Year 2009: Chapter 5

Monday 14th September

Write my Inglenook article in the morning which is fermenting nicely and should undergo final blending tomorrow. I depart home around midday and catch the Eurostar to Paris, find myself sitting next to a rather irritating square-jawed French man who keeps snorting and fidgeting, annoyed that I am threatening is airspace.
What am I supposed to do?
Stick my head out the window?
Anyway, at least my fatal manflu has receded and hopefully I have passed on my infection to my Gallic neighbour.

Domaine de Chevalier 1916

I catch the metro to Champs Elysees and stroll to my hotel that has double booked my room.
"Don't worry Mr. Martin, we booked you another room around the corner at our four-star sister hotel at the same price."
Result!
Once I have unpacked, showered, surfed the Internet I walk literally around the corner to the famous Taillevent restaurant where I have been invited to a Domaine de Chevalier dinner by the collector Bipin Desai, a fleet of magnums straight from the chateau cellar back to a startling 1916. I am seated on a table with a gaggle of French journalists, Michel Bettane to my right, a Best Sommelier in the World whose name I forget to my left (although I have to resist an urge to cut his hair.) Opposite is proprietor Olivier Bernard, whose complexion is unfortunately too deeply sun-tanned for me to take a decent photo of him (my Nikon does not have a deep suntan mode.) This hegemony of French wine experts are in deep conversation and I rarely interject because:
a) I am focused upon the wines
b) They are chatting too rapidly from me to participate in a meaningful way
c) I am from the wrong side of La Manche. Anyway, the evening is decadent, surprising, informative and a privilege and at least my four-star hotel is but a 100-metres away.
Highlights include a blind Domaine de Chevalier Blanc vertical of ten consecutive vintages and a 1953 that I wish I could abscond with from the restaurant back for a night of passion back at four-star pad.

Tuesday 15th September

Wake up in my salubrious 4-star hotel...just a shame I have only been able to enjoy its comforts for approximately one waking hour. I pack my rucksack, elect to recycle last night's shirt for fear of over-macerated Malbec being splattered all over my my brand new Austin Reed shirt that Tomoko bought me to lift the spirits after being deprived out of the Louis-Roederer award. Consequently, I have a degree of sartorial flair that is quite unusual for me, although I may whiff a bit (for the record, I do change my underwear...even I'm not that scuzzy, at least not these days.)

I walk back up the slippery wet Champs Elysee, catch Le Metro to Gare du Nord, write a few hundred words on the Eurostar and then catch the tube from St. Pancras to Lords for the annual Wines of Argentina tasting. I am a bit fazed from the late night before, but manage to appraise a few dozen Malbec, although I still find the venue at Lords a little oppressive. As usual, there is a kind of charged atmosphere, social media omnipresent with live Twitter terminals and a Youtube thingy. I feel guilty, a Wine of Argentina lass begs me to Twitter something, I promise to return later and then stand her up. I just think its filling the Internet up with crap.
I dunno...are we not here to taste wine?
There is also a flash mob of "tasters" from Naked Wines, who are, according to one of their more rather hubristic members, is going to completely revolutionize the wine industry. I spot one major frailty in their strategy but keep quiet so that the revolution can take place without my interference.
Resplendent in their t-shirts, their swarm around the tables and dominate proceedings, before convening for what sounds like an unruly Scouts meeting. Their arrogant posturing is in stark contrast to wizened sage, an old-timer from the Bordeaux and London wine trade, with whom I chat during a brief break. I find him erudite, humble, polite, self-effacing and simply a pleasure to talk to. I think the Naked Wines team could learn from him, but they are too blinded by braggadocio.

Wednesday 16th September

Take Lily to school in the morning. Conversation goes something along the lines of...
"Lily, what are you going to learn at school today? "
" Nothing. "
"Well...err...are you going to learn any new letters? "
" No. "
" Numbers? "
" No...Nothing. "
Great. Why don't we skip the next fourteen years are go straight to long-term unemployment?

