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The write stuff

Published:  18 January, 2007

Recently I asked Margaret Rand, one of the very few wine writers who can actually write, why she had resigned from the Circle of Wine Writers, and this elegant, patrician woman said what was the point of it?

I rejoined that surely it was worth maintaining membership to attend the private tastings organised by messrs Budd and Atkin, and she, sensibly, replied that she had enough tastings on her plate already and didn't want further helpings. There is some truth in this. As I write, a Circle email has arrived offering members a chance to attend vertical tastings, before Christmas, of several vintages of Chteaux Palmer and Brane-Cantenac (for a tenner each tasting). The money would be be far more worthily spent, however, on a seasonal donation to Crisis at Christmas (or sending Mrs Vandyke-Price a box of crackers). I went to a pre-auction tasting of several vintages of Brane-Cantenac recently and not a single bottle could hold a candle to one of those routine 7.99 Chilean Cabernets.

I myself wonder if the Circle's 35 a year annual sub wouldn't be better spent by sending it to Oxfam, but if I do resign I wouldn't possess a Circle press card. The only time I have ever flourished this, on a visit to a rare Greek ruin in Sicily, I was ushered inside by a uniformed gorilla as if I were mayor of Palermo.

A couple of members have remarked to me that allowing so-called wine educators in as members is highly questionable, not to mention publishers of wine books and other individuals with dubious claims to be writers on wine, but I consider that so few wine writers can actually write that cavilling over members who never put pen to paper in the vinous cause is futile (and rather snotty). Besides, how many other specialist groupings can claim 100% purity of membership? I bet the Professional Footballers Association has more than one bod who's never scored a goal, or made a decent tackle, in his life and yet turns up at the annual Christmas bash, cracks a few jokes and gets slapped on the back as a good ole boy.

Wine writers who can actually write are rare. Ms Rand is certainly one. Another is Neil Beckett. Did you twig the insidious subtlety in his piece on the Vouvray estate Domaine Huet is this very magazine on 1 September? This was not just a finely sustained polemic on behalf of a terrific wine producer, but a brilliant apologia for the whole category that writers such as he are pleased to define as fine wine' (like that ghastly, deadly dull Brane-Dead-Cantenac). Fine wine is

a categorisation I dispute, but that is not the point I wish to touch on here and now.

What thrilled me was the last paragraph of Mr Beckett's piece. It was a plea for all those who trade in or write about fine wines to communicate their qualities in terms other than points and price'. Since I never write about any wine without handing it points and taking into consideration its price, this wholly disqualifies me from being a fine wine writer inside Mr Beckett's pale of settlement (at least). I take his point without response.

Mr Beckett finished his paragraph, and his article, with words paraphrased from the finish of sonnet 116 (or number 110 in some editions): If this be error and upon me prov'd, I never writ, nor no man ever drank fine wine for under 500 a bottle.'

Shakespeare, of course, did not write the last eight words. He wrote no man ever lov'd'. How superb it is for a trade wine writer to so cleverly tell us exactly how he feels about wine. Let me remind you of the famous opening of the sonnet in question: Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove.' In other words, if you love fine wine' you accept it as such, whatever the vagaries of a bad vintage, whatever the problems of bottle variation in older wines caused by the inane use of corks; if you love wine, especially wine from a craft producer like Noel Pinguet at Gaston Huet, you love it, acccept it, unreservedly, warts and all, however expensive, whatever its lack of excitement when a duff bottle is opened.

Here we have arrived at the heart of what it is to worship soi-disant fine wine. It is to believe, even in the face of persistent mediocrity and high prices. It is to be a devotee, an unfliching believer. I, alas, am not made of this unbending stuff. I have no precious time at all to spend on't and certainly not the shekels.