Q&A with Peter Stafford-Bow, author of Corkscrew

I recently reviewed and recommended Corkscrew, the debut novel by Peter Stafford-Bow.  To delve a little further in to how the novel came about I caught up with Peter for a chat.

Corkscrew Sleeve

Vinesight: Hi Peter, thanks for taking the time to chat with Vinesight.  They say that everyone has one book in them.  What made you want to write yours?

Peter Stafford-Bow: Writing a novel occurred to me around four years ago. I was working in South Africa and had a lot on time on my hands, especially at weekends.  I made a few notes, then after a few months started writing in earnest.

The literary inspiration didn’t come from the world of wine but from the Flashman Papers, a series of novels by George Macdonald Fraser set in the Victorian era featuring a caddish cavalry officer. Written in the seventies they’re rather out of style now, but they got me thinking about the parallels between modern multi-nationals and the mercenary activities of organisations like the East India Company.

I was also struck by how little fiction has been written about the wine trade, rather than books set in some sunny spot in Provence. Apart from Rex Pickett’s Sideways and Tony Aspler’s detective series, there’s not much.

VS: Ah, yes, the inevitable mention of Sideways.  Did the success of that novel influence you at all or was it not really a concern?

PSB: Corkscrew is such a different book to Sideways that I wasn’t concerned about it occupying the same space.  Sideways is a character-driven, mid-life crisis comedy, whereas Corkscrew is a pacey, satirical thriller about big business, hung around a picaresque, coming-of-age story.

VS: I enjoyed the ‘parallel universe’ aspect of the book, Gatesave supermarket, Pink Priest wine etc.  I thought the Minstrels organisation was genius.

PSB: Given the behaviour of supermarket executives it seemed prudent to use made-up names for the corporate entities, whether retailers or wine companies.  I wanted to write a book that would appeal to non-wine enthusiasts and wine geeks alike.

The Minstrels of Wine is the richest part of the story from an ‘in-house joke’ perspective. I wanted them to be a mixture of the Masters of Wine, an Oxbridge college and the Knights Templar so there are plenty of historical and wine references in there.

VS: A lot of the book sound both plausible yet absurd at the same time, examples being a dull sales conference interrupted by a herd of cows, or international shipments of wine full of illegal immigrants.  As the book is loosely based on your career, what’s the balance between fact and fiction?

PSB: Oh, it’s more than 50% true, for sure, and the retail conference is inspired by stories of a certain UK retailer in the 1990s who presented ‘wooden spoon’ awards to humiliate suppliers that had displeased them. Anyone involved in international wine logistics knows that ‘hitch-hikers’ are a common occurrence.

VS: Did you achieve your career success at the same rate as Felix, starting at the bottom, smashing your targets, and generally being in the right place at the right time?

PSB: Corkscrew is definitely not an autobiography, I’d be in prison or dead for sure! Felix’s ascent is extraordinarily rapid which wasn’t the case for me at all! Like all careers, you need a combination of hard work, skill and timing, and I definitely subscribe to the theory that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. The world of wine buying is not back-stabbing at all, quite the opposite in my experience, so that’s a vile slander on my part.

VS: Alongside the main wine buying side of the story there is the parent plot of Felix getting involved with the mafia and causing an international incident. Did you ever consider having the book simply working up to, and culminating in the final Minstrel exam?

PSB: Corkscrew definitely needed to be more than ‘Confessions of a Wine Merchant’. It would have been like Ian Fleming just writing about the budget approval process at the Ministry of Defence.

VS: Haha, indeed.  I was also very amused to read that there is an even more raucous version of the book in existence?

PSB: The ‘NSFW’ version.  I’m sure there are a few still lurking in independent London bookshops and wine merchants – essentially they’re a lot more sweary, which my publisher felt might offend certain markets.

VS: Just as Sideways had its Pinot Noir, do you think the same will happen to Asti Spumante now that Felix has brokered the largest ever deal?

PSB: Oh, undoubtedly! I’ve long felt that Asti Spumante has been unfairly eclipsed by Prosecco, which is usually a rather dull drink.

VS: You’ve just recorded the audio book for Corkscrew and the book is finally being properly published.  What’s next?

PSB: The sequel is currently with my agent. I’m very excited about it – it picks up where Corkscrew finishes and I think it’s an even better novel. The Minstrels of Wine play a large part, as do Paris-Blois International, and there’s plenty of hair-raising peril in French chateaux.  A 10-part Netflix adaptation of Corkscrew would be good too.

VS: One last question: What’s your desert island wine and why?

PSB: It would have to be Sherry. I’m cheating, of course, because that allows me everything from a bone-dry Manzanilla (perfect on the beach) to a luscious PX (to pair with all the mangoes and coconuts lying around).

VS: Peter, thanks very much for your time.

PSB: Cheers!

