Confessions of a middle-aged wine snob
William Sitwell's abhorrence of any bottles costing less than £12 is causing him ever more financial and social embarrassment - he reports from the UK summer on the trouble with being a wine snob...
Summer sunshine, warm evenings, and the ice box is working overtime. Ice gets sloshed into everything - water, juices and - uh-oh - wine. Good winemakers go to an awful lot of trouble putting their precious liquid into bottles only for fools to dilute it with nasty water. Except, of course, ice can mask a bad wine. It can soften the edges, and it can chill the flavour out of filthy plonk. That may go some way towards explaining how the middle-aged and middle classes are apparently quaffing more than ever before.
According a study by Age UK last week, the middle-aged and middle classes are the new "problem" drinkers in Britain - sleepwalking into a health crisis. However, I've got one added problem. I'm not doing it with any old two-for-one supermarket plonk. My addiction is to quality, and it's a problem that my bank manager, rather than my doctor, is worried about.
I suppose the rot really set in after a long lunch at The Waterside Inn recently. I had gathered a good number of foodie scribblers and others to celebrate the restaurant's holding three Michelin stars for 30 years. In the company of Michel Roux Snr, we guzzled a large number of wonderful dishes and sipped a La Clarté de Haut-Brion from 2009, a Château Cheval Blanc of 2004, some Mouton-Rothschild 2006 and copious glasses of exquisite Château d'Yqem 1990.
Thus well and truly and extremely happily oiled, a number of us left the premises close to tea-time and tramped up the road into the village of Bray. We felt the need to keep the party going, so we repaired to The Crown. I ordered some wine. I can't remember what it was. But it cost £40 a bottle (NZ$94). It tasted filthy, weak, watery and acrid. "I can't drink this filth," I thought. Actually, I doubtless said it and then ordered a Guinness.
On the train back to London, an uncomfortable experience given what was sloshing around in my stomach, I realised that I've become a wine snob. Over the years, I've been exposed to a great number of wonderful wines, being gently tutored by sommeliers in the restaurants I've reviewed. I've had bits of knowledge shoved into my head in the course of writing stories about wine, from France to Greece, from Australia to the United States.
I've sipped, slurped and quaffed some terrific glasses. And what I am coming to terms with is that life seems too short to pass cheap liquid through my lips and into my mouth.So it makes it hard going into pubs. I don't like drinking pints any more: my body recoils at being filled with warm and frothy ale. Yet how many pubs have a really decent white by the glass? And what seems like a nice idea - a quick drink in a pub - becomes a slippery slope to an arrest after I ask for the wine list and demand to taste all those proffered, then, realising there is nothing quite dry and aromatic enough and with that mineral edge I crave, start to remonstrate with the landlord.
Socially, it's awkward too. Some friends have wonderful cellars, but one great friend can barely discern the difference between white and red so, of course, I need to bring my own.
As one arrives at a friend's summer garden party, chilled bottle of Montrachet in hand, picture the horror. One's host or hostess gently takes the bottle and directs you to the drinks. While your bottle is squirrelled away, you are expected to contend with a warm dose of Oxford Landing.
In restaurants, when not reviewing at someone else's expense, things can get catastrophic. I neither want to pick the most expensive wine nor drink the cheapest. Yet casting an eye around the table, one can see the tension between the poverty-stricken chum and the outrageously overpaid financier.
Then there are the bottles that friends offer. Knowing that a decent one is popped by the host in his or her wine rack, what seems to emerge is wine you might find at a petrol station.
I used to be happy to glug a £5 bottle on a school night. Now I shudder at the sight of an average Chenin blanc in the fridge door. Nothing under £12 (NZ$28) seems to caress my palate. I know that the cost of wine under about £7 is chiefly tax, production and transport costs.
And another thing. I'm getting picky about glasses. How can you get the full pleasure of a Riesling from a fat, stemless glass? I suppose I could quit drinking. Then again, have you seen how filthy some of the waters are out there?
- William Sitwell is a television presenter, food critic and contributing editor of Boisdale Life.
- The Telegraph, London