jancis was part of an experiment to estimate how much wine was ingested during a normal tasting session. The result was something like one glass consumed for every 30 sips spat. Little wonder that the wine trade is so keen on taking  milk thistle supplements, the herbal extract supposedly beneficial to the liver.

Not-so-many moons hence, it will be possible to measure expisstoration much more precisely. The US government is currently running a competition to design a bracelet ‘providing real-time [alcohol consumption] monitoring in an inconspicuous package appealing to the general public'. Such devices work by monitoring the composition of the wearer’s sweat, then streaming your level of inebriation in real time to your phone. What larks.

The more paranoid among us might foresee a future whereby alcohol will be served only when the purchaser can prove themselves sufficiently unboozed via such an app. The only question would be whether a smiley face should denote stone cold sobriety or its exact opposite. Perhaps drinking data would be shared with health insurers to adjust their charges accordingly – as already happens with car monitoring systems.

Knowing the wine trade, however, it probably wouldn’t be long before these bracelets are able to detect way more than just alcohol from your sweat. Enterprising merchants will create apps that generate messages such as:

I hope you decanted this 09 Pauillac you’re drinking.
Running low on Chablis, perchance? Click here to buy more!

It might sound fantastical, but I can easily picture myself contemplating the absurdity that such things exist in the wine tastings of the future.

It’s self-evident that the wine industry is ripe for lampooning – and that’s what I intend to do in Hemming’s Spittoon, my new monthly column here on JancisRobinson.com. It will be affectionate, merciless and most likely useless at effecting any sort of change, sort of like torture by tickling.

(Incidentally, the word lampoon is deliberately picked. It derives from the French lampon, meaning ‘let’s drink!’, which apparently featured commonly in scurrilous 17th-century drinking songs. What could be more apposite?)

Just before the RSFPTOTOOT was adjourned forever, its president warned that without their common cause, they were just a ‘meaningless body of men gathered together for no good purpose'. 

That sounds rather like the wine trade to me. Think of Hemming's Spittoon as the delegate for Staffordshire, sheepishly proffering that the whole thing’s a bit silly.

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