‘I tread the sand at the sea’s edge’

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My father walks toward me up the beach his spare frame silhouetted against the sparkling sun. ‘Breathe deeply boy’ he says as he ruffles my hair. I look into his eyes the colour of the sea and realising  a cat has my tongue bury my head in the warmth of my faithful dog’s neck seeking comfort and reassurance in her familiar smell. I am asthmatic and the sea makes me well. It is why we came here.

A daydream takes me to our house in the hills and the grave of the unknown, unnamed, tortoise. He ran away, finding temporary refuge amid the wreckage of my grandmother’s desk – a Christmas present compromised by my father’s ill-timed gift of a tool set – perhaps he had an inkling of what was to come. The doctor says that if we get rid of the animals it will help my breathing. Snowy the rabbit is adopted and subsequently eaten by the neighbours. We are unable to part with the dog.

 ‘The darkness is not dark. Nor sunlight the light of the sun’

Eight summers pass when Alan speaks to me walking by on a startling, sea shimmering, summer morn with salt in his hair and a smile on his face. ‘Why don’t you follow me out’ he says. Squinting upward, I place my trust in him tuck my beloved and battered surfboard beneath my skinny arm and allow him to shepherd me through the rip next to the pier. Forty years later I place my hand gently onto his casket and say goodbye.

 ‘And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty’

 Major Matt Mason sinks slowly beneath the glossy mirror of the mossy moat. Calisto, despite the enormous brain straining against the confines of his transparent green skull, is unable to save his friend. I grasp the Major’s clumsily articulated armature as my father grasps mine as I dive downward. I gaze into those grey eyes once more and recall our journey home from school, the day my brother died, remembering that he buried him alone in the winter rain.

Adrian and I fail to hear Akela’s footsteps on the creaking boards of the scout hall, blissfully unaware of our impending dishonourable discharge. Adrian is my best friend. His father Jack a fine cricketer. But to Ade and I he is better known as a singer, immortalised by his unforgettable, some might say unforgivable, rendition of Al Martino’s ‘Spanish Eyes’. Jack has a lingual protrusion lisp and the line ‘Please say Si Si’ reduces us to helpless laughter. Akela’s glare is far from benign as she spots the crescent shaped bite mark on my thigh and the cartoonesque, egg-shaped lump protruding from Adrian’s forehead. The old wolf uses her wisdom to expel us from the pack, confiscating our woggles and consigning us to the wilderness, like Jason McCord in Branded, to forever fight for our good names.

 Dad’s a rugby man, regularly and eagerly watching as I shiver on the touchline, my skinny, hairless and mottled knees knocking in the bitter northeasterly wind.  I place my frozen hands inside my thin cotton shirt to warm them against my unfilled out torso and wait for the pass that never comes. Checking my opposite number, I accurately guess that he’s been picked for size rather than speed. His fledgling moustache and probable pubic hair suggest that we cannot possibly be in the same academic year. If we are my folks just don’t have a big enough larder.

The ball comes above my head, exposing my bare sinewy midriff. I gather the greasy ball, with stiff little fingers, just as the overfed progeny of Brobdingnag  cuts me in two with a scything tackle that sees me crumble like a Corinthian column in an earthquake. Bundled into touch – where another large and ungainly lad falls on me – I overhear a cry of ‘Who’s that kid on the wing’ and imagine the expression on my father’s face.

 ‘I tread the sand at the sea’s edge’

 ‘What do you think he does all day’ my mother asks?

Becoming an ordinary surfer is a difficult task, but becoming a good one, one that people look up to, well that’s another story….This is how I spend my time.

 The lefthander is technically difficult, requiring one hard turn, mid face, followed by a series of rapid pumps to trim, drive, and out run the crashing lip. I am flying down the line, pushing hard on the first third of my board to flatten the rocker, simultaneously keeping my toe rail down to maintain glide along the fast moving wall. I alternate with pressure on my heels to stop the inside rail from being sucked up and pitched by the lip. Subtle changes are transmitted from my feet to my brain as the water draws off the bottom and the wave disembowels itself on the rocky slab. I take another, staying close to the hook so I can feel the foam-ball spit and spray my back like a fire hose, testing the limits of the board, the bite of the inside rail, the whip of the tail, the alignment and cant of the fins. Oh how they sing at speed.

Over dinner, silently pondering minor adjustments and the shape of my next board. I conclude that talking would make me sound like Orwell’s ‘rattling stick in a swillbucket’ and besides, I don’t like the sound of my breaking voice. My father glares at me, but I am fourteen and have long stopped listening to my father.

I feel my mother’s eyes on me, as I prepare for my first big trip, and wonder what she makes of her one remaining son. A poorly designed wetsuit seam has reduced my belly button by half over the summer, and my left foot, strapped with duct tape, has a wound that fails to heal as I refuse to stay out of the water. Add to this knees full of skating grazes, permanently bloodshot eyes, a condition called surfers ear and a mop of unruly, unwashed, salt encrusted hair. Despite, or perhaps because of this, she kisses me on the forehead and with a tear in her eye holds me just a little too long.

The first trophy is hard earned in double overhead surf. ‘The kids ok in the small stuff, but lets see how he does when it gets bigger’. Hiding it behind my back I try to look disconsolate in front of my girl – who has a Saturday job in the pet shop – but she can tell I’ve won and laughing loudly tosses her dark hair that smells of birdseed and pony nuts.

