I hope you all enjoyed your summer holidays and were not too affected by droughts and forest fires. We joined four other families with whom we regularly share a vacation and rented a house high in the hills near Sintra in Portugal. None of our friends would qualify as wealthy, but all are comfortably off, and almost certainly more so than we are. As usual, we shared the duties of shopping and cooking for the meals we didn’t have in restaurants, and, given the number of people present, we got through quite a lot of wine, including some truly delicious bottles.
If you asked any of the group to name any of the wines they enjoyed – beyond vague recollections of there having been reds from the Douro and some good whites from Vinho Verde – I’ll bet that they would be unable to oblige. There was food and there was wine – red, white and pink – and it all tasted good.
Years ago, when I took the trouble to pack an interestingly eclectic batch of bottles in the back of the car when the same group had gathered in a rented house on the west coast of Scotland, I felt briefly affronted when I saw my rarities and old vintages being consumed as casually as the basic fare on offer in the nearby village shop.
But only briefly.
What mattered immeasurably more was the warmth and company of the people sitting around the table.
Over a post-holiday lunch in one of London’s more wine-focused restaurants, I described my experiences to a wine professional I’ll call John who nodded in recognition. We both evidently have good friends who are a lot less involved with wine than we are. “That’s how it usually is” he said.
Fine Wine on Tap
But he had had a rather different experience this summer. He and his family were guests of a host who opened bottles of Dom Perignon, Cheval Blanc and Yquem and their ilk at every meal. Was their generous friend a wine lover, I wondered? No, came the response. He likes to buy and serve big names and follows advice on what to buy, but you wouldn’t call him any kind of enthusiast. He drinks good wine for the same reasons he drives a good car and wears good clothes: because he can afford to do so.
And then there was John and myself.
I’d ordered the wine, a 2019 white Côtes du Rhône Brézème that I vaguely remembered reading about (as we ‘wine people’ tend to). It was served in decent glasses at a perfect temperature, to accompany some deliciously-prepared light dishes that were ideal for a warm midday al fresco.
As we chatted about a wide range of topics, I couldn’t help pausing to say, “Are you getting much more from this wine than I am?”
It was a perfectly nice white that was really no more memorable than some of the unfamiliar Portuguese examples I’d bought in a Sintra supermarket for a twelfth of the price we were going to pay the London restaurant.
On another occasion, if we’d had time for a longer lunch, one of us would probably have ordered something else – without complaining about the Brézème. As it was, we drank it in pretty much the same oblivious way my friends a week or so earlier had consumed the bottle of Filippa Pato’s delicious white Dinamico in a seaside restaurant.
That’s what most wine, for most people, most of the time is. A pleasant alcoholic lubricant, to imbibe with or without food, and without much thought.
People who are passionate about it, and people who can afford to buy famous labels and their guests may – for different reasons - remember the names of what passed down their throats.
But they’re the exceptions to the rule.