16 Apr 2014

Sir Alex Ferguson, his wine sale and David Moyes

A relaxed Sir Alex Ferguson, basking in the twilight of retirement and the limelight of success, is selling off some of the extremely expensive wines in his cellar.

David Moyes, meanwhile - embattled, furrowed brow, all to prove - is facing a task bigger than anyone realised, to rebuild a Manchester United squad of fading stars.

The problem when a big charismatic winner like Alex Ferguson or Tony Blair gets to choose their own time of departure, to go out at the top, their successor, Moyes or Brown, faces a struggle and a half to put the brakes on as they head down the other side. Like fine wines, the best footballers get better with age and then they reach a peak, fall away.

So one man battles for his job, the chance to chop away the dead wood he never bought, the other is pruning the fruits of the amazing success he achieved through the series of incredible football teams he created.

Speaking personally, I've been ridiculously lucky to be a Manchester United fan and season ticket holder while Sir Alex Ferguson was manager. Amazing, entertaining and winning teams he created. By the same token, I respect the scale of the job facing David Moyes.

And there's a curious contrast. The way Fergie filled his wine cellar seems so alien to the way he built his football teams! At least in the latter part of his reign, anyway.

To any fan who watched the games in recent years, his squad was obviously running out of juice - yet this supreme figurehead, this master of management, was somehow able to squeeze out every last drop. The entertainment levels weren't quite as high, but the titles still came.

Ferguson started to speak obsessively of the need to find value in the transfer market. Part of this was probably pragmatic - I think people underestimated what a pragmatist Fergie was - as there's no doubt he tried to get some of the top players but failed when they followed money over prestige. And his budget-buying seemed to coincide with the indebted Glazer takeover.

Even so, he meant what he was saying: he started to favour undervalued talents and young players of potential. As superstars like Beckham, Keane and Ronaldo left the stage, unknowns or less heralded performers like Anderson and Nani, Valencia, Jones and Smalling took their place. From a wine point of view, it's not quite going from Berry Brothers & Rudd to Bargain Booze, but it's a definite shift in what you're looking for. You might find some decent value, some undiscovered gems, but you might also end up with some duds.

Such a strategy can be successful, as shown in the brilliant Moneyball - but it relies on strengths other than quality and pure talent. Unity, the habit of winning, respect for or even fear of your boss. These are the things that so quickly drained away, like releasing the cork from a bottle, when Sir Alex retired.

13 Mar 2014

A really unusual red wine: Fonte del Re Lacrima di Morro d'Alba

Are you stuck in a wine drinking rut? Sick of drinking stuff that tastes just a bit, well, winey? A bit dull? Here's a weird one to get you thinking while you're drinking. I suspect it might divide people into the "wow, that's really interesting" camp and the "wow, that's really weird" camp, so choose the right time to open it.

Twirl your glass around a bit, stick your nose in and it smells amazing. Very orangey; also peaches; blossom of some kind; lavender, maybe. Floral and perfumed like a hippy's patchouli-scented boudoir, in my mouth sensing a squirt of honey and lemon, a slice of orange peel.

In fact - thinking about this wine from memory now (I had it a couple of days ago) - I suspect if tasted blind you could be forgiven for thinking it a white rather than a red wine, what with all those citrussy and floral flavours, maybe a viognier or something like that.

Did I enjoy it? I loved the experience: the reminder you can get all these different scents and flavours inside one glass of wine, like an Aladdin's cave discovering new things as you work your way through it. With the debate about novelty wine in mind, it was drinkable too.

Fonte del Re Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, £11.99 from M&S

6 Mar 2014

Can you make sparkling wine in a SodaStream?

What happens if you put cheap white wine in a SodaStream and fizz it up? Well, apparently it can make for a decent sparkling wine. Helen McGinn, author of the Knackered Mothers' Wine Club blog, says here celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal are big fans of the technique.

(I'm guessing Heston whizzes his wine up to a specific RPM twice a day over a three-day period before freeze-drying it and serving it as foam over some really small fish and chips. Meanwhile you can picture Jamie in his kitchen with some cheap Italian chardonnay in one corner, a SodaStream in the other, and a dream of Pukka Prosecco! in Jamie's Italians everywhere.)

The best SodaStream wines

Helen McGinn found Aldi's Toro Loco rose to be the best of a selection she tried out in the SodaStream, closely followed by Waitrose Italian Dry White and Las Falleras Rose from M&S. So there you go - it might be worth a whizz. That's if you still have a SodaStream lying around. (Incidentally, after hearing nothing of SodaStream since about 1987, this is the second story about the brand I read in a matter of days: the other one was about Scarlett Johannson's decision to quit her Oxfam role due to conflict with her SodaStream advertising deal.)