Pushing through the crowd at the water’s edge, away from the American and Australian surfers who’ve consigned me to an ignominious first round exit from the contest, I avoid Sylvie’s sympathetic smile realising that no matter how good I think I am, I’m not in their league. Sylvie returns to Biarritz knowing that I do not love her enough to follow. I return home to race rats and do not surf again for seventeen years.

 ‘Time past and time future. What might have been and what has been.’

In the waveless world of the city, where my wife grew up and my boys were raised, it’s difficult to imagine the sea, and  when I dream of home it is not as it is now. Unnatural and false full regularly appearing in colour supplements, its caramelised onions and cappuccinos fortifying overindulged, overfed, middle aged alphas, unforgivingly shoehorned into shorties by their mean lipped, male hipped wives, before their next bespoke tutored surf session. Once the epitome of cool, my sport is neatly packaged as a lifestyle choice and used to peddle  4×4’s, seaside property and life insurance for the newly retired. I don’t begrudge them their fun, but they belong on paved sand-less streets not on the last of the country’s uncommitted land, their baby soft feet weeping for the safety of shoes.

‘The free person who runs away is no better off than a fish with a hook in his mouth, given plenty of line so he can tire himself out and be reeled in calmly and easily by his own destiny’ 

Leaving the warm car in the leaf strewn lane I strike out alone down the sheep strewn banks where livestock once walked to market. Past the simple castles – mounty banks – their battlements crushed by the Normans and where Edward I danced a jig on the bones of Llewellyn the Great. Past the ancient caves, facing south into the meagre warmth of the ice age sun, where Eynon once walked with the sea in his blood and the rain on his face, his feet bare and damp, like mine, on the dew of the new morning’s marram grass. Through a cleft in the valley I glimpse the silver grey faces of the new swells, polished by the oarweeds and marching to the mournful sound of the sea bell, the legends of the drowned churches, and the incandescence of the dead.

‘Sweet fields beyond the the swelling flood, Stand dressed in living green’

Entering the chill water, its surface the colour of armour, I push out relieved to escape the land and the incessant nanny ping of the cell phone. Quiet now save for the saw of the wind and the siren call of the sea. ‘Breathe deeply boy ‘ it says.

‘The end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there, before the beginning and after the end.’

 

 

 

 

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‘England’s Dreaming’

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The view through the, rain spattered, window of ‘Dunmoanin’  seems bleak and uninspiring as the hopes and dreams of my embittered and embattled nation are systematically dashed to pieces on the rocks below.  The VOR and I are holed up in this isolated cottage while the teens recover from exam fatigue and I wrestle with an article on what Brexit may mean for the wine industry.

 Dunmoanin’ appears to be an extremely popular bolthole. A glance at the visitors book reveals such illustrious names as Osborne, Assange, John Darwin, Gordon Brown and Lucky Lucan and the VOR informs me that we must leave, in a timely manner, as another new guest is expected soon.

Gazing absentmindedly, and disconsolately, at the leaden sea-sky twin set – I believe grey’s in this season – a damp, drizzly sense of foreboding descends on tennis professionals, cricketers and political aspirants alike.

Cursing the gods of wifi whilst trying, and failing, to download the Dambusters, I begin with the economy which has plunged to a level not seen for thirty years when eerily apocryphal songs like Patti Labelle’s ‘On My Own’ and Howard Jones’s ‘No One Is To Blame’ graced the pop charts. Unfortunately it appears that we are on our own and someone’s definitely to blame.

The big winners in a weak pound war, are as ever, the major players. If you’re wealthy chances are it won’t affect you and all you have to do is sit tight, ride it out, check the markets and enjoy the show. To use that hackneyed and irritating old phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

For non EU producers it will be easier, and cheaper, to import without the hindrance of a potentially ever rising scale of EU duty. The strong USD and AUD means that our American, Antipodean and South African friends will be sharing the big brand love like there’s no tomorrow. So it will be business as usual on the shelves of your local supermarket, although finding a bottle of Yellowtail, Blossom Hill or The Devil’s Codpiece ,for less than a fiver, may be a thing of the glorious and rose tinted past.

Ironically, its the little people who will suffer. Not the leprechauns – although they may have their own problems – but the kind of small businesses the Brexiteers assured us would be having the time of their lives. It’s great to support British business if you know where its raw materials are coming from. The simple fact is that the small do not have the financial reserves to ride out the coming s**tstorm.

If you have a business whose products primarily come from the EU, then your suppliers may choose to sell entirely within the EU. And even if they do sell to you – chances are they currently don’t like you all that much – then you will be clobbered with ever increasing supply chain costs. This, in turn, limits the choices of Mr and Mrs John Bull.

Of course ,if you are a conspiracy theorist, this could all be a fiendish plot to sell more English wine. But remember, Boris and Michael were drinking beer, not flutes full of namby pamby Nyetimber.

So what if we turn our backs on the sunny sybaritic fruit of the vine and opt for an alternative. We Brits came late to wine remember, historically preferring the taste of beer, like the majority of our northern European neighbours, and spirits such as gin (extremely popular) and schnapps (not so). These are manly drinks and we deny our northernness, in this grey and unpleasant land, at our peril!

‘I’m ready’ the VOR says. ‘Have you sorted everything?’