Having dumped her in Miss P's class (I notice that her teacher's suntan has not faded, so I suspect hours under a sunbed on the off chance that a recently divorced Brad Pitt lookalike turns up to collect his sprog) I return home and then I catch the train to London for a Gaston Huet tasting of the 2008s and then vertical of demi-secs back to 1949, all wonderful, wonderful wines. I have a chat with the manager Noel Pinguet and then dash up to John my accountant to collect my files. He explains my accounts for the year, of which I understand about 10%. He has probably told me something that will have serious financial ramifications.

I am feeling productive today. I manage to write a 3,000 word article on today's Huet tasting on the train back to Guildford...I miss the thrill of composing something spontaneous. I send it off to HQ when I arrive home.

In the evening, Tomoko and I watch "Professional Masterchef" and watch Greg Wallace repeat everything the Michel Roux says but with less insight, vernacular and a slightly different word order.

Thursday 17th September

Tim Kirk

Back in to London for a brilliant vertical of Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier with winemaker Tim Kirk (pictured), one of the nicest men in the business. I am only here thanks to a tip off from Jamie Goode the previous day and only then, I manage to snaffle a seat thanks to a last minute drop-out (which turns out to be Linden Wilkie.) The venue is a rather odd private club in Mayfair called Aspinalls, which cannot make its mind up whether it is La Gavroche or the "Las Vegas" amusement arcade in Southend-on-Sea. I end up on a table with champagne writer Tom Stevenson and one of Jancis's contributors. Maybe I should ply him with booze and extricate secrets and pass them on to Bob HQ? A bit of industrial espionage? Not today.

In the evening I ignore the existence of my children and chain myself to the Mac as usual.

Friday 18th September

Another tasting: this time off to Italy for a vertical of Cumaro. Again, I am seated next to Jamie Goode, HRH Jancis just to my write (either trying to break the record for the world's longest text or writing her notes straight onto her Blackberry) and Robert Joseph, who I like, but can be rather gloomy in his forthright views that I find myself in frequent disagreement with. Jamie Goode tells me about his new vintage, the 2009 in his Twickenham vineyard producing a whole bucket. I suggest he makes a super-cuvee from the top half. I pick up some Japanese victuals from the indispensable Rice Wine and then head home. Tomoko tells me I need to spend more time with Lily and Daisy and I think she is right.

Saturday 19th September

As Tomoko has some pale imitation of my manflu and vowing to reacquaint myself with Lily and Daisy, I take them down to Waitrose while the wife tries to rest. The girls are impeccably behaved as usual and are duly rewarded with an extortionately priced Sparkle magazine. They never read it. They just peel out the stickers that end up permanently plastered over the house. In the afternoon I take them to the local playground that has recently been refurbished by the council. Upon entering, I notice what must by a six-year old boy/hooligan smoking a roll-up cigarette. It's pathetic. He must be a couple of years older than Lily.
Shit.
He will probably end up her boyfriend in a few years time. I memorize his podgy face so that I can remonstrate as soon as she brings him home and declares that he is the one, although I will probably recognize him from his nicotine stained cheeks and his request for an ash-tray.

In the evening, I watch a bit of Strictly Come Dancing and rustle up a juicy rump steak for poorly Tomoko. I drink a 15% South African wine that sends into a deep slumber that I may never wake from, on the sofa.

Sunday 20th September

Day two of my re-bonding with my daughters and today, after doing the vaccuuming and receiving just three complaints from the wife, I take them to Stoke Park to ride on their bicycles. Lily is pretty good on her stabilizers, but poor Daisy has to make do with a scooter that muggins here has to push about 13km around the park. We stop for an ice-cream served by a rather intimidating Eastern European lad who might pull out his blade if you fail to request a flake in your cornet. I order two flakes. The girls devour theirs, although half of it is smeared around their mouths. Next, some obligatory slide 'n see-saw action, where I spend half the time fretting about my offspring tumbling from the upper rungs of the climbing frames. I am having heart palpitations as Lily and Daisy practice their dangerous sports routine without a mote of fear. They have no concept of gravity, they cannot conceive the pain of hitting the ground at considerably speed. I am probably over-anxious due to my own acute vertigo and the fact that I would never dare to tackle this kiddie SAS course with such wanton abandon. I make a mental note to ban both of them from joining the Armed Forces and to encourage their ballet gestating ballet careers instead.