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Book Review: Corkscrew by Peter Stafford-Bow

The success of Sideways can be a double edged sword when it comes to wine literature.  Do you try to tread in the same footsteps and risk comparison, or are you able to create something with its own identity?

Corkscrew (or Corkscrew – the highly improbable, but occasionally true, tale of a professional wine buyer to give it its full title), the debut novel by Peter Stafford-Bow firmly falls in to the latter camp. Doing the rounds as something of a self-published cult novel within the wine fraternity since 2016, the book has deservedly been picked up by publisher Thistle and makes its official bookshelf debut in July.

Corkscrew Sleeve

I grabbed the chance to have a good thumb through an advance copy and am extremely glad that I did.  Usually I’d steer away from calling a book ‘a real page turner’ as that’s surely the point of any half-decent book but, despite two very active children, I was able to finish Corkscrew in 4 sessions over a long weekend.  It’s a real page turner.

Billed as ‘part thriller, part self-help manual and part drinking companion’, the satirical story follows university dropout Felix Hart as he navigates his accidental foray in to the wine world, working his way up from part time assistant at a local wine merchant to becoming Head of Wine (Ale, Spirits and Salted Snacks) for a major supermarket chain.

His meteoric rise is punctuated by jealous colleagues unable to rise to the challenge or move with the times, a tremendous dollop of luck, and mind altering substances applied at pertinent points.  Felix is the archetypal loveable rogue – I was reminded throughout of Edmund Blackadder, cutting corners and creating devious plans, but always coming out on top.

Very firmly putting the ‘screw’ in to the book title, whilst largely rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way, Felix does have a knack with the ladies who usually get more than just the wine that they order.  The novel jumps from being a blend of Sideways and The Wolf of Wall Street, to Sideways meets 50 Shades of Grey at various points.  Even James Bond would consider getting out of the spying game and in to the wine trade as a way to better attract the ladies.

The book has a wonderful British sense of humour about it and I’d dearly like to quote some of my favourite lines but they’re simply too rude for repeating in the open, so I’ll give you a flavour with one of the less extreme examples.  Instead of a situation being so quiet you could hear a pin drop, we hear “it was so quiet you could have heard a spider wanking in the store room”.  Maybe not to everyone’s taste, but they pepper the book with brightness.

I even laughed out loud reading the acknowledgements section (you’re not supposed to do that, right?) and the fact that this version of the book was actually tamed down from an original NSFW version!  How I’d love to have a read of that.

The other aspect of the book that worked for me is the parallel world that it operates in, with Felix working at Gatesave (the curious offspring of real supermarkets Gateway and Kwik Save), and selling ‘Pink Priest’, a clear nod to ‘Blue Nun’.

The parallels and characters form the crux of many well-constructed farces which you can enjoy without any wine knowledge at all but, if you do have some, you’ll pick up on the even deeper in-jokes.

The best of these is how the ‘Masters of Wine’ institute has been replaced by the ‘Minstrels of Wine’.  Taking its cue from the extremely feared MW entrance exam, becoming a Minstrel expands the scope in to something bordering on the private institution seen in Eyes Wide Shut.

Blindfolded hopefuls are led to tables containing 180 samples of wine for the “legendary all-night combined tasting and classical music recital in front of the thousand strong chamber”.

In a complete reversal of reality, you actually get disqualified if you spit the wines, and vomiting also results in an immediate fail, but there’s bonus points available if your tasting note rhymes.  Those that pass the tasting can then move on to performing a classical piece of music for the judges.

If the lead-up and exam itself is a huge climax, there’s still a further story to immerse yourself in including the mafia, firearms, illegal narcotics and international diplomatic relations!

This is a well-paced book that weaves from sub-plot to sub-plot effortlessly, making it extremely moreish and easy to return to.  Fully recommended, I give it 5 stars out of 5.

Corkscrew by Peter Stafford-Bow is available from all good booksellers (and probably a few rubbish ones too) from July 12th.  You may also like to read my chat with the author here.

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The Vineyard at Stockcross – Wine hotel and cellar visit

Vineyard Scene set

Living just over a mile away I really have no excuse (except my bank balance) not to visit 5 star hotel The Vineyard more often.  As the name suggests it’s a wine inspired hotel with an extensive list of 3,000 wines available including 100 served by the glass.

Owned by panama-wearing Sir Peter Michael who made his fortune in the tech industry, the link to the USA is strong.  Frustrated that he couldn’t afford vineyard land in Burgundy he was inspired to buy in the US through the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting – a landmark playoff between the traditional wines of France and the relatively unknown wines of California.

With the judging panel being almost exclusively French the outcome seemed virtually assured but, as history tells us, the US wines won on the day much to the critic’s chagrin. Purchased in 1982 he now owns the eponymously named Peter Michael Winery in California and roughly 27% of The Vineyard’s wine list hails from the USA, naturally including many bottles from his own vineyards.