‘Yes’ I say. ‘I’ve replenished what we’ve used and taken the liberty of stocking the larder with some good old fashioned British produce like Spam, Cadburys Smash, Fry’s Chocolate Cream, Jammy Dodgers, Bully Beef and a few cans of Old Molethrottler. I’ve also scattered some rubbish over the lawn and lit some candles as a reminder of the seventies and I finally managed to download a few ‘Carry On’ films and some episodes of ‘Yes Minister.’

‘You’d better hurry’ she shouts as a large red bus draws up outside.  And stop saying ‘Take Back Control’ in that Dalek voice.

‘Pseudomenos Logos’

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‘You’re a wine merchant who writes about wine merchants.’ A friend recently said. ‘Isn’t that a Cretan paradox.’ I wasn’t thinking of Epimenides, when in ‘A Cautionary Tale’, I urged you to think carefully before buying from an independent. But how you buy your wine, and who you buy it from, is quite an important decision.

Once upon a time things were easy. A kindly uncle or godfather introduced you to a be-pinstriped chap, with gobbets of food on his tie and wine stains over his corpulent shirt front, who laid you down some sherry, madeira, a pipe of port, some judiciously blended Algerian burgundy – with the reassuring smell of an old stable – and a few cases of reliable claret guaranteed to come to maturity before death or gout set in.

Supermarkets were a thing of the future. I vividly remember standing in my local ‘Fine Fare’ while my errant dog wandered in to urinate on the leg of a stranger transfixed by the bottles of Mouton Cadet, Hirondelle, Corrida, Mateus Rose, magnums of Lutomer Laski Riesling and screw top Bardolino, vying for shelf space with Camp Coffee, Heinz Salad Cream, Wagon Wheels, Cadbury’s Smash and Ye Olde Oak Ham.

The white heat of the retailing apocalypse was coming and only the arrogant and lazy didn’t go to the mountaintop to greet the new dawn. The be-pinstriped purveyors of ‘Hock’ and ‘Good Ordinary Claret’ stood firm.  There was nothing to fear but fear itself. Things would go on as they had always done. All wrongs would be righted and the enemy cast down!

Some, alerted by a whippersnapper from marketing no doubt, dodged the approaching meteorite and, whilst not going as far as growing beards or donning tee shirts, escaped the iridium layer and diversified into responsibly sourced, excellent value, own label ranges that were region specific and producer friendly. Berry Bros, Tanners and The Wine Society led the renaissance, showing what you can do by applying sound buying principles and sticking to the maxim of value over price.

Others perished, and on the tombs of the fallen, new palaces were built. Today, eighty percent of the wine sold in the UK is controlled by the multiples. With brands like Blossom Hill’s White Zinfandel – a hideous confection of bubble gum and Calpol – replacing the once mighty Piat D’Or.

These ‘Stepford Wines’, as the big brands are sometimes called, are owned by industry giants Pernod Ricard, Accolade, Gallo, and Constellation and come freshly filled and bottled at a dockyard near you.

They are generally recognisable by names that have a geographical clue in the title such as: Bay, Cove, Hill, Home or Casa, Crest, Valley, Ridge, Peak, Grove, River and Creek. And although these may not be indicative of their real origin – most are cross, or inter-regional, blends made from the big five grape varieties – they do exactly what they say on the crowd pleasing tin.

Now, most folk  – through a combination of idleness and complacency – don’t bother to compare or contrast these wines. So they sail on, through the seven seas of of mediocrity, piloted by the dead hand of globalism, as Flying Dutchwines.

Whoops no free tickets to major sporting events for me!

Needless to say, they all go with red meat, chicken or fish and are great as an aperitif. And just in case you think I’m not up to speed with my food and wine matching, I recommend lager with curry.

It’s hard to make any real money from a high margin, highly taxed, product like wine. But the best way, other than Papa Brand, is private or own label.  Private label, own label, own brand or home brand, is a product owned by a retailer or distributor and sold exclusively in its own stores. They tend to replicate higher level design or branded products but at a lower cost.

Now before the VOR says ‘Don’t be so negative Jules.’ I am going to tell you why this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

If you are a wine producer it doesn’t give you brand equity. In today’s global marketplace the key challenge is access to market and those unable to sell through multiple channels end up in a very poor bargaining position and are often forced to sell without getting any equity at all. This places the relatively unknown producer at the bottom of the food chain. Thus forcing the small, financially weak, and often interesting, from the table to fight for scraps on the floor! Their only hope being the combined efforts of an independent merchant and an adventurous consumer.

This in turn is bad for you dear wine drinker, thats you folks. Not only do you end up paying too much for your prettily packaged plonk but you remain blissfully ignorant of ‘real wine’. This is fine if you just don’t care – but what if you do?

Can own label ever be any good? Yes, if it gives credit to the producer. Marks and Spencer do this extremely well (That should please my mother). Their well positioned, gourmet food is ably supported by an exciting and diverse wine range that puts the producer firmly on the label – and they do nice socks!

The VOR thinks the John Lewis Partnership should make it into the frame, as she believes they should be running the country, although she didn’t say whether that would be with, or without, the vinous expertise of Phillip Schofield.

So what about supermarket own label? The kind pioneered by Tesco Finest, Asda’s Extra Special or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference. If you ignore the tied in brand contracts and controversial was/now pricing these are, on the whole, very reliable wines – even if they don’t always taste of where they come from! The implication here is that the supermarket buyers have sourced the wines themselves, and have carved out margin by bottling it under own label to cut out the middleman thus saving you money as well as being more diverse than the big brands. 

