The Autobiography of Les Caves de Pyrene. Chapter Six: Of the Psychology of Tasting, Wine Fairs and Feelings – Part One.

Read Chapter One Parts OneTwo and Three
Chapter Two Parts OneTwo and Three
Chapter Three Part One and Two and Three
Chapter Four Part One and Two
Chapter Five Part One and Two

(Photo credit: David Crossley, Wide World of Wine)

Homer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just remember if your mother asks, I took you to a wine tasting.
Lisa: But that’s a terrible thing for a father to do!
Homer: That’s why she’ll believe it.

Generic tastings – RIP?

I’ve attended enough big generic wine tastings over the years. I will spare their respective blushes and mention no names, suffice to say they tend to be somewhat lugubrious events. Bunting and balloons aside. Agents and pourers twiddling their thumbs and forming doughnuts around their tables to create the illusion of busyness. The occasional journalist or wine educator fluttering by, alighting like a butterfly on a single wine, sip, tick and vanish with (or often without) a smile. But even they are comparative rarae avises at the generic shindigs, which seem to becoming bigger in scale, yet ever smaller in stature.

It was a day much like any other summer’s day in London, and Ralph Melish, a sales rep at a small unimportant wine company, was standing behind the table at the generic wine trade tasting as usual when… (da dum!) Nothing happened! (dum dum da dum) Scarcely able to believe his eyes, Ralph Melish looked down. But one glance confirmed his suspicions. Behind a pillar, at the side of the side of the room, there was no sommelier. No suit belonging to a man – or woman in his – or her – late twenties. No potential customer. Nothing. Not a sausage. For Ralph Melish, this was not to be the start of any trail of events which would not, in no time at all, involve him in neither tangled leads, nor any selling follow up, which would, had he been not uninvolved, surely have led him to no other place… than the central criminal court of the Old Bailey.

The wine calendar is a fast-fermenting crush of tastings. In peak season there are professionals who endeavour to pack in three or four in a day, as if knowledge might arrive more quickly by running towards it at full pelt with an open mouth. Experienced tasters boast of sampling a thousand wines a week as if implying that volume alone fine-tunes the palate. In the business it is called finding the benchmark, but to me it is more a case of eating the bench. Just as in sport, one can over-train or lift weights in such a way that no real benefit accrues, so tasters can suffer from flagrant palate-fatigue. One can only imagine the deleterious effect of allowing a surfeit of substandard wines to cross one’s lips!

Can these large-scale tastings be re-invented to become more relevant, or more exciting to the increasingly disengaged trade?

So, is this pain with a purpose? The generic or regional tastings, for example, are a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly with cheap brands jostling with boutique wines. Consumers tend to select the wines they want to taste beforehand, which are usually the wines they already know. No serendipitous discoveries here! Some tastings focus on single grape varieties in a comparative “central table” line up so that a prospective taster may enjoy a snapshot of the whole tasting. One should probably question the very rationale of these tastings – who attends them, and why?

We assume our sacred (or is it penitential) duty is to congregate daily before the altar of wine-for-wine’s-sake, to swirl, sip, spit and evaluate (or devaluate). Ultimately, our impressions of tastings are condensed to highlights and lowlights. If we had to taste every wine on show we would see how much mediocrity flourishes. Is the purpose then to shake and sluice the gold pan to sort the shiny nuggets from the dross, or is it to assess the overall quality of the tasting? The merchant or wine buyer need excellent good-value wines for their lists, so no matter how bad the overall standard of the tasting, just as long as a few things stand out, their needs will be requited and the tasting deemed useful. Journalists, however, might be seeking to take the pulse of the whole tasting, or they might simply be looking for recommendations for their readers. The purpose of tastings is as much the purpose that the taster brings with him or her.

In Vinexpo did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Garonne, the sacred river, ran
Through salons measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of endless pavilions
Denoting where brands had spent their millions
And here were deals to be negotiated
Where stands were surrounded by many a seat
And here monumental ordinariness was feted,
Dispensed with many a gratis treat.
But oh! that deep commercial imperative that dwells
In expos and fairs across the land
Creates a momentum that swells and swells

And leads to wine becoming bland
A commodity par excellence on demand.

