Henry's World of Booze | For the impecunious amateur
I’m Henry Jeffreys. My aim in this blog is to have something interesting to say about booze once a week. I am going to write 500 words or so on a wine-related topic. There will be guest reviewers to keep things lively but mainly it will be me talking about wine or occasionally other drinks.
Glen David Gold is probably best known for his debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and its follow up Sunnyside. When I was in publishing I worked on the publicity for the latter and we spent a very pleasant, at least for me, few days together when he came over to England for publication. I didn’t know him well but he always came across as about the nicest most relaxed author one could wish for. Note for readers here, not all authors are nice and they are very rarely relaxed. There’s a very good line in his memoir, I Will be Complete, which comes out this month:
“When I describe what happened, people tend to ask ‘but how did you end up so – ‘ they dance around the world ‘ normal’. then realise it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, ‘so nice’?”
I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy.”
Glen David Gold looking happy. Credit: Sara Shay
Glen was brought up in affluence in southern California but when his parents broke up he moved with his mother to San Francisco. By the age of 12 he was living much of the time by himself whilst his mother was in New York. His relationship with his unstable and increasingly erratic mother provides the engine of the book. As a memoir it bears comparison with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and in a neat link, Glen was taught by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey at the University of California who himself wrote a memoir about his bizarre childhood called the Duke of Deception. Glen’s book has the fluency of the former and the honesty and hard-won wisdom of the latter but with a strangeness and, at the end, a darkness, that is all it’s own. It deserves to sell by the container load as well as win every prize going.
In my correspondence with Glen I discovered that he is a fairly recent but already hopeless wine bore so here he is talking about one of his passions:
Hello Glen, what are you working on at the moment?
My memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE comes out June 26th and although there’s very little (no) wine in it you may very well want to pour yourself a glass while reading it. I’m writing a few brief essays to support it, I’m starting research on the next historical novel, and I’m looking to sit in a writers room for a good TV show and play in someone else’s kingdom for a while.
You mention your father has got into wine at 80, was that your work?
A little bit. My brother Seth started a rum company, SELVA REY, and spent five years coming over to every single family gathering with samples to test on us. My dad is a collector at heart and he loves the stories behind things, so he was a perfect sucker for the small batch bourbon thing. Like myself, he loves stories of growers and stories that begin, “This wine is now $100 but when I bought it en primeur it was $40,” but as you know those stories are very rare. His favorite wine is now Myriad Cabernet Sauvignon. (Update: I think the Sarah Francis Beckstoffer GIII now wins.)
Would you say wine has brought you closer together?
Yes but so has age. He’s a good dad for an adult.
What are you drinking at the moment?
2016 Henri Boillot Bourgogne. That interview with Mike D in Noble Rot tipped me off to how to surf Burgundy by getting the $20/30 Bourgognes and Bourgogne Blancs of high-end producers, and as a result I am beginning to understand why that region is so terrifying. Dujac’s Bourgogne Blanc is hypnotic, delicious, has massive bottle variation and is utterly unavailable. Is there anything else to know about Burgundy?
Was there a eureka moment with wine or was it a gradual process?
Very gradual. About eight years ago, my friend David came to a party with three William Selyam pinots from different vineyards. He had a complicated experiment he wanted to conduct involving decanting and the terroir of single vineyard designates. Unfortunately another friend saw what he interpreted as giant glasses of wine, and he literally upended an entire, to the brim glass, said “wow, that’s great,” then took down the next one, and the next. I wish you could have seen the solid O of horror on my friend David’s face.
Maybe a year later, I was at a restaurant called Prospect in San Francisco. They’re friendly to me there and someone had left without finishing his bottle of 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Pinot Noir, so they poured the rest of the bottle for me and my date, and I was intrigued.
About a year after that I had a 2009 Clos St Julien, which is a fairly weird St Emilion, and I realized I was in love with how I was tasting something I was unable to describe — just experience. My writing powers were nullified. Huzzah!
