Year 2009: Chapter 6

Friday 2nd October

Finally, a day where I can scribble some words since there are no tastings today. In the evening, we venture out to the newly opened "Jamie's" restaurant, which has sprouted upon the grave of the deceased Fopp record shop (may it rest in peace.) I have booked a table for seven o'clock for two adults and two sprogs, Lily and Daisy acting as infant food critics. The decor exudes Jamie Oliver's happy-chappy persona: windows festooned with outlines of Vespas and artisan pasta machines that nobody uses. The atmosphere is buzzing and our hopes are high. The bubbly waitress offers us a pair of snazzy childrens' binoculars through which our tots can view their menu. Coolio. I wonder which marketing exec thought that up?

The first dish arrives and it is not bad at all, especially the deep fried squid and the "Jamie's Brilliantly Fantastic Best In the World Ever (Honest Guv) Cheesy Chips". Or something like that.
Then the wheels fall off.
The service evaporates, the main course does not appear for five and a half days and when it does, it boils down to garlic with a hint of carbonara. The children are getting fidgety and their cool binoculars are a gimmick as they offer bugger all information on exactly what we can order. We order an ice cream that after 50 minutes we realise has no intention of materialising, the head waitress offers a resigned apology and we depart vowing to renew our custom with GuildfordŐs best Italian, Cambios. But you bet ya bottom lira that Guildford "Jamie's" will be ram-packed until the end of time.

Saturday 3rd October

07.30am. There is a knock on the door. It is Mr. Opodo with our weekly shopping: three hundred colour coded bags and a free copy of The Times to compensate for my not being able to wander aimlessly around their store. Mr. Opodo even co-ordinates the provisions: meat in one bag, veg in the other. I wonder whether he could give a hand with the vacuuming?

In the morning, I take Lily and Daisy to ballet class and yet again, Daisy pulls a prima donna and stubbornly refuses to join the budding Margot Fonteyns who are prancing around the room like auditioning fairies. Afterwards we go shopping down Guildford. I buy a copy of A.S. Byatt's lauded "The Children's Book" because I need to learn some new words and a new Blackberry as I am entertaining the notion of Twittering (for all my sins). I pop into "Jacks" to have my hair cut, but I quickly realise that they are churning customers through at a rate of one every five minutes. Fearing a catastrophic post-war austerity short back and sides that would necessitate either wig and/or bobble hat, I sidle away before my name is called. In the afternoon, rustle up some lamb chops with a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir from Mountford, which is absolutely delicious.

Sunday 4th October

Today, my friend Jude comes round for Sunday roast. As usual, the kitchen is fraut as I try and inevitably fail to multi-task in some vain hope to time my gallimaufry of vegetables to perfection. I have a rule that either Tomoko cooks or I. Not together. Two is too many cooks in the kitchen. She scowls as I dump flour into the gravy and it responds by turning lumpy. I ignore the death rays and try (and fail) to stir out the lumps. Still, the resulting roast is a success and Jude appears to be enjoying the free range chicken. I have managed to sieve the lumps out of the gravy, or at least expelled them onto Lily's plate as she won't mind. Flour is good for you. Full of vitamins. Vitamin F.

Monday 5th October

Into London for a rather disappointing Amarone tasting, not in terms of the wines, but that the spiel intimated that we would be treated to some meaty verticals, whereas in fact each producer was showing their recent vintages alone. The lunch is also pretty Dickensian, just some admittedly tasty cheese, a few raisins, dried apricots and walnuts, enough to feed a dieting squirrel. Whilst eating my scraps of food, I have the misfortune to sit next to an arrogant American man droning on about how is the next great thing for wine writing. I am unsure whether to inform him that he has the personality of a rusty garden rake, but elect to leave him mired in his solipsistic world, where he reigns supreme over a population of one. The sad fact is that he is about the third self-deluded braggard I have eavesdropped on in the last fortnight. Where do these people spore from?