Can these large-scale tastings be re-invented to become more relevant, or more exciting to the increasingly disengaged trade? Well, here’s a modest proposal. For starters, I think the big generics should be held every two years and infused with more razzamatazz. Rather than being simply about dead-eyed suits pouring wines for suits, let’s bring on the music (not the dancing girls, however) and have food to stimulate the appetite and imagination of those palate-numbed tasters. Let there be more of an educational aspect to these events, but not with the usual suspects preaching the advertorial line. The trade is not engaged when it is being flannelled. Let the tastings also invite those who are not part of the mainstream associations: the mavericks, the controversialists, the natural winemakers, those pushing the boundaries in whatever field they are in. Let each one offer an original gem to lure the novelty-seekers: a vertical of wines, perhaps, some older vintages of certain wines or experimental cuvées, for example. Find a way also to bring alive the sense of the vineyard and allow regional and family culture to enliven these moribund venues. In short, the generic tasting should be the equivalent of Pop-Up Chile or Pop-Up New Zealand, or whichever country or region is being highlighted, an exciting one-day forum for food, conversation and drink. The trade is jaded and needs to be re-engaged intellectually, aesthetically and emotionally, to feel that by attending the tasting that they will discover something new, and that growers and winemakers are coming to communicate and listen as well as to flog their wares.

One thing to preach the virtues of involving wine tastings, it’s another to put them into practice.

I have seen the future of wine tastings…and it works.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Virtual 3-D wine fair

Previously, we had only encountered wine longitudinally and laterally, but this unique fair will allow customers to explore wine physically – from a distance – actually, not physically at all. A fourth and fifth dimension to the conference may soon be introduced if money and a venue in an alternate reality can be found.

Making the use of the latest in interactive communications technology – two coke cans and a ball of string, visitors will enter the site through a portal into a virtual reality of pretend customers, ethereal sommeliers and faux wines, whilst sinking back into the comfort of a hard chair in their own offices.

If I tweeted any more, I would have turned into a canary, twittered one enthusiast.

One section in the fair is given over to virtual natural wines. These zero intervention wines have become infinitely possible because they don’t actually exist in the temporal dimension. “This means we can get away with minimum additives”, said an aerial natural wine spokesman. Biodynamics growers are also represented – a digital image of a cow’s horn filled with manure is sent to a computer in which the virtual vineyard is located. Should a virus take hold the virtual vigneron is recommended to flush his software out with a program made out of the ashes of boiled rats’ pelvises.

One wine company, Brew Senility, however, claimed that the wines would be virtually faulty because, without the steadying hand of the flying winemaker, these wines could never truly reflect the terroir of the laboratory and the stainless-steel tank, though the MD of the company did approve of the system whereby added acidity could be “dialled up” over the broadband connection.

The virtual winemakers were said to be but a shadow of their former selves, although for an extra £20,000 you could purchase a package that would allow you to access their wines in high definition. For a further £5,000 you can also take up the aromavision module which recreates the feel of the fair: the smell of volatile alcohol, money and desperation to clinch deals.

Organisers of the event were delighted about the numbers. A spokesperson commented: “We expect 100% non-attendance this year which will be 0% down on last year’s event.”

The government is said to be watching the progress of the virtual wine fair with hawk-like interest.

“Virtual wines have less alcohol – in fact they have no alcohol”, commented a junior minister in the Department of Health perceptively.

Perfecting the format: The evolution of the Real Wine Fair

We have been rehearsing artisan growers’ fairs with a natural wine accent since 2007. Before that the extent of our ambition was to roll a few wine barrels into a small room onto which we plonked the bottles, so that customers could more-or-less help themselves.

With some wine tastings you look back and think to yourself, “Did that really happen?”.

One of our earlier growers’ events was a Southwest vigneron tasting and wine dinner. Was there a huge amount to eat and drink and was there lots of uproarious folk singing afterwards? I think that comes into the “do bears wear funny-shaped hats?” class of rhetorical question. Mais, évidemment!

There used to be a programme on C-Beebies which featured a couple of chirpy characters called Big Cook, Little Cook. They would concoct culinary delights like cauliflower clouds, a baguette bridge, lion pie and wake up juice (for Sleeping Beauty). Eric went to see a different Big Cook in his Michelin-starred restaurant in Chelsea to persuade him to do some cheffing for the above Gascon dinner. He descended into the kitchen and onto the set of a horror movie. There were chefs cowering in the corner and a knife-wielding maniac by the stove spewing streams of invective at everybody and nobody. There had been blood spilled, and there would be more. Eric dimly made out the words “slice my fingers” in the hubbub.

