Father knows best: A Meritage without merit

20130604-074251.jpgIt had all the hallmarks of being a disappointment, but I just didn’t see the signs before it was too late.

While shopping in the unhelpful minefield that is the typical B.C. Liquor Store, I unwittingly walked out with a wine that, had I been of sane mind and acted with pragmatism in my buying strategy, would never have come home with me.

But lacking facts and relying on advice offered to me by store employee whom I now have determined knows no more about wine than I do internal medicine, I took the plunge and ignored those initial reservations that had bubbled in the back of my mind when I first spotted it on the shelf.

It wasn’t long before I realised I had made a terrible mistake. This was a wine that ticked all the wrong boxes.

Let’s take a look at what was wrong with this particular wine:

Virtually unknown winery? Check.

Arbitrary use of the word ‘reserve’? Check.

Silly name? Check.

Unforgivable critter label? Double check.

And so here I am, two days later, staring at a still-not-yet-finished bottle bearing memories of a couple nights before, which, it has to be said, consist mainly of my recoiling at its rough flavours and remorse over the money wasted.

The wine in question is Red Rooster Meritage Reserve 2010. I have no idea what makes it a reserve other than the fact it seems to have been reserved for fools like me, but that is only a guess.

For its price, at about $24 Canadian, it is a blasphemy, no more enjoyable than the wine my father selected, a $9.99 Californian Cabernet sporting a carefree pair of flip flops on its label. There was no question he liked his volume-produced plonk more than mine given his attitude toward wine is one of indifference as long as it doesn’t burn his throat as it does down the hatch. But the worrying indictment here is that I preferred his wine to mine as well.

For those keeping track of the score in the game of life and wine buying, it is: Father 1, Geordie 0.

This is one of those wines for which Miles in Sideways said “there better not be any fucking merlot” even if two-thirds of its contents are other grape varieties. It has a sharp smell of red fruits, but also a nose-burning chemical odour reminiscent of those cheap grape juices we were forced to drink at school when we were kids.

In the mouth I can only describe this wine as regretful. Thin, watery, all over the place but nowhere specific. They say it “overflows with aromas and flavours of red and black fruits balanced by vibrant acidity.” But if it were balanced I would not be staring at a partially consumed bottle that no one in this house wants to finish off — at least no one who is sober.

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Not going out: A lament for London wine bars

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A quick thought today about wine bars in London.

Out of the blue on Saturday night, a friend’s text message interrupted my slumber: “Okay, Gordon’s Wine Bar is officially crap,” he said.

Uh oh. Surely he has it all wrong, I thought?

Until recently, I would have defended Gordon’s Wine Bar and given harsh words to anyone who described it in such vulgar terms as “crap”. Surely such language should be reserved for that will that comes out of the barrels at a Toby Carvery rather than the cellars of a bar staffed by people who have at least a vague understanding of how proper wine ought to taste.

My instinct was to tell this friend he was wrong. That he needed to lighten up. That he needed to embrace this London institution for its charms, its foibles and, ultimately, its fun side. It’s rough and ready. Dark and romantic. Cozy and comfortable. Surely?

Perched on the edges of the Victoria Embankment between Charing Cross and Embankment stations, the sheer volume of people walking past means it absorbs customers as quickly as their bloodstreams absorb Rioja.

Mention you’re going to Gordon’s and people’s eyes will perk up with fond memories of previous bouts of debauchery in its vaults  and unspoken desires to be going there with you that moment.

But for some time now I’ve felt Gordon’s has a couple of serious problems. It’s always heaving. And the wine isn’t actually all that great.

A busy bar is good for the bartender but murder for the drinker. In Gordon’s case, its location and a lack of other visible options means everyone on a date or having after-work drinks falls in there naively thinking they can cozy up in a corner and sit out the evening.

Instead they contort against a wall or sit shivering over the sangiovese on a brick wall outside.

Just as a glass of warm wine sends my blood boiling, little is less enjoyable than drinking wine that matches London’s frigid spring breeze.

Then there is the wine list. Good on them for offering a list with a wide rang of modestly priced wines. But just look at that list. Go on the website and download the PDF. What is that lurking on its pages but off-licence wine in the name of Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon? £17 for a forgettable bottle that goes for less than £8 in your local offie.

Or how about El Coto White Rioja? Yet another £8-or-less bottle, but selling for £21.

We want a bargain, but it isn’t a bargain if we’re being given run-of-the-mill bargain-basement wines for more than twice their value.

Where else do we go? There is Vinoteca, of course, but beware it gets busy too. But at least their wines command the prices they charge.

