I have never met Roger Scruton, though I would like to; wine fans are slightly obsessional and enjoy clustering together, like trainspotters, though tasting rooms are more welcoming than the end of a platform at Crewe. We’re also very different. Shortly after I, working for the left-of-centre Guardian, became the wine writer for this conservative magazine, Scruton, a right-wing philosopher, took the same job at the New Statesman.
Given the rivalry between these two organs, I took a keen interest in what he wrote. For instance, round about the same time that he pointed out that ‘it is almost impossible to find a decent Burgundy these days for less than £30’ we were selling El Vino’s own-brand Velvin for £3.95. As it happened, Velvin was Burgundy, over- production from a good year which could not be sold under its real name. I suspected then that Scruton’s appointment was a joke, a riposte by the Staggers’ editor to readers who believed that John Pilger was God. As Pilger raged in the front of the magazine, Scruton sat at the back, clad in a quilted smoking jacket, sipping a Corton-Charlemagne from a good year. Costing much more than £30.
His book is very different from mine, which is principally a gift book, for people who enjoy wine, even love it, and yearn to spread out from supermarkets and chain stores. Scruton’s book (the title comes from Monty Python’s Australian philosopher’s song: ‘And René Descartes was a drunken fart / I drink, therefore I am’) is for people who are already wine lovers and want to link their pleasure to a greater world outside. They are, perhaps, people who want what Eliot called an ‘objective correlative’ for wine, a means of expressing in words something crafted with great skill, capable of great age, often sold at a great price, and yet liable to be consumed within an hour or so.
Scruton faces on a much grander scale the problem all wine writers must address: how do you use words to evoke a flavour, an aroma, an evanescent scent? Do you simply say, ‘this is delicious, you should try it’? Or do you try to find the words? Sometimes the effect can be banal and even hilarious. My favourite puff, which I saw pinned up in a Majestic wine warehouse as if it might stimulate sales, said of a Gewurtztraminer, ‘with top notes of cinnamon and vanilla, and an undertone of Nivea cream.’ The writer should, as the Irish say, catch himself on.
Scruton recognises this problem. He describes a tasting at Corney & Barrow where they try a very expensive Burgundy, Grands Échézeaux:
I struggled for a long time … and eventually came up with ‘Saint-Saëns’s 2nd cello concerto: deep tenor notes behind a sylph-like veil.’ A moment later, I crossed it out, revolted by its affectation, and wrote ‘damned good’ instead.
It was at Corney & Barrow where I learned wisdom from Adam Brett-Smith, who said he was fed up with people trying to strip the mystique from wine. Wine was special, extraordinary. It was not soap powder or sausages, and ought to have its mystique.
Which it does in spades here. At times Scruton appears to get carried away — do we need quite so much about Parsifal? — and at times he becomes entirely fanciful, suggesting a specific wine to match each of the great philosophers: Le Nauges 1999 for Spinoza, Château Septy 2000 for Hume, or ‘if you must consume Berkeley, wash him down with a glass of tar water and be done with it.’
But he has the gift many philosophers lack, which is to distil thoughts into a pithy and memorable phrase. Of bingeing, he says it might be dangerous to drink on an empty stomach. How much more dangerous to drink on an empty head.
At times there is a sort of smug self- hugging tone (he takes heart from the great Chinese poet Li Po, drinking a glass of ‘Mâcon-Solutré, which has the starched white simplicity of the moonlight itself.’ Oh, for goodness sake!) But just as often he illuminates and delights, and makes you want to find the wine he describes at whatever price. You don’t need to be a philosopher to enjoy this book, but you certainly need to love wine.