Eric managed to avoid being diced into human mirepoix.

Anyway, Big Cook and Little Cook (who had his own Michelin star too) teamed up to produce a six-course Gascon feast after our growers’ tasting at Vinopolis. Everything seemed relatively serene as the two chefs came into the room at the end of the dinner to accept the plaudits.

There were chefs cowering in the corner and a knife-wielding maniac by the stove spewing streams of invective at everybody and nobody.

After which we had a word with Little Cook, who was white-faced and still trembling.

“I’m never working with that madman again!”

One of the venues for one of our early-days larger scale trade tasting was the downstairs room at Sketch in Conduit Street in Mayfair. I can’t remember for the life of me a single wine we poured, but I remember that it was our psychedelic tasting, our Sergeant Pepper period, if you like. In the main restaurant area, the leather-padded walls were transformed by hidden spotlights from pale lilac to ochre to pinky-purple-mauve according to the mood generated by the rhythmic pumping of dreamy-droney ambient music. Throughout this time projectors were also transmitting a giant video image of the face of a man on three walls whose expression slowly changes from an enigmatic smile to a contemplative moue. Or the other way around.

In those days you didn’t go to Sketch to taste rustic wines or even trip out on the walls.

You went for the immersive loo experience in the free-standing sculpted alien eggs/pods. Wombs without views. The sort of loos where you have to tell your companions: I’m going now and I may be some time. The only loos where the attendant shakes your hand before showing you in and then you’re locked into your personal pod. I notice that he didn’t shake my hand on the way out. And you emerge to discover that you are now a clever facsimile of a real person and you have taken over their identity à la Bodysnatchers. This might account for the fact that anyone who went to the loo at Sketch that day – many were called and all were chosen – couldn’t remember what they tasted. Nor can I. Which proves also beyond all reasonable doubt that I have been replaced by a pod person.

I can’t remember for the life of me a single wine we poured, but I remember that it was our psychedelic tasting, our Sergeant Pepper period, if you like.

The reverse of the polychromatic performance-art-laden Sketch event was a stripped back Italian wine tasting and dinner that we held at St John in Smithfield. The loos here were humble to the point of barely being plumbed in. Our rough-and-ready tasting was overshadowed by the feast afterwards, wherein four whole pigs, roasted over the course of the day, were the centrepiece of the occasion. I distinctively recall when the heads were ceremoniously placed on the table, their unwinking eyes seem to wink at us, and that a man sitting opposite me visibly blanched and ran out of the room. Never to reappear. One forgets that with nose-to-tail-eating the eyes also have it.

There we have it. Two Les Caves tastings upstaged by an egg-shaped loo and a pig’s head. Natch.

Our first semi-large-scale growers’ event took place at the Delfina Studio Café in Bermondsey. French and Italian producers stood like sentries behind their allotted tables and stared warily across the room at each other. There was a rather poignant spontaneous moment of rapprochement like the Christmas truce of 1914, when the vignerons finally emerged from their metaphorical trenches, met in the middle of the room, and started fraternising, before venturing further across to taste one another’s wines. The following year we upped the ante at a place called Porchester Hall in Bayswater. An illustrious band of producers including Dario Princic, Giampero Bea, Frank Cornelissen, Samuel Guibert, Pierre Frick and Jacky Barthelmé were present and correct. An abiding memory of that tasting was Thierry Puzelat getting into a fight with the security at the venue. All for a not-so-surreptitious fag. Afterwards, Jancis Robinson wrote an article about us (and the tasting) in the Financial Times. By George, from her FT comments, we thought she loved it, and that we had finally cracked it and vaulted into the premier league of critical recognition. Behind her purple paywall, however, she was less than enamoured with the calibre of many of the wines, damning many of them with faint damns.

We have been rehearsing artisan growers’ fairs with a natural wine accent since 2007. Before that the extent of our ambition was to roll a few wine barrels into a small room onto which we plonked the bottles, so that customers could more-or-less help themselves.