Monday 21st September

Take Lily to school. I am beginning to bond with fellow parents, though I am still concerned that I am misconstrued as a single dad, since it is a majority of mothers escorting their kids to Infants School. Lily is having fun in the classroom. In fact, I am considering enrolling myself as an adult student next year. The indoor sandpit looks so enticing.

I write all day, listening to a mixture of Prefab Sprout, The Beatles' Revolver and Mos Def. I am in a prolific mood at the moment: tidy up a Clonakilla vertical to check it is not too blasphemous, sort out some filing, pen another few paragraphs on my book on Pomerol that is coming on slowly but surely. Actually, pretty slowly. I am unaccustomed to writing and not seeing it published with hours or days. It is frustrating in many ways, but what else can I do? Such is the dictate of the Internet, to publish everything no later than now.

I work in Guildford library, a rather dour place full of crotchety OAPs frittering away their remaining years; a grey place drained of colour, etiolated. I ought to feel inspired surrounded by literature but somehow, the place saps me of creativity. I work on a Pontet Canet article, become distracted by flicking through a biography on Greta Garbo and discover the final entry is in the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary (clue: it begins with the letter Z.)

In the evening I spend hours trying to mend my crap Nokia mobile that decided to punish its master for failing to take out insurance by refusing to switch on its screen. I thought we were a team, Nokia and me? It was a bloody awful phone anyway, with a battery that lasted about two minutes and ten seconds should you request it to do something technical like take a photo. Before I reach the point where I throw the phone across the room, I retire to the dining room to work and watch Richard Hawley's sublime, melancholy new single "For Your Lover Give Some Time" about 300 times since I am so besotted. As a music-lover, you hear something extraordinary and it just takes over your life. Well, at least that's my album of the month decided.

In and Out of Africa

Tuesday 22nd September

Today, it is the "Boutique Winery" tasting at the British Medical Association, which should be handy if the wines are so awful that my metabolism retaliates. In the middle, I attend a Social Media seminar, tutored by a guy who looks like he has just be ejected from a death metal band: all unnecessary piecings and a pointy beard determined to make a statement. He could be a cross between Emperor Ming and Nick Oliveri of Queens of the Stone Age. I sit next to Francis Gimblett, whose new self-published book "In And Out of Africa...In Search of Gerard Depardieu" I recommend highly and listen to what Ryan Opaz of Catavino has to say.

I agree with about 60 percent. Personally I believe the Internet should be about quality content, but in the last two years it has become obsessed with technology and fancy applications, which is fine if they serve a purpose. But as someone who works the Internet hard every day, I have noticed how it is increasingly difficult to actually find what I want, because the Search Engines, even Google, cannot cope with all the lightweight, ephemeral and occasionally shite websites on the web. The Internet is in danger of becoming puff pastry. Ryan shows me a neat Search Engine that is useful, but as I reiterate, it's only as good as the quality of sites it directs you to and that depends upon people investing time and talent authoring something meaningful and permanent (permanency was the cornerstone of Wine-Journal and still is.) Anyway, it's another debate altogether and Catavino is a well-designed site focusing on Iberian wines that you should check out. But that beard...just too late-90s, man. That's why Oliveri was kicked out of the Queens. It was his beard.

Afterwards, I taste a few more wines including a complete run of South Africa's Vergelegen and then catch the tube to meet my old friend Sam at the Good Bishop Gill's for dinner. The conversation is lively as usual, the wine fabulous (Sassicaia 1997, Corton-Charlemagne 1995 from Roumier and an oddly titled but commendable Cote du Bourg called Chateau Bone.) As usual, I return slightly tipsy, but with a clearer view of what is happening out there in the trade, and there is a hell of a lot happening out there.

Thursday 24th September

All day writing and writing and writing, to such an extent I have repercussive muscle strain in my right shoulder and traces of my Mac screen constantly obscuring my vision. I should really get out and do exercise. Oh well, at least my fingers are fit, even if the rest of my body is falling apart.

In the afternoon, I find my driving license that had been presumed lost, hidden in a clear plastic folder on the bookshelf. Why do such life's necessities, the things without which life screeches to a halt, take impromptu vacations, secret themselves away and stifle their giggles as they watch me search in vain in a maelstrom of panic? Do they get a voyeuristic thrill from the sturm und drang they provoke simply by disappearing on a whim? I forgive my driving license for its little charade and make it promise not to do it again.