Who do you think writes well about wine/ drink?
I like how detailed Chris Kissack gets in his reports on producers, though he and I don’t have aligning palates. I also like Kermit Lynch’s book — he was my local wine shop long long before I understood anything about what I was drinking.
Do you have a favourite drink scene in literature?
Wilton Barnhardt has a novel called LOOK AWAY LOOK AWAY about the contemporary American South, and there’s a lovely scene in which a rich relative works dark magic on a family meal, gleefully giving glasses of 1989 Lynch Bages to people who don’t know what they’re drinking. Quite the indictment of social mores.
What’s your favorite everyday wine?
I try to not have an every day wine. When I don’t crave a spectacular experience, but a familiar one, I’m drawn toward gamay in the summer months and older cru bourgeois bordeaux at other times — the 2010 Senejac, which was $17 a bottle, is a stupid value right now.
Do you have a favourite restaurant for wine?
In St Helena there’s an unassuming place called COOK on the main drag; we’d been told to go in for a bite and a glass. The wines were written on a dry erase board because they changed daily, and sometimes hourly. I recognized some of the names but not all of them. I asked the waiter what we should have and he brought out…something. A cabernet with a little age on it. It was outstanding. What was it? He said not to worry about it. His old landlord owed him some money and had paid him in wine instead. What wine? Oh, something he’d taken in trade for a job done. There was a label on the bottle but it didn’t explain much. It wasn’t a label I ever saw again. And it was perfect.
Do you have a dream wine?
That’s interesting — because of their prices and everyone else singing their praises I’m curious about 1961 first growths and good vintages of Jayer and DRC and all that, but the wine I’m hoping someone will open for me one day would be a 1990 Henri Bonneau Celestins. I’ve had his basic Chateauneuf, and his Marie Beurrier, and even the vin de pays, but I haven’t yet managed to get near his grand achievement, which the ecstatic tasting notes suggest will put you through puberty all over again.
You live in San Francisco? Do you often visit nearby vineyards if so which ones?
It’s odd — only an hour trip, but I always felt like I needed to mentally prepare for a day before going. It was like visiting Comicon. My two guaranteed stops were at Acme Fine Wines, which is the Sun Records of St Helena, and the To Kalon vineyard. There is a lovely man, Tom Garrett, who runs DETERT, a very small winery, on something 17 acres of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His wines are extraordinary and close to unknown, which is bizarre to me, given his location. We also visited CARTER (the name is a coincidence), as their wine maker, Mike Smith, does some of my other favorite California Cabernets via MYRIAD, SCARLETT and BECKLYN. That varietal can be loud, obnoxious, clever yet facile, designed for mass appeal and have a finish that’s far too long (I have just described every Marvel movie, haven’t I?) Mike’s work is intriguing — it flirts with all that stuff before veering into a better place. But if you want to try something that is far more St Julien like, the final wine maker on my list is Massimo Di Costanzo of DI COSTANZO wines, whose work is exceptionally elegant.
Thank you Glen! Some greats tips there. Now everyone, buy the book.
George Bernard Shaw wrote “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” I don’t think my father ever despised me but he did wince when I said “eether” instead of “ither” or maybe it was the other way round. He thinks of himself as a stickler for correct usage but, horrible little snob that I was, I would cringe when he said serviette instead of napkin. And in turn a girlfriend once thought I was a bit common because we used the word lounge instead of drawing room. She came from an old army family and would get in trouble at school because her father insisted she say what instead of pardon.
I blame the pernicious influence of Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige which turned many middle class people into stuttering wrecks constantly worried about using the wrong word. I promised myself when I became a father that I would be more relaxed about such things but I find my mood darkening when my daughter says “haitch” instead of “aitch” when spelling out words. My wife’s bugbear is the word ate pronounced “et.”
