Downing Street's wine fridge and other stories. A rather shorter version of this article is published in the Financial Times.
Two weeks ago, when public interest in Downing Street's lockdown parties was at its height, BBC Radio 4's satirical News Quiz began with a game designed to help participants figure out if they were 'at work or not at work'. Host Andy Zaltzman urged them to 'check whether everyone you usually work with has turned up with a bottle of wine and is now getting hammered... If they have, ask yourself, "Am I a professional wine taster?"'
'Yes!' I yelled at the radio. Yet wine's part in the erosion of public trust in government is no laughing matter.
It has been impossible to ignore the role played by wine in the recent pantomime in British politics. Bottles photographed (from what looks like a window in number 11) at a gathering in the Downing Street garden on 15 May 2020 were seen as proof that this was no 'work event', as claimed by Boris Johnson, but a party. And each fresh leak has produced further accusations involving wine.
The Mirror newspaper unearthed a photograph of a special wine fridge delivered to the back door of 10 Downing Street so that staff could keep their bottles cool in summer for the 'wine-time Friday' get-togethers, which the prime minister allegedly encouraged.
Until quite recently, wine was seen as an elitist drink in the UK, a symbol of luxury. Johnson's apparent advocacy of it could be viewed as careless disregard for the mood and sacrifices of the electorate. That a staffer was despatched to the Co-op on the Strand (open 24 hours, unlike the local Tesco which closes at 11 pm) to fill up a suitcase with wine towards the end of not just one but two leaving parties held on 16 April 2021, the eve of Prince Philip's funeral, is for some the ultimate proof that Downing Street was run like an après-ski bar during the pandemic.
By contrast, the only misstep that the Tories have pinned on Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposing Labour party, is that he was spotted with a beer and a takeaway in a constituency office in the north of England in 2021. No wine was involved, just the working man's ferment. In terms of flouting COVID rules, even Johnson's most ardent supporters have struggled to compare Starmer's beer to the multiple wine-fuelled revelries hosted in and around 10 Downing Street during the past two years.
No less worrying, perhaps, is what's been happening inside the Houses of Parliament for decades. Its generous provision of bars, with their liberal opening hours, can make Westminster feel more like a cosy club than an efficient place of work. A friend of mine, who used to run a successful political lobbying firm from an office round the corner from Downing Street, had a winning formula for combining her own distaste for drinking during the day with the need to satisfy her lunch guest's thirst and ego. She would order a half-bottle of champagne for them both, and sip cautiously.
Wine also appears to be playing a major role in the campaign of one possible candidate to replace Boris Johnson, Liz Truss. The foreign secretary is alleged to have been courting fellow members of parliament with invitations to events called 'Fizz with Liz'. Wine has also played a part in her widely reported 'trade negotiations' with representatives of the US and EU at, respectively, the glamorous members' club 5 Hertford Street and her official country residence, Chevening in Kent.
(By contrast, the chancellor Rishi Sunak, another front runner to replace Johnson, should he be ousted, is a self-professed teetotaller who, counter to long-standing tradition, did not present his budget at the despatch box with a glass of British beer or whisky. In the current climate of popular opinion, guaranteed sobriety is presumably at a premium.)
For months, while millions of ordinary people were deprived of a convivial after-work drink with friends, the staff at 10 Downing Street partied on. It could seem, not least because of the late-night dashes to the supermarket, that the aim was chiefly to drink as much as possible. Connoisseurship appears to have played little part.
I feel thoroughly ashamed of how this must look to the rest of the world. Downing Street behaviour looks like binge drinking. As James Lawther, the British Master of Wine on our team who has lived in Bordeaux for decades, put it somewhat scornfully in an email, 'wine drinking in France still occurs around the table with proper food (not a bag of crisps)'.
Thomas De Waen, a wine-loving friend from Brussels who works in private equity, is equally dismissive. 'Losing Downing Street for La Tâche [one of the world's rarest burgundies] would be unfortunate but at least understandable. Losing it for a case of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is careless at best.'
When it comes to drinking at work, he highlights the difference between the British political milieu and the real go-getters of the business world. For him and his peers, 'being drunk at a work event, regardless of the occasion, is really frowned upon. Career-limiting move kind of bad.' He adds, 'I don’t think someone like BoJo, whose entire career is built around not being particularly serious, could ascend so high in France or Germany.'
Personally, I am delighted that wine has become a thoroughly democratic drink in the UK. But I never imagined it would find itself involved in weakening our whole democratic system.
Superior party wines
Careful planning rather than a late-night dash is recommended for these. Several wine styles lend themselves particularly well to drinking without eating much. Some particularly useful examples are given below.
Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco
This is a grape whose unoaked wines can be rather like Goldilocks' favourite porridge: not too heavy, not too light, with lots of fruit but no strong flavour for anyone to object to. Some of the best-value examples are those from one of the most ambitious Alsace co-ops such as Turckheim or Hunawihr.
Cave de Turckheim Pinot Blanc 2020 Alsace 13%
£8.25 The Wine Society, £10 Wine Poole of Warwick, £10.45 D'Arcy of Cheltenham, £10.50 Woodwinters
Cave de Hunawihr, Klevner Réserve Pinot Blanc 2019 Alsace 13%
£14.50 Moreton Wine Merchants, £14.90 Shekleton Wines of Stamford, £15 Harvey Nichols
Domaine Weinbach Réserve Pinot Blanc 2020 Alsace 13.8%
£19.08 Justerini & Brooks
A great Chablis is arguably too serious for party drinking, but an example designed for early drinking, such as a Petit Chablis from one of the recent riper vintages, would be appetising, satisfying, not too alcoholic and broachable.
Domaine d’Elise 2019 Petit Chablis 12%
£16.95 Davy’s Wine Merchants
Domaine Daniel Dampt 2020 Petit Chablis 12%
£17.50 Haynes Hanson & Clark
Low tannin, fruity, refreshing, relatively light.
Domaine de la Grosse Pierre 2019 Chiroubles 13%
£14 Howard Ripley
Domaine de la Grosse Pierre, Claudius 2019 Chiroubles 13%
£16.75 Haynes Hanson & Clark
Du Grappin 2019 St-Amour 13%
£26.99 Banstead Vintners, £28 Highbury Vintners
More Beaujolais tasting notes.