If you’re after an Italian wine bar there is Negozio Classica with outlets in Notting Hill and Primose Hill. Rather than rough and ready it’s slick and modern. But the wine is good. The food as well. But really, it is a place you go only when you find yourself either in Notting Hill or Primrose Hill. Or if you live there. But if you’ve spilled out of work or are trying to get to know your date a bit better, they might not be within reach.

Whenever I ask friends to name the best wine bar in London, I am given a flurry of options. You can look on Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages for her listing of wine bars, or you can check out a similar list of UK wine bars compiled by Matt Walls on Tim Atkin’s website.

More recently I’ve been impressed by the simple coffee shop-cum-wine bar known as Notes on St Martin’s Lane. The fact I lost track of what we drank and how much is testament to how much I enjoyed it. If my memory were complete, it would mean I stopped things short and cut my losses.

But the bar everyone seems to rate is Cork & Bottle on Leicester Square. I’ve heard more praise than put-downs. It couldn’t frustrate me more than Gordon’s, could it?

Hard lessons: Tesco Express wine shelf letdown

ID-10044110I should have known better. There I was on Tuesday evening last week, standing in what could have been the world’s most depressing wine aisle, searching for a bottle of red wine match a pizza and a Bradley Cooper film.

What had originally been (loosely) planned as a small celebration of achieving my permanent residence in the UK fell to the wayside when we went to the pub directly after work and then straight to a house in a neighbourhood where the best wine merchant has “Tesco” written above its door.

Having been despatched to find us a ‘good bottle of red’ I walked into the Tesco Express [Note: I previously incorrectly identified it as a Tesco Metro – for shame!] full of ambition and determination. “This is Tesco,” I told myself. “They have an enormous wine range. Not all of it is  that 2-for-1 swill they so often peddle to the masses. What could possibly go wrong?”

Everything. This was a Tesco Express like no other. When I rounded the corner of the drinks aisle, I walked past the red wine shelf without even noticing it. I walked two laps around the shop before realising I had walked past it the first time. Turning back to the drinks aisle for the second time, I spotted the display – about three feet wide at most and tucked in at the end – then asked the shop assistant, who was stocking its shelves, if this was all they had.

“That’s it,” he said nodding in its direction. His demeanour suggested few people ever ask about the wine section in this shop. The sheer volume of beer and alcopops in the chiller suggested wine is an afterthought in these parts.

With my instincts in the right place, I scanned the top shelf for the finest wines. Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet. £9.99.

My heart sank. That was as good as it was going to get.

The selection was a motley crew of the usual suspects in the old 2-for-1 swindle. There was Jacob’s Creek, masquerading at twice its actual price for all £9.99 of my British pounds. Then I spotted the Chilean Isla Negra Merlot Reserva. £9.99 again. But wait, on the shelf below was another Isla Negra, this time the Isla Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon. For £4.99.

Stepping back a few feet, I took in the entire display and discovered that every bottle before me was part of the 2-for-1 marketing scheme, a perpetual pawn in the 50-per-cent-off game, a ploy to get you to buy not just one bottle of wine you didn’t want, but two.

Pile it high, sell it cheap.

I looked back at the shop assistant, who was unloading clinking wine bottles from their cardboard boxes with the care and attention of a longshoreman, and asked, pointing at the Isla Negra cabernet sauvignon, “So are these always on some sort of 50 per cent off deal?”

Unsurprised, he nonchalantly replied, “Always. Last week it was the merlot. This week it’s the cabernet sauvignon. It will probably be the merlot again next week.”

Knowing I couldn’t win here, I grabbed a bottle of the Castillo San Lorenzo Rioja, itself at 50 per cent off at £5.99 and, full of rational thought at that point, decided I should also buy a bottle of Tesco Cava for a fiver.

Because if I’m going to get ripped off, I might as well make it feel like a celebration.

Two Buck Chuck: If you’re going to slum it

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I have a few fond memories from my youth that involved experimenting with the cheapest booze I could get my hands on, but the best one involves a wine few people would admit to drinking.

A student’s budget and a general ignorance when it came to alcohol meant I tasted more than my fair share of oddities and abominations of the alcoholic kind.

But the worst of them all came into my life when my brother emerged from a B.C. Liquor Store with a bottle of red fortified wine called Bounty, a truly awful concoction with an alcohol level of about 20 per cent.

It featured a dramatic, square-rigged sailing ship on the label and a tagline that, if memory serves, suggested its contents promised us “the exhilarating taste of adventure.”

This was the sort of wine that was often seen on the side of the train tracks where the local alcoholics hung out. In fact, the only reason my brother bought it was because he spotted an empty bottle of it next to the train tracks that day, just a few steps from the liquor store.

We should have known drinking this ungodly elixir was going to be difficult. In the end, it had to be cut with a high ratio of tonic water. Even then it was still a challenge.

