*Insert Wine / Whine Pun Here*
Ah, wine! Vin, wein, wino, vino, vinho, ardoa (wtf, Basques?). I don’t mean to over-fluff my CV, but I can put my money where my mouth is when it comes to turnt grapes. I’ve picked them, triaged them, pressed them, used a medieval implement to punch through a mass of their floating skins. I’ve toured vineyards in four continents and passed an eye over lists in Kota Kinabalu, Zagreb, and Tegucigalpa. I’ve bought wine, sold wine, drunk wine and put wine down for the future. I’ve talked the talk and walked the ever-so-slightly-unsteady walk.
But I’ve also got plenty of time for the other side of the ledger, and can roll my eyes at a bore with the best of them. The wilfully confusing labelling conventions (in Europe, at least), the absurd idiolect, the sheer overwhelming variety, Olly Smith's rictus gurn as he chins his way through shit viticultural puns, the sense you get from time to time that it’s all a massive con – all of these things combine – when argued with a minimum of effort – to recast the story of wine as the story of exclusion, of privilege, of Bullingdon Club sniggers only faintly concealed as you make a bid to climb the Everest of pronouncing “Pouilly-Fumé” and die a few hundred feet out of Base Camp.
Surely there is some merit in thinking more deliberately about wine, working to cut out the bullshit, on every level: diversifying beyond the old bastions of power, decluttering and demystifying. I’m nearly thirty; I’ve spent at least the last decade actively trying to learn about wine, and a label from Burgundy could be written in Farsi for all I understand. Clearly, we can make this stuff easier.
But all this presupposes we want wine in our lives. I’d like to ask a more fundamental question: why? Billions of people East of Greece have survived without wine for centuries, but in the West food and wine is axiomatic, old enough to have print media (print media!) named after it, necessary enough to take up acres of precious restaurant inventory square footage and outnumber other varieties of beverage ten to one. Why? What do we lose when we erase wine from the equation? What do we lose when we privilege it to the exclusion of everything else?
Wine apologists don’t want to admit they’re trapped in fealty to the French vision of sophisticated restaurant dining successfully sold to us for decades, in which fine wine is positioned as inextricable from fine food: pain, vin, fin. Even as the Gallic accent has retreated from culinary primacy, the harmful knock-on effect of this way of thinking continues to blight our experience of eating out: restaurants, feeding off our blind adherence to various whimsical French mantras (Brillat-Savarin: “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine”), have spent decades shoring up perilous margins with substandard grog, extracting extortionate multiples on so-so product.
Already, my generation is starting to vote with its feet. Look at the explosion of craft beer, its lower price point and relative lack of technical jargon driving it deep into the affections of a cohort suspicious of one-percenter airs and graces. Look at the explosion of boutique gin, which offers all the arcana of winemaking but (very East London abandoned railway arch chic, this) gussied up in a cool steampunk Victoriana aesthetic: where once we might have feigned sophistication in discussing the merits of New vs Old World pinot noir, now we talk rubbish about our favourite aromatics and how you can really taste the angelica root in this one. With the exception of the eternal popularity of prosecco (both a function of our benighted economic situation and some seriously impressive marketing from our friends at Aperol), wine has been left for dead. It’s so uncool, your dad still drinks it.
Is there any remedy? I hope so, not for blustery old bufferish reasons about heritage and tradition and history but because when it’s done right – when it’s in the hands of someone who appreciates how profoundly strange and genuinely wonderful it is to have a living expression of a winemaker’s talent trapped in a bottle – wine is unlike anything else. Nothing else I drink elicits such a range of emotion from me – and even if disappointment is the most common of those emotions, the occasional flickers of transcendence make the process of experimentation and discovery worthwhile.
You can find a clue to what Food + Wine 2.0 might look like in strange, abject corners far from the botoxed bustle of the Champs Elysees or King’s Road. In Paris’ caves, you’re not beaten about the head with a wine list the size of the King James, but taken in hand and offered something you won’t have tried before. In two tiny spots in the Onzième – at 16 Rue Paul Bert and at Septime’s sister place, just over the road from restaurant proper – I ate interesting, simple food (oeufs mayonnaise with black truffle, butternut velouté with smoked haddock, a single glistening Cantabrian anchovy) and drank grown-up, interesting wine (something orange, a weird pet nat, an immensely punchy Fitou). It’s not a full dinner, it’s not really un apéro – but it is terribly civilised, all the more so for feeling vaguely illicit.
The fight for acceptance might be harder here, where any new place has had distance itself from the miasma of traumatic associations surrounding the term “wine bar” (variously: room temperature Chablis, scabrous cheese “platters”, City boys throwing back (and up) Rioja on Fridays). But some hardy souls have made a go of it – and indeed Sager + Wilde has become a favourite jumping-off point into the grungy pleasures of Hackney and Haggerston. The food doesn’t offer the fireworks of their underappreciated Paradise Row place – good cheese, good charcuterie, some interesting and tightly focused small plates is more the vibe here – but the booze is dependably fun: on my most recent trip I had a Tokaji harvested maybe even months earlier than is usual: the result was extraordinary, with the typical honeyed nose giving way to something dry and savoury on the palate. Give me that (at like seven quid) over a £13 cocktail at Nightjar any day.
An even more confident statement (despite its relative youth) is Noble Rot. It’s not like they came out of nowhere – the publication of the same name, itself a strident voice calling to make wine great again, is now in its eleventh issue. And it’s not like they don’t have some pedigree in the kitchen – Stephen Harris from The Sportsman (AKA the restaurant I want to go more than anywhere else in the UK) is I/C victuals. But I was still quietly awed by the sheer competence with which everything had cohered: the lovely rickety old rooms that reminded me of the picturesque (and uniformly terrible) vaults-based restaurants and bars in Cambridge; the cooking (described on the website as Franglais but more accurately like Fergus Henderson on a bender in Lyon: think shamelessly carnal wood pigeon or the Hall of Fame turbot braised in oxidised 1998 Bâtard-Montrachet); the list of wines by the glass that does such a wonderful job of highlighting some real bargains (in relative terms) and enticing you into the rarefied air of a price bracket you had never previously considered – just this once, because drinking something considerably older and considerably more delicious than you is special occasion in its own right.
Of course, none of this comes cheap: mass-produced Big Wine this is not; economies of scale are thin on the ground. But maybe this is no bad thing. Part of the problem with our relationship with wine in 2016 is that we’re used to groaning supermarket shelves, to quantity over quality, to slamming back two glasses of Campo Viejo in the pub or a bottle of house red with an American Hot. It is my quiet hope that wine in restaurants starts being treated like meat: something we consume less copiously, appreciate more mindfully, and as a consequence enjoy more deeply (and definitely more healthily). Given the incentives that drive the industry’s P&L – and, hey, the general grinding existential horror of 2016! – I will not be waiting for this sea change with bated breath. But it’s still refreshing to see a handful of places that seem to share the same idea. Take a look for yourself. Poke your head round the door at Sager + Wilde; see what’s new this week; try a couple of different glasses rather than knocking back three quarters of a litre of 14.5% rocket fuel. In the grand scheme of things, it probably won’t help at all. But I can guarantee you’ll feel better in the morning.