Chapter 12

Tuesday 20th April

Today is the "Great Riesling" tasting, featuring a clutch of respected producers demonstrating their wares in Whitehall, just a stones throw from Tony Blair's pad. I taste around twenty wines and chat with a few producers who seem pleased that "Great Riesling" is a title finally becoming less oxymoronic in the discerning eyes of the public, that they are beginnning to realize just how good many German wines are. I meet my friend Alex Hunt, the notorious captain of the Oxford University Tasting Team and destined to become the new Hugh Johnson in 2020. I notice he is wearing a beige jacket: the uniform of any wannabe wine-critic whenever the sun is shining. The uniform should be completed with a pair a dark brown brogues, corduroy trousers, silk handkerchief neatly folded into left pocket and any conservative patterned tie. I, myself usually look more haphazardly dressed at such events, my current uniform comprising of a pair of Merrell trainers, grey trousers (£15.99 from Hennes), white t-shirt (three for tenner from Costco) and black socks (Aunty Vera, Xmas present, every year.)

Of course any wine-taster ritually graces them with their presence around the hours of free lunch, hence a tendency for people to arrive mid-morning, taste before lunch, eat lunch, debate whether they can extricate themselves from the offer of more free food, then spend the afternoon "doing the reds" or wending their way to another tasting or back to the office.

The organisers have excelled themselves on this occasion by offering bespoke beef sandwiches constructed to your exact specifications. This is very thoughtful, the fact that a chef meticulously slices the beef to the precise width warms the cockles of me heart. Just a shame that said sarnie takes approximately four hours to put together, but as the last morsal slips down my gullet, I reflect upon the fact that I may never chance upon a beef sarnie as good as this. Cue wistful music.

Wednesday 21st April

Dinner with two employees from JP Mouiex, one of whom is Edouard, son of Christian Mouiex, Lord of Petrus. He is a chip off the old block and has patently inherited his father's ambassadorial charm and charisma, the archetypal ladyslayer: tall, dark olive skin and jet black hair, chiselled jaw, immaculately dressed (conservative but chic), as multi-lingual as the Pope, well travelled, cultured and well-spoken...he must be destined to become the Adonis of Pomerol. We instantly dive into conversation over some crispy won tons and I think how the opposite sex must find him irresistible. Yes girls, he is single. Unimaginable.

His family and mine have something in common: they both own agricultural land with particularly fine terroir. His family owns some nice patches of clay in Pomerol, whose vines are the source of some of the most iconic wines in the world. Mine own an allotment at the back of the council estate whose soil cultivates the finest leeks and spinach in Southend-on-Sea. Both use manual labour, both are organically grown without use of chemical fertilizers, both enjoyed a good vintage in 2003. I make a mental note to bring down some of mum's incredibly earthy, iron-rich spinach next time I visit Liborne and see if I can make an exchange.

At the end of the evening, Edouard comes across as a man who will one day step into his father's shoes with considerable aplomb, with a deep knowledge of viticulture, a concrete philosophy of how wine should be made and a joie de vivre that always somehow seeps from the vigneron into the vines.

I make a mental note to avoid introducing any girlfriend to Edouard before going to bed.

Thursday 22nd April

In the morning a tasting courtesy of JP Mouiex including many of the 2003's (but not Petrus unfortunately.) I meet Edouard's father Christian Mouiex in a deserted chamber within the Institute of Directors. Last time I saw him was at the Petrus tasting back in January, when he was mobbed by a pack of MW students armed with a flotilla of pretentious technical questions concerning the minutiae of the vinification method and Christian's shoe size. I stood patiently for a few minutes before giving up and eating my ham sandwich with the remains of Petrus 1989 and 1990.

Lunch involves some more-ish canapés which I cannot help scoffing and I depart hastily before somebody notices that I have demolished all the mini fois gras.