Perhaps I should just accept that my daughter is not going to speak the same as me. She goes to a very different school to the ones I went to. It’s in South London and she has Lithuanian, Israeli, Chinese and French friends. Furthermore her mother is American, so it is unlikely that she is going to end up speaking with an RP accent or know or indeed care about the difference between toilet and lavatory. Though my public school was multicultural too, we were all being moulded into English gentlemen, or that was the theory, so farmers’ sons from Yorkshire spoke with the same accent as Nigerian princes and boys from Hong Kong.
For those with Mitford-induced anxiety, I recommend reading Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English. He writes: “to the purist, the way people speak and write is an opportunity to find fault rather than listen.” One of the points he makes in the book is that meaning and pronunciation are always changing. Doing a little research for this article I discovered that ate used to be pronounced “et” (and still is by many) and only recently came to be pronounced to rhyme with eight probably due to American influence (which might mean that the American version is older.) I wonder whether the English language might be evolving faster than before because of the globalisation of media and immigration. Though we cannot hold back the tide of change, part of me does mourn the disappearance of words with a distinct meaning such as disinterested, now mainly used as a synonym for uninterested.
Kamm counsels the reader to embrace change rather than trying to fight it but he does emphasise that having a standard usage is important. This is what we want to instill in our daughter. We worry about her picking up bad habits from her peers or even from her teachers: at her nursery school her class was called “Gruffalo’s” (sic) and during one meet the teacher session my wife complained about Helena’s burgeoning glottal stop to which the teacher replied “you wan’er to speak be’er?”
Insisting that she say “think” instead of “fink” isn’t elitist as the son of a (middle class) friend maintains. I know a pub landlord with a thick Cockney accent whose daughter speaks standard English because he wants her to have the best start in life. The important thing is that one knows the standard usage even if one doesn’t always use it. My daughter is going to speak differently with her friends to how she talks to us. I sometimes find myself adopting an involuntary Mockney accent in order to sound a bit less posh, usually when talking to plumbers.
We want her to speak with confidence therefore we have a total ban on uptalk, that irritating verbal tick where every sentence becomes a question. Whenever my daughter’s voice starts to rise, I say: “say it like you mean it”. And she laughs and then says whatever she was saying confidently and loudly. Worse even than uptalk is that strange way of talking common amongst young Americans where they say every word with a strange emphasis as if they don’t know what it means.
If she can speak articulately then it doesn’t matter whether she says “ither” or “eether”. I don’t want her to have the same anxieties I had. To quote from Oliver Kamm “the task of English should be to instill the conventions of fluent communication not Shibboleths”. And yet to some extent the problem with his approach is that Shibboleths are there for a reason: I want my daughter to be part of my tribe, I want her to get my references, I want us to talk the same language. It’s instinctive. So though I’m trying to be relaxed about her English, “Haitch” is where I say “here I stand; I can do no other”.
A version of this article appeared in The Oldie magazine.
I’ve been up to my ears in a new book hence the rather sporadic posting of late. It should be out in October. I’ll post more about it when it’s up online. Meanwhile a paperback of my last book Empire of Booze will be out in May. Not only does it have a spanking new jacket but it’s been updated for 2018, this is a euphemism for all the typos that I noticed have been corrected. It’s therefore about 6% better than the hardback despite being cheaper.
To celebrate I’m going to be reading at the Blackheath Bookshop (this is actually a Waterstone’s but without the branding) on Thursday 31st May at 6.30pm. I’ll only read for 15 minutes and then we can get stuck into the all the free gin that I’ve accumulated in the last couple of years. Honestly there’s going to be so much gin. I might have some water and prosecco for non-gin drinkers but mainly it’s all about the gin. . . . and the book.
Please RSVP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 02034091463. Click on the jacket for more information.
So if you’re in South East London please do come and if you’re not, do buy the book. It’s 6% better than the hardback.
