WWC 28 – Peter Thomas


Peter Thomas is the 28th entrant in our wine writing competition. His self-description is brevity itself but his writing is, thankfully, more extensive. 

Age 54, occupation horse-racing journalist/writer, lives in Benenden, Kent. 

The champagne sabre and its place in the modern kitchen 

These days, information is out there, whether you want it or not, and the chances are that a lot of it will find its way to you regardless.

If you’ve ever deployed a credit card on the internet or expressed vague interest to a shop assistant, you’ll be hit by a daily barrage of the pointless and the infuriating, and you’ll wonder where it’s all going to end and what degree of idiocy has to be reached before the world of marketing finally dies of its own shame.

Personally, I’m now immune to the idea that I’m owed a lot of money as a result of mis-sold PPI and I’m happy to field the endless wine sales pitches that I’ve laid myself open to, on the basis that in among them is the odd gem.

But when I turn on the TV and discover that what I really need in life is an oven-ready sausage, of the type that will allow me to spend more time with my family (really, this is a current sales stratagem), I struggle to cope.

Sometimes I think it would be nice if someone were to devise a sausage that would enable me to spend less time with my family, but until then I shall cling to the old-fashioned belief that sausages are, by their very nature, oven-ready (given that they don’t have to be hunted down, hog-tied and wrangled into the pan before eating) and hardly in need of a PR make-over.

Likewise, when an online salesperson offers me flat-pack furniture that is 'ready to assemble', I’m not convinced he has my best interests at heart.

Essentially, flat-pack furniture is a punishment from God for my failure to earn sufficient money to buy proper furniture, and the opportunity to assemble it myself is like a day trip to one of the inner circles of the inferno, not some sort of star prize in the bran tub of life.

Every online trader, though, wants to assure you that even buying an afternoon of torment with an insolent pile of medium-density fibreboard is better than buying nothing at all – and the wine trade is no different.

As I say, I’m happy to fall for the occasional £6.99 wine of the century bin-end I’ve never heard of that’s just become available from a merchant I’ve never heard of, because one day it may turn out to be drinkable, but I’ll begin to fear for my sanity when I descend into the market for wine paraphernalia and believe I’ve found just the thing to make my life complete.

A lot of it is billed as fun – fun wine gifts, fun wine accessories – but I’m not sure how much fun it would be to have the mother-in-law round for lunch and absent-mindedly hand her the bottle with the brightly coloured plastic stopper in the shape of a markedly aroused man of considerable proportions.

I suspect she’d either chuckle indulgently or write me out of the will – and I’m not in a hurry to find out which.

A lot of the other wine accoutrements that make their way to my inbox are less likely to give offence, but plumb depths of pointlessness hitherto unknown to man. What, I ask you, am I supposed to do with an 'acrylic bottle balancer designed to give the illusion that the bottle is suspended in space'?

Imagine the confusion around your dinner table after two decent bottles of rioja when the third appears to be suspended in space. Who will be the first to send the gravy jug flying as they vault across the table to intervene in this apparent zero-gravity situation? What good can come of it all?

And I’m sorry, call me a philistine, but I can’t foresee the day when I’ll be passing an idle moment in the kitchen and suddenly decide that my life would be complete if only I had port tongs, or a domestic spittoon, or even a salt mill in the shape of a wine bottle, which is a recipe for confusion if ever I heard one.

But where these items may be tucked away in the tray marked ‘futile’, what manner of madness is it that inspires a retailer to offer a champagne sabre to random members of the public without so much as a Criminal Records Bureau check or a quiet word with the local magistrates.

A sabre may have been all very well for a dashing Napoleonic hussar with an aristocrat’s vast wine cellar to rampage through, but even the more ceremonial ones are something of a dangerous anachronism at a drinks party in a three-bedroom semi. I mean, it may not be a Kalashnikov, but you could still have your eye out.

No, I learned my lesson very early when it came to superfluous oeno-bits-and-pieces.

I once bought a combined thermometer/hygrometer for my humble wine cellar in my humble Victorian house in south London. I say wine cellar, but I suspect it was designed more as a place for keeping coal or recalcitrant children, given that there was nothing about it that suggested it would encourage longevity in a good claret, and mostly I used it to store half-empty tins of paint and hang such pigeons as I could bag with an air rifle in the garden.

