One of the lovely perks of running your own place is an invitation to a wine tasting event. The canny hotelier or restaurateur will have several wine merchants supplying his list, ensuring a constant stream of invitations to lunch in lovely places with copious quantities of free wine.
Unfortunately, we are not that canny and only have two wine merchants (well three if you include Simon who is a one man show, importing some delicious and unusual wines himself and selling them from the back of a van but I don’t think he has a budget for client entertaining), but they are both very generous with their invitations.
The latest is at a large country house hotel in North Yorkshire. We arrive with friends at around ten thirty for a day of wine tasting punctuated by a wine-matching lunch. It’s early but we have already prepared ourselves with bacon butties. The event is taking place across three or four rooms each filled with tables groaning with bottles of wine and champagne.
We make a bee-line for the nearest champagne. The bubbles invigorate us and there is no stopping us until lunch. Wendy berates me for helping myself to too big a glassful at one table where there is nobody to serve. I explain that it is necessary to have a little more in the glass in order to release the maximum aroma. She gestures towards the spittoon. I walk on. Wendy is being abstemious having volunteered to drive so I return the gesture towards the spittoon after she has taken a glug of something delicious. She reminds me that, as I should be aware by now, she is not in the habit of spitting and if she can’t swallow she’d rather not bother. I understand her perfectly. She has, she says, come for the lunch.
There is, of course, always a downside to any pleasure, and here it is the inevitable wine bore who really doesn’t know when to stop and sounds as if he has swallowed a whole Roget’s Thesaurus and far too much of his own self importance.
Long before it is time for lunch, it has become necessary to sit down and so we take a seat in the library for a seminar on bio-dynamic wine making. Monty someone-or-other is something of a trailblazer in this field and his presentation is fascinating, made even more enjoyable by bottles of bio-dynamic wines which are being passed around the room to taste (closely followed by a makeshift spittoon made out of a plastic funnel set in the top of a tragically empty magnum Pol Roger bottle. By the third tasting bottle, the spittoon has bypassed our row.
And behind us is the wine bore. He’s hogging the spittoon having clocked that we have no need for it and is slurping mouthfuls of wine around his mouth much more noisily than anyone could consider decent before decanting them into the spitoon. He opens up a discussion about the complexity of the wines and how they should fall apart on one’s palate rather than wait until they hit the gut. I’m starting to think that rather than falling apart on my palate or in my gut for that matter, the dozen or so wines already in there have started a fight. Then, he launches predictably in to grassy nuances, hints of hedgerow, the essence of the terroir and overtones of the lunar eclipse. I’m starting to taste a more than subtle undertone of irritation. I’m keen to ask a question about the phases of the moon and how they affect the pruning of the vines but I can’t seem to formulate the sentence. We decide it is time for lunch.
It seems like a very long walk to the restaurant. When we arrive we are among the first there and hope that nobody thinks we have all only come for the free lunch. Wendy has, of course, but the rest of us are here for the free wine. The waitress brings a jug of water and then two glasses of wine each. It seems we are supposed to identify the two wines and then rate each against the food. This goes on for three courses. The food is delicious and so is the wine. Wendy is being very sensible and, as we are eighty miles from home and need to pick up the children from school on our way back, has not given in to temptation and suggested abandoning the car and getting a taxi. Nevertheless, her glasses of wine do not go to waste. We have tasting cards to fill out and by the end of the lunch I have drawn a whole family of flying pigs on mine which three of us agree makes a valuable contribution to the debate about which wine went best with each course.
On our way back to the tasting rooms the corridor seems to have got longer, but this may be because Wendy is steering me towards the far end of the largest room where coffee is being dispensed. Ten minutes and a long latte later I feel partly restored and notice that as we’re one of the first parties to finish lunch, everyone else is still eating, the room is almost empty and the wine tables are all unattended.
Wendy reminds me that we must be professional and that we are here to network and research new wines. This is so very unlike Wendy and I can only put it down to the fact that her thoughts are turning to her upcoming fortieth birthday.
I remind her that I have a clear strategy for the rest of the afternoon which is to find easily quaffable wines for summer in the garden and as I’ve already had to explain once today assessing a wine’s quaffability requires a good measure in the glass to appreciate the full complexity of aromas and flavour notes. She mutters something which sounds like ‘boxes of chocolate and fudge’ but I can’t be sure.
On a serious note, we do find some seriously drinkable whites and roses and then, oh manna from heaven, right in front of us is an unattended bottle of vintage champers wholesaling for £120. In a pincer movement worthy of the British army, three of us have poured three glasses before anyone notices. But it is a disappointing drink. The bubbles are just too big and as the room is now filling up again, a spinning alarmingly, we notice that we are among only a few clients who have stayed all day and among all the fresh faced afternoon arrivals we are shown up for what we are. But, in this business you get out when you can and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, met some new contacts and found some great new wines and I always maintain that a few aches at the end of the day denotes a good day’s work.
At school the children are curious to know why daddy is fast asleep in the back of the car and mummy simply says ‘daddy has been working very hard today and he has a bit of a headache’.