Saturday 24th April

Tomoko and I treat ourselves to a Thai meal in Crystal Palace. We begin with an excessively sweet Alsace Gewurztraminer and then move on to a Grenache rosé from Geoff Merrill. It is not often that we venture into New World territory and by 11 o'clock I can understand why, because everything is spinning round with increasing velocity, unaccustomed as we are to anything over 15° alcohol. I have vague recollections of a strawberry ice-cream pudding, or at least something bright pink, a long walk home via several front gardens and collapsing into a heap of fetid booze back home. The rest of the evening has been erased from my memory.

Not a great advertisement for blockbuster wines with high alcohol. From now on I am on a diet of 7° Mosel Rieslings.

Sunday 25th April

Travel home to Southend to deliver gifts from Japan (generally strange delicacies with a tang of seaweed that no doubt get fed to the Frank the day after.) Frank is the most stupid dog in the world, European Champion of Stupidity 2002 and runner-up 2003. Mum informs me that last week he was brought home in the back of a police car after running out of the park chasing imaginary bunnies. Despite constant threats to give him a one-way ticket to Battersea Dogs home, he still insists on masticating on bits of grit and depositing them on your lap. Most dogs are fetching their masters' slippers or rounding up sheep. Frank spits out dirt and expects complements on his canine intelligence.

He is the antithesis of Lassie.

Tuesday 27th April

Today I had my application rejected to join the Circle of Wine Writers. I was a bit aggrieved (and surprised) by their decision, based on the fact that I do not make a living from the website. Every single word written on was composed by my quill, yet this organisation decided that I could not be classed as a "wine writer".
Then what the hell is?

Sure, I could write a 100-word column for the local newspaper about the latest bargains at the supermarket and get paid a few quid. Instead I spend hours and hours endeavouring to write entertaining, informative and hopefully intelligent articles that many people seem to enjoy, but because I ask for nothing in return, it is seen as a "hobby" rather than a "profession". I know it sounds like sour grapes, but perhaps the organisation should sit down and consider what is valid wine-writing, whether it contributes and enriches people's understanding of wine, irrespective of their personal circumstances.

O.K. Diatribe over. Click here to register your protest!

Thursday 29th April

Out with friends at a trendy wine bar/club. We are welcoming home dear Shelley, who put a roof over the heads of Jude and I when we visited the Big Apple in summer 2002. The venue is So.Uk along Shaftesbury Avenue: comfy sofas, nice background muzak and a relaxed vibe, man. Is this a sign that I am getting too old for noisy pubs and rowdy clubs? The only problem with these kind of places is that there is always some guy stationed in the mens lavatories expecting a hefty tip just for passing you the Molton Brown handwash and muttering: "Alright?" he genuinely concerned about my welfare?
I think not.
You can feel his eyes lazering the back of your head as you try to do your business and his admonishing stare as you flee the toilets with unclean hands, just because you are a skinflint who refuses to leave a tip." Such toilet attendants should be outlawed.
It is peaceful until about 10:30pm, whereupon the DJ kicks-in and we are suddenly surrounded by a gaggle of young girls shaking their hips to Beyoncé. Conversation becomes futile and I depart to catch the last train home.

Friday 30th April

CECWINE tasting near Parliament Square and as usual, a feast of wines for us to gorge ourselves on. Afterwards we consider places to eat: La Gavroche? The Square? Gordon (I will never be a TV celeb) Ramsay? Upon finding that we have just £7.54 between us, we opt for the KFC in Victoria Station, probably the dingiest KFC in the UK. We are surrounded by drunks who have missed the last train home and the homeless foraging for scraps. Still, Colonel Saunders never lets us down, though I wish he offered scones like they do in Japan.