With some unexpected time to kill betwixt tastings, I do some chores: purchasing a pair of smart dog-tooth patterned trousers, since I only have one pair of beige chinos that I have to recycle every time I attend a tasting that demands sartorial flair...which is almost every day. Then I purchase a copy of the new Prefab Sprout album from HMV and make an impromptu visit to Ego hairdressers in Soho. I analyse my shorn locks as they float down upon my black silken smock, meticulously counting the proportion of grey hairs vis-a-vis not grey. The greys seem to be multiplying. I ask whether Andy the hairdresser could focus upon the etiolated hairs rather than ones with pigment. I am resigned to the fact that I may end up looking like Phillip Schofield. Still, better than bald. Didn't do George Clooney any aesthetic harm.

Peter Gago

I then while away an hour in Waterstones reading Peter Hook's wonderous, prosaic, salacious biography recounting his days running (or not running) the Hacienda nightclub in the 1980s, which inadvertently gives me an idea for a Lynch Bages vertical that I am presently composing and then head down to the Institute of Directors for a Penfolds tasting with winemaker Peter Gago for Linden Wilkie's series of tastings. Peter is one of the nicest people you can possibly meet and take my pew amongst an expectant audience of thirty tasters. The wines are mostly sublime, but then again, we are talking about some of the greatest bottles that Australia has ever produced: Grange 1955, 1962 and 1971, the fabled 1962 Coonawarra Bin 60A and 1967 Penfolds Bin 7 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Kalimna Shiraz.

How do you follow such epochal wines?

Twenty minutes later, I am sitting on a little stool, devouring a KFC three-piece meal, which would have been perfect if I could have absconded with that bottle of Penfolds 1962 Bin 60A. Alas, it is not available on the KFC wine list.

Tuesday 6th October

Craggy Range tasting at Corrigan's restaurant in Mayfair. I have tasted all their wines before, but I am intrigued to compare my notes between New Zealand and UK. Afterwards I enter into another in a recent series of post-prandial discussions about social media and the Internet, whether it is emancipating mankind and sending it straight down a cul-de-sac; whether it is a dehumanising medium that plays to our lowest common denominator i.e. the meaningless twitter or the gratuitous porn. I have the encroaching feeling that I will inevitably be replaced by nanoparticles.

It all makes my head hurt.
I watch Masterchef in the evening.
It makes my head feel better.

Wednesday 7th October

Rain, rain, rain, interspersed with the odd shower and downpour. I work throughout the day and then at around 5pm head out into the torrential rain to catch the train to The Ledbury restaurant for the millionth time this month. By the time I have reached the end of the driveway, my shoes and the new smart, trousers that I purchased on Monday, are already requesting if they could be returned to Uniqlo, since they are drenched through. I own a pathetic, flimsy umbrella that barely covers the circumference of my head: my own fault for buying one based on convenience rather than ability to keep you dry. Anyway, I dry off in the restaurant and the ten vintages of Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses hit the spot nicely, as does Brett Graham's peerless cooking. My clothes have dried out by the time I depart, although crevices between toes are still moist.

Thursday 8th October

Write all day. In the afternoon, my parents come up and Tomoko and I drive to Lily's infants school for our first parent-teacher meeting with the constantly beaming Ms. Prescott. Lily's academic career has only lasted four weeks if you discount nursery school, but I wonder whether it is premature asking whether we should put her name down for Oxford or Cambridge? We pull up two dinky chairs and Ms. Prescott is disarmingly candid about Lily's demeanour in the classroom. Apparently she was too quiet at the start of term, but is now beginning to open up, which means that in a few weeks she will discover the raving lunatic within.

We return home and catch the train to Shepherds Bush. We saunter around Westfield Shopping Centre, Tomoko buys a slinky black dress, then we walk down to the "Princess Victoria" gastropub for a light dinner, which boasts a superb wine list put together by Matt Wilkins, who I have known since his sommelier days. The food and service is excellent, and the 50cl carafes a neat idea (I go for a lovely Grenache from Denis Alary.) We then catch the bus to Shepherds Bush Empire for the Richard Hawley gig, my second in a year. To be honest, Tomoko is bored within three seconds and spends most of the time playing games on my new Blackberry, whilst Hawley and his shiny fleet of Rickenbackers spill their hearts out with some epic 1950s balladry. The average age is around 51, so unlike the Sneaky Sound System gig earlier this year, I do not feel as if I could be half the audienceŐs father. We miss the encore so that we can catch the train home, but have to wait 20 minutes at chilly Clapham Junction where we could have chatted about the concert. However Tomoko was too busy trying to beat by highest score on Tetris.

