‘Good afternoon to you,’ says the email I recently received from Mr Dowling of Berry Bros & Rudd, ‘and thank you for your recent order no. 884095, placed through our website, for delivery to Spain.
‘There will be a shipping charge of £66.00 for the case of Wickham Vineyards Vintage Selection Dry White, Hampshire, England, which will bring the total order value to £162.60.’
A triumph. After many hours on consecutive days spent on the internet, I’ve succeeded at last in my mad plan for the equivalent of shipping coals to Newcastle, coconuts to Fiji, or herring to Reykjavik. My plan has been to send English wine to Spain.
‘I do realise,’ I had written in an earlier email to Mr Dowling, ‘that it makes no sense in practical terms to ship cheapish wine in this direction, but it’s a gift I wanted to send.’
And indeed it was. For months my young nephew, Adam, had been asking me if there was any way he could try English wine. Adam is the son of my sister, Deborah, and her Catalan husband, Manel, and they live on a farm in the former mill town of Manlleu, just beneath the Catalan Pyrenees. I’d promised to take Adam a bottle when I visited recently — then forgot. My nephew’s one of those people who will do anything for anyone, and this summer he had been driving back and forth to Girona airport on the Costa Brava, collecting and dispatching friends of mine who had come to stay.
Adam speaks near-perfect English but it is his second language: he is really a Catalan. I felt bad about forgetting the wine, not least because I was rather proud that a son of Catalonia — where the delicate white wines from the Penedès region are rightly prized — should want to try an English wine at all. Dry white wines are what Catalan wineries do best.
So on return to Britain, and in a fit of mad generosity, I resolved to send Adam a whole case. I Googled ‘English wine suppliers’ and found scores of entries, many of them offering an ‘order online’ option. This would be easy, I thought, and reached for my debit card.
Not so fast. Have you noticed a peculiar drawback of trying to do something slightly out of the ordinary online? It isn’t that this is never possible — sometimes it is — but that if it isn’t, they never tell you. You just have to keep trying in different ways to access the elusive service, until by a process of elimination you deduce the impossibility. Websites never give you a list of what they don’t do; only what they do. Beside Frequently Asked Questions should be placed a Frequently Thwarted Enquiries box.
After a few fruitless hours it became apparent that the big wine merchants in Britain offered facilities for delivery only within the United Kingdom. This stood to reason, I suppose. With excise duties here at their present level, and most of the wine we drink coming from abroad anyway, why would we be exporting foreign wine expensively back to foreigners? But (I thought) maybe a few of the English wineries, anxious to promote their product, offer a service for dispatching gift packages of their wines abroad?
So I started telephoning English wineries. But none seemed to do it. ‘Do you ship abroad?’ brought an immediate ‘No, sorry.’ Finally a kind sales agent at a Sussex winery went beyond the refusal, and explained. ‘We often get requests,’ he said, ‘and we’d like to do it, but it’s just too complicated. The excise and customs regulations, combined with rules for shipping, have stumped us. The delay and the paperwork — given the relatively modest value of the wine itself — just don’t justify it.’
‘What,’ I asked, ‘if I ordered a case from you to be delivered to my Derbyshire address; and when it arrives, re-address it to Spain and take it to the Post Office?’
‘You can’t — or not easily. There will be forms to fill in. It will be complicated. It has stumped us.’
‘But,’ he added (rather selflessly, I thought) ‘I believe one wine merchants do it. It seems Berry Bros & Rudd have cracked the shipping and regulatory problem and found a way to export. Try them. They probably do a couple of English whites and fizzies. They’ll be a bit surprised, but I’m sure they’ll dispatch to Spain for you.’
And so it proved. At £8.05 a bottle, this case for Adam must be one of the smallest orders of the cheapest wine that these rather august London wine merchants have handled. The shipping costs of £66 approach the £96.60 cost of the wine itself.
But it seemed worth it when I received an excited call from Adam, four days later. Manlleu is a rather off-the-beaten-track town, solid, unremarkable, foggy in winter: a place few Spaniards will even have heard of and no tourists at all ever visit, except by mistake. ‘I was outside in the fields,’ Adam said, ‘my grandparents were away and nobody else was here, and I saw a lorry that seemed to be a bit lost, driving slowly up the track.
‘I thought it must be for my grandparents, so I went over and asked, and they had a cardboard box in the lorry — and it had my name printed on it!’
‘We’re drinking a bottle now with lunch, Deborah and Manel and me, and it’s very nice!’
‘Save a bottle for me,’ I said. And Adam said they would.
‘Is it me,’ asks Mr David Berry Green, on the BB&R website, describing Wickham’s Selection Vintage Dry White, ‘or does drinking this wine give a rush equal to that of twisting a Russet from the tree? …Chalky, floral, newly mown grass and slightly tropical aromas characterise this otherwise cool, classic Hampshire white…’
Well, I’ll leave that kind of prose to cognoscenti like Simon Hoggart; but it’s nice to picture the life story of the Hampshire grape that ended up on the back of a lorry on a farm track in rural Catalonia. Is it me, or will drinking this wine when I’m next in Manlleu give a rush equal to that of warming your hands on a fire of imported coal, by a Newcastle hearth? In the very idea of it — the sheer impracticality — there’ll be something exquisite.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 12, 2009