WWC23 – John Larkin, by Anna Larkin

a drawing of john larkin by anna larkin

In today's 2023 wine writing competition publication, actor and wine lover Anna Larkin writes about her father, John Larkin. See our WWC23 guide for more fantastic wine writing.

Anna Larkin writes Anna Larkin is a Glaswegian actor musician and recent WSET Diploma graduate. Her wine tasting cabaret show Le Wine Club is playing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Gilded Balloon for the month of August.

Playing Wine Games with Dad

My father loves games. He loves playing games, inventing games, talking about games, and getting angry when people don’t respect the conventions of games. I suspect he dreams big angry dreams about games. He loves chess, bridge, monopoly, any type of quiz, and has been known to agonise over an afternoon of Dungeons and Dragons. He also loves wine, and has a rather enviable Burgundy collection which I like to call The Inheritance.  I too am an ardent wine lover. I, however, do not love games. I hate games. A real boiling dislike. Not to be confused with hating fun, I am very fun. I am simply a passionate believer that fun can exist quite independently of games. For Dad, the two are inextricably linked. And his enjoyment of wine becomes all tangled up in this in a way that really jangles the nerves of a fun-but-no-games-please wine lover such as myself. Everything has to be a quiz. Everything.

“Do you think you are going to get away with just drinking that English sparkling wine? When we can try it blind and pit it against the French stuff? Obviously, I just want to know which one you like better but if you had to say which was which…?”

Sometimes, you just want to drink it.

Dad was keen to share his love for wine with us from a young age and getting us up to speed on the vocabulary as children was definitely part of the fun. Perhaps he wanted to talk about wine with people who wouldn’t argue with him. Or maybe he counted on the possibility that one day we would. I remember as a very young child declaring confidently that certain wines had an unmistakable smell of gooseberry. I had definitely never tasted a gooseberry in my life. Still haven’t. They taste of Sauvignon Blanc, right? In any case, I remember his delight when we would sniff something and get it “right.” I still feel now the anxiety of possibly getting it wrong.

To encourage us, my brother and sister and I had our own wines, carefully chosen to be ready to drink when we were of age. Some from our birth years and some skirting them for those of us born in “rubbish” vintages. Such an exciting yet infuriating prospect for a child, something that was our very own but that wasn’t for now. I’d like to say he taught me something about delayed gratification but no, it’s still torture. For Dad, the waiting is another glorious game.

I believe at least one of those very nice bottles of Chateau Leoville Barton met a small and tragic end at a large and messy teenage party. You can’t expect everyone to respect the rules of the game.

Sometimes Dad’s games are played without the knowledge of the players. A favourite is to decant wines of varying quality and serve them blind to guests who noisily claim to have no interest in the quality of the wine they drink. Every single time, people start helping themselves to seconds of the best wine and the most mediocre is abandoned. Dad takes delight in the devilment but also in knowing something he values in being enjoyed by people he cares about. I guess being tricked into drinking good wine is not the worst betrayal.

Because ultimately the spirit with which he enjoys wine is generosity. I remember clearly my first encounter with Chateau d’Yquem. Dad was on the anxious side of a stomach operation, unsure whether his days of enjoying Epicure’s finest were over. The doctor had advised on the eve of the operation to “Eat drink and be merry” Clearly no one had told him how that particular conflation ends: “What happens tomorrow, doc…?” Uncle Barclay had a half bottle squirreled away for such an occasion and presented it like an Oscar at the end of a generous meal.  I couldn’t tell you which vintage. I was young and frankly more interested in boys. If I wanted to find out now, I’d have to ask Dad and then he’d know I was writing about him. So, the glinting consolation prize of unspecified vintage was laid out and we waited. There was an audible gasp from the assembled family members when Barclay ignored the five thirsty glasses around the table and poured half the bottle into his glass and half into Dad’s. Without thinking, Dad shared out his glass with all of us. An act of unexpected bold generosity was met with another of genuine gentle largesse. But then, how else would he get to goad us into guessing the vintage in the form of Twenty Questions with additional points for imagination and correct aroma descriptors? Unsurprisingly, those aromas spoke for themselves. No guessing, no stress. Just a golden smack of sweet honeyed complexity. Pure joy. And definitely more interesting than boys. 

I didn’t tell him when I started taking WSET exams. Part of the reason I wanted to know more about wine was to connect with him, to feel more confident. Yet I felt I couldn’t tell him until something tangible had been achieved. He was, of course, delighted when I told him I’d passed my Level 2 and didn’t disappoint with the question I hadn’t heard since school: “98%? What happened to the other 2%?” I told him I’d been scuppered by a Clare Valley Riesling and it did not surprise me to see a Clare Valley Riesling at dinner the next time we visited, presented with a Carry On smirk. And the next time. And the next. After I got my Diploma, I told him that the question I lost most marks on was about vintage Champagne but I guess you can’t kid a kidder.

Sometimes, his fun sinks into anxiety when faced with the actual pressure of choosing wine at a restaurant when everyone expects him to nail it. Something I now can appreciate and a burden I like to think I can ease somewhat. Even if I simply point them in the direction of some Gruner or indeed the sommelier. Sometimes the devilment shines through, as it does in his obsession with deliberately ignoring the idea of regional pairing.  He may be a contrarian but Rioja and Spaghetti Bolognese nights have definitely become something we look forward to on our visits and I couldn’t fault his choices. And he cares about my opinion. I need to get used to that. 

Of course, the wisest thing I’ve ever taught him was that when your wedding venue assume the speeches are before the meal and mistakenly pours your very nice Champagne three hours too early, you drink it there and then. Don’t wait for what will be the flattest toast of your life. Especially if they insist on coupes.

I do like to think that I can genuinely teach him some new things and it’s a real pleasure to see him set sail beyond his European favourites. He recently sought out a Hunter Valley Semillon for me after I’d mentioned it in an online interview. Of course, he presented it blind. I won’t tell you what I thought it was. I hope my sizzle of disappointment didn’t take away from my acknowledgement of his thoughtfulness. He has always been a generous and astute gift-giver and I wish I had the generosity and the energy to indulge his game playing more. To him, it is simply something fun that he wants to share. Just like all that lovely Burgundy. 

My energy is in short supply now more than ever after welcoming our baby son into the world last summer, and yet of course I’m made even more aware of the kindness we afford our own parents.  After nine months of torture, I think Dad was disappointed I couldn’t quite dive into the wines he’d been saving with the gusto he’d come to expect. And now, crawling after a marauding almost toddler, I find even less energy for wine games just when I would love to start engaging with them.  At least Dad has someone new he can teach about gooseberries. And we are all looking forward to the 2011 Croft Port he already has set aside. Assuming our littlest disruptor, all grown up, lets us try it. Perhaps he will inherit his grandfather’s impish approach to life and there will be a quiz.  I hope if he does, I can encourage his sporting antics like the fun person I think I am. I hope that sometimes, though, he can indulge his boring old mum and just let her pour out a glass and drink it.

The illustration is the author's own work.