Friday 9th October

Jancis Flickr

(Jancis Flickring away.)

Up at the crack of dawn to catch the train to Battersea for Farr Vintners' Bordeaux 2002 tasting: over 120 wines poured blind right up to the First Growths, Petrus, Le Pin et al. I am feeling jaded after the gig last night, but once we start cracking on with the vino, there is no option but to get on with the job. I am seated next to HRH Jancis since we are the two scribes mental enough to type our notes on the spot. In the middle of the flight of St Estephes I manage to spill half a glass down my brand new trousers that are barely five days old. To my pleasant surprise, Uniqlo's trousers appear to be Saint Estephe-proof and I am able to wipe away the spillage, thus avoiding a purple crotch for the rest of the day. Still, no time to thank Lady Luck...there are wines to taste.

I catch the train back with Bazza Philips. After writing up a few notes, then order the kids upstairs for bath. Lily insists on doing a poo before agreeing to enter the bath.
Why, Lily, why?
Can't you wait until afterwards?
Do I have to sit here passively inhaling your ablutions while you splash about in the bath? I then read them their bedtime book and as usual, they insist on their Shimajiro series of books in order to test my Japanese reading skills. I cannot believe that a two-year old is complaining about my reading skills. Even worse, she is completely justified in doing so.

Saturday 10th October

Ballet once more. Lily is as enthusiastic as ever and even Daisy does a few twirls on the side. I work in the afternoon and then in the evening we walk up to the local church hall for a barn dance. Tomoko did not actually know what a barn dance is, when she agreed to go. I just advise her to brush up on her square dancing and dozy do. When we arrive there, the country dancing is in full swing and as expected, Lily and Daisy initially refuse to have anything to do with it. Lily eventually agrees to a few minutes of country dancing, whilst Daisy looks on haughtily, disappointed that there are no pirouettes or chaines turns.

As is customary in all churches there is mandatory three foot high 80-year old who appears to have been brought up by a kindly family of door mice and a rolly-polly vicar, who I like a lot. She has a cheeky side to her, much like I think Jesus must have had, after all, you must have had a sense of humour knowing that you were the Son of God.

We return back to the ranch, flop on the sofa and flick the tellybox between Strictly Come Dancing to see if there are any unintentionally racist, racist comments and if scary Amy Winehouse is still of this world rather than the next (she is, albeit a bit spaced out on backing vocals for her god-daughter) and X-Factor, to catch Robbie Williams's comeback (although I preferred him when he went off the rails and his electro-rap album flopped.)

Sunday 11th October

God invented Sunday as the day of rest, although he had not counted on Wine-Journal and thus I end up working most of the day redesigning this very website. But I do take a break and whilst Tomoko goes into Guildford for some retail therapy before tomorrowŐs driving test, I take Lily and Daisy to Stoke Park. All goes well until Lily runs over Daisy on her Barbie bike. Cue distraught Daisy, who you would think had just been flattened by a juggernaut and sulky Lily, finally understanding what brakes are for. Eventually they rapprochement and they are holding hands and throwing each other down the slide. I do worry that having lured Lily to the top of the slide, that little Daisy will exact her revenge and push her sister off the top, therefore I stand underneath, just in case.

Monday 12th October

All day chained to my master, the iMac. I look after Daisy who behaves as good as gold in the lounge, transfixed by a bizarre Japanese Hello Kitty DVD featuring hyper-active, semi-clad lip-synching dancers dancing like robots around an over-sized bunny with unfeasibly large drooping ears and for some inexplicable reason, a pastel pink tea-cup glued to its head (according to my wife/Hello Kitty expert, he is "Cinnamon".) Tomoko is out for Driving Test: Part IV. When I return she looks as if she has been crying.
But she's play acting.
She passed!
Hoo-rah!
I give it about 30 minutes before she jumps into the Renault and drives away, never to be seen again, so I hide the spare keys just in case she has any funny ideas of escaping.