Saturday 1st May

Pub lunch with friends from Southend: Vik (my ex-BK partner), Carolyn C, Justin and CJ (all pictured left.) We rendez-vous at a pub on the fringes of North Essex and it is great to see them all again, probably the only people with the same inane sense of humour as myself. CJ is actually an ex: we split due to dietary differences. She eschewed anything with an atom of meat in it, in fact anything that was coloured red, so that meant tomato sauce was persona non grata. Meanwhile I was secretly gorging myself on suckling pig. It never would have worked. She refuses to appear in any photos, therefore I agreed to mention the vegan society in return for her licensing the picture. So for those of you ascribing to the view that meat is murder, the link is below.

The Vegan Society

During the afternoon we discuss the moral decline of young people in Leigh, sex (in biological detail) and then Vik's "orange dinners" where she prepares food with a coloured theme. The recipe is as follows:-

1) Baked beans
2) Potato croquette
3) Anything "Golden Crisp"

Vik asks me for a wine to accompany the dish, so naturally I would opt for a delicious orange-hued bottle of Tokaji 5 Puttonyos from Hungary (the 1988's are looking particularly orangy.) The discussion then progresses onto the percentage of stupid people in the world (about 99%) and why we have to work with them and why rabbits excrete small poo. No, none of us are presently members of MENSA but somebody has to discuss these esoteric topics. If you want to know why rabbit shit is small and spherical, please do hesitate to ask me.

Sunday 2nd May

Crap weather. Surely the trade-off for a higher cost of living and dull scenery in the Southeast is that we get more sunshine than the North. Instead the bleached, overcast sky has been drained of colour since about January, so much so that I decide to stay in and paint the hallway.

In the evening, Tomoko and I go to Phil (never mention my name in your diary) Graves' for dinner and he excels himself with a fish pie. We become fairly drunk, oh well, yes then, very drunk on a bottle of D'Arenberg's Coppermine Road 2001. What else would you expect with a bottle of Ozzie Shiraz?

Tuesday 4th May

Merde. Mum's cat Muffin was run over and pancaked last night. Mum is naturally distraught and sends a brief text of black news and asks us not to phone. No doubt the pets have already deleted his name from their Xmas list for 2004, along with the eleven neon tropical fish that went belly up in March. Frank the dog must be chewing his "condolence grit" somewhere in the back garden.

Monday 4th May

As avid readers of my diary are aware, my mother's gastronomic adventures come to an abrupt halt at pasta and garlic. So a couple of years ago, I invited her to a swanky London restaurant just to see what would happen if gammon was not on the menu. To my pleasant surprise, she enjoyed a bit of culinary diversity. The tradition has continued and every few months we pretend to be posh and try out a new restaurant (e.g. The Ivy, The Ritz etc.)

Today we are lunching at Claridges in central London. My brother Simon is premiering his new boyfriend Paul (surely every family has a gay son these days?) which is a major event. He enjoys the London lifestyle, my brother and his friends seem to revel in a social scene that encompasses every aspect of life, such as "Yogay": exercise for those seeking to stretch, meditate and find their perfect partner of the same sex. Of course, the downside of batting for the same team is that it magnifies minor problems into cataclysmic events that threaten the existence of the Universe and life manifests itself as a neverending series of melodramas.

Paul seems very charming and as usual, mum adopts him like a long-lost son. The food is excellent and we keep the bill down by ordering the cheapest wine on the list, which happens to be a very fine Muscadet. I notice a bottle of Lafite 1900 for ten grand, but decide that it will have to wait for another day.

Friday 7th May

Dinner at Harry's Bar in North London, the den of iniquity that has seen me lose many a drinking contest with Dionysis. Tomoko and I arrive at 7pm and the proprietor already seems to be three-quarters of the way to critical overload. Then again, so would I be if I owned a bar with a wine-list as good as his. My fellow guests Joel and David arrive and we open some fine bottles: Chateau Pichon-Lalande 1975 and 1978, a fresh, vigorous Chateau Pavie 1978 and bottle of Lytton Springs. As we drink the "PPP" (Pre Perse Pavie), somebody whacks up the volume to Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and the Eastern European barmaids instantly commence bopping away behind the bar. I think Mr. Palmer would have approved of such unbridled, spontaneous decadence. Maybe Mr. Perse would also?