I’ve been meaning to write about a restaurant that I was going to refer to as a neighbourhood gem but thought that sounded a bit tripadvisor. Now I’ve just learned that Winemakers in Deptford is to close. If only I’d written about then it might have been saved by loyal World of Booze readers hotfooting it down to SE8 to sample the food.
I’m not going to make that mistake with my latest neighbourhood gem. I discovered it after attending a friend’s book launch in a part of London I don’t know very well, Wandsworth. Slightly drunk we left her party at 9pm on a Monday night and almost literally stumbled on a Lebanese restaurant, O Gourmet Libanais, in the glass and steel complex where she lived. As you’d expect at that time on Monday on a (upmarket) Wandsworth housing estate, it was empty, but the manager rather than shooing us away, seemed pleased to see us. He was even more pleased when I expressed a love for arak, the traditional Lebanese spirit which is the perfect accompaniment to mezze.
We just asked him to bring us some dishes and what followed was some of the best mezze I’d had outside Lebanon. Certainly far far superior to anything on the Edgware Road. We had Fattoush, salad with toasted bread, oil and sumac, hummus, moutabal, excellent flatbreads and some sublime chicken livers cooked in pomegranate. Everything tasted so fresh. They also had a decent Lebanese house red from Chateau Heritage but I was far more interested in the arak from Al Kaissar (Caesar, yeah!) What I loved about the Lebanese product is that it tastes like like biting into aniseed rather than having the rather sweet muddy flavour of raki or ouzo. For comparison this week, I tried some arak Brun from Domaine de Tourelles opposite some raki from Turkey and ended pouring the Turkish one down the sink. Did I mention I love arak?
If I lived in Wandsworth I would go to O Gourmet Libanais at least once a month. Make use of your neighbourhood gems or they might go the way of Winemakers in Deptford.
Groundhog Day - sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist - YouTube
Cocktails are a lot of work, aren’t they? They require precision, in fact making a cocktail is much more like baking than say making a stew. If you don’t get the proportions right, it’ll taste all wrong. If you’re doing this at home, it’s fine for the first one or two and then I just can’t be bothered faffing around with a jigger, a pair of scales and teaspoon. I’d much rather pay someone else to make them so I can spend more time unsettling my friends with outlandish conspiracy theories.
Which is why I love vermouth, a mixture of herbs, spices, wine and brandy, it’s basically a ready mixed cocktail. Vermouth is going through a bit of a moment at the moment with new producers cropping up all over the place. There’s even two brothers making an vermouth in a garage in Forest Hill. Perfect for Londoners trying to cut down on their booze miles. This week I’m going a bit more further afield with the delicious Paso-Vermu from Spain. It’s made by an English couple in Somontano who also produce some very well-regarded wine and being sold by Tanner’s at a very reasonable £15.95. It’s much gentler and more wine-like, you can really taste the wine base, than say Martini Rosso with just a touch of bitterness at the end. It was rather overpowered by the Campari and gin in a negroni but made an excellent Gin and It (equal parts gin and ITalian vermouth with ice and orange.) The best way to drink it, however, is like Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, “on the rocks with a twist” and don’t care for a moment what the grumpy Bill Murrays of the world might think of it.
I owe my high flying career in publishing to the tie. It was the early 00s and I was a lowly PR assistant at Hodder & Stoughton. I’d been there for three years and I was going nowhere. Senior editors would patronise me, journalists would ignore me and authors would look at me askance wondering what happened to that bright efficient blonde who used to do their publicity. Then one day on whim I decided to wear a tie to the office. The effect was amazing: within a couple of weeks I was invited to meetings because people were interested in my opinion, at parties people would assume that I was in charge and literary editors would seek me out saying that we should have lunch. In an industry as scruffy as publishing wearing a jacket and tie marked me down as someone important even if I wasn’t. Even better, some days I’d wear a suit and tie for no reason at all and then smile mysteriously when people asked if I had a job interview. A year later I was put in charge of the literary imprint. . . . and it was all downhill from there.
