WWC 23 – James Dowdeswell


Our 23rd published entrant into last year's wine writing competition is James Dowdeswell, who says: 

I am an award winning stand-up comedian with a passion for wine. My solo stand-up show on wine has toured as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. I have appeared on several TV shows including Ricky Gervais’ Extras and Russell Howard’s Good News. Currently I’m putting the finishing touches to a book I’m writing on the perfect pub and have a TV show in development about wine. I am a 1974 vintage, male and live in leafy Brockley, south-east London. One of my chosen submissions is a reaction to a news story and the other is an opinion piece. 

Return of the Imperial Pint

My Dad, a pub landlord, recently phoned and announced with a quiver of excitement in his voice, ‘Have you heard the good news? I’ve just read that Pol Roger are advocating we all drink champagne in pints.’

Immediately I envisioned my Dad and I propping up the bar, guzzling champagne from pint glasses. Was this wise? Was it even legal? Some bars serve wine on draught but this seemed a trifle excessive. It would certainly be expensive, almost as frightening as asking for the bar bill in Copenhagen.

Admittedly my father had chosen to phone early on a Sunday morning and I was still mid slumber. Perhaps it was a dream? After all Pol Roger are a distinguished brand and their champagne is to be sniffed and swished, not sloshed and sluiced.

Once the sleep cobwebs were dusted, I checked online and spotted a quote from Simon Berry, chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd, who declared, ‘I would like to be remembered as the man who re-introduced the imperial pint of champagne.’

I thought, no one will be remembering anything at this rate. On further reading, it transpires that Pol Roger plan to sell their champagne in pint bottles once Britain leaves the EU.

One of the positive consequences of Brexit is that Britain is no longer shackled to the metric system and can return to imperial measures for the first time since 1973. The imperial system of units was introduced in 1825 and was ubiquitous across the British Empire. As the empire declined most countries adopted or indeed defected to the metric system.

A few wine merchants favour the imperial measurement and I wonder whether that is mainly due to patriotism, as a pint is merely 568.26 ml compared with the current bottle size of 750 ml. Why would anyone, especially those in the wine trade, suggest we downsize? Simon Berry puts forward a practical reason on why he believes the pint to be the perfect size bottle, ‘you get four proper-sized glasses from it'.

He explains, ‘Champagne is designed to be shared, preferably with one other person. Six glasses between two is – if you’re carrying on to another bottle with dinner – too much.’

A vigneron once told me that the reason a bottle of wine was 750 ml was because that was the average lung capacity of a French bottle-blower 200 years ago. By downsizing to a pint, are the British putting less puff into their pint?

My only reservation with the pint bottle is that it seems too small for a younger crowd. When my brother-in-law Mat goes to watch Bristol play rugby he seems to enthuse more about the drinking vessels than the game itself. At the ground they serve beer in a two-pint pot. Could we therefore introduce a two-pint bottle? According to imperial measure, two pints is a quart. It sounds like a small measurement but a quart is short for a quarter of a gallon.

Pol Roger bottled champagne in pint bottles as far back as 1874. They only stopped when Britain entered the Common Market 99 years later, thus narrowly missing their centenary vintage. The other reason this whole debate may inspire so much patriotism is that, as many of you know, Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite drink was champagne, in particular Pol Roger. In fact he was so synonymous with Pol Roger that after Churchill died in 1965 they honoured their most loyal supporter by putting a black band on the white foil of the bottle. In 1975 Pol produced their first Sir Winston Churchill Cuvée. In the hit American TV series Breaking Bad, the lead character, Walter White, celebrates his wife's success in negotiating a deal to buy a carwash by cracking open a bottle of the Churchill cuvée. Perhaps he wanted to celebrate with a fellow victor. Churchill once claimed a pint of Pol was ‘enough for two at lunch and one at dinner'.

Did he mean glasses or bottles? I rather suspect the latter. Of the many wartime speeches made by Churchill, my favourite quote, allegedly made to his generals, is ‘Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we’re fighting for, it’s Champagne.’

Stirring stuff. I can imagine his generals heartily concurring, ‘Bravo Winston. Let’s storm Normandy, the Yanks can fill their boots and we shall fill our flutes.’

Churchill himself always shunned a glass flute in favour of supping from his favourite silver tankard. Post-Brexit I would like to look up from a wine list, wink at my father and utter the delicious phrase. ‘A pint of Pol Roger. Two tankards please.’