You would think, then, the same can be said for all cheap wine, that all of it is impossible to drink and nothing good can come from being a tightwad. And in many cases, this holds true. But sometimes you come across surprises – even if, deep down, you were hoping not to.

This came to mind when I heard the news that American grocery chain Trader Joe’s was raising the price of its Charles Shaw wines to $2.49 a bottle from $1.99.

If you don’t know of Charles Shaw, you might have heard of Two Buck Chuck. Yes?

I was sad to find out Two Buck Chuck would never be known by that name again. It was heartening to know there was a wine out there that could be bought for less than we pay in taxes alone on a bottle of wine in the U.K., which is £1.91 per bottle + 20 per cent VAT. (Annoyingly, even at its new price it is still cheaper than what we pay in taxes.)

In an absurd way, I am happy to say I got to try two of the last bottles (by last I mean among the last few million, no doubt) before the increase.

Being able to drink an entire bottle of wine for just $1.99 – or even the new price of $2.49 – is mind-boggling, although I know this isn’t unheard of in other parts of the world (I am reminded of a roadside sign in Castillon, France, advertising ‘rosé’ for €2 a litre).

The fact it tastes nothing like ethylene glycol or acetone is an achievement the Bronco Wine Company should be proud of.

Anyway, the two bottles of Two Buck Chuck (a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay) I recently acquired came to me by way of my friend Mel, a Los Angeles native who now lives in London. During his trip to the city of Angels over Christmas, he had the genius – and I mean genius in the best possible way – idea to buy them for me.

I always knew about this wine, but had never had a chance to drink it. It was featured on the California wine series hosted by Oz Clarke and James May, and my own father drank it when he was in California a couple of years back . From what I’d heard, it was perfectly drinkable and innocuous, albeit bland.

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The cabernet sauvignon, however, was a quantity I’d not come across before, but based on my knowledge of volume wines, I figured wasn’t going to be completely putrid. Perhaps it would be awful, but certainly it wasn’t going to burn through my stomach lining and cause me internal bleeding or anything like that.

Now, let’s take a step back here a moment. Think back to my experience with that bottle of Bounty. Or think back to your own experience with a horrendous, cheap bottle of wine.

If your first memory is that of a gagging reflex, you are on the right track.

But much to my surprise, the Charles Shaw wines didn’t burn as they went down my throat. They didn’t have obscene, rough flavours. They weren’t overly sweet like a lot of cheap New World wine. They were they were simply neutral, dry as they should be and, overall, completely inoffensive.

The chardonnay wasn’t over-oaked or flabby like many a bad California version, which should earn it a medal for that achievement alone. Meanwhile, the cabernet sauvignon didn’t have that sweet edge you would expect from, say, a Yellowtail wine, and if left to breathe for a while, had typical if uninteresting cabernet aromas and flavours, and tasted like an honest, if not complex, wine of acceptable quality.

Let’s remember here, these bottles were just $1.99. What else can you buy for $1.99? Here in the U.K., it won’t even cover the taxes.

Vinni: ‘Wine-based refreshment’, or what not to drink on New Year’s Eve

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My friends and I often joke that much of the wine lining supermarket shelves is not actually wine, but instead a wine-like drink of industrial-chemical origins, not unlike that aerosol cheese sold in America.

All joking aside, “wine-like drink” is an often useful descriptor for blasphemies like Echo Falls, Yellowtail and Blossom Hill, much as their makers might argue otherwise.

I didn’t think the Australians would go out and up the ante by actually launching a product that boasts this very fact. But then again the Aussies have never really be known for their subtlety, so perhaps they should be applauded for being brash enough to come up with something called Vinni.

With the phrase “wine based  refreshment” printed in large letters across its label, there is no doubting that this is a) not trying to fool anyone into believing it is a proper wine and b) going to taste awful.

It first appeared in shops in October 2012 and has been positioned to compete with beer and cider and, they say, attract a younger audience to wine drinks.

I’m not so sure they’ll achieve this. First, think for a moment what this ‘younger audience’ is actually like when it comes to their preferred alcoholic drinks. On any UK high street on any given Friday night and you will see Vinni’s target market in action; for the most part their preferences are based on the ease with which the drink goes down their gullet and how cheaply this can be achieved.

The people who conjured up this concoction were likely hoping to capture that young, festival-going crowd that relaxes in the park on a sunny day with a few drinks in hand, but the actual group that might find Vinni appealing are the types who drink abominations like WKD because it is sweet and laden with booze.

Except there is a problem. Vinni is not only awful (more on this later) but also fairly expensive for what it is. It costs £3.66 a bottle from Tesco.

So while Vinni might have been born out of good intentions – of drawing more people to wine and away from alcopops and cheap beer – in order for it to be successful it ought to at least taste like it might be made from wine and be good value for money.

