There ought to be a wise adage: ‘If invited to do good works, always procrastinate. A better offer is bound to turn up.’
About a month ago, the phone rang. Would I attend the Oxford vs Cambridge wine tasting, sponsored by Pol Roger, which would also include a wine hacks vs wine trade contest? Festivities were to continue over lunch. The likelihood of a wooden spoon did not deter me. I was joyously accepting, when a horrible thought occurred. I checked the diary. My forebodings were justified. I was already engaged, to speak at the King’s School, Bruton.
There was one possible solution: do both. Get thee behind me, Satan. There could be worse embarrassments than finishing last in a tasting. I had no wish to emulate Gussie Fink-Nottle’s oration to the Market Snodsbury Grammar School. I remember overhearing Willie Whitelaw back in 1979 on his plans for the election campaign. As ever, there was a minuscule pause between his pronouncements. ‘I have made it clear… that I shall be very happy… to go up and down the country… speaking for Conservative candidates… as long as they give me four glasses of whisky before I start.’ (Willie’s glasses owed nothing to pub measurements.) ‘If they give me more than four glasses, I shall still be happy to go on the platform… but I hope that someone will prevent me.’
Duty prevailed. I stepped westward, to a splendid evening. Impressive and charming headmaster: ditto his staff; bright, delightful kids who did not seem depressed by 40 minutes of geopolitical pessimism and fought back with probing questions. There was only one problem. I know lots of stories, any of which would be fine for a rugger club after a good dinner — but mixed company? That said, the young these days are almost certainly the least shockable people in any room. Even so, the head, Ian Wilmshurst, censored one anecdote which seemed innocent enough to me.
It was about education. Every year, Tonbridge School used to take its lower sixth to Coventry, for a real-world tasting. The boys would visit comprehensives, meet the social services and so on (sounds like the worst punishment a school could inflict since the demise of flogging). At the end there was a panel discussion, which included me. I felt that after all the do-gooding guff, the boys needed a sharpener. ‘I hope you now understand why you are in Coventry. Although I don’t want to be too patronising, boys of your age can be susceptible to idealism. Before you arrived, you might have wondered whether it was right that you should have such a first-rate education, just because your fathers can afford the fees. But you have been here for a week. You have met the caring workers, the sharing workers and the other outlets for public spending. You will have drawn the obvious conclusion. There is a Darwinian dimension to your presence at Tonbridge. It is not just about cash. It is about genetic superiority.’
There was plenty of that in the wine-tasting which I missed. It included a ’95 Haut-Brion, reckoned to be the star performer. But a 2006 Vosne-Romanée 1ier Cru Aux Malconsorts, Dujac, was a strong second. I suspect that while today’s great clarets succeed in emulating their predecessors, the Burgundians may be surpassing theirs. There was a Le Montrachet from the enchanting 2008 vintage. I am assured that it was forward enough to be enjoyable now, though it must surely have a lot more to say.
A ’53 Vega Sicilia is said to have foxed the tasters. I have only been at the drinking of two bottles of that wine. On neither occasion could I see why it was so highly prized. This one had that raisiny, vanilla taste of old rioja, which might have sparked a happy guess. Anyway, it was clearly a magnificent event — except that Oxford won. I am sorry that I was not present, but I am not sorry that I went to Bruton.