Rich men often look out for bargains. I suppose that is why they are rich. But there can be problems. Occasionally bargains fail to live up to their name. It would not be easy to find a single bottle of le Montrachet for £600, yet a friend of mine once bought a whole case for that sum. He forgot the wise old adage: ‘If something sounds too good to be true, it is probably neither.’ Not one of his 12 bottles turned out to be drinkable.
On a lesser scale, my friend Geoffrey fell victim to Waitrose. He and Louise invited me to lunch and the pièce de résistance was boeuf bourguignon. Before that, there was a brief tasting. ‘Try this,’ he said, proffering a glass as I arrived. Judging by his tone, it was not going to be a treat. The nose suggested thinness, and that was not misleading. The wine was insipid. In fact, it took the ‘sip’ out of insipid. Trying to be as complimentary as possible, I said that it was wine, not vinegar — but barely drinkable. Geoffrey concurred and sentenced the bottle to clean the sink pipes.
‘Cost three quid at Waitrose,’ I was told. ‘At that price, I felt I had to try it, especially as they call it “Good ordinary claret”.’ That is cheek, because Berry Bros also markets a good ordinary claret, for rather more than three pounds. But it drinks up to its name. If you never have a worse glass of wine, consider yourself spoiled.
These days, supermarkets’ wines are usually reliable. They employ expert buyers and drive hard bargains with the producers, giving them large orders, but not allowing much of a profit margin. They also use wine as a marketing device, seducing customers by offering low prices. The other year, Tesco’s had a St Joseph for £4.95. Not the best St Joseph I had ever drunk, but excellent value as a quaffing wine.
Waitrose should know better — though what should one expect from an outfit which sacked William Sitwell as a magazine editor just for joking about vegans? (Hardly necessary, one might have thought, when they are already a joke in their own right.) William suggested that they be force-fed meat. A kindly fellow, he probably wanted to do them a favour.
As I write, the world’s vegans are converging on Glasgow, where the globe’s problems are giving Joe Biden and Boris Johnson sleepless days. Glasgow has changed in recent years, since the days when ‘vegetable’ meant chips — with everything — and vitamin C was a class A drug. But culinary sophistication is still a minority sport.
There is an excellent restaurant, the Ubiquitous Chip, which does not live up to its name. In the late 1980s, enticed by reports about the Ub Chip’s wine list, I once gave Roy Jenkins dinner there. The reports about the wine were well-founded. There was a Pétrus for under £100, a bargain even back then. I gave Roy the good news. He protested that despite his reputation, he was happy to drink modest wines. I am told that he often said that, and never meant it. As I remember, it was as good as it should have been.
Thinking about French wine makes one uneasy. The grenouilles are not behaving well at the moment, trying to make life awkward for our fishermen and easy for illegal immigrants. As they have a trade surplus with us, while we are being generous in allowing them any fishing rights in British waters, there must be scope for retaliation.
A wise observer said the other day that as soon as Macron is re-elected, the problem will be solved in a trice. But May is a long time to wait. A trade war would be in nobody’s interests. At a time when it often seems that what can go wrong will go wrong, this does not mean that it will not happen. ‘That sweet enemy’: it may be time to delete the ‘sweet’.