A recent significant birthday provided the catalyst I needed and I booked in to the hotel and on to their ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting menu, pairing up seven specially devised courses with both a French and American wine (more of that in a separate post).

Wine Tunnel

Upon arrival the exposure to wine begins almost immediately with the imposing and impressive tunnel that greets you as you enter reception.  Aiming to contain at least one bottle of everything on the menu (so that bottles can be quickly located when ordered by guests) the low lit and temperature controlled ‘floor to ceiling’ perspex walls house hundreds of bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

What becomes noticeable when you enter the tunnel is that, whilst the central portion of the floor displays the rocky and stony vineyard soils transported from the Peter Michael Winery, the other half of the floor is transparent and looks down to a lower cellar containing bottles from around the rest of the world.

A welcoming glass of wine is provided when checking in (which is surely how every hotel should be!) and can be drunk whilst enjoying the huge ‘Judgement of Paris’ fresco that adorns one whole wall.

Wine Fresco.JPG

Commissioned by Sir Peter and titled ‘After the Upset’, the fateful day is immortalized in the artistic style of Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’.  Although not present at the original tasting, Sir Peter cheekily sneaks in on the left-hand side to oversee proceedings.

To make the most of the experience I booked myself in for a chat and tour with sommelier Milena.  Hailing from France, and clearly relishing the wider UK availability of bottles from all over the world and the exposure that comes from working at such an esteemed establishment, she was happy to answer any number of questions that I had.  The inevitable question of her favourite bottle was immediately met with “Sassicaia 1990”.

Of the many tour highlights, the first was the visit to their ‘bottle graveyard’, a vast collection of all the wonderful empty vessels enjoyed by numerous diners over the years.  Many classic labels were present and it was awesome to drink in (pun intended) the wonderful memories and nights these bottles had produced.

Wine Graveyard

From these ‘front-of-house’ cellars we worked our way up to the third floor and, with ‘cellar’ being a complete contradiction in term, visited what would qualify as their wine ‘vault’.  Under lock and key the huge ‘floor to ceiling’ wine racks housed the deeper parts of their 30,000 bottle collection, including mostly duplicate bottles as well as those of different size formats.

Wine Vault

It was a real treat to get up close and personal with their older Champagnes, but no tour would have been complete without seeing the jewel of their collection; the most expensive bottle on their wine list.

It was definitely no surprise to find out that it was Pétrus, but this was a double magnum of the lauded 1982 vintage listed at £20,000, which Milena believed had been there since the hotel opened.

Wine Petrus

Alas I didn’t have a big enough wallet for the Pétrus but I did join in with a tasting of their monthly ‘Icon’ wine.  A good reason for the added extravagance would have been the old saying of ‘when-in-Rome…’, but we were firmly placed in Umbria for the Italian wine Patrizia Lamborghini Campoleone 1999 (£205 per bottle).

Comprised of a 50/50 mix of Merlot and Sangiovese from vines planted in the 1970’s, the very small yields of one kilo of grapes per vine are fermented in new French oak for 12 months followed by blending and another 6 months in the cellar.

Icon Wine Italy 1999

The outstanding wine, blending fig, chocolate, tobacco and truffle was the precursor to an equally outstanding dinner, which you can read about here.

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Vineyards of Hampshire 5th Wine Festival & Cottonworth Vineyard Tour

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The 5th annual ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ wine festival was held recently and, welcoming the opportunity to try a whole host of local wines not too far from my doorstep, I popped along.

‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ is an umbrella name for 8 producers:   Danebury, Exton Park, Cottonworth, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Jenkyn Place, Meonhill and Raimes.  With each site taking it in turn to play host, the festivities this time were held at the Decanter and IWSC award-winning Cottonworth Vineyard, located in the heart of the Test Valley.

The wineries, alongside a line-up of local food producers, were set up in a marquee surrounded by the delightful installation of a vine maze.  Especially planted at the site as a focal point for events, the circular maze has some light-hearted obstacles to keep you searching for the exit, or perhaps to keep you trapped within with a glass of something nice.

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I wasn’t able to spend too long investigating though as, true to form, the late July weather was marked with grey clouds and some very heavy downpours.  This forced pretty much all of the attendees in to the central marquee causing much difficulty when trying to spend some quality time with each producer.  The deep queues also made further sense when I heard our host saying that attendance this year was something like 50% increased on last year.

Breaking free of the festival crowd I took a tour of the site with owner Hugh Liddell, who came across not just as knowledgeable, but also incredibly passionate about the vines and land itself.

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Having started out in the vineyards of Burgundy, his own personal winemaking philosophy is based around an intense relationship with the land.  Multiple times in conversation he was keen to point out how he aimed to harness and celebrate the chalky aspects of his south facing slopes.