In 2009, we found another new venue at Il Bottaccio in Grosvenor Place, a sunny room overlooking Buckhouse Palace Gardens. It was our most ambitious event to date and we managed to attract some growers that we had never had before (nor since!). The highlight, however, was a banquet prepared by a south west French chef for around two hundred people. Vincent Wallard drove a van powered by goose fat and garlic all the way back from a little restaurant in the Tarn, packed to the gizzards with the “delicacies” of the region. The word “largesse” might have been invented to describe the subsequent gastronomic sensory carnage, as with the aid of a single helper and a few chafing dishes, mountains of food were disgorged from a tiny kitchen. I witnessed grown men and women reduced to tears by the girthquake of meat and fish platters, thick slabs of foie gras, followed by hillocks of pink prawns, followed by magret de canard, followed by a trembling bog of cassoulet, followed by apple tart, followed by chocolate. Fourteen courses came and stayed; most guests had plugged themselves fully with an initial assault of foie gras. The crusty and properly oozing cassoulet, a pièce de resistance that broke the camel’s appetite, was two-thirds the way through the repast, a kind of “entre” course, a cleansing bean-and-sausage sorbet to goo up the insides forever.

Rather than being a matter for long-term digestive regret, this manner of Bacchic extravaganza became the template for the epilogue to all Les Caves grand tastings.

To 2010, and we were psychologically ready to ramp it up to yet another level. Terroirs had now been open around a year and a half, Brawn was becoming a distinct twinkle in our eye, and we had been receiving a fair amount of publicity for our projects. Time to convert the open goal, to make a mark for ourselves. We invited around forty growers, a fairly equal split of French and Italian, discovered an interesting dry-hire space called the Louise Blouin Foundation, oddly located in a building adjacent to that stretch of motorway connecting the Westway to the water tower at Shepherd’s Bush (The West Cross Route) and with unrivalled views over the Westfield Centre. As an estate agent would say. There’s glory for you.

Nature had other ideas. Somewhere in Iceland the pressure in a magma chamber had forced the magma up and through a volcano’s vents and blown a colossal amount of hot ashen debris into the atmosphere. The catchily-titled Eyjafjallajökull eruption yielded by-products other than mere molten ones. All flights in and out of the UK were cancelled on the eve of fair. As the majority of our growers were scheduled to fly in at the last minute, we were faced with a growers’ tasting – sans growers.

Rather than being a matter for long-term digestive regret, this manner of Bacchic extravaganza became the template for the epilogue to all Les Caves grand tastings.

After the initial handwringing, the collective stiff upper lip kicked in, and we decided to simulate being growers and gave even further power to our pouring elbows by recruiting a bunch of friendly sommeliers in return for a free dinner. Some of our growers did manage to find their way over via trains, planes and automobiles (except for the planes) and chef, Antony Cointre, who was presiding over the post-tasting dinner also appeared, alongside his stacks of Breton oysters. We survived the tasting, there was a jolly, and jolly chaotic, dinner, and we will all forever remember the gorgeous sanguine volcanic-dust-induced sunsets over the Westway. The life of wine did ne’er run smooth.

The Natural Wine Fair (2011)

Eric and I had been speaking often to each other about extending the scope of our medium-sized events and bringing on board other wine companies along with their natural producers. In late 2010, we’d heard that Isabelle Legeron had been pursuing a similar idea to convene a chunky representative growers’ fair, and, after an initial meeting, we decided to collaborate on the UK’s first self-styled natural wine fair. Isabelle was anointed the public face of the Natural Wine Fair (good title), Les Caves was to provide muscle and back-of-house organisation, whilst the other companies would also chip in with their respective expertise and contacts.

The Natural Wine Fair took place in Borough Market over three days. It was deliberately scheduled opposite the London Wine Fair in mid-May, as we surmised that there would be hordes of wine-savvy folks milling around town, not only from the UK, but also from throughout the rest of the world. It was my daft wheeze, definitely, to have it in le plein air. May in London – what could possibly go wrong?! I loved the idea that the wines might bloom in natural spring daylight (tra-la), that growers and visitors alike would be energised by removing wine from the traditional sterile tasting environment. A three-day al fresco tasting might have been a hostage to fortune, nevertheless the clouds remained high and the weather was bright and cool. Mercifully.

Just under 120 growers (mainly French) attended and we had 2,500 visitors, including many international ones, and an impressive gaggle of curious journalists, most of whom came in the spirit of enquiry. The bare facts don’t tell the full story. Some historical context is also required. 2011 was a watershed for natural wine in the UK. This was the time when people in the trade seemed to want to decide which side of the natural wine argumentative fence they were on.

To be continued in Part Two…

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