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Hand over your corks, no questions asked

When gun crime, or knife crime more recently apt, gets out of hand, the media and police often concentrate on creating “amnesties” where repentant gun & knife owners can hand over their abominable weapons with no questions asked. Better to get them off the street they say.

I’ve never been totally convinced about this, but anyway it looks good on television and sometimes gets unexpected results (one less rocket launcher on the streets of Devon!) such as this.

So I was intrigued by a neck tag on a bottle of wine promising a “cork amnesty”. As a proud owner of quite a few corks, mainly because I collect them for a mysterious project my sister is working on, I wondered if I might have to visit a local police station to assuage my conscience. Alas, the truth was more prosaic.

[I bought the RH Phillips 2003 Zinfandel, but I believe there are/were other wines out there too]

RH Phillips, a Californian producer from Esparto, CA, USA (erm, time for the Wine Atlas I think), HAD created a site at www.corkamnesty.com that gave ideas of all the many things one could do with corks EXCEPT put them in the neck of a bottle of wine. This is a slightly aggressive form of evangelism for screwcaps, and it certainly got my attention.

Their neck tag as well as their back label are all about how cork is associated with TCA (cork taint, musty cardboard and walnut smells in wine) and should therefore be avoided.

Now, there is a big debate about corks, screwcaps, TCA, reductive wines, etc. that I will probably have to write about at some stage, but is probably FAR too dull for most people out there. I applaud RH Phillips for making a virtue of their packaging, but like with my politics, I prefer a positive message rather than a negative one. I happen to think that cork has a very important role to play, but screwcaps do too, and any radical position is unnecessary.

Unfortunately I delayed writing this post for some weeks and in that time, RH Phillips’ new owners (Constellation having acquired Vincor International) have closed down the site and redirected it to their corporate page.

Not only is this dull, it is silly as they lose any valuable traffic them might have got. It also means I cannot post any clever suggestions they may have had.

I’d like to think that unlike automatic weapons and Rambo-style hunting knives, there is no need to be concerned about corks. In the right hands they do serve a purpose and can benefit humanity. However, if you feel at all ashamed of your collection and you have not yet created your own cork trivet, notice board or wreath, then maybe you could decide to turn them in to the authorities and hope they ask no questions about how long it took you to accumulate such a collection.

Origins of UK Wine Culture

Hurry!

While it is still available, check out the recent BBC Archive Hour with Jancis Robinson. She (or rather the BBC Producer) has dug out all sorts of audio clips showing how our view of wine has changed in the UK over almost a century.

I need to listen to it again in detail, but there are great insights into the emergence of supermarkets, the role of women as decision makers, scandals and frauds, and much more.

Well worth a listen – I hope they keep it up for a while.

(and some of the accents need to be heard to be believed – and I don’t mean JR’s)

Alcohol Monopoly

I have been visiting Nova Scotia in Canada for a number of years (it is absolutely beautiful by the way) and usually I am critical of the concept of the Canadian state (well, the Provincial governments) having a monopoly on the sale of alcohol. You can check out the range here.

For those of us living in the UK or most of Europe, the idea that the state should control what wines or spirits should be available, where, and for how much is extraordinary (if you live or visit Sweden this is probably not such a shock for you).

[Some might argue of course that this is exactly where we are heading in the UK because of the retail strength of the supermarkets like Tesco - but even here we at least have a number of alternative ranges to choose from]

My reaction is usually – “How could one organisation tell us what wines we can drink?”, especially when the result, at least in Canada, is a pretty limited range of branded wines?

The reason for this structure is most likely still a hang-over (!) from Prohibition (yes, they had it here too), and there is a sort of puritanical streak to the management of this ‘vice’ which I personally disagree with. It also means that there is a form of “lowest common denominator” effect at work which determines that all wine have to be available in minimum quantities to supply all stores, have to be consistent and also be able to comply with the kinds of red-tape only government departments are able to create. This often results in a pretty bland range.

However, there is one small silver lining to this was pointed out to me which I had not considered. In the UK we have such a high density of population that we can pretty well guarantee access to supermarkets or shops wherever we are, with a few exceptions of course. This means that the market can operate quite freely and there will be someone who can sell you what you are looking for within a reasonable distance.

When you take a country like Canada, this is definitely not the case outside of most large cities. So much of the infrastructure here depends on government support to reach tiny communities in distant areas, that if the government did not step in, certain items (especially luxury items such as wine) would either be impossible to get, or prohibitively expensive.

OK, so wine is probably not the main justification for this type of system, and I’m sure they make a pretty penny or two in tax from selling and taxing all that alcohol, but at least they can get it. Hopefully in time, and with a little popular pressure, the range will improve further.