A humorous moment came as he described the effect of the free-draining chalk soil on the vine roots, leaving them ‘stressed’ and searching for nutrients.  He mused that, like the best artists and poets, this stress brought about the best results.  Later on at the festival we were able to taste his Classic Cuvée and Rosé and both were notable for their pale colouring and soft and uplifting qualities on the palate.

With a terroir reminiscent of the Cóte des Blancs, Cottonworth are naturally growing the 3 classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier along with a tiny amount of Pinot Précoce.  Since the first plantings went in to the ground just over a decade ago they have been carving out their own corner of the growing UK sparkling wine market.

Forming part of the larger family farm, the grazing land once used for cows has been transformed plot by plot.  Covering some 30 acres, Hugh has specifically chosen individual sites where he believes the grapes will grow to the best of their ability.

We discussed the recent frosts that hit the UK (as well as many of the grape growing parts of northern Europe) and Cottonworth was badly affected, losing between 50-70% of their crop dependent on the plot.  Whilst they don’t currently produce a Vintage wine, 2017 will see them dipping in to their wine reserves to maintain a decent level of bottles available to market.

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The badly hit 2017 harvest wasn’t Hugh’s first brush with frost and the crippling crop losses that can occur.  He explained that the family had sold off some of their land to well-known UK producer Nyetimber allowing him to buy two vineyards in Beaune, France, taking him back to his winemaking beginnings.

The first year they suffered 90% crop losses due to frost and, adamant that the same thing wouldn’t happen again, worked in collaboration with other local vintners to burn wet bales of hay to form a protective layer of smoke above the vines.  Hugh recalled how the widespread smoke made it almost impossible to breathe in the vineyards, but the vines remained safe!

The conversation then moved on to pruning which, as a grower of vines myself, I found extremely interesting.  Hearing his views on how best to trim, canopy manage and prepare the vines for the following year will definitely affect how I look after mine.

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Following the tour it was then back to the festival to try some more wine, and thankfully the sun had appeared meaning that there was a bit more space to manoeuvre around the stands.  All in all, this was a very interesting and informative event, and I look forward to returning in 2018 to see who the next host will be.

Technical Info

Cottonworth Classic Cuvée NV – 45% Chardonnay / 46% Pinot Noir / 9% Pinot Meunier, Alc 12.5%, Dosage – 6g/l, RRP £28

Cottonworth Sparkling Rosé – 43% Pinot Meunier / 32% Pinot Noir / 18% Chardonnay / 7% Pinot Précoce, Alc 12%, Dosage 9g/l, RRP £30

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Laithwaites Gloucester Distribution Centre – June 17 Visit

The distribution facilities of the UK’s leading mail-order wine merchant Laithwaites are in Gloucester (UK) and I popped along to see how they’ve evolved in the decade since the custom-built facility opened for business in 2007.

Gantry v4

Replacing the older Theale based warehouse the new site clocks in at 178,000 square foot – just larger than two football pitches.  Once there in person it certainly felt larger with the hangar-like facilities easily feeling they could house several full sized aircraft.

Full production runs to over 40,000 cases a week, increasing to over 60,000 at peak performance (October-December).  As I visited there was £15m of wine spread out before me (rising to £70m including the customer storage deposits in their climate cooled facilities).

Being ahead of the game in logistics can sometimes automatically equate to being ‘state-of-the-art’ but, as I was to learn, that is only 50% of the situation.  What initially appeared as a fairly manual enterprise was actually a well-honed machine and, impressively, part-designed by the staff.

I donned my high visibility jacket and headed out to the recurring hum of machinery.

The full roster of warehouse staff runs to 120 but a core staff of 22 ‘pickers’ collect each bottle of wine ordered.  In peak season when the business does a good slice of the year’s trade there will be over 40 of them, half provided by an agency, half being directly employed.  Having lunch in their canteen was a truly multi-cultural experience with various different languages on display.

Working a 12 hour shift of four days on-four days off, the team are responsible for picking up to 30 cases of wine per hour from a total list of some 2,500 products.  After some detailed research it’s no wonder the management team felt it was impossible for mechanics to replace the talent.

Trolley

Their ‘assistant’ for the trip is a metal trolley capable of holding 10 cases of wine at any one time, but it still requires a human hand to pick up each individual bottle and build each wine box and the cardboard separators from scratch (proudly, almost all from recycled card).

Each picker is equipped with a headset capable of responding to their direct commands.  A full suite of training housed in a bespoke training area allows potential crew members to re-enact the 10-case trolley packing conditions experienced on the floor to see if they can handle the bottle juggling to come.  They also get to record the 23 prompts which the central headset system will understand, interact with, and update from.

As they spend more and more time picking the wines the picker can customise the system, speeding up the delivery, pitch and even the sex of their picking partner.  Being new to the system I literally couldn’t understand a single word of the prompts a seasoned picker chose until it was slowed down to (what I considered) a reasonable speed.  It became clear that these are very well trained and attentive people.