Thats the above deck stuff. But what goes on in the murkier depths of the rather inappropriately named ‘soft’ brand?

The lower decks are the domain of king margin and some powerful promotional tools. ‘From the vineyard to your front door’ says the tagline. Damn I wish I’d thought of that! If mail order is your preferred route you may already be wearing a promotional apron and opening one of your ‘Twelve Stunning Sauvignons’ with a giant corkscrew.

There are two main models here. The first is the Laithwaite’s method – and it works like this. First you dress a wine in some emperor’s new clothes, preferably something akin to the livery of an existing producer. Then a name is invented and hey presto, you are left with a wine that looks like a producers own brand but is in fact an exclusive retail private label which artfully obscures high margin. How else do you think you got those free crystal glasses and a gazillion pounds off your first order. And should you neglect to reorder through sheer laziness, theres a whole telesales department just waiting with a new offer tailored just for you.

Don’t drop that Sauvignon before we move on to the second method. employed by those angelically crowdfunded philanthropists at Naked Wines. This is where you use an existing wine maker to source and buy the wine for you. Then you label it, making sure you put the winemakers name prominently on that label, to make it look like the winemakers own wine. If you think those wings fit, Clarence, you’re peeing up the wrong tree.

Back to the Cretan paradox. Am I, as a wine merchant, saying that all wine merchants are liars? Or, out of slavish self interest, am I attempting to force you into the ever weakening embrace of your nearest independent merchant? Before you push those bottles of Chateau du Manderlay to the back of the cupboard and set of in search of some real wine, just remember that there’s still hope. If its Foine Woine you’re after, then Costco are the largest retailers in the world. For everything else there’s Amazon.

‘The Last Unicorn’

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‘It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.’

‘Like a leprechaun’ Dappled in a tapestry meadow.’

‘Like a flute by still water’…… ‘Like a swan’

Like the last unicorn.’

Sniffing, slurping and gargling through Lord Marchmain’s cellar, I ignore the whimsy, youthful imagination, considerable exuberance and callow adolescent cooing of Messrs Ryder and Flyte and concentrate on the wines that Wilcox brings up.

‘Claret says you?’  ‘Aye says I.’ From the sublime to the ridiculous, the good to the ordinary, the bad to the downright ugly. I attempt to separate my Latour from my Latrine.

The smell, and subsequent taste, of the latter taints the painted parlour, p****s on my proverbial chips, and, like the Person from Porlock, sends me hurtling back to reality and the Guildhall to which I was summoned. Not by bells (Quasimodo rather than Betjeman) but by an incessant inbox ping extolling the virtues of, yet another, amazing vintage of affordable Bordeaux.

‘Bask in the regions reflected glory for less than a tenner with our minuscule allocation of  Chateau du Manderlay’. Yet another ‘Chateau you’ve never heard of ‘ making one wonder about the availability of affordable housing outside the city walls.

This is not the good stuff, but lesser fare, laissez faire, wines tugging their forelocks to their elders and betters, drawn along inexorably on the coat tails of the great and good. Coercion based on commercial self interest. The capturing of hearts and minds. The reworking of wine on the cheap.

I’m sure you know the adjectives by now; mature, classic, approachable (no tangible descriptors) touched with cedar. Smell the pencil case , the tweed, the glove.

All about me wines are whipped into whirlpools in the search for, mostly absent, characteristics. When perceived – I will not say found – a low growl of appreciation reverberates around the hallowed hall and the wondrous elixirs are thrown back like Prester John supping from the Grail.

‘Has this increased in price’?

‘No sir. But I expect it to appreciate considerably, by the day’s end, as there are only 8,000 cases left’.

‘Ah yes, I can feel it opening up’

The myth is spun, the straw become gold, the commodity brokered. I could excuse this if the wines were divine, but they are not. It saddens me deeply that the British seigneurial palate fails to turn toward more humble appellations for its satisfaction.

Searching for inspiration, and adjectives, I raise my eyes to the lavishly timbered, swashbucklingly stupendous ceiling, careful not to swallow the wine in my mouth.

Notably nasty, dustily dry, with searingly marked acidity and the aroma of a storm drain.

‘Try this one sir, a wonderful vintage, saved ( yet again) by a glorious end to the growing season’.

This is not tasting what’s in the glass but the false promise of a label and the perpetuation of myth over reality, evoking hazy, youthful, memories of leisurely lunches in ‘Old Scrotums Wine Bar’ while the proprietor busily scrapes the mould off the cheese before wheeling it out with some tired, old, tawny to an increasingly pissed clientele.

I dislike under-ripe Cabernet. The leanness, greenness and meanness of the fruit, the dusty, musty, crusty, unresolved tannins – reminiscent of running one’s tongue along the floor of a long abandoned outbuilding – the flat footed, foursquare, stringy structure and the disagreement it wages against the majority of foods.

The first mistakes take place, as always, in the vineyard. Vine health is key, as is poor vine material – yes you can taste this – site and soil selection, pests, diseases, viruses and, most importantly, vine stress and dilution from overcropping in the interests of profit.

Picking or harvesting is of prime importance. The trend is to harvest over-ripe to avoid those pesky pyrazines – that give those green peppery vegetal notes – basing logistics over tannin ripeness then using cultured yeasts and a lash of new (ish) oak to add a bit of polish.

The wine is then comprehensively unmade in the winery and, while I ere on the side of ordure over order, I prefer it if the winemaker doesn’t  leave the vinification to an assortment of cats, rats, bats and birds.

