The cellars at Combe Florey, the house in Somerset in which I grew up, were a place of mystery and fear. You walked down wide, shallow stone steps to a large door on which my father had stuck a postcard which read ‘I know who you are’ when, in a fit of paranoia, he decided that a neighbour was stealing his wine. Once through the door, there were more steps down until you found yourself in a large, cool, faintly musty-smelling room. Bats, furious at the disturbance, swooped around you until they sulkily returned to their lair in some dark corner. Off each wall were more cellars: in one, a large red boiler rumbled and groaned, a ridiculously grand chandelier hung, totally out of place, and a portrait of Queen Charlotte leered out at you. The others, with curved ceilings and small iron-barred windows which looked out at ground level, held the stacks of wine, all carefully sorted by grape, year, etc. A library of wine.
It had not always been like that. My early memories of my father’s wine are not nearly so esoteric. Every year we went to the south of France where my parents held endless parties for three weeks, drinking wine out of plastic bottles with three stars; in the fourth week they would take to the cool of the house, moaning and drinking a disgusting-looking fluorescent yellow concoction from the chemist.
The sea change happened at some moment when I wasn’t looking. I came home from university one holiday and suddenly wine was being talked about rather than just sloshed out. Gradually the cellars became more than a place for my brothers’ bat-hunting and my father’s secret smoking. They were slowly but surely being filled up. First one room then another returned to the purpose for which it had been built, and as the collection grew so did my father’s passion. He became a wine critic, and would hold tastings in the morning room where we were all encouraged to voice an opinion. His secretary prepared forms we had to fill in as we went along and we would compete to come up with the most ridiculous descriptive phrases. None could match his own, of course. Not content with writing winsomely about ‘cut grass’ or ‘blackcurrant sorbet’ he found himself in a degree of trouble (Press Complaints Commission) when he compared one wine to ‘a bunch of dead chrysanthemums on the grave of a stillborn West Indian baby’.
Not much made my father cross (not filling up the ice tray, not putting the top back on the tonic and stealing pens are among the few irritants I remember) but it was a crime to wear any scent on a wine-tasting day. Having said that, he smoked throughout, which must have had an effect on the tastebuds.
He wrote about wine for The Spectator, Tatler, and Harpers & Queen, but I remember most the tastings he held for the Spectator Wine Club, which he ran for some years. He had a very unsnobbish approach to wine and understood that the cost mattered a great deal. Part of the questioning about any bottle that took his fancy was whether it was worth its price. ‘Yes, but is it actually £5 good?’ he would ask. Whether he was recommending a cheaper wine the younger generation could afford or something grand, he did not want anyone diddled. His lack of wine snobbery also meant that he discovered and promoted some surprising wines; the Lebanese Château Musar became famous in England thanks to him, and indeed when he died the producer sent my mother a magnum in a cedar box in thanks; she passed it on to me as she found it too heavy for her taste and my brother and I drank it solemnly in memory. Well, we started solemn…
Papa’s passion was not a selfish one; he wanted his four children to share it. We were given a small amount of wine at dinner from a comparatively early age and I remember him saying, some years before he died, that he was pleased that there was now enough wine in the cellar to outlive him. When he did die, my mother divvied up the contents of the cellar between the four of us. My father had developed my sense of taste, but alas my pocket had not developed with it, so the boxes of bottles which arrived were manna from heaven. I had not realised until then how extraordinary his cellar was.
One of the wines I scooped caused a big argument at work. I had some 1970 Romanée Conti, Eschézeau. A wine dealer friend of mine, husband of a teaching colleague, had told me it was worth hundreds of pounds. My colleague let the cat out of the bag, and everyone assumed I’d be selling it. To them, the idea of drinking it was pure decadence. I suppose they were right, but I knew that unless my children were in danger of starving there was no question about what I was going to do. The wine dealer’s wife stuck up for me, but she was the only one. I remembered Papa saying that there would be wine for us all and I felt that had I sold it I would in some way be betraying him. His love of wine was not about cost or grandeur, it was about taste and conviviality and sharing. He would share his grandest wine with anyone who appreciated it, a lesson that he has passed on to we four. Don’t waste it on drunks, or people who just glug it — they can have the supermarket Côtes du Rhône — but give your best to those who also love it.
I shared the Eschézeau with the wine dealer friend. Papa would have approved.