Wall of Boxes v1

With the constant pressure of new orders and the fact that they are picking 10 different cases of wine at any one time, it’s inevitable that errors might creep in.  Placing popular and regularly purchased bottles close together for speed aids in aiming for a fail rate of just 1 in 1000 bottles but the warehouse has led the way in letting staff be the keeper of their own destiny and they run a well-publicised and incentivised suggestions scheme.

Two examples highlighted to me were very simple processes for the company to install and showed that the very best suggestions can often come from the front line.  The first contained a simple mesh that split the front 5 packing cases from the back 5 which stopped hands slipping through and giving the first layer of the wrong case the wrong bottle.

The second innovation was the addition of numbered tags above each pallet of wine, crucially only visible when in front of the pallet itself.  If the picker quoted the wrong confirmation number their interactive headset received an error message letting them know that they were not in the right place.

Once full peak-time requirements begin to bite, the warehouse will be a 24 hour a day operation and accuracy will need to be a fundamental, almost automatic reaction.

Staff are augmented by a brand new fleet of 8 forklift trucks that can access the 16,500 pallets stored 14 metres high in the narrow aisle racking.  Subconsciously guided by aligning magnets buried in the warehouse floor to stop them veering in to the wine laden racks, they even have blue lights projected in front to avoid potential aisle collisions.

Forklift

For every part of the process that seems manually driven, robots appear at the end building the pallets delivered to the 3rd party couriers for distribution.  Capable of handling 1,100 cases at any one time, one final puff of lasering smoke brands the cardboard boxes with their wine club identity (the facility handles both Laithwaites and Sunday Times Wine Club customers), and they are efficiently shrink-wrapped ready for delivery.

Shrinkwrapped Cases

Even though everything is centrally pulled together by a simple barcode, it was a truly wonderful experience to see wines picked from one side of the warehouse being married with the right remittance slip and address label on the other side.  I will never look at buying online wine in the same way again.

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Book Review: Vertical – Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail – Rex Pickett

There can’t be many people interested in wine that haven’t seen or aren’t familiar with the 2004 film ‘Sideways’.  Starring Paul Giamatti (Miles) and Thomas Haden Church (Jack) as old college friends who go through US wine country ahead of Jack’s impending marriage, the film (and book that it was based on) was a love-note to the Pinot Noir grape and managed to change real-life perceptions of the variety whilst forcing negative light on Merlot.

What’s perhaps less known is original author Rex Pickett penned a sequel to Sideways; Vertical, which was originally self-published way back in 2010.  Following some ‘pruning and adjustments’ to the content and with a bit more funding behind it, the book is now about to be re-launched to a wider audience.

Vertical

In a strange blending of art imitating life imitating art, the previously downtrodden character of Miles (a depiction of Pickett) is now the successful author of a book called Shameless.  This novel, which is clearly the same as the real-life Sideways, was then made in to a successful film (in both the book and real life).  Miles is now scouting for ideas for his new book (which has technically already been written as the book Vertical).

Vertical follows Miles as he heads off to a speaking engagement at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon and, roping along Jack for support, they are also joined by Miles’ ailing mother Phyllis and her carer Joy.

From the detail and attention that has gone in to such things as the passing scenery, the driving routes they take, and even which way the wind is blowing, it feels that Pickett is writing first-hand about his own trip to Oregon off the back of the success of the real Sideways. Rather than read it as a first-hand Pickett narrative, given how much Giamatti and Haden Church absorbed and became the characters of Miles and Jack in the Sideways film, I chose to read the book with their voices in my head, rather than treat them as simply the Martin and Jake characters who star in the Shameless film.

I read the first half of the book, almost in one go, whilst the sun was streaming in through a window.  Such was the beautifully composed narrative I was immediately transported to the blue skies of wine country, ready to jettison my life and head off on such a wine adventure myself.  Even at 10am in the morning I was thirsty reading it.

I’m always wary of any book that carries a back-page review that says ‘laugh-out-loud funny’, but there were several moments throughout their road trip I did indeed laugh out loud.  Clearly imagining the chilled-out Haden Church delivery of Jack, one whole story arc is a joy to read.  I won’t spoil the details, but suffice to say I’m now well aware of what priapism is!

I’d also be willing to get the Kickstarter fund going to make the movie, just to see the moment that the brake comes off of Phyllis’ wheelchair on a vineyard terrace and she goes tumbling down through the steeply sloped vines whilst Miles, Jack and Joy chase after her.  Or where Miles gets dropped in to a pool of his despised Merlot!

The comedic situations in the book mean that you’ll enjoy it even with no prior wine knowledge, but there’s plenty of references here for those in the know, even if a few do seem a little superfluously thrown in (e.g. “I didn’t know very much….relying heavily on Jancis Robinson’s brilliant encyclopedia on the subject, The Oxford Companion to Wine”).