How to aerate wine without a decanter

Anyway while I'm talking about whizzing up wine, I came across this other article about sticking your wine in a food blender. This time, the aim is to add air to it and open up the flavours. Apparently it's a very effective way of aerating the wine - no doubt despite the serious risk of looking like you're having a Basil Fawlty moment in front of your dinner guests.

Bottle shock

Incidentally both articles make me wonder whether you could "damage" your wine with a kind of bottle shock by whizzing it up like this. Then again, I suppose that's more pertinent with wines that are more expensive than your £3.69 bottle of Toro Loco.

A similar thought came to mind when I saw this YouTube video by Stephen Cronk, the British owner of French wine producer Mirabeau, which went viral. Again, I suppose you wouldn't want to be bashing your Chateau Cheval Blanc against a wall inside a shoe - but then I suppose if you're the person who can afford that then you're also the person who can afford a corkscrew, or at least one who doesn't lose their corkscrew every other day. Pass me the Toro Loco...

21 Feb 2014

What is problem drinking and how do we tackle it?

Alcohol misuse has been in the news again this week after the latest set of official figures were released - I did a news story on it here and a lot of the main news outlets covered it, including an opinion piece by Owen Jones in the Independent headlined The drug we ignore that kills thousands.

This is such a complex area - beer writer Pete Brown makes the case against the stats and a general clampdown on booze here - that it's notoriously difficult to either a) work out how much of a problem alcohol is in society; and b) if it is a big problem, what to do about it.

People who do drink too much do it in different ways and for different reasons. A well-off pensioner who drinks excessive amounts of fine claret from breakfast onwards every day will have different motivations to a student who gets trashed in clubs every night, who is different again to an unemployed young bloke who drinks heavily at home on a night, and who is different again to a pub regular who downs six or seven pints a night without noticing.

They might all be causing various amounts of harm as well as pleasure, either to themselves or others, so how do you come up with one policy to help them all? Perhaps we need to segment problem drinkers: What are they drinking? Where are they drinking? Why are they drinking?

Do higher prices work? What about the fact that penalises safe drinkers too? Or is education the main thing - if so, how? Do we need a clearer message on units? What is or isn't safe drinking for that matter?

It's such a tricky area, how to reduce alcohol misuse without penalising safe drinkers. And moderate drinking can, of course, be such a positive thing for individuals and society. Studies have suggested it's good for health but, perhaps more importantly, it enriches life - something that's so difficult to quantify. Even drinking at home, you can enhance your wonder of the world through your wine glass. There's the sensual enjoyment, the learning, the conversation, the stress release of just a single glass. How can you ever quantify those benefits for society to offset the harm elsewhere? And then there's the positive benefits of decent pubs to working class communities, as acknowledged by Professor David Nutt:

Drinking habits don't exist in a vacuum: perhaps all the talk of pricing, licensing hours and units is a bit of a red herring. Maybe the best way to curb the most severe problem drinking might well be to deal with wider social issues fuelling it. If people have jobs, and jobs that pay, if people live in warm housing, if they have hope and reason to get up on a morning, if they have more to lose, if they don't feel lonely or bored, won't it be less likely they'll turn to problem drinking? As long as you drink to add flavour to life and not to dull it, you're more likely to keep it under control. That's not to say your drinking can't go from there to becoming a serious problem on an individual level - it can, as it's a powerful drug - but maybe it's less likely.

One last note - I sometimes wonder about the effect of wine costing so much more in restaurants and pubs than in shops. People are trying £20 bottles of wine when eating out and wondering why it tastes no better than a £5 bottle at home. Wine in this country is so, so much cheaper when bought and drunk on its own than with food.

18 Feb 2014

Novelty versus classic wine: the Eastern Med range from M&S

It was funny timing, buying these interesting looking wines on Valentine's Day with some M&S vouchers.

Not really funny as in hilarious.

We all fell ill with a nasty sickness bug the same day. This wasn't much more than the "24-hour thing" all sickness bugs are required to be by popular demand - but it was fairly extreme and a sickness bug does not go nicely with an M&S chicken jalfrezi and a Turkish red. When you're in and out of the bathroom with the shivers, followed by a fever and thumping headache, the mere idea of a chicken jalfrezi seems comically wrong.

Classic wine versus unusual wine

Our selection included a wine from Greece called Red on Black; Chateau Ksara from Lebanon; and Sevilen Okuzogu from Turkey, along with Italian red Lacrima di Morro d'Alba and a couple of bottles of Argentinian malbec, the reliable Vinalta on offer at two for £12.

As well as the sickness, it was also funny timing because almost as soon as we'd got the bottles home, wine writers were debating the merits of classic wines versus lesser known varieties. Just as we were looking to try some wines off the beaten track, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson were saying "ignore the classics at your peril" (they mean regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy; grapes like cabernet, merlot and pinot noir, as opposed to wines from other areas that may have existed for even longer but earned less repute). Parker in particular was arguing that hipster sommeliers are going for novelty over quality. Others like Jamie Goode, on the other hand, disagreed saying variety is the spice of life and unusual wines offer better value in restaurants.

