Last week I was an invigilator at the Master of Wine exam in London, supervising a tasting paper that I’d helped to set.
Traitor or patriot? Whistleblower or scoundrel? Depending on your point of view, Edward Snowden, the man behind the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance techniques, is either a hero or a villain. Whatever you think of the guy – not least the fact that he has disclosed the contents of top-secret documents – you have to admire his courage. “I do not expect to see home again,” he has admitted from his hotel room in Hong Kong.
How conservative is the wine busisness? Less than it once was is the obvious answer, at least in the UK. When I started writing about the subject in the mid-1980s, a pinstriped suit and a tie were de rigueur at tastings, and that was just for the women. The New World was all but ignored – it was famously covered in a morning at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust – and innovation was frowned upon. It was a world of claret, Burgundy, port, sherry, Rioja, Hock and Moselle.
When the London International Wine Fair closes its doors at Excel next Wednesday evening it will mark the end of a short and not particularly distinguished era in the show’s 33-year history.
Stroll through the vineyards at Il Paradiso di Frassina in Montalcino and the sound of Mozart soothes your ears. If you like Beethoven, Bach or Boulez, not to mention Miles Davis, Madonna or Motörhead, you will be disappointed. Musical variety is not the point here. The Sangiovese vines are given a permanent aural diet of Mozart, pumped through 58 strategically sited speakers, and nothing else.
Moaning about the weather is practically a national sport in England. There’s a bit of me that thinks that we enjoy being grumpy, “coveting disappointment” as the comedian Bill Bailey once put it. And yet the last 12 months have been anything but enjoyable. The rain, the snow and the lack of sunshine would have tested the optimism of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, who famously declared in Candide that, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore once did a very funny sketch as Derek and Clive about what they considered the worst job in the world. From memory, their choice involved working for Jayne Mansfield – I’ll spare you the anatomical details – rather than being a traffic warden, refuse collector, VAT inspector, estate agent, politician or journalist. And yet most people would place these half-dozen professions at the bottom of the career ladder.
Brunello and Bordeaux, Bordeaux and Brunello. Italy and France’s most famous wine regions have a lot in common, not least that they both hold high-profile tastings in the first part of the year. If it’s February, it must be Tuscany, invariably in the snow; if it’s April, it must be the Gironde, accompanied by spring flowers and, if you’re lucky, deckchair weather.
A favourite Paul Simon tune was at the top of my iPod playlist last week. When Numbers Get Serious isn’t as famous as The Sound of Silence or Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, but it has a hidden message for the wine business. “When times are mysterious,” sings Simon, “serious numbers will always be heard.”
How hungry would you have to be to eat a spaniel? What about a monkey, a camel or a rat? During the siege of their city in 1870, starving Parisians consumed all those things and more. Horsemeat, first introduced four years previously as what the historian Alistair Horne called “a cheap provender for the poor”, became a comparative delicacy. To this day, it is much favoured in France, where boucheries chevalines still exist, as well as Italy and Belgium.
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