There’s certainly enough detail for you to make your own wine pilgrimage to match that of the book which, after reading it, is exactly what you’ll be wanting to do.

A great read, and well recommended.

With thanks to Loose Gravel Press for providing the review copy of this book.

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Chilean Cabernet 2015 vs. Chilean Cabernet 2015

I very nearly did it.

I very nearly day-dreamed my way through a wine purchase at a supermarket by simply half-looking at the label and assuming that I knew what I was picking up.

Nestled right next door to the Chilean stalwart Casillero del Diablo was Camino del Angel, a new offering from Sainsbury’s whose label bears more than a little passing resemblance to the former.

camino

Filtering out the generics of a plain white label with a black band below and a circular motif, the main font for the brand name is blatantly emulated and the sub-conscious mind sees the capitalised C and lower case d.

Of course it’s not the first time that a particular wine from a particular country has slipped in to a ‘house’ style across brands and retailers.  A clear example is the number of line drawings of mountain ranges that can be found on Argentinian Malbec.

malbec-mountains

Both Camino and Casillero are from the Central Valley in Chile, both are from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape and the 2015 harvest.  Both are 13.5% in alcohol and both are similarly labelled so, will they be similar in taste?

I awoke from my daydream, knowingly purchased them both, and decided to put them through the taste test.

Camino del Angel Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 , Valle Central, Chile, 13.5%, £7

The nose of this wine was clean and full of ripe fruits.  I could detect intense blackcurrants, plums and damson blue fruit, mixed in with a whiff of cake and pepper spice and touches of vanilla florality.  The overall impression of this wine, even before tasting it, was rich with the tertiary characters of both liquorice and meat.

On the palate the overall sensation continued with a somewhat beefy rich texture.  Even though there was a fairly high acid to match this out, the combination of the stewed dark fruit and almost chewy grainy tannins meant this was a tough taste.  Alongside the sour fruit, touches of ash and bitterness added further to this austerity, and the stalky raw finish is what you have left in your mouth on the end palate.

On day 1 I didn’t get the feeling of a particular blend or style and it did feel mass produced.  In the spirit of fairness, on day 2, the blend did feel a little more structured, but nonetheless fairly forgettable.

casillero

Casillero del Diabo Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 , Valle Central, Chile, 13.5%, £6.50 (on offer, usually £7.50)

On the nose this wine was no less full of activity and flavour, but this time was of a silky/velvet quality.  We still have the blackcurrant fruit, but this time we also see the addition of some red cherry.  This slightly deeper complexity is matched by a subtle vanilla florality, and the whole is both bright and uplifting.

On the palate there is a good medium mouth weight, light grippy tannins with a medium matching acidity.  Black cherry is the predominant fruit alongside blackcurrant and pepper spices.  Overall the mouth sensation is dark and brooding, more given over to bitter chocolate and mocha.

These tertiary characters are testament to the blending, with the damson and blue fruits taking a backseat in this wine.  There’s still a touch of raw quality (green and stalky characters), but the overall sensation feels more complete.

Summary: One interesting aside from the tasting was looking at the bottles once they were empty.  As you can see from the picture below the Camino bottle is significantly lighter in colour.

empty-chile-bottles

Whilst there are environmental benefits from this (with a weight of 421 grams as opposed to 520 for the Casillero) including travel expenses and glass wastage, it is well known that the darker the glass, the less light penetration there is.  With light being one of the enemies of wine storage, this ability to repel will contribute to a wines ageing potential.

In summary, consumers should keep their eyes open and be aware of what they purchase.  Whilst the labels on these bottles may be similar, it is interesting to debate whether the extra 50p for the Casillero has gone on the increased cost of the glass used.

If it has, would you happily trade up on taste at a small cost per bottle to the environment?

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The Wine Show – Series One Round-up & Review

Last weekend saw the broadcast of the final episode of The Wine Show, the first UK mainstream channel series devoted to wine since Oz and James left our screens in 2007.  The series was independently produced by Infinity Creative media and tendered out to the networks as a finished product.  Without the guarantee that the show would be picked up it’s all credit to those involved for having the foresight and production values to be able to get wine back on the small screen without a direct commission.

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Hosted by actors and self-confessed wine novices Matthew Rhys and Matthew Goode, their journey to becoming better acquainted with the world of wine is supported by experts Joe Fattorini and Amelia Singer.  Together they make a great team who are always engaging on screen, with particular praise going to Matthew Rhys who is naturally funny and always ready with a witticism.

Joe: “Why did you choose this wine?”

Rhys: “Mine was the cheapest”

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Joe: “I have a dilemma”

Rhys (who is Welsh): “I know Dai Lemma, lovely boy!”

They’re clearly all having a great time and this selection of bloopers shows you just how much.  It’s also a pleasure to see that Joe, true to his word in the show, is readily available via Twitter and happy to chat to you about wine.  He truly seems like a chap you could go for a drink with.