Saturday 8th May

Drive down to upper-middle class shopping mall Bluewater in order to restock on clothes. For men, the modus operandi is to look round a couple of shops and then buy whatever you want at Gap. I buy Tomoko her first ever pair of trainers. Being so petite, her dainty little feet can fit into kids' size so we end up paying half price. But still, the sports shop drives me to insania, thanks to the 50 mega Watt soundsystem blasting out Jay-Z at full volume. We sit like orphans waiting for someone to serve us. I attempt to find an assistant but it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the employees from the regular customers. After setting off a distress flare, somebody notices and spends half an hour getting the left shoe to match the right. Unfortunately, that Left/Right conundrum overloads the brain system and he comes back smiling like the village idiot with another right shoe.

Actually paying for the bloody thing becomes a task in itself: the shoe-box is deposited in a big pile behind the cashier, rendering it impossible to work out which is yours. Our purchase comes with a free sneer because we could not afford the most expensive Nikes and I yearn for Japan where service came with a smile and respect. I make a mental note to nationalise all sports shops when Tony Blair abdicates.

Monday 10th May

Tonight I watch "Top 30 Mingers" on Sky TV. Mick Hucknall is number one, ahead of Shane McGowan of the Pogues.

Tuesday 11th May

There are two great pleasures in life: opening a bottle of really fine wine and going to gigs. It is a shame that the two make awkward bedfellows. The nearest I came was DJ'ing for a friend's wedding at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester a couple of years ago. Unfortunately one of the decks broke down and I could only use one turntable, but the evening went off well with a platoon of grannies shaking their replacement hips to Armand Van Helden. Meanwhile, I was being proffered with countless glasses of vin rouge and the final hour descended into carnal oblivion.

Anyway, tonight I am seeing a band called The Dears (pictured left) who hail from Montreal, Canada. I caught their video on MTV2 at about two in the morning and fortunately my N.M.R. "New Music Radar" was fully operational and detected something worth seeking out. Lo and behold they were scheduled to play within walking distance from my office the following Monday.

The Metro Club in Oxford Street is the perfect venue to see a band: a capacity of around 100 people max, a tiny stage so that the band remain within touching distance and a dank smell of beer that pervades the ether. The Dears play an epic, emotional brand of indie and lead-singer Murray Lightburn has as enthralling voice, a black Morrissey with more soul but less kitchen sink drama and I recommend anyone to download their single "Lost in the Plot". The venue can barely contain their epic sound and Lightburn makes a charismatic frontman, flanked by the two girls who stand demurely behind a stack of synths and look wistfully into the distance (i.e. the bar.) One breaks into a flute solo, before returning to her C minor chord, which juxtaposes nicely with the drummer who is doing a good impression of Animal from The Muppets. The fey Swedish four-piece that head-line pale by comparison so I guess they will be employed by IKEA this time next year.

Here are five bands are saw in their prime, before they made it big:-

1) Radiohead - Warwick University - January 1993 - was playing pool at the time, but took a break when I heard the guitar intro for "Creep".
2) Happy Mondays - Birmingham Hummingbird - November 1989 - the night before they played with the Stone Roses on Top of the Pops. An incredible atmosphere of something "big" about to happen. Nothing to do with the quantity of narcotics being consumed I might add.
3) Manic Street Preachers - Warwick University - June 1992 - I remember James Dead Bradfield (lead-singer) diving into the audience to try and start a fight.
4) Blur - Warwick University - November 1991? - the Union tried to ban the gig because of the record cover of their first single (which I had reviewed for their record company, stating that I thought they would be "big in the 1990's".)
5) Muse - London Astoria - January 2000 - supported Ash as part of the NME tour. The most electric performance I have ever seen.