To those of us outside the south-eastern England wine bubble, they might as well have been arguing over an old Rolls-Royce and a new Ferrari. Don't bother with the overpriced old prestige car, they're old hat! You want to get yourself a flash new sports car instead - it's more interesting and cheaper! You know - don't bother with the £100 a bottle Bordeaux, get some of this delicious natural Serbian stuff for a mere £75!

In other words, all properly good wine whether it's new or old is so bloody expensive, in restaurants especially, that for most of us it's usually of interest only - excruciatingly - in an academic sense. This debate is a reminder of why, sadly, proper wine and wine analysis remains stuck in an echo chamber, the critics' slurps bouncing back in off the glass walls like a big spittoon. In short, really good wine tends to be so bloody expensive!

What does better wine mean?

I'm exaggerating, a bit. I actually think the unusual-wine-versus-classic-wine debate was of some interest, the protection of "unknown" and indigenous wine regions and styles being both exciting and really important. Also, to counter the 100-pointers and their classic wines, surely the better wine is only ever the one you personally find most compelling. The music of a given band or composer might be the product of a great talent, it might be objectively adept, but if you don't like it, you don't like it. Because let's not forget scoring wines out of 100 is just as daft as it would be to rate a film or a book or a cheese out of 100. Stuff tends to be amazing, good, decent and not good - as a combination of quality and your personal preference at that given time - and that about covers it.

Faulty wines and a nightmare bed

The wines from M&S's eastern Mediterranean range were not eyewateringly expensive but not bargain basement either at around the £10 mark. But at least with wine you do have the reassuring thing that the retailer should swap it for another if it's faulty; often they even pledge to do so if you simply don't like it.

This is reassuring, as we recently had a nightmare bed buying experience ('scuse the pun) with, yes, M&S. To cut a long and boring story short, the bed isn't level, it is uncomfortable and it is objectively not the same as the one we tried in the shop. We have bad backs. M&S sent out an "independent" inspector from FIRA to take a look. FIRA is an organisation funded by bed retailers to keep their returns to an absolute minimum efficiently deal with their customer returns, and their inspector acknowledged our mattress was not level. But this, it turned out, did not qualify us for a refund.

I'm not sure what the moral of this convoluted tale is. Apart from to spend your money on wine and not on beds. Classic or adventurous, cheap or expensive, either way you should at least be guaranteed a good night's sleep.

3 Feb 2014

A brewery-turned-gallery: The Tetley in Leeds

The Tetley, Leeds

Called into The Tetley for the first time this weekend and was impressed. This is the old headquarters of the Tetley brewery, a building dating back to 1931, and it's great to be able to wander around and take a look inside. The grandness of it all is a real reminder of how successful a big family brewery like Tetley's must've been at the time, and also of how much things change. Tetley's has now all but left Leeds but loads of small breweries have popped up around the city at the same time. It's funny how industries change, social and drinking habits change and buildings, like people, evolve. It reminds me of a job I once had with the civil service in another part of Leeds in a big old mill that had been converted into offices: where once there had been the noisy and dirty click-click-click of industrial machinery years earlier, there was now a quieter flow of immigration casework passing through the building, a conveyor belt of sorts.

The location of The Tetley feels like a historic little patch of Leeds, with the Salem Chapel nearby and a blue plaque marking the formation of Leeds United; the great Adelphi pub is also a stone's throw away.

As a gallery and events space The Tetley has loads of potential, so fingers crossed it's a success. Leeds needs more stuff like this, both from a culture and family-friendly point of view. As a city it seems to have a less obvious culture than places like Manchester and Liverpool. It's debatable why that's the case: Manchester and Liverpool have proximity to ports and they also have a bigger Irish influence; Leeds and Yorkshire on the other hand have a more "look after the pennies" tradition that isn't necessarily conducive to a cultural hotbed. Maybe that's something to do with it. Either way, kudos to those behind The Tetley to get this up and running, as it'd be excellent if this could become something like a Leeds Salt's Mill. Also not forgetting this is primarily a drink and food blog, the cafe (set up with consultation from Anthony Flinn's company) looked and smelled good too.

Our kids really enjoyed the Springboard Saturdays session - basically a relaxed crafty area for them to draw, stick and create stuff to their hearts' content to a theme that changes each week, with friendly volunteer artists on hand.

And we enjoyed having a look in the grand boardroom, wondering about the people and conversations that have lived in there over the years.

I hope The Tetley is a success.

1 Feb 2014

A good book for foodies: Edible Stories by Mark Kurlansky

"It smelled of so many things, different fruits and woods, that it seemed almost unnecessary to drink it. Whole five-course meals did not have as many flavors as a tiny sip of this wine, and a single sip kept tasting for minutes..."