Each episode follows a standard format, beginning with a filmed section from somewhere in the wine world, followed by a look at wine gadgets, food and wine matching, choosing a bottle of wine to create the perfect Italian case, and then one final filmed piece.

As a lover of wine facts and wine education, something I initially struggled with was the radical change of presentation style that’s been used.  Gone are the days of an introduction as to how wine is made, what styles are available, and why it is made in the countries that it is made in.  With this show you are straight in to a wine adventure, picking grapes at 4am in a vineyard in South Africa.

When I try to help others to understand the complex world of wine I always start with a few core fundamentals to give them something to balance upon; key grape varieties being one obvious example.  This didn’t seem like a first concern here and I was amused to note that the first mention of a grape variety comes a full 27 minutes in to the programme (and even this was by the guest chef rather than the hosts).  Consequently I struggled to identify whether they were trying to make wine look sexy for novices or to teach people already interested in wine, facts that they wouldn’t find in a textbook (which is done amply in the stunning location shoots).

Even though Joe is on hand to clarify the finer points, both Matt’s tasting notes frequently start and stop with “ooh, that’s good” or “I like that”.  Bottle labels aren’t poured over to wean out details such as alcohol levels, and scarcely any mention is given to bottle price, retailers or availability.  To their credit, all of the information is available on their website and signposted as such in the show, so is completely available should you wish to delve deeper.  Keeping it simple on screen allows each piece to remain relevant to all without becoming bogged down in the detail.

Once the series hit its stride my concerns were alleviated (episodes 3 and 7 are particularly brilliant in storytelling wine history and wine future) and, as each episode is standalone and could technically be slotted in anywhere in the series, I do wonder if they just started with the wrong episode?

Perhaps it was chosen as it was the only one to feature wine stalwart Bordeaux?  Opening proceedings with the sweet wines of Constantia before going on to talk about a £300 cork removal device seemed just a little bit too niche for the average viewer in my opinion.

Created initially for my own reference, I thought I would share my personal view of the series content and where I think each item sits in terms of accessibility (green indicates accessible to all, amber less so).  It’s worth clarifying that all of the content is interesting, but where gadgets/bottle prices have slipped in to the £100’s of pounds, or chef created food dishes move on from what the average viewer is likely to re-create (lobster with cabbage and strawberry cake, for example), I’ve moved the accessibility up to amber.

For completeness, I have colour coded the intro’s/outro’s in dark blue and advert breaks in grey.

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As you can see from the above, the series covers 11 countries: Portugal, Chile, France, South Africa, Australia/Tasmania, Italy, USA, Moldova, China, Santorini, and Israel.  Making full use of the allotted travel budget (and who could blame them) there were multiple films from some of the further flung places, whilst other regions were left out of the mix.

I can only hope that a second series is quickly commissioned and we get to explore the absent big hitters such as Spain, Germany and, dare I say, England!

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One night only. No second chances

Leafing through the latest issue of Wine Spectator magazine I happened to notice that their 2015 Wine of the Year was Peter Michael ‘Au Paradis’ 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s not a wine that I’ve ever tasted, but it does stir up a lot of memories of what is probably one of my finest wine experiences.

Even now, with winemaking in the southern part of the UK developing all of the time, I’ve often lamented that I don’t live anywhere in the thick of it.  I think how wonderful it would be living in perhaps Italy or Spain and having near access to multiple world famous destinations to tour.  It feels like I would never have a weekend free!

Some years back I was reading an article on a UK wine hotel and had probably already started assuming that it wouldn’t be anywhere near me, when I realised that it was.  It was literally ten minutes away by car and, on a warm day, possibly walkable.

I’m referring to The Vineyard at Stockcross, which has been owned by Sir Peter Michael since 1996.  With over 3000 bins available it was, at the time, a multi Michelin starred establishment (Head Chef John Campbell has since departed) and was somewhere I had no excuse not to visit.  I eagerly booked a room and downloaded the extensive wine list in readiness of tasting some amazing and rare wines.  At the time (and to be fair, to this day) my main wine passion is Champagne (which readers of my blog will know rests heavily on Dom Pérignon), and so that was the focus of the night.

I pre-selected the 1966 Dom Pérignon to be ready and chilling in an ice bucket on arrival in the room, and the 1970 Dom Pérignon to be served with dinner.  These Champagnes certainly still rank amongst the highest value wines I’ve ever drunk, but having checked their current retail prices, what I paid then seems like a bargain!  The whole trip however was a calculated indulgence (I could have taken a cab home, but decided that staying there would top everything off), and these two mature vintages were chosen specifically as they were the current releases when both I and my wife were born.