The new-tech gauges were supposed to reassure me that the temperature and humidity were conducive to extended wine storage, and for a while it was a borderline scenario, until November, when a rainstorm hit the area one night and six inches of water came up through the floor.

Paint tins and bottles of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Shiraz bobbed alongside each other in the floodwater as the temperature plummeted and the insurance company prevaricated. The thermometer/hygrometer had done its job well enough, but technology is no match for a pair of wet slippers when it comes to deciding if a cellar is fit for purpose.


Fools and horses and fake Petrus

I’m no Jancis, but I know my Pomerol from my paint-stripper and I like to think I buy wine that is in keeping with the capabilities of my palate: good enough for me to appreciate but not so reputedly exquisite as to make me feel as though I’ve got more money than sense.

I remember seeing a TV programme once about the folly of youth, or something similar, in which a bunch of ne’er-do-wells drinking expensive continental lager from the bottle were asked to undergo a taste test.

Their premium brands were taken away from them and replaced with the kind of cheapo stuff you wouldn’t wash the dog in – and not one of them could notice the difference. Then they were asked if this humbling experience would make them rethink their boozing strategy, and to a man they said they’d carry on drinking the expensive stuff because … well, just because.

I laughed, rather smugly, I imagine. After all, what kind of fool would you have to be to spend double the money on a beer that you couldn’t tell from Brown Windsor?

I think back to that programme from time to time, whenever I have my recurring dream about being invited to dinner by a couple with the table manners of a ravenous baboon and the wine-buying sensibility of a tramp in a room full of industrial solvents.

Will they serve own-brand pork luncheon meat fritters and wash it down with something at £3.99 from the petrol station, or will they try and blind-side me with a 2005 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, knowing that I don’t know my DRC from my TCP and I’ll be looking down my nose at it all night?

What ill fortune to spend an entire evening sampling one of the world’s great luxury brands, with no pleasure derived from the experience and only the ribald contempt of raving yahoos to show for it – even if only in a dream? Is my palate really that dull? Am I truly the world’s most pretentious man? Should I stick to Bacardi Breezers with a cocktail cherry and a small umbrella?

I mean, I’m sure we’ve all had days when the palate is dulled by sickness, too much good wine, too much bad wine, not enough sleep or a lunchtime petrol station pasty, and found ourselves opening one of our best bottles to impress the boss and his wife, only to discover that it has all the nuance and finesse of the stuff Uncle Reg used to make with turnips in the airing cupboard.

To everybody else at the table, it may be punching its true weight, but when your tastebuds aren’t on song, you know that one of two things is happening: either you’re serving up a stinker to distinguished guests or you’re missing out on a very good glass.

The only sure-fire means of overcoming the shame of your evident lack of sophistication is to laugh at Chinese billionaires who allegedly drink first-growths with Coca-Cola, or Russian oligarchs with gold-plated taps on their super yachts, or anybody else whose budget outstrips their taste.

Luckily, the very rich will always provide us with solace in that department. The more money you have, the more susceptible you are to ridicule when your spending habits are made public, and the world of wine is prime territory.

There may be times when I spend more than is wise for a bottle that I’m perhaps not the best man to judge, but at least I’ll have a good drink and I can take a picture of the label and bluff about the rest of it.

At least I’m not like the uber-wealthy Arab sheikh who bought an exquisitely-bred racehorse by the name of Snaafi Dancer in 1983 for a cool $10.2 million, only to find that the term racehorse was stretching a point. 'A nice little horse but no bloody good', was the assessment of his trainer when Snaafi Dancer was retired un-raced, but at least there was the consolation of redemption in the shape of a successful career at stud.

Except that he was no bloody good at that either. His magazine contained largely blank ammunition, in a manner of speaking. He fathered four foals, three of which raced, none of which was any good either.

It was humiliation on a grand, public scale. The scent of Schadenfreude filled the air in the racing world, much as it permeated the wine world when it was revealed that the very wealthy had been conned into buying fake burgundy that had been concocted in a kitchen sink by a shyster with an unwavering faith in human susceptibility.

The wider world imagined clueless tycoons sipping dishwater and stroking their chins. My recurring dream paled into insignificance and I quietly recalibrated my palate, better to take into account the delicate balance between price, quality and general ignorance.