WWC24 – The road to Damascus, by Luke Haughton

Typewriter on a teal background. Credit belongs to Constantine Johnny.

In this submission to our 2024 wine writing competition, carpenter Luke Haughton writes about his discovery of the wonders of wine as a youth.

Luke Haughton writes My name is Luke Haughton. I am reasonably old and also somewhat young, and I make my modest living as a carpenter, and will continue to do so until my hands stop working. I walk a lot and read a lot, and am a greedy fellow, though not yet rotund. I am generally happy, I love, and am loved. Wine is not the cake but it is very definitely the icing.

The Road to Damascus

When I was thirteen the British music charts were dominated by Slade, Status Quo, Suzi Quatro and such, Richard Nixon the (soon to be ex-)President of the United States was having a bad year; Bruce Springsteen released Greetings from Asbury Park, and Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon. Flared jeans had not yet been outlawed; spaghetti, in its dried, long packet form had recently arrived in our world; and while the Cold War growled away in the background, there were no particularly terrifying international conflicts to keep a boy awake at night. If anything ever ruffled the water in my pond, it would have been wondering and yearning about girls; whether or not I had any chance of getting my homework in on time; how I might get out of doing any more than the bare minimum to help around the house. 

Home was in a village in North Yorkshire, in a bungalow - large but only barely large enough to contain the dozen children, our complicated parents, the frequent guests and transients. An atmosphere of mild chaos generally prevailed, punctuated by meals of good, simple food eaten at a table that could comfortably seat twelve, and would often accommodate many more. On Sundays there was Sunday Dinner, when my father would roast, and carve, as it might be, a leg of lamb, a topside of beef, a chicken. And yes, usually there was wine - I remember bottles with the name Nicolas on them, though I didn’t see what that had to do with wine. These Sunday dinners were boisterous affairs, and the sight of adults being drunk (our father, other adults, never our mother) was, to us younger ones in the family, a splendid and entertaining spectacle. A key figure on these occasions was Stephan, one of my father’s colleagues. Stephan was partly French and entirely excellent, and had married my older sister, Sue, a few years previously, which was a matter of great satisfaction to the whole family, especially the younger element, as his mixture of erudition and mischievous humour was irresistible.

I sometimes stayed at Sue and Stephan’s house, which was a few miles away from ours, and it was like a second home for me, but more - what? Elegant? Beautiful? Calm? All of these things, though just a cottage. I loved it there, and was happy to adopt different modes of behaviour - there was no one to fight with; shouting was discouraged; the use of napkins was offered as an alternative to sleeves; there were candles at dinner, in silver candlesticks; and the dining room carpet was deep crimson. 

During one such visit, on a summer Sunday, my sister had cooked a sea-trout, which was a fine and noble undertaking - savage and ignorant as I was, I had a keen appreciation of food, and of the importance of The Table, learned from a thousand meals at home - but the great, seismic change that took place in my little life on that day was not what was on my plate but what I had in my glass. I had known for a few years that wine was A GOOD THING, as it always seemed to go with joy and fun, and grown-ups being more interesting than normal. Whenever I had managed a few surreptitious slurps or gulps of wine I found it to be fairly horrid, though I persevered, as long as the inattention of adults allowed, and felt that it was something I would grow into, like driving, or enjoying church. 

On that summer Sunday, David, a colleague of Stephan’s, had come for lunch and had brought a bottle with him, and being a man of taste and few obligations, he had many good bottles tucked away, and this was one. Because Stephan was a great man, and perhaps in spite of any alarm on David’s part, he poured me a glass, and I tasted it (perhaps it was suggested that I take it slowly), and that was it. Glory. I have no recollection of the taste, - but I new that it was good and blissful and important. My only previous understanding having been that wine was one of the ways that people got drunk, to be confronted by the extraordinary and startling splendour of this magical liquid was as baffling as it was delightful. 

Did I say to my sister, to Stephan, to David, what had just happened to me? I have no recollection, though I think not, but perhaps it was apparent, the way that it is when someone is in love for the first time - a slightly far away look, a gentle idiocy, a puzzled smile. But that was it. That was the day and that the place; and those were the people who saw me take my first dizzy steps on the happy road to perdition. 

In the decades that have since elapsed I have drunk many bottles of wine, the humble and the grand, and have frequently spent more than I can remotely afford or justify on buying it. Sometimes there have been other sublime, revelatory moments from wine, though the pleasure seems to come as much from the company; the place; the food, as the wine itself, but that moment, that first kiss moment, well, you only get one of those, and that was mine. 

These last years I have mostly lost my sense of smell, which is a sadness, though in the great scheme of things, a very modest privation. But, somewhat counter-intuitively, I can generally get more on the nose from white wines than from red, particularly white burgundies. And that seems appropriate as the wine that changed my life was (as I had the presence of mind to learn on that fateful day) a Meursault. Over the last several months I have squirrelled away a useful amount of credit with a good wine merchant and now, having written this, I know what I’m going to spend it on. How very happy-making. 

Image by Constantine Johnny via Getty Images.