I’m sure the local “liquor commission” would tell you that a monopoly also means that there are clear & limited channels for reaching consumers, giving the opportunity for ‘managing’ consumer alcohol consumption. I still think that in the longer term education works better than restricting access. However, thinking positively, it does mean there are obvious places to start reaching consumers with information on wine to educate and inform them and improve their experience.

Still, I’ll take Tesco’s range over the NSLC one any day!

Cultural truths and myths

Sometimes articles come along that remind you that the full wine message has still not got through to all corners of the wine drinking world.

The BBC magazine site has a pretty good and well researched article on wine and wine appreciation. Kate Thal at Green & Blue helps to explain that understanding wine is not as complicated as many think, nor as many ‘TV celebrities’ try to make it.

It also points out that even a wine producing country like South Africa may not actually have an evolved Wine Culture because there are lots of people who have no knowledge or access to the stuff. Wine production and wine appreciation are not strictly linked (there are some countries that seem to forget this).

What is most interesting about this article, however, is not the main body but the way it ends, and the comments that readers make following it.

At the end of the article it feels the need to have a dig at (French) sommeliers saying:

“Ms Overton also suggests that there has been a hangover from the days when sommeliers were rather haughty and French and the wine trade was filled with posh Oxbridge types.”

Sometimes it seems that when you are down, you get kicked no matter what. However much the French, or for that matter the Germans, do to improve their wines, their presentation or their communication, the old truths just seem to hang around for ever. When was the last time you REALLY met a ‘haughty French sommelier’? Why dig it up again even if it was true?

Then we go on to read some more prosaic ‘home truths’ (amongst some other pretty good comments):

QUOTE: “The bigger the dent in the bottom of the bottle, the better the wine (so I’ve been told)”
RESPONSE: No! The dent in the bottom of the bottle, or punt, has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the wine. It often represents a more expensive bottle, so you could argue that pound-for-pound with another wine, it is probably worse value (with more of your money being spent on the bottle and not the wine). It may be that a good producer has chosen a more unusual bottle, but this does not reflect directly on the quality of the wine.

QUOTE: “I go for three things:
1. Full bodied
2. New world
3. Half price
It’s served me well so far.”

RESPONSE: Lucky you! Half price wines of good quality do exist, but you really are not experiencing the true possibilities of wine with this formula.

QUOTE: “My criteria: 1. must be between £5 and £10; 2. must have an animal on the label; 3. must be from S. Africa, Chile or Australia and 4. definitely not French.”
RESPONSE: Oh dear! It started so well with number 1.

and my personal pet hate:

QUOTE: “I always choose my wine by the alcohol volume.”
RESPONSE: Would you ever say: “I choose my holiday by the plane I’ll be boarding”. Of course alcohol is a factor, but it tells you NOTHING about the quality of the wine on its own. And what does this mean anyway? Do you aim for more alcohol per pound, or less? It reminds me of 20 years ago, with impoverished students trying to squeeze every ounce of alcohol from the weekly budget. Unfortunately I thought, or hoped, that wine had moved on from those days. There is so much good wine out there, even on a budget, that this kind of statement really needs to be consigned to the quote bin of history.

Wine Therapy

“Anti-wrinkle cream there may be, but anti-fat-b*stard cream there is not” Dave

What is “Wine Therapy”?

This is a detox treatment for the serious oenophile (wine lover), but with a difference. Instead of focusing on the consumption of wine, this is about those parts your regular tipple just can’t reach.

Wine Therapy (Oenotherapy, Vino Terapia, … etc.) claims to take the health benefits of wine to a new level by slapping them on your face, rubbing them on your skin or reducing them to a pill format that you can swallow without having to swirl.

Sound like fun yet?

I was recently invited to such a treatment whilst visiting Rioja. My treatment involved turning up at a spa, dressing only in the flimsiest shorts on Earth, and lying on a plastic sheet on a heated bed. Pretty dodgy so far.

Next, my therapist slathered my skin with a mixture made from honey & the tartrate deposits from wine barrels. How these “polyphenol rich deposits” (or something like that) are supposed to pass their antioxidant, and therefore anti-ageing, properties to me I’m not sure. However, having gritty goo rubbed all over you for 40 minutes is surprisingly enjoyable.

Next comes the wrap. Feeling like a certain overweight character about to do a Full Monty, I lay there wrapped in that plastic sheet to “absorb” (and sweat) whilst more vinous treatments were applied to my feet.

Next a strong mit and a shower, ready for the oil rub (I think there was some grape must extract there somewhere). Finally, feeling all rosy and fresh, I was served a delicate infusion (no grapes, and certainly no wine) and told to swallow a Resveratrol pill made from the concentration of grape skins and pips.

I must admit I felt good, but any form of massage and skin treatment would do that. As for any “health benefits” from the natural properties of grapes … well, maybe there was, and maybe there wasn’t, but I think I’d still rather take my grape-based medicine by the glass-full instead.

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