In the evening, my follow eRP contributor and Italian expert Antonio Galloni calls, but somewhat ironically, I am just preparing a pasta and ask him if he can call tomorrow. I continue writing in the evening, tinkering with Twitter and watching an absorbing BBC4 program where they deprive a nuclear family of technology and reintroduce it year-by-year. It makes me feel as if my childhood was spent in Medieval depravity i.e. before Facebook.

Tuesday 13th October

Dear Microsoft Vista,
I would like to thank you for voluntarily updating my laptop features on a whimsy. But please could you refrain from shutting down my computer without a second's warning, usually mid-sentence, thus losing my unsaved document, which equates to an hour's hard work. This makes me rather cross and as a consequence I feel an urge to launch the laptop out through patio window screaming: "Damn you Microsoft Vista. Damn you!"
Yours sincerely
Neal Martin

Wednesday 14th October

Blue day. I feel deep navy blue, like you sometimes do.

Thursday 15th October

This is an odd week where all the tasting have been squashed up into one day. (In actual fact, there is a two-day South African mega-tasting that I miss due to my mixing up dates.) I catch the train into town and head for Farr Vintners HQ to mop up the "lesser" Bordeaux 2002s that we chose to leave for a later date. After all, they deserve a fair chance to shine, so it's just a shame that a lot of them are crap or faulty (including one that may have the world's most under-ripe nose thanks to a Croizet-Bages). Maybe I should contact Norris McWhirter? Christ, where is the fruit in these Saint Emilions? I'm just tasting dried out barrels, I'm just tasting wood.

There are just two of us present, myself and Mr. Smedley, a superb taster who's just a tad hard of hearing, so it's best to make sure you speak loudly and towards his face so he can read your lips. He is one of those people who has more years under his belt than nearly everyone in the trade, purveys a very refreshing, sanguine, perspicuous outlook and appraisal of wines. But after 54 Clarets (six corked) in a morning session with but a handful scoring over 85-points, I need something to clean my palate out.

So onward ye oenophiles to tasting number two: Madeira, the world's most ineluctably unhip beverage. If it were human it would be wearing a lilac shell suit with in-built shoulder pads (what d'ya mean, shoulder pads are back in?) But first, some food, although the scavengers have devoured all the (presumably) tasty Portuguese fare.
Bastards. How about the late-comers?
They could have waited for me. Anyway, not too long here...this being Madeira there is a paucity of attendees, so I mop up the Barbeitos, my favourite Madeira producer by quite some margin and then head to tasting number three in the regal cellars of Berry Bros.
"What does the tasting finish?" I enquire, descending into the cavern.
"Fifteen minutes ago," is the reply and so I cherry-pick the interesting wines whilst tables are hastily cleared in my wake in preparation for an impending evening class. I make sure I get round what I can in time for a taste of the gloopy, rather orgiastic Tokaji Essencia 2000 from the Royal Tokaji company that sooths the throat. It would work as a potent cough mixture, albeit an expensive one at £300 a pop.