In the evening, I cook some skate, shout at the frying pan for being unable to accommodate two fish simultaneously, marvel at todayÕs news concerning the Anglo Saxon treasure found in Staffordshire, pop to Tesco to buy some bin bags, where I am waylaid by a fascinating article on how mankind would react if alerted to an asteroid impact within 72 hours (answer: we would be screwed) and watch Question Time whilst tarting up a Heitz Martha's Vineyard article.

Friday 25th September

Try to book flights to Margaret River, but their websites stubbornly refuses to let me book my ticket. What happened to good old days when you spoke to a nice young lady who did all the doggy work for you? She wouldnÕt just refuse to serve you because she couldn't be bothered.

Bring back the pre-internet age!

Again, I spend all day writing, finishing off a vertical on Heitz, transcribing an interview with Dany Rolland and rewriting my dodgy bottle offline article to make is less offensive to 98 percent of civilization. In the evening, Geoffrey comes round for dinner. We love Mr. G, particularly Lily and Daisy, although I am concerned that I end up pouring him the first wine he has sipped since VE Day. Just nosing the New Zealand Pinot Noir could leave him hugging strangers and wearing a street cone on his head. At least he only has about seven metres to walk home.

Saturday 26th September

In the morning, I take Lily and Daisy to a dance class in Guildford for 2-5 year olds. I am taken aback when we enter and the corridor is full of mini- Margot Fonteyns in pastel colour pumps, leg warmers and ballet shoes. All I was hoping was for my daughters to jump around, strike a few balletic poses and pretend to be fairies. It looks like the opening credits to Fame.

Anyway, we go inside and join the other aspiring ballerinas for a few warm-up exercises. Lily is in her element because her best friend Stephanie is here, but Daisy is more reluctant to partake in a few pas de deux, despite being the daughter born with balletic DNA. No insult to her older, flat-footed sister, but Daisy is the real reason we are here. I hold her hand and demonstrate a few moves, which leaves me feeling emasculated for the day. But she is not having any of it and strops off in true prima donna like fashion, whilst Lily is circling the room pretending to be a princess putting on her imaginary crown. It looks so much fun, I feel like donning an imaginary one myself.

I spend the remainder of the day wondering what the hell I can rustle up in the kitchen tonight? Having spent what seems days trawling through the Interweb, I opt for a dish entitled "Indian Takeaway" and make a mental note on no account to order a chicken korma, as has been the ritual since about 1989.

Sunday 27th September

If you want croissants...decent, flaky, lighter than air croissants, then you have two options: either head to France, which is inconvenient if you live in Surrey, or go to the local Co-op. They make the best croissants, but unfortunately word seems to have got round and so you have to time your visit perfectly, lest someone scoops up the entire wicker basket and leave you croissantless for the remainder of your day. I have asked the Estonian girl at the till whether she can reserve me some, but I received an Estonian no. I may have to install a webcam in the oak tree opposite so that I can monitor when the delivery van arrives with there fragrant load. I know, it is sad when your day goes off kilter just because you have been deprived of your sacred croissant, but that is the tragedy of my life these days. Must be a middle-aged thing.

Monday 28th September

Mental day. I escort skip-along Lily to school and then Tomoko is picked up by raffish Clive, her driving instructor, for "Driving Test Part 3". Fingers crossed! I look after Daisy, unable to really concentrated on my penmanship and anxious about catching my lunchtime flight to Bordeaux. Good news! Tomoko returns on time. Bad news is she made a fatal error at a traffic light. Oh well, I look forward to Part 4.

I can only offer approximately two minutes of spousal sympathy before shooting out the door. My plane will taxi down the runway in about 90 minutes and I will only be on board if Britain's infrastructure does not let me down. Quite remarkably, my train turns up and does not go off the rails, there are no hold-ups, at least until I discover that the monorail linking Gatwick's terminals are out of order and have to catch a bus, a state of affairs that causes a mild cardiac arrest. I lie my way through Fast Track and end up with sufficient time to donate a supplementary five-minutes of sympathy to Tomoko via mobile. I sleep on the flight, then make me way up to Margaux where I am visiting Chateau du Tertre with Stephen Browett and Oliver East of Farr Vintners.