Vineyard1

Upon arrival at the hotel when giving over my personal details, I’m convinced that there was a confused glance from the receptionist.  Upon checking my details and spotting my home address was only around the corner, I think she was trying to work out why I was staying there at all.  The answer lay in my room, and what greeted me was the glorious sight of the chilled 1966 Dom on the table.  Rather than unpacking, I opened the bottle.  It is still the oldest Champagne I’ve ever tasted, and I can recall its rich herbaceous woodland tones, with baked apple and dark honey very clear on the palate.

I contacted their sommelier with a view to choosing a pre-dinner aperitif, and was suitably impressed when he invited me to look through their locked wine vault which, years later and knowing much more about the subject, I really want to do again.  I was still in the mood for celebratory bubbles so probably didn’t fully absorb their collection of impressive Bordeaux and Burgundy, or perhaps even their focus on Californian Cabernets, showcasing the owners US interests.  I switched back to a fresh vibrant Champagne and selected the 1996 Krug, which was a dream.

And so to dinner which, for a 2-star Michelin restaurant, definitely played second fiddle to the wine.  Not that the food was bad – far from it – but this was when Michelin food was characterised by adding foam to the top of every dish, and it became a little bit much.  Perhaps as a response to the money that I was spending (the exact prices I paid for each of the bottles is etched in to my memory) we were given the top table which was set away from the main dining area and overlooked the other guests.  The 1970 Dom arrived and, although having only slightly less age than the 1966, was showing a much younger profile and went well the fish dishes I’d chosen.  As a closing gesture, my sommelier was happy to gift me two Dom Pérignon branded flutes (boxed ones too, not the ones we had been using!) as a reminder of this one-off evening.  Alas the glasses are long since gone, but the memories remain.

Vineyard2

There was one further bottle of red picked from the wine list to round off dinner, but following the excesses of the Champagne, it went mostly undrunk and I have no recollection of what it was.  I still live just around the corner from The Vineyard and I do often think about going back, however I know that it can never live up to that amazing experience.

I’d love to live that night again, but it truly was a one-off.  No second chances.

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One for the road……

As we come to the end of the festive season and peoples thoughts turn to a ‘dry’ January to counter-balance the over indulgences, it seems an apt time that the Government re-states its guidelines for what it views as responsible alcohol intake.  The full report will be published later this month, but the heavy speculation suggests that the suggested maximum acceptable levels will be reduced (of course) from previous guides, and there will be a clear recommendation to have at least 2 alcohol free days per week.  It has also been suggested that the report will state that there is in fact no safe amount of alcohol that can be drunk at all – especially for those people in middle-age.  Even the smallest intake per day/week could lead to several illnesses, including many cancers.

My article today isn’t to discuss these revised guidelines as I believe that responsible levels vs. potential risk cannot be done on anything other than a case by case basis.  Indeed there are many things that can cut short a healthy young life, whilst the heaviest of imbibers can live to the ripest of old age.  Indeed the chief medical officer doesn’t mention at all the fun that responsible (as defined by the individual) drinking can have in perhaps prolonging life, and certainly enjoying it along the way.

The link between alcohol and death does, however, lead me nicely to what I found to be one of the more obscure, but extremely interesting, wine-related stories from over the festive period, which I thought I would share with you.

Westerleigh Crematorium in the south-west of England has become the first funeral home to be granted an alcohol licence, enabling them to conduct both a funeral service and the post-service wake.  The idea was brought about due to the slightly remote location of the chapel which meant that guests would need to make onward arrangements with pubs or hotels in the wider area, and then arrange the necessary travel from one venue to another.

Westerleigh is currently in the middle of a full redevelopment which will include a full bar and a new hospitality suite capable of facilitating up to 150 guests.  There will also be the necessary segregation of areas for funeral services and celebrations of life, to ensure that service only funerals can continue to be served.

The provision of a licence has been largely welcomed by the local community, and Richard Evans, managing director at the crematorium was quoted as saying: “For many families a wake or celebration after the service is a necessary event and it is not always convenient for them to set off again to meet in a hotel or pub. The provision of a new hospitality suite will therefore cater for funeral parties who are looking for a simple, dignified event after the funeral”

This ‘one-stop-shop’ does actually seem to be a sensible idea (one of those ‘why don’t we do that already?’ moments), and something that I think will spread to other crematoriums in the not-so distant future.  Mindful of the view that it is perhaps a further commercialisation of death, and in respect of the sadness of the overall occasion, it does take a certain step out and simplify the process, which can be very welcome at a tough time.  As long as the alcohol drunk on the occasion does not increase, either due to the ease of availability, pricing (currently to be advised) or having the extra ‘one for the road’ as the focus on driving to a venue is removed, then it is a logical step and a bigger story that the mild ripples that it caused in the run up to Christmas.

It’s interesting to note that the application went unchallenged by the local authorities and was even endorsed by the local clergy.  It seems it’s only the new Government guidelines that won’t allow us a guilt-free drink to toast our recently departed loved ones.

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