The Importance of House Wine

There is always some wacky wastrel who claims ‘my favourite wine is house'. Actually this is no longer a joke. Some may argue whether it ever was. These days, this sentiment is no more relevant than someone who has seen the film Sideways proclaiming to never drink Merlot, or indeed the anti-Chardonnay lobby who are quite happy to be lobbed a Chablis.

Traditionally the house wine was the cheapest on the menu and often served in a carafe. If it was served in a bottle it would have been unlisted, possibly with its own label detailing the name or stamp of the restaurant on it. In the 1970s and early 1980s, house wine may have been cheap plonk that said establishment was trying to offload by the bucketful to unsuspecting punters with naive palates and an eye for a bargain. Do be mindful that in those dark drinking days, Black Tower and Mateus Rosé were considered a delicacy and Hock something other than a coughing sound. In such a desert of discerning wines, no wonder the house bottle tasted bland.

One culinary myth, along with avoid fish on a Monday, is to sidestep the second bottle on the wine list, as with many restaurants the second bottle was allegedly the one the restaurateur pays the least for. Speculating that the customer may skip the house wine for fear of being branded stingy, the owner is able to cream a decent profit on the more alluring second bottle.

Many years ago I knew a well-respected acting agent who adopted his own ‘four down’ method for choosing wine. He would simply count four wines down from the house selection. His thinking was the house was too ordinary and the next two were the real money-makers, for those folk who didn't want to appear cheap. The safest bet therefore was four down. His system must have been successful because he was considered someone who knew how to pick a good wine. This is ridiculous as the only real discerning he was really doing was peering over his spectacles and squinting four up.

Pubs and restaurants should take pride in picking the house wine and provide a quality drop at a reasonable price. I believe their choice sets a precedent. If the house is dull and bland, how can you trust the more expensive wines you haven’t heard of on the wine list? The house selection is the flag bearer, it is listed first and if this basic requirement is given little attention to detail, what other corners are being cut?

The house wine should be the safe option when you are dazzled and undecided by the flashier wines on offer. To some that may seem unadventurous but there needs to be a baseline from which to play. After all, we are still in a recession and we want value for money. Getting value for money is not just cutting corners, it is about maximising what you can acquire for your money.

House wine is often one of the few wines available by the glass. So those drinking a single glass with a meal should still be able to enjoy a decent drop. Drinking house wine by the glass is usually very safe – because of fast turnover, it does not have time to deteriorate in the bottle. Pubs often serve 250 ml as standard. This is one third of a bottle, so quite an investment if it turns out to be dross.

The house selection tends to be an easy-drinking wine which merits drinking on its own, while still versatile with most dishes on the menu. Occasionally it is a favourite affordable wine that the owners wish to put their name to. The reason house wine is often the cheapest on the menu is because the restaurant is able to place bulk orders safe in the knowledge that their choice will shift.

My parents own a pub in the West Country and the way they tackle the problem of versatility is by opting for four house wines all from the same producer: Santa Helena in the Central Valley of Chile. For the whites there is a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc and for the reds a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, all from 2015. A bottle retails at £13.95 and a 175 ml glass at £3.60. I know I’m biased, but it’s not a bad idea is it? Rather than wracking your taste buds to find a single wine that will please all, why not plump for a house producer. That way you can have the luxury of range and also secure the buy in bulk deal to keep costs low.

Supermarkets’ own brand wines are their version of house and they invest a fortune in MW-rated wine tasters to scour wine regions to make sure theirs is the optimum available at that price point. Sainsbury’s also do a Taste The Difference range but please don’t tell them it’s just one up on the menu from house.

Food critic Jay Rayner was recently quoted at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature as saying ‘Diners should only buy house wine in restaurants in protest at complex and overpriced wine lists.’ I wonder if he also widening his protest to food by ordering spaghetti hoops in Michelin-starred restaurants?

So is house wine tarnished and do we require a rebrand? Perhaps we could choose a different moniker to move with the times? I once worked in Waterstone’s bookshop and we had a monthly ‘Waterstone’s recommends’ selection. Oddbins used to have a very successful Staff Picks section. So what about a waiter’s recommendation or sommelier’s selection?

‘My favourite wine is house’ is an old joke and the world of wine has evolved since this was first told. There are currently some scintillating wines available at a very modest price. The next time I order house I shall do so with the gusto of a bingo winner.