The sun beats down, the omens look good for a great 2009 vintage, although people forget that it can all go tits up with an unforeseen occluded front or an error in the vatroom. When it is in the bottle, and only then, can the pedigree of a vintage be vindincated and its complexity and evolutionary arc must perform over time.

We are all here for tomorrow's intimate Lynch Bages vertical, which commences too early to catch the morning flight from Gatwick. The evening is spent with Veronique Sanders and her husband Alexander Van Beek (part of Bordeaux's "Dutch Mafia" gossiping about Bordeaux, which is unbelievably informative, but which I could not possibly publish. Wines include a delirious Giscours 1970 and an awful Pontet-Canet 1984 selected by masochistic moi.

J-M Cazes

Tuesday 29th September

A quick meeting at Chateau Leoville Barton, this time with Lilian rather than Anthony, who greets us in the offices. We taste the 2007 and 2008 vintages of both properties and observe the Cabernet being sorted. No optical machines that are so de rigeur this year (Petrus, Las-Cases and others). At £100,000 a pop, that works out at about £5,000 per discarded berry given how regular the bunches have been this year. I would do that job for half that price.

After we head north to Cordeillan Bages for the vertical tasting of 33 vintages of Chateau Lynch Bages from 1959 to 2006. We are punctual for a change, although Jean-Charles Cazes seems shocked that someone has arrived on time. Is that an insult in France? We wait outside on the wooden terrace for others to arrive, a gaggle of French journalists, James Lawther MW accompanied by his pet sideburns, then Jean-Michel Cazes who have not seen for some time. He is as charismatic as ever, optimistic over the vintage, his jowels increasingly baggy with age but his wit and repartee undiminished. We commence the tasting at around eleven and as usual and I work like a demon, typing up both the tasting notes and Jean-Michel's enlightening vignettes in real time, which means within two or three hours I have 4,000 words nailed down. It demands immense concentration to flit between wines and maintaining those demon digits racing across the keyboard as if playing Flight of the Bumble Bee on speed.

We finish around two and take a quick lunch with the others in the pickers' table, a mouthwatering bowl of cepes and a leg of beef cooked suspended over a fire, accompanied with a double magnum of Lynch Bages 1990. However the clock is ticking and we need to catch the plane back to Blighty. Stephen seems unperturbed by the ticking clock as he makes his farewells around the table. We catch a lift back down to Merignac via a nifty shortcut that I will endeavour to remember, fly back across La Manche and then I make me way to Liverpool Street for the second vertical of the day, this time Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou from 1957 (that I pour blind) to 2004. I park my suitcase in the corner, slightly frazzled, but ready for some more Claret. The venue itself, a restaurant by the name of Hawksmoor, serves up mouthwatering steaks that are piled onto the forest of cepes lining my stomach. The service is superb, but somehow, I feel that the wines are reluctant to show their best, put off by the low ceiling and the bellowing drunken bankers competing for twat of the night in the adjacent room.

Highlight, or lowlight of the evening, is watching Jamie Hutchinson attempt to drink a bottle Ducru Beaucaillou 1961 with the consistenty of mud. Look carefully into the wine and I am sure you could see amoeba reproducing on the surface.

I get home around 1.30am via the last train to Guildford, knackered, but there is to be no rest this week.

ledbury wimps

Wednesday 30th September

Today, I will be spending the entire day in one restaurant. If it was KFC, that would be good enough, but even better (and I know that is hard to believe) I have two tastings at London's most exciting restaurant: The Ledbury. I skip breakfast as my stomach is still digesting Monday's foie gras, writing during the morning and then make my way to Notting Hill with a bottle of Cos d'Estournel Blanc 2006 in my rucksack, along with my Nikon 40X SLR, my Samsung laptop and assorted sweet wrappers. The wines include Grand Puy-Lacoste 1982, a Pavie 1988 and a Tertre-Roteboeuf 1989 and the food consists of:-
Crapaudine beetroots baked in clay with smoked lardo, hazelnut oil and elderberries
Ravioli of grouse and partridge with a veloute of green david peppercorns
Loin of hare with a cepe tart and a compote of the shoulder "a la Royale"
Figs with Lemon Verbena, olive oil ice-cream and warm cinnamon doughnuts.