I can forgive Flyte and Ryder their youthful enthusiasm, but more is required for John Bull than the advice of some ruddy cheeked, red trousered, obsequious and unscrupulous merchant, in novelty cufflinks, reeking of eau de bonhomie. Whose judicious dash of dishonesty may return to haunt him in the deep, dark, bargain basement of the small hours, weighed down by the mayoral chains and tastevins he forged in life.

Nostalgia and desire by association are dangerous things. The Christian Eucharist. The ancient mystery cults. The supplicants desire to view the shrivelled member of the martyr.

‘Liquor sweet and most divine which my God feels as blood but I as wine’.

George Herbert’s words stir us to meditation, then exhilaration, prior to the inevitable burp of satisfaction – a source of pleasure, but not an object of pleasure.

Like Bono – I will allow this one association only – I still hadn’t found what I was looking for and what I was looking for was fruit!

For today, at least, the last unicorn is safe in its woodland idyll.

‘That will be all Wilcox.’

‘A Cautionary Tale’

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“If you were born to walk the ground,

 Remain there; do not fool around”     Belloc

For those of you who have just emerged from the self-imposed misery of a ‘Dry January’, it’s time to charge your glasses and raise a toast to the demise of the calendar’s dreariest month.

But before you rush to set those cash registers ringing, with your newly refurbished bank balances and bonuses. Let me offer up some words of warning for those of you considering buying from an independent wine merchant.

The wines they sell can be exciting:

A tad risky, I grant you. Independents tend to shy away from bland, boring, insipid wines. If you prefer neutral, alcoholic, fruit-juicy pap then stop reading now!

Their wines don’t all taste the same:

That’s right, they are often deliberately different. There will also be vintage variation (it’s hard to make a wine taste the same year in year out). This is due to weather – don’t worry I won’t bore you with detail – but expect the tannin, acid and alcohol ratios to change as the seasons do. They may be drier than the wines you are used to and may not have any residual sugar left in to make them ‘smooth’.

If this strikes fear into your heart, then insist that your wines be manufactured to a formula in vast industrial factories, on drip irrigated parched plains, to ensure homogeneity. If they refuse, you know where to go – and there’s a car park!

And what about those labels! You have point here. It’s confusing to call a wine after a region, property, vineyard, plot or person. Better to give it a legend like; The Bend in the Elbow, The Devil’s Punchbowl, Cougar’s Claw, or Dunny Ridge. And as for those pesky grape varieties! My advice is to stick to one of the tried and tested ‘big five’ or alternatively look for a brand with a small marsupial, lizard or fish on it.

They sometimes offer advice:

This is a bit unnerving, and particularly unwelcome if you if you don’t care that much about wine. Independents are cheeky buggers who may seek to steer you into unknown territory – where few civilised folk have drank before. If in doubt, try and get something akin to a cheap, ‘own label’ Merlot as it goes great with red meat. Besides who needs knowledgeable staff when it’s easier to intimidate untrained ones. And if they do offer you something to taste just pretend you have a cold and leave quickly.

They don’t do promos or bogofs’:

There are many reasons for this. They may not have enough c**p stockpiled to offer a promotion. The cost of the wines may also be transparent – reducing the need for them to go up and down like a politicians trousers. Of course if you really believe that you are getting ten pounds worth of quality for a fiver, best to stick with a supermarket. They will have a huge marketing machine that has psychologically profiled you to make you think you are actually in charge of the decision making process.

They’re a bit snobby:

Yes, kind of, but this is a common phenomenon found everywhere; from car showrooms, bike, skate and surf outlets, fashion retailers, art galleries, music and bookshops to purveyors of high end training shoes. It’s because some level of expertise is essential. If you find this hard to swallow look out for minimalist shelf talkers that say ‘Good with Fish’.

They’re a bit Green:

I know, I know – who bloody voted for them?  If you prefer your wines to have a gigantic carbon footprint or be shipped around the globe by the container load (in 24,000 litre polypropylene bladders) and bottled at the local dockyard you know you’re in the wrong place. Big bags equal big business. Some independents even buy their wines from Europe -usually from small artisan growers who farm organically or biodynamically. Bloody tree huggers!

I’m already a member of a wine club:

Ah yes, let me guess; the £50 voucher, the free corkscrew and set of real crystal glasses, plus something off your next order if you recommend a friend. Did you ever stop to taste those wines, or consider why no one comes to dinner anymore? I know they insist that they champion small producers and vineyards but did you ever stop to wonder why there’s such an inexhaustible supply.

My local wine merchant has closed down:

So sad. They have gone the way of grocers, bakers, chemists, newsagents, fishmongers, butchers and petrol stations. If your high street is filled with charity shops, coffee shops, chain stores and tumbleweeds, don’t moan – it may be partly your fault, but you can still get all those things from your local supermarket.

If you live in the back of beyond, you will be forced to go online. Be mindful though as some wine websites are owned by the kind of innovative small businesses you’re so keen to avoid.  Go for the big ones as they have money off as well as twenty three different kinds of Pinot Grigio.

I really couldn’t give a **** about wine:

Wine’s a pain actually. It’s more complex than lager and it doesn’t get you p****d as fast as vodka – unless it’s got bubbles.  Besides you’ve tried loads of wines and whilst some are nicer than others you don’t really care that much as long as it’s cheap and there’s lots of it. I fully sympathise with your plight and suggest you make sure you chill it right down to hide any faults – or more importantly taste!

