I cannot remember a jollier lunch. There are two brothers, Sebastian and Nicholas Payne, both practical epicureans. They have made a profession out of their pleasures. For many years, Sebastian was the chief buyer for the Wine Society. As he has a superb palate and is relentless in the search for good value, he is entitled to undying gratitude from tens of thousands of British wine drinkers. Nicholas has spent his career running opera companies. Sebastian knows a lot about opera, Nicholas about wine: the brothers share a cellar.
We had assembled to taste some 2001 clarets, which required concentration, and rewarded it. But there was also time for opera talk. Nicholas’s vocation must require diplomatic skills. He remained impassive while I denounced Graham Vick, who regularly performed a feat one would have thought impossible: making Mozart ugly. It might have been thought that directing Mozart was easy. You merely have to achieve a harmony between the farcical and the sublime, which is already there in the libretto and the score. Mr Vick had other ideas.
Moving on from Mozart, the luncheon party also expressed nostalgia for old-fashioned Wagner. In the Ring, the characters should be in Dark Ages costume. Yet there is a problem, which explains the silly modern productions. After the more recent German dark age, there is some neuralgia about Wagner. But Wagner cannot be blamed for Hitler. As Hitler has already inflicted enough damage upon civilisation, we should not allow further cultural vandalism in the name of bad history. It is time to rescue Wagner from the Third Reich’s shadow.
Such a rescue may be at hand. Although Roger Scruton might seem an unlikely Siegfried, he is about to slay a few dragons; his book on the Ring is almost finished. Jonathan Gaisman, who has been reading it, says that it is not a good book. It is a great one — and Jonathan weighs praise on troy scales. Roger has written at least one great book already, On Hunting, which ought to be subtitled ‘From Horseshit to Heaven: the Search for Love, Order and God’. But it sounds as if the Ring might be his monumentum aere perennius: one of the major intellectual achievements of our time, and compulsory reading for anyone who aspires to direct the operas.
Roger’s friends are often tempted to bracket him with the great Jowett: all there is to know, he knows it, and wine is not the least of his accomplishments. We toasted him in the ’01 Léoville-Barton, an absolutely classic claret. It was not a great wine: merely a delicious one. It was followed, and slightly shaded, by a Pichon Longueville, which had a touch more Merlot than usual, but was superbly rounded.
We then moved to the right bank, with a La Fleur-Pétrus. It had a discipline and harmony that is more naturally associated with Graves and Pauillac. Truly splendid, it was instantly eclipsed. A couple of days earlier, I had been staying with friends who wanted to watch the Derby. There was a hot favourite called Golden Horn, but a quarter of a mile out it seemed as becalmed as the later Ottoman Empire. Perhaps its next race would be the dogfood stakes, sponsored by a local knacker’s. Then the jockey said ‘go’ and the horse went. The ’01 Haut-Brion performed a similar feat. It is a wine to exhaust praise. ‘Pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.’ Although this wine would not work with foie gras, it deserves to be opened to a trumpet voluntary.
A few years ago, I helped David Cameron drink a magnificent bottle of ’82 Haut-Brion, a gift from an admirer. In the last column, I mentioned the Haut-Brion 2000, a great wine in the making, which would not suffer if Wotan sent it to sleep for at least a decade. The house of Haut-Brion is producing wine for gods, heroes and prime ministers. We humbler mortals should be grateful for an occasional tasting.