Time for a break and so I walk up to La Quotidienne for a long, drawn-out latte and try and work out how to use Twitter.
Unsuccessfully.
The cafe is always full of chattering Japanese girls debriefing each other over their Carnaby Street purchases, media goons demonstrating some new fancy website to Soho media execs with aggressive haircuts, Oxfam-chic cardigans and drainpipe jeans that stop their blood flow around their genitalia.
My first foray into social media is making my brain implode. I havenŐt Twittered yet and it already makes me want to set fire to their website. Is that possible?
Tasting number four is my favourite of the day: a review of ten Echezeaux wines at Robersons. I meet HRH Jancis for the second time upstairs in the shop and mention that I have just sold my soul to Twitter. She Twitters this fact on her Twitter page and almost immediately my Blackberry starts buzzing as people start following my every move. Just a shame that I cannot Twitter myself, at least not yet.
We file downstairs. HRH Jancis and her pet Blackberry sit on the opposite side of the circular table festooned with shoals of lovely Pinots. The spare chair next to me is taken by none other than Lord Michael Broadbent, who I have not seen for a while. He descends down the stairs like a headmaster come to inspect his unruly pupils. I almost feel as if we should all stand to attention.
You have to respect the guy.
Sure, he is perhaps beginning to look his age, a little frailer than a couple of years ago, less stout, but a gentleman still with tannic backbone. Bear in mind that he graced this Earth in the great port vintage of 1927, he is in fine fettle. His mind is as sharp as an over-zealously sharpened pencil and he is as wily and witty as ever, a joy and a privilege to sit next to. I notice that he continues his ritual of placing his watch on the table, dutifully timing the length of each wine just as he doubtlessly did 50 years ago and he offers his lucid opinion on each wine to the audience.
No...they don't make him like that any more.

We have a good banter in between the Echezeaux, discuss his recent out of court settlement against the publishers of "The Zillionaire's Vinegar" Michael lamenting inaccuracies and innuendo. Whoever thought there would be such brouhaha over a bottle of Sarsons? Could they not have just sprinkled it over some chips?

Anyway, it is another superb tasting courtesy of Roberson, but there is not time to conflab because I have to get to tasting number five, a dinner with Xavier Borie of Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste organized by Goedhuis & Co. at Portland House. Leaving Roberson, I spot Daphne in the car, come to pick up Michael and whisk him home in time for Celebrity Masterchef. I hop into a taxi, something I rarely do in these straitened times, end up ensconced in a one-sided conversation. My driver is baleful about having to sell his custom Harley tomorrow morning. He drones on for about ten minutes before asking whether I am interested in motorbikes?
"Not really," I reply as deadpan as humanly possible. He bristles with annoyance and then continues anyhow. As a consequence, he gets just a 20p tip.
I arrive at Portland House around 9.30pm, later than intended, having missed the starter and main course although the constitution of the beef as similar to Playdough, so I didn't miss much. Xavier is in good form. The first thing he says is: "Bonjour Neal. Do you remember what you wrote about my wife?"
Oo-er. That's not the first time this has happened.
Then I remember that she spoke very rapid French at a dinner during primeur last year and I was just nodding "Oui", trying desperately to translate the sentence in my head and lagging terribly behind. Xavier also has a cardboard folder where he keeps all his reviews and reproduces my own appraisals. Good to see that they count. The GPL 1990 is glorious, although I am particularly taken by the millennial Haut-Batailley. I enter conversation with a man who turns out to be a top City lawyer (I can tell by the width of his braces.) He is very complementary, almost eulogistic about Wine-Journal, which is great to hear. Strange... my writing does not create as much interaction as others. I suspect and indeed, hope that it is more something people look forward to and enjoy reading, but not prose that foments comment or indignant retort. All the time, my Blackberry keeps buzzing as my Twitter zooms past 30 followers.
Stephen Fry better watch his back.

Friday 16th October

Take Lily to school...she runs on ahead, falls over, bawls her eyes out as if she has broken a leg, blames her father, storms off in a huff, meets fellow pupil who gives her a leaf, all is forgotten. The melodrama is over in seconds, a soap opera played out at quadruple speed.

Again, writing all day, finishing off a nifty Latour article, meddling with social media, a few more followers on my Twitter account and a few friends on my Facebook. God, I am such a hypocrite. Is it narcissistic? Yeah, its like monitoring how many Christmas cards you get each year.

Ce soir, Tomoko and I attend a Parents Evening at the Lily's Infants School. Unfortunately most of our clique are unable to attend due to babysitter difficulties, although we eventually end up chatting to one father, whose grey hair and mid-fifties face meant that I had him erroneously pinned down as a de facto grandfather. He obviously had children late in life. At least I am now not going to inadvertently commend him for picking up his grandchild, thus sparing both our blushes.