‘Song at the Year’s Turning’

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Gazing absentmindedly from the safety of the rain lashed picture window of the old hotel perched on the carboniferous limestone headland – its loo unchanged for forty years – I ponder the five mile arc of Atlantic scoured beach indiscreetly described as one of the finest in Britain.

My eye settles on the figure of a young boy, surefootedly and single-mindedly, picking his way over the wet-black, jet-black, sea spray spattered rocks. Never extending his reach he sticks closely to the wet face. Upward ever upward he climbs, rope-less with no regard for his descent, he pauses to look at the sea – through eyes the colour of mine – his whole life before him.

‘I have been taught the script of the stones and I know the tongue of the wave’

I see the boy again, navigating his way through the large winter surf. Serious as he sculpts deep furrows into the smooth, grey faces of the mountainous swells – rolling over paths trodden by St Cenydd and Iestyn ap Gwrgan – his mind as empty as the bleak, wreck lined shore. Stones, bones, sea lettuce, laver weed, goose barnacle, dog whelk, grebe, merganser, ouzel , shearwater.

I call out to him but my words are carried away on the wind. He cannot hear me.

‘The sea was in dialogue with things lost, returned, and lost once more’

Leper stone, holm, mere, goat hole, culver hole, bolt hole. The Red Lady of Paviland – another boy. Wesley, Le Breos, Buckland. Ora Pro Nobis Sancte Maria. The bare ribs of the Helvetia and the frozen bones of Edgar Evans.
My boys and I, running through the sun dappled wood. Spindle tree, juniper, primrose, wood anemone, butchers broom, ash, oak, such elm, dogwood. The oniony smell of ramsons, stinking hellebore and blue gromwell. Our feral feet bare on the damp, cold-shaded sand, stopping at the rope swing before emerging into the bright summer light and ozone heavy air of the open dunes. The lusty, warm, westering wind whips a skein of sand across our brown faces, before seeking refuge in the children’s hair and pockets to return as memories on sheets and sofas. Cuckoo flower, bee orchid, carline thistle, squinancywort, sea lavender, knapweed, wigeon, lapwing, turnstone, dunlin, fulmar.

‘Tell me about the burrowing bees daddy’ my youngest asks. ‘Andrena fulva, the solitary mining bee’ I say as we kneel in the couch grass. Sandwort, saltwort, creeping fescue, hairy hawkbit. Will you pass this story on my son? Shoveler, shelduck, nightjar, chiffchaff, redpoll, siskin.

 

Tumbling gracelessly from the steep, sheep-trodden track to the sound of the family’s laughter. Struggling to disrobe before a three year old plunges into the deep icy blue of the superstitiously bottomless rock pool, the ancient home of doubloons, moidores and the dowry of Catherine of Breganza.

 

The young man next to me sleeps as we drive over the common; its two Bronze Age barrows destroyed by the small airfield used to welcome the Douglas and Zeta Joneses. I turn from the be-ponied yellow gorse to his exhausted sleeping face. Half child half man, his features changing like the timbre of his voice. I notice the leaves, feathers and twigs spilling from his pockets – an obsessively secreted treasure. I notice the dried food encrusted on his t-shirt and jeans. Thin and frail, the sticks and stones of ignorant bullies could easily break his bones. I wipe the tears from my eyes to concentrate on the winding road. There is a camber ahead and my eldest son is a precious cargo. Estranged from me now, this past year, I wonder if you recall this day. I speak to you but you do not answer.

 

‘And though you probe and pry with analytic eye, you cannot find the centre where we dance, where we play, where life is still asleep under the closed flower, under the smooth shell of eggs, in the cupped nest, that mock the faded blue of your remoter heaven’

 

Stars stand watch over the castles, dolmen, stones and bones of the hill. The wood is quiet, the restless sea as calm as our sleeping children. We savour the cold summer evening under woolly hats and rugs cradling our goodnight whisky next to an open fire.

Katherine says that our love and happiness comes from inside us and that we make it ourselves. I think about this as I look down at the warm woolly socks hiding her carefully de-sanded, city-girl feet.

 

‘What Is Cosmos’

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‘You take the car, I’ll walk back with the dog’. I hear myself desperately say, as I try to carve out some time to myself, after four weeks family holiday.

‘It’s ok, I’ll come with you’ says the VOR, afraid that I will call into the pub, ‘Besides I have to pick up some flowers for the village fete’.

Reluctantly accepting my fate – not fete, although it is somewhat similar – I am surprised when she agrees to my suggestion of a cheeky, lunchtime ale. After the customary ten minutes choosing, the VOR settles on ‘A half of whatever you’re having’ then complains about its quality.

‘What do you have to do?’ I ask through a mouthful of hoppy beer. ‘We’ says the VOR, scuppering my chances of a sneaky second pint, ‘have to get some Cosmos from Gerald Trainer – knight of the realm and former spy’s garden. ‘Well, to be precise, it’s not his garden anymore. Penny and Ralph live there now but they are in New Zealand and Margaret said that they wouldn’t mind.

‘What Is Cosmos’? I ask, wondering how I became involved.

‘It’s an orange flower, YOU will know it when YOU see it’. ‘Do you know the house?’ ‘ Yes’ she says, ‘It’s where Edward and I bought the boat’. ‘And do you have some secateurs?’ I say, warming to the conspiratorial task but realising I have probably asked too many questions.

