A schoolboy definition of Winesmanship is ‘How to talk about wine without knowing a Hock from a Horses Neck.’ But in fact Winesmanship is itself a philosophy if not an ethic, and can be used in Young Manship, in Jobmanship, even in wooing.
A few phrases and a ploy or two, to get our bearings. Consider the simplest first. If you are taking a girl, or even a former headmaster, out to lunch at a restaurant, it is WRONG to do what everybody else does – namely, to hold the wine list just out of sight, look for the second cheapest claret on the list, and say, ‘Number 22, please.’ Never say the number, anyhow, because it suggests that you are unable to pronounce the name of the wine you are ordering. Nominate the wine in English French, and make at the same time some comment which shows at least that you have heard of it before. Say, for instance:
‘They vary, of course, but you seldom get a complete dud.’
A useful thing is to look at the wine list before the waiter comes and say, ‘Amazing. Nothing here you can be sure of. Yet the food is quite good. But I’ve got an idea.’
Then, when the waiter comes, say to him, ‘Look. You’ve got a Château Neon ’45 somewhere secreted about the place, I know. Can you let us have a bottle?’
(You know he’s got it because you have in fact read it off the wine list, cheapest but one.)
When the waiter leaves, you can say, ‘They keep a small cache for favoured customers.’
With a little trouble a really impressive effect, suitable for average city-man guest, can be made by arriving fifteen minutes early, choosing some cheap ordinaire, and getting waiter to warm and decant it. When guest comes, say, ‘I know you’ll like this. Should be all right. I got them to get it going at nine o’clock this morning. Not expensive but a perfectly honest wine – and a good wine if it’s allowed to breathe for three or four hours.’
For Home Winesmanship, remember that your mainstay is hypnotic suggestion. Suggest that some rubbishy sherry, nine bob, is your special pride, and has a tremendously individual taste. Insist on getting it yourself ‘from the cellar.’ Take about four minutes uncorking it. Say, ‘I think decanting destroys it,’ if you have forgotten, or are too bored, to decant it. Keep staring at the bottle before you pour it. When you have drawn the cork, look particularly hard at the cork, and, of course, smell it.
For the first sip of the wine, here are some comments for Student Winesmen. Remember, if the wine is claret, 1920 St Emilion Château Cheval Blanc, that strangely enough absolutely everybody is supposed to know whether it is a claret or a burgundy. Remember also that practically absolutely everybody is supposed to recognize instantly the year. Practically almost absolutely everybody should be able to say ‘St Emilion.’ The only tiny shade of doubt which can enter your comment is about its being Château Cheval Blanc.
Don’t say too much about the wine being ‘sound’ or ‘pleasant’: people will think you have simply been mugging up a wine-merchant’s catalogue. It is a little better to talk in broken sentences and say ‘It has... don’t you think?’ Or, ‘It’s a little bit cornery,’ or something equally random like ‘Too many tramlines.’ I use this last phrase because it passes the test of the boldly meaningless.
An essential point to remember is that everybody is supposed to take it for granted that every wine has its optimum year up to which it progresses, and beyond which it falls about all over the place. E.g. you can give interest to your bottle of four-and-sixpenny British Russet by telling your guest that you ‘wish he had been able to drink it with you when it was at the top of its form in forty-nine.’
Alternatively you can say, ‘I’m beginning to like this. I believe it’s just on the brink.’ Or I rather like saying, ‘I drink this now for sentimental reasons only... just a pleasant residue, an essence of sugar and water – but still with a hint of former glories. Keep it in your mouth for a minute or two... see what I mean?’ Under this treatment, the definitive flavour of carbolic which has been surprising your guest will seem to him to acquire an interest if not a grace.
Alternatively you may admit, frankly, that your four-and-sixpenny is a failure. ‘They were right,’ you say. ‘The twenty-fours should have been wonderful. Perfect grapes, perfect weather, and the vestre – the Dordogne wind. But for some reason or other they mostly sulked. Taste it and tell me what you think. You may like it.’