Except it doesn’t. There I was on New Years’ Eve, getting ready to head to a house party when the idea popped into my head that I should try this drink. After several sniffs and a few sips, I couldn’t pick up any hint of wine except for a vaguely sweet and faint grape aroma, although it did give me an unsettled stomach.

This doesn’t surprise me. A few years ago it became fashionable to drink cider over ice in a pint glass – think Magners or Bulmers – because it was refreshing and easy to guzzle at times when all you wanted was something cold, wet and full of alcohol. Unlike more serious ciders, it was light and fruity. Perfect, then, for people who like the idea of drinking cider but don’t actually like the way it tastes.

Vinni achieves the same thing, it seems, by promising to be, as the label says, “fresh & fruity”.

It was because of those two words I felt a swell of embarrassment consume when I bought this drink from my local Tesco outlet. In order to avoid looking silly in the event I bumped into someone I knew, I didn’t put it in my basket until the moment before I made a dash for the cashier. I was safe from that point on, but I’m convinced the security guard gave me a knowing smirk.

And why wouldn’t ge? Here was a 30-something man buying a drink that no adult should ever drink, one that tastes sweet and only vaguely grapey, bearing almost no resemblance to wine or any other serious alcoholic beverage.

There are many things I’d rather have experienced than drink Vinni. If fact I’d rather have had  a bottle of Mateus Rosé my throat slit and my mouth concreted in, as my friend Trev recommended.

To put the price of Vinni into perspective, it’s possible to pay £2 or less for a bottle of good real ale that is bound to offer infinitely more enjoyment. But, then again, no one who drinks real ale is likely to buy something like Vinni unless they a) picked up the wrong bottle by accident or b) thought it might be worth blogging about.

Wine smelling of hair perming fluid? Less than a fiver

It was bound to happen eventually. I had gone months, if not more than a year, without tasting a white wine I found truly difficult to drink.

On the flipside, there have been many red wines along the way I found to be fairly vile (not including corked or oxidised bottles), but when it came to white wine it was all drinkable to one degree or another.

Clearly this should have given me reason to worry. Instead, I merrily went along with my daily business believing all was good in the world.

And then the offending bottle came into my life, a Calvet La Fleur Baron. Like a bad relationship, it was all wrong from the start. I should have avoided it before it began, but hindsight is a perfect science, as they say.

Yes, it was only £4.50, but I’ve never been one to believe price on its own is a determining factor. No, the signs lay elsewhere.

First, I bought it at Asda. I never shop at Asda. I haven’t liked Asda for, well, ever, and so the fact I was in there, buying not just one bottle of wine but two of them (they were on ‘sale’ apparently) in a part of Greater Manchester called Chadderton, could only mean bad news.

Second, in order to buy said bottle of wine I cycled to this Asda with my friend, Tim, on a fairly grim Friday afternoon when bad weather was rolling in and the sun was setting quickly.

It was cold. The traffic was frenetic. And the people in the store all looked like something out of the zombie apocalypse. All the signs of a bad relationship were there in front of me but I never saw them.

The tipping point, of course, was on the ride home from the supermarket – in the dark. Tim had been leading the way and himself narrowly avoided being side-swiped by someone driving a generic people carrier. He stormed off in anger to catch up the faux minivan, while I made the mistake of trying to follow. The traffic was dense and backed up. The sun had set. It was eery out there.

And that was when it happened. Just as I was sneaking along a line of stopped cars I saw another trying to cut through to a side road. I accelerated in vain to avoid it. BANG. The car hit my rear wheel and sent my blinking red light flying. My bike was out of control and I had to lean hard to the right to avoid slamming into a car on the left.

It was a hairy moment. Had I been carrying the wine I’d be tempted to believe, in hindsight, this was an attempt by some higher force to destroy it before it could reach my lips.

Despite that horrific experience, I was unscathed although a little bit shaken and a whole lot relieved.

And that is exactly how I felt every time I took a sip of this wine. It’s a horrific and frightening moment that you think could result in your demise. But then it’s suddenly over and you realise you’re still standing and, remarkably, uninjured.

When I shared this wine with Tim and his girlfriend, the initial reaction was negative across the board. For me, it smelled of hair salons. You know, that pungent odour of hair perming solution that lingers in the air. I thought it would go away with air or more chilling. But the stink remained.

There might have been decent fruit in this wine, but it seemed flabby and disjointed. It left a sharp taste in the mouth that made me want to do anything but drink more.

Worst of all, despite all three of us drinking a moderate amount of this wine, we all complained of worse-than-normal headaches the following morning.

Lucky for Tim he still has the second bottle of this misfit in his pantry.