Ties don’t just look smart and mark the wearer out as someone professional but they say to whoever you are dealing with that they are important. The tie has reigned triumphant since it emerged as distinct from the bowtie and the cravat in the 19th century. Everyone used to wear ties. The only time I saw my grandfather without a tie was when he was on the golf course. Now, however, it looks like the tie might be going the way of the hat or the codpiece, once mighty items of clothing that disappeared almost overnight. Wear a proper hat such as a trilby today and it just looks like an affectation, and try wearing a codpiece to a job interview and see how far you get.
Clothes have been getting less formal since the 60s but I think the two harbingers of the demise of the tie were Tony Blair and hip hop music. Before hip hop, even as recently as the 1980s, pop singers, soul singers and the like used to dress up. I particularly liked the funky stockbroker look worn by Alexander O’ Neal and Robert Palmer. Hip hop stars who emerged in the late 80s, in contrast, wore baggy jeans, track suits and trainers. Young people lost their tie-wearing role models. At the same time Tony Blair, the archetypal trendy vicar, ditched the tie in order to be down with kids. His official portrait unveiled in 2008 was the first of a male British prime minister without a tie. Where Blair led Cameron followed. The Notting Hill set look was suit and white shirt worn without a tie which made them look like they’d always just finished work, apt I suppose. Now John Bercow, the pint size Speaker of the House of Commons, has said that ties and jackets are now no longer mandatory in the chamber.
Businesslike and funky
It’s the end of an era. Now no one wants to look like members of the establishment, especially members of the establishment. People in professions such as advertising would not be seen dead in a suit and tie. You often see them, middle-aged ad men, skateboarding down Charlotte Street in skinny jeans. At hangout for the self-consciously creative, Shoreditch House, they don’t allow ties but they have to allow in the suits to pay the bills for so you have the peculiar sight of dozens of heavy set city types removing their ties as they go in. I fell foul of this rule one night and was told by a doorman to take off my tie. Later the manager came over and apologised, apparently the rule wasn’t meant for me, a trendy type (as I was then), but for the suits.
“You are important”
Some of the last holdouts for ties are not in traditional gentleman’s clubs, many allow you just to wear a jacket, but in service industries. Waiters in smart restaurants wear ties as if to say that your pleasure is a serious business. And a tie is still part of the uniform for professionals such as lawyers and accountants. When I meet with my fund manager, it’s reassuring to know that my money is being slowly lost by an ex-army officer in a suit and tie.
Not all ties, however, are so respectable. In the 70s the enormous kipper ties worn by Noddy Holder from Slade parodied the sobriety one associates with tie-wearing. How you wear your tie says a lot about you. Schoolboys subvert the tie by wearing theirs either very long or very short. And if a tie says trust me then estate agents with their enormous Windsor knots in shiny pink or silver say the opposite. The Duke of Windsor never actually tied his tie in a Windsor knot, his were just made of very thick silk so he had a naturally large knot. In From Russia with Love Bond has his suspicions about a British agent because of his tie: “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad”. The Windsor wearer turned out to be a Russian spy.
For me a tie should always be tied in a schoolboy knot, it should be silk, not too thick and hang down to the belt, not inches below like George W. Bush. The right tie can lift an outfit. At Hodder most of the time I wore a rather shabby corduroy jacket but with a splendid tie. A tie is one of the few ways that a buttoned-up Englishman can express himself. I have a magnificent blue and red polka dot Chloe tie that belonged to my grandfather. He was a rather forbidding figure but that tie showed that he had a playful side.That’s what I love about ties, they are a way of dressing up, showing off and being a bit of dandy without looking like a ponce.
Ties tell a story. There are old boys ties, regimental ties, livery ties and club ties. I know a few people who would kill to have an MCC tie. They can have sentimental value too. As well as a number of my grandfather’s I have an old Oratory tie that belonged to a favourite uncle. As I didn’t go to the Oratory, I’m probably not supposed to wear it but I haven’t been pulled up on it yet.