‘What was that beer called?’ ‘Old Molethrottler – you normally like it’ I say, as I tie the dog to the gatepost.

Trying to find some orange flowers, I walk around to the rear of the house and bump into a man in a panama hat unloading a car. ‘Hello’ I venture, feeling like a small boy who has knocked someone’s door and been caught running away. He returns my hello without enthusiasm and an expression which says ‘Who are you and what the **** are you doing in my garden?’ Before I can say ‘Ralph, I thought you were in New Zealand’ the VOR arrives.

Hi’ she says, extending her hand ‘I’m Katie, Jenny and John’s daughter, from the farm at the top of the hill. Margaret said it was OK to pick some orange flowers for the village fete – What are they called Jules?’ ‘Cosmos’ I answer.

‘Who’ says the man, fixing her with what I can only imagine is a quizzical stare behind his dark glasses. ‘Margaret’ says the VOR, less sure of herself now and realising that we are not at Penny and Ralph’s.

‘Are you Gerald?’ she nervously asks.

‘I am’ the man says, ‘But What Is Cosmos?’

This is my moment, and unable to resist, am just about to say – for I too am wearing dark glasses. ‘Well Gerald, I think you know precisely what Cosmos is, and we’re here for it, so hand it over’.

Fortunately the VOR interjects, ‘I think there’s been some misunderstanding and we are all at the wrong end of some Chinese whispers – So sorry to disturb’.

Gerald’s quintessentially English reserve prevents him from informing the police and we cheerfully depart leaving a confused, and inwardly seething man, to his unpacking.

We laughingly recount our experience as we hurry down the hill and the VOR wets herself with laughter in the country lane.

Later that evening we learn that the flower in question is called Crocosmia Paniculata and it grows, like a weed, in our drive.

‘Give me a taste of that beer’ says the VOR. ‘Oh now that’s nice, much better than the one at lunchtime’. ‘What is it?’ she asks. ‘Old Molethrottler’ I answer, struggling to keep a straight face. It has not been a great day for women’s intuition.

‘The Hills are Alive’

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‘It’s your turn’ the VOR says, disturbing my concentration, as we motor through the Alpine tunnels.
I love driving through ‘La Belle France’ its wide empty roads a refreshing change from the congestion, drizzle and perpetual greyness of my home on Kong’s Island.
Each leg of our journey is a revelation. The battlefields of the Marne and the Somme, the vineyards of Champagne, the Chickens of Bresse, the wildness of the Parc Naturel Régional de Haut Jura and the overdue promise of a Fondue Savoyarde.
The VOR dislikes video games and films and, rather like those parents who insist on wooden toys, prefers ‘I Spy’, ‘I Went to the Shop’ and ‘Who am I’ as (in-car) entertainment much to our children’s chagrin.

I settle on a mineral in ‘Animal, Mineral, Vegetable’ hoping to buy some extra daydreaming time. The kids, having held their breath in the tunnels of Paris, have decided that they might die of asphyxiation in the long Alpine versions perhaps thinking that this might be preferable to guessing my choice of Georgerobinsonite.
We arrive in a heatwave, the high temperatures sapping what little energy remains in my middle son’s teenage body forcing him to lie down (again) lest vertigo take hold.
I settle for an ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment with a glass of beer prior to a swim in the Lake – don’t try this at home – to rid myself of my drivers legs. The VOR meanwhile befriends our neighbours, an elderly couple from Paris, who are impressed by her treatment of their beloved language. It appears she has told them that I am a wine merchant and for the rest of our holiday the old man waves half empty bottles in my direction to indicate his tipple of the day.
I have decided to swim to the mile buoy and back twice a day. Although this slightly increases my chances of a premature death by drowning, it is the only way I can think of to burn off the Tartiflette and Gratin Dauphinoise.
There are some 17 crus worthy of the name Vin de Savoie and I intend to work my way through all of them during our stay. The best are Abymes, Apremont, Arbin, Ayze, Crepy, Seyssel, Montmelian, Saint-Jeoire-Prieuré and my own personal favourites Cruet and Chignin. These razor sharp, low alcohol, refreshingly restorative, often perlant whites are made from Jacquere, Altesse (or Rousette), Gringet, Chasselas (Roux and Vert) and Roussanne or Bergeron of Chignin. The reds (please don’t ‘mull’ them) are equally light and delicious and made from Gamay (Noir a Jus Blanc), Pinot Noir, Persan (almost non existent) and the native Mondeuse.
Our heatwave ends prematurely in a massive storm which obliterates the southern end of the Lake making it look like the entrance to the sea. I put down my Mondeuse, batten the hatches, splice the mainbrace and break out the Eau de Vie.
The inclement dawn weather inspires the VOR to venture further into the mountains. I question the wisdom of going higher but only inwardly as cowardice, or is it diplomacy, prevails.
‘I promised the boys a toboggan ride’ she ventures by way of an explanation.
We climb through the kind of narrow, winding, hairpins a cyclist full of EPO would struggle with. Past cows with bells and cute wooden chalets perched precariously on the sides of deep valleys.
‘Does the Tour de France ever come through here’ my youngest asks. 2009 and 2013, I ‘Rainmanly’ add, but my attention is taken by an extremely small man with curly hair stood next to a woodpile.
Before I have adequately thought things through I find myself on a chairlift ascending over heathered scrub and jagged rock into increasingly opaque cloud to the sound of a child weeping. Afraid of heights I know exactly how they must feel. This must look charming in the snow, I think, but again keep it to myself.
“Mont Blanc must be over there” the VOR says, gesticulating toward a thick bank of grey cloud, before the returning chairlift hits her in the calves leaving two peach size bruises which ruin her tan for the remainder of the holiday. I sit next to my cold and frightened youngest son vainly trying to keep him warm, and my camera dry, as a rivulet of rainwater runs down the back of my neck.
We change into dry clothing under the tailgate of the car before running to a charming, chalet-style restaurant for lunch and some much needed warmth. ‘This is nice’ and ‘Pull yourselves together’ says the VOR to our hypothermic offspring over the sausages and beer. Our fellow diners all appear to come from the north of England, presumably eager to find somewhere that resembles the Lake District in February, they do not seem to be cold at all.
Hours later, whilst driving back through the mountains with the heater on full blast, we pass the same man next to the woodpile and I imagine him in lederhosen made from Captain Von Trapp’s curtains.