Edible Stories by Mark Kurlansky (Gibson Square)
This novel starts with a chapter called Red Sea Salt - each chapter takes the name of a food or drink - in which a man is stuck down a hole in a pavement and has no clue whatsoever of how he came to be there or even who he is. Having lost his memory, and it turns out his sense of taste, he ends up becoming one of the top food critics and TV chefs in America.

Each chapter is really a short story in its own right and they all just about tie loosely together in a kind of tapas way, with the same characters popping up every now and then but the food theme never going away.

I loved how this novel spoke of a time and a place for specific foods. A girl's on a date at a New York Yankees baseball match and her new boyfriend has gone to the trouble of preparing a fancy picnic with Italian white wine - but secretly all she really, really wants is a hot dog to watch the match with, the meaty aromas tantalising her as they waft across their seats.

The book touches on snobbery, of daft social conventions but also important ones in food, of how it helps oil the wheels of family life and communities. In one amusing chapter (Osetra), a young gang member in the Bronx gets an insatiable taste for caviar and he can't stop shoplifting it; in another (Orangina), the arrival of Orangina in a town in south-west France is seen as a threat to the town itself, older locals fretting "this is a vin rouge town!" and calling for a ban.

Edible Stories is a witty and fun book and a clever reminder of how food and drink are at the heart of human relationships.

28 Jan 2014

Two interesting cheap wines from Latitude Wine in Leeds

I bought these two from the brilliant Latitude Wine the other day. I've had the garnacha before - it's very good value - and I'm hoping the Paparuda pinot noir from Romania will be a bargain too.

It seems Eastern Europe is making a comeback, with a growing reputation for good value and interesting wines - I remember really enjoying a Hungarian pinot noir at Sam's Chop House last year - so I'm looking forward to trying this one.

Also, a reminder you don't have to shop at supermarkets to find cheap wine: with a Latitude loyalty card giving 10% off, the Paparuda pinot noir cost me just £6.75 and the Borsao garnacha was £5.85.

24 Jan 2014

How to get through a dry January - Netflix!

There are valid arguments for and against doing a Dry January or at least cutting down your alcohol intake for a month. It's a personal choice - only you will know whether it would be worthwhile. But if you are doing a dry January and you've come this far, well done - and I bet in many cases it's because you've devoted that wine glass-shaped hole in your life to other things.

That's what I think might often be the key to cutting down your drinking: making sure you do something else instead. Because drinking good wine or good beer is a hobby like any other - in fact no, it's a passion, as they'd say on Masterchef - and when you suddenly drop any pastime you love, especially one with addictive properties, you're going to miss it.

How to cut down your alcohol intake

So, do something else you enjoy doing that'll feed your senses or your soul, much like wine would've done. Go out for runs; read more novels; watch more films; do whatever appeals to you, so long as it's fairly healthy and it's something you'll realistically stick with.

I was thinking about this, as we've been enjoying the free introductory trial to Netflix this month while simultaneously giving our livers a break, and it's been great. There's been plenty of good stuff to watch so far, and that's without yet even starting on any of the TV series, just sticking to the films. In an ideal world the selection on offer could do with more recently released films, but we've still found plenty to enjoy.

Netflix tips

There Will Be Blood is great: a performance of proper acting by Daniel Day-Lewis in a slightly odd and old-school way (director Paul Thomas Anderson's other films, not on Netflix, are great too by the way); Shame was compelling and dark; The Help was excellent (apparently it's a great book too); Amour was beautifully shot and brilliantly played by both leads - in particular I thought by Jean-Louis Trintignant who played the husband - though a tiny glint of more humour here and there to ease the relentless gloom might've improved it still further.

We've also watched a fair few less serious films - January can be dark enough as it is, after all - and if romcoms or daft capers are your thing I'd say give Nine Months; High Fidelity, Priceless and Gambit a go. Wasn't massively taken, though, with When In Rome; Conversations With Other Women and Like Crazy.

So there you go, consider this an early recommendation of Netflix. And who knows, maybe it can even improve your health. Unless watching a film without glass of wine in hand just isn't the same...

10 Jan 2014

Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2011 - a brilliant wine

We drank this in the last hour or two of the final day of 2013 - and it might just've been my favourite wine of the whole year.

It smelt and tasted floral and natural, somehow, reminding me a bit of the really good Spanish wines I've drunk. It made us think of weddings: fragrant wafts of perfume; bright flowers; deep, fruity cake.

A brilliant way to end the year, though with the bittersweet realisation there are very few wines of this class left in our rack now and they're not going to be replaced any time soon...

I bought it many months ago at Harvey Nichols, but it looks a great buy at Slurp for £16.95 if your new year budget can stretch to it.