My stomach says thanks, particularly for the ravioli that is probably in the top ten most delicious dishes that I have ever consumed, but could it have a rest?

I loiter with Linden Wilkie in the restaurant and chew the fat with proprietor Nigel Platts-Martin on the outside terrace, accomapanied by a delicious Riesling for Zilliken.

At seven, the second dinner commences themed along the wines of Domaine Gaston Huet back to a rare 1921. The wines are divine and this time, my stomach takes on board:-
Roast scallops with apple and black pudding
Pan fried foie gras with quince and walnut
Partridge with pear and Jerusalem artichoke puree, smoked bone marrow, chestnuts and truffle
Fourme d'Ambert with frozen verjus, bleu d'auvergne with porridge chipe
Caramelised banana galette with salted caramel and peanut ice cream

I have ingested three billion calories, possibly more. But it is a sumptuous dinner and it is a pleasure to sit next to Ken and Mimi, whose concept for their website makes me laugh. I was, perhaps, a little too frank in suggesting that cartoon characters and wine do not mix unless you are an exceptionally skilled manga writer writing for a Oriental audience.

On the way home, yet again the midnight train to Guildford (the one to Georgia leaves an hour before) I look at photos of Lily and Daisy to jog my memory.

Thursday 1st October

At last, a day to do some writing and I concentrate upon finishing a La Mondotte vertical from earlier this year that has been hanging around for too long. My secretary Daisy sits behind me at the dining table colouring in her Sleeping Beauty picture and fails to answer any calls or be of any use whatsoever.

In the early evening I head back into London. I call in at the bustling Japan Centre in Piccadilly to collect an extortionately priced Japanese magazine that Tomoko has ordered without my permission. The avuncular Japanese man at the cash-till comments that I must be a good husband and I complement him upon his perspicuity. Then to Waterstones to buy a copy of "The Billionaire's Vinegar" where I spend half an hour eavesdropping upon a trunculent bearded man (two adjectives that tend to go togerther) haranguing his daughter on his mobile phone. I am soon acquainted with the fraught relationship between father and purportedly "lazy, good for nothing offspring". One day, that will be me.

raspberries

I then catch the bus to the Dorchester Hotel for a private dinner in the private room that overlooks Henri Brosi's kitchen. I eat:-
Amuse bouches
Seared line caught sea bass with Swiss chard and lobster risotto and buerre blanc
Roasted fillet of Wagyu beef (from North Wales) with braised short rib and seared foie gras and autumn truffles with braising jus
Bourbon vanilla yoghurt with passion fruit glace and a cinnamon bugnet
Raspberry mille feuille with Acacia honey brulee

Henri himself pops out of the kitchen to describe each dish in intimate detail, right down to the individual names of each raspberry. This is Fred...he comes from Scotland, this is Trudi...she is from Austria and so on.
I have to pop to the loo halfway through the meal, after completing a tasting note for the Krug Collection 1982. A young gentleman resplendent in his long-tailed morning coat and white gloves, kindly escorts me through the maze of the Dorchester's underbelly. Nobody escorts me at home. Yet it must be embarrassing if you need a number two.
What does he do?
In such a situation, would you forwarn him that you feel that he may have to hang around outside for a good ten, maybe fifteen minutes? Perhaps you could text him when you think you are approaching the finish line?

Again, the dinner is a privilege, the champagnes effervescently wonderful (apart from the Krug Rose, which I never quite get) and then I walk with an incredibly heavy rucksack to Green Park tube to catch the last train home for the third night in a row. To say I feel jaded is an understatement and my penchant for writing on the train is probably foolish, especially as my nosy teenage neightbour insists on reading everything I write. Do the nuances of the Lynch Bages 1978 vintage interest him? I am almost tempted to type: " STOP READING THIS YOU PRAT" and see if he reacts. However, I do not want to get knifed across the belly and see foie gras spill out over the train carriage.