Or if your four-and-sixpenny is only two years old and unbearably acid, you can say, ‘Let it rest in your mouth. Now swallow. There, Do you get it? That “squeeze of the lemon,” as it’s called...’
Then, if there is no hope of persuading Guest that what he is drinking has any merit whatever, you can talk of your bottle as an Academic Interest treat.
‘Superb wine, but it has its periods of recession. Like a foot which goes to sleep, has pins and needles, and then recovers. I think that was André’s explanation. At the moment it’s BANG in the middle of one of its WORST OFF-COLOUR PERIODS.’
Watch your friend drink this wine, and if he shudders after it, and makes what we winesmen call ‘the medicine face,’ you can say... ‘Yes! You’ve got it? Let it linger a moment.’
‘Why?’ says Guest.
‘Do you notice the after-sharpness, the point of asperity in the farewell, the hint of malevolence, even, in the au revoir?’ If he says, ‘Yes,’ as he will, look pleased.
WINESMANSHIP: A LITTLE-KNOWN PLOY
The average guest, who knows no more about wine than the Winesman himself, can be easily impressed by such methods. But there are men who genuinely know something of this subject, and they are a very different problem.
I used to advise a simple and direct approach with such people, including an anglicizing of the simplest French words (e.g. call the Haut Brion the High Bryon). Gattling-Fenn at his first Saintsbury Club dinner realized that it was 1,000 to 1 the man on his left knew more about wine than he did. So he said (of an old burgundy, using the recommended Ordinary Approach):
GATTLING: It’s good.
EXPERT: Yes, but you know what’s happened?
GATTLING: Yes – in a way. What?
EXPERT: It’s been poured through the same strainer that they used for the Madeira.
Gattling broke into a hearty laugh at this, which quickly froze as he realized from the puzzled faces round him that the expert was speaking seriously.
No – the only method with the true specialist is what we call Humble Studentship, mixed in with perhaps two carefully memorized genuine advanced facts.
There are, however, lesser specialists, semi-amateurs, perhaps trying a little amateur winesmanship on their own, for whom we recommended the following advanced methods.
1. Beaded-bubbleship. This obscurely-titled ploy is merely the art of speaking, and especially writing, about wine as if it was one of the OK Literary Things. Be vague by being literary. Talk of the ‘imperial decay’ of your invalid port. ‘Its gracious withdrawal from perfection, keeping a hint of former majesty withal, as it hovers between oblivion and the divine Untergang of infinite recession.’
Smiling references to invented female literary characters are allowed here. ‘The sort of wine Miss Mitford’s Emily would have offered Parson Square, sitting in the window-seat behind the chintz curtains.’
2. Percentageship is, of course, the opposite method, and designed to throw a different kind of haze, the figure fog, over the wine conversation. Remarks like ‘The consumption of “treated” vermouth rose from 47.5 in 1924 to 58.9 in 1926...’ will impart a considerable degree of paralysis to any wine conversation. So will long lists of prices, or imaginary percentages of glucosity in contrasted champagnes, or remarks about the progress in the quality of cork trees, or the life-cycle of Vinoferous demoliens, little-known parasite now causing panic in the Haut-Baste.
It is always possible, if a wine completely stumps you, to talk in general terms about winemanly subjects.
If it is a warm summer day, say that ‘dear old Cunoisier will be getting worried about the fermentation of his musts.’
But if in real difficulties, remember that there are moments when the pickaxe is a more useful instrument than the most delicate surgeon’s forceps. And I shall always remember Odoreida thrusting aside sixteen founder members of the Wine and Food Society with a ‘Well, let’s have a real drink,’ and throwing together a mixture which left them breathless.
‘Pop-skull, they called it in Nevada,’ he said, and poured two parts of vodka into one of sherry and three of rum, adding a slice cut from the disc of a sunflower.
Stephen Potter, Lifemanship, 1950