‘Castles Made Of Sand’

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Ever get the feeling that what you say, write, do, or fundamentally believe, may not make an iota of difference? That the castle you have lovingly and meticulously constructed sits, rather infirmly, on some granular colloid hydrogel.

I sell wine for a living. Not just any old plonk mark you, but handcrafted wines, made by people who care deeply and passionately about their product, and spend my time telling others how great they are. That’s a damn sight harder than making the stuff, believe me.

The comedian Steven Wright once said that ‘If a man tells a joke in a forest, but nobody laughs, is it really a joke’.

Well that’s me. It’s my joke and my forest but most folk don’t know me, the location of my forest, if my forest actually exists, or if my joke was even funny in the first place.

So I am condemned to repeat myself, like History, Kevin Peterson, the diehard fans of Margaret Thatcher and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the elderly, or the revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the middle ages. Constantly, but rarely endearingly, reminding others what terrible mistakes they are making and the threateningly imminent proximity of the apocalypse.

Let’s reign my hobbyhorse closer to home. The VOR and I recently spent an evening with some old friends and I thought I would offer up the kind of wines they don’t normally drink as a bit of a treat. C was ecstatic, but her husband’s reaction surprised me. This erudite, creative, academic openly and frankly opined that he ‘didn’t care much about wine’ and that his only requirement was that it came in a large, and perpetually refilled, glass. The fact that he is not alone in his opinion only exacerbates my flying dutchman syndrome.

Like the late Curtis Mayfield, I just keep on keeping on about the cocacolarisation of wine. The homogenisation. The fauxthenticity. The dominance of the same five grape varieties (at the expense and detriment of others) branded and rebranded, packaged and repackaged, from giant polypropylene bag to dockside bottling plant. Don’t get me wrong, as an artist and illustrator, I’m a sucker for a groovy label but it’s important that what’s in the bottle isn’t s***e!

A mere five percent of the British public currently buys its wine from an independent merchant. The majority prefer the multiples. You know, the kind of stores that sell brands even Tiresias would struggle to tell apart. But as another old friend succinctly put it ‘At least they have free parking’.

‘And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually’ – Jimi Hendrix

‘Looking for Leiermann’

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Auf dem Flusse

It’s early evening and darkness is already creeping over the creek as my dog and I traverse the muddy banks. Walking is a great way of organising thoughts and the realisation that I am putting off the seventeen wine tasting notes due before morning. Knowing that I have to write other things, in the elusive search for the non-standardised adjective, I steer my dog toward the village pub.

Das Wirtshaus

I know the pub well, and although recognised by staff (it’s their job after all) it has taken the best part of eleven years for any of the regulars to shout hello. Most, like me, do not hail from this part of the world and perhaps, like most city transplants, are waiting for someone they know to greet me to be sure I am alright. Sometimes I am bothered by this cool, quintessentially English, reserve, but tonight I don’t mind, preferring to sit quietly by the open fire with my dog, beer and thoughts.

Like Schubert’s wanderer I have undergone my own winter journey, and as Meyerhoffer so succinctly put it ‘life has lost its rosiness’. Although not syphilitic, like Schubert, endless visits to a psychiatric hospital, to see my eldest son, have worn a hole in my normally happy heart. Conversations are currently confined to healthcare professionals and not my dear boy who refuses to talk to me, perhaps blaming me for consenting to his admission. Heidegger said that ‘thinking is a lonely business’ and any stray, self-pitying, tears would spoil the nut-brown, hoppy, beer before me and it would be rude to disturb the reverie of my warm, dozing, dog.

Der Leiermann

The Moon is on its back in the star littered sky as I turn homeward, silhouetting the bare, rheumatically gnarled, fingers of the denuded trees that describe the direction of the prevailing wind over the cold damp hills.
I, like the wanderer, am questioning the conditions of my existence in this winter landscape, a sort of middle-aged Werther with a bit more sardonic wit and schadenfreude. Looking for Der Leiermann I surmise that, but for God’s grace, he could be any of us. A lonely, squalid, untrained, musician, cranking the hurdy gurdy with frozen fingers without the simple pleasure of a consoling ale. As I walk on I silently ask ‘will you play your hurdy gurdy to one of my songs’ but it’s Donavon’s I am given, not Schubert’s, and I count my blessings. Now on to those notes.

‘My favourite things are playing again and again but it’s by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane’   Elvis Costello