Toby Young

My approach to wine? Wishful drinking

My approach to wine? Wishful drinking
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I fancy myself as a bit of an oenophile and during the lockdowns, when my local branch of Majestic was forced to close, I joined The Wine Society and started buying wine from a variety of online sellers such as Vivino and Goedhuis & Co. The upshot is that I get three or four emails a day from these companies and have become an expert in deconstructing their sales patter. The common theme is to coddle the self--deception of the buyers that they aren’t full-blown alcoholics – heaven forfend! – but are obsessed with wine for some other, entirely respectable reason.

For instance, Goedhuis is currently promoting a ‘platinum selection for the Jubilee weekend’ on the assumption that its customers are going to be hosting garden parties this bank holiday. To ‘kick things off in style’, it recommends a magnum of Paul Goerg Blancs de Blanc champagne (£65), although a bottle of Chablis 1er Cru Vaillons from Billaud-Simon (£30) ‘is everything an elegant garden gathering deserves’. I’m quite tempted by the Chablis, even though the only people who are going to be in my garden in Acton this weekend are me and my dog. As usual, it’ll be absent friends I’m toasting, not the Queen, as I guzzle a whole bottle.

Other excuses Goedhuis offers for those itching to feed our habits are ‘long weekends’, ‘the first barbecues of the year’ and ‘sunny evenings’. So far, I haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity to buy any of the 2020 red Burgundies to ‘lay down’, partly because every month Goedhuis offers me the chance to snap up wines from a ‘major private cellar’, which I assume is one of its customers who’s gone bankrupt. I’m actually a huge fan of this upmarket wine merchant, but I try to limit myself to one case a month to avoid a similar fate.

Vivino, which is more mass market, likes to pretend its customers are highly sophisticated supertasters. All its wines are ranked out of five, not by Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson, but by a group the company calls its ‘users’.

Needless to say, almost nothing is marked below four by these addicts. For instance, you can purchase a 4.2 bottle of rare white Savigny--Lés-Beaune for £29.99, which a ‘user’ assures us is a ‘lovely wine’. ‘Notes of oak, butter, cream and apple,’ we’re told. I can almost picture a group of self-styled oenophiles standing around in a musty cellar encouraging each other to get rat-arsed on the pretext that they’re ‘tasting’ the wine.

Sometimes the veil is whisked aside. Last month I received a sales pitch from Vivino for a red wine blend that was described as ‘the ideal midweek sipper’. On one level, that’s code for ‘cheap as chips’ – it was £8.95 a bottle – but it’s also an appeal to customers looking for ‘midweek sippers’, i.e. those of us who cannot let a day pass without draining a bottle or two. Although even when the pitch is this blatant – calling all ‘users’! – there’s still a soupçon of pretence, which is that dipsomaniacs like me ‘sip’ their wine instead of compulsively downing glass after glass. This paint stripper got a solid 4.0.

The least pretentious of these online vintners is The Wine Society After all, who but a chronic alcoholic would join a ‘society’ devoted to their favourite tipple? You might as well call it ‘Winos Anonymous’, although its 170,000 members have no intention of going cold turkey. It offers a decent range of the pricey stuff, but it’s clear from the promotional materials that its main customers are middle-class retirees looking to sustain their habits on a pension. For instance, it’s currently urging its members to ‘discover the flavours of France’, which turns out to be an opportunity to purchase a mixed case of indifferent new wines for less than £10 a bottle. Expect notes of paraffin and urine with an acidic finish.

The funny thing is, I’m a complete sucker for these sales pitches. When I uncork the first bottle of the day, having spent several minutes selecting it from the collection of 50 or so in my kitchen, I persuade myself that it’s the perfect match for the ‘occasion’, usually a Sainsbury’s ready meal. I’m not an alcoholic – oh no! – but a connoisseur with a taste for the finer things in life. I can sustain this illusion until I’m about three-quarters of the way through the bottle and thinking about opening another, at which point the only ‘notes’ I’m aware of are the ones I’m spending every time I reach for the glass. But by that point, of course, I’m too far gone to care.