Finally there’s a secret about the tie which the tieless hoards are missing out on, far from making you look stuffy and pompous, women love them. Very few women pick up on an expensive watch but I’ve lost count of the number of compliments that Chloe tie has received. If she plays with your tie, you’re probably in luck and a tie is custom designed for pulling you in for a kiss. Ties are sexy, dammit. We’d be mad to let them go without a fight. So wear a tie, even in fact especially when it’s not necessary. You’ll be happier, wealthier and sexier.
It’s been a while since I did one of these and probably will be a while before I do another one because I have been hard at work on a book which is due to come out in October this year (!) I’ll tell you more about it soon but it’s going to be a coffee table book about drinking and entertaining at home.
To fortify myself I’ve been drinking highballs. Well I’m not sure mine are quite highballs. I was introduced to the joy of the highball by a semi-Japanese friend last month. Before then I’ve always tended to drink whisky neat or very lightly watered but the Japanese drink it heavily diluted with lots of ice to make a drink that’s as refreshing as a gin and tonic. In fact more refreshing because it’s much less sweet.
A proper high ball should be served in a tall glass with lots of ice and soda water. Mine are I suppose closer to an old whisky and soda like my nanny (my grandmother, not a lady in a starched outfit who was paid to look after me) used to drink. Mine are about 1 part whisky to 4 parts sparkling water with 3 or 4 standard size ice cubes.
But which whisky? I tend to use whatever comes to hand. There’s my heretical house blend which is tasting particularly fine at the moment thanks to an influx of Xmas whisky samples. Also the smoky Compass Box No Name whisky worked a treat as did Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Whichever whisky goes in, a dash off orange bitters and a piece of orange or satsuma peel lifts the whole drink and gives it a liquid marmalade type quality.
You can drink them very weak indeed and they still taste marvelous. When I grow old and deaf, I’m going to be like nanny and answer every question after 12 noon with the word ‘whisky.’
The literary world lost some legendary figures in the past couple of years. One was Jeremy Lewis, the chronicler of the golden age of British publishing who died in April. I spoke to him in January about how publishing has changed since his heyday. “Publishers used to be household names” he told me “Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Carmen Callil founder of Virago were regulars in the gossip columns”. When Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books died in 1970 it was front page news. Towering figures such as George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, emigre Jews from Central Europe who transformed British publishing, were often better-known than their authors. Deutsch died in 2000 and both Owen and Weidenfeld died last year.
Lewis wrote a series of memoirs about his time in publishing. I was surprised by the sheer amount of drinking that went on. It was an industry lubricated with alcohol. At editorial meetings at Andre Deutsch there would be wine. Lewis writes of working with Kingsley Amis on the New Oxford Book of Light Verse where they would start on the white wine at 11am on the dot. Deals were done over long liquid lunches at L’Etoile on Charlotte Street, the Garrick Club or the Groucho Club in Soho.
Writer, editor and luncher Jeremy Lewis
Editors could make instant decisions over a boozy lunch because they wielded tremendous power. Sales, marketing and publicity were junior professions with no say over acquisitions. It was entirely up to the editor what was published. The industry began to change in the 90s. The ending of the ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 meant that supermarkets began selling discounted books which paved the way for Amazon. Bestselling author and journalist, Francis Wheen, however, thinks the rot was setting in as early as the 1980s. He told me:
“I proposed to Gail (Rebuck of newly-formed publishing house Century) that we should discuss a new travel book over lunch at the Reform Club, saying that this would be most auspicious since the Reform was where Around The World in Eighty Days started. I even offered to pay – but no, Gail said we would have the meeting at their office over bought-in sandwiches and mineral water, thank you very much. I abandoned my travel book there and then.”
I caught the tail end of the long lunch culture when I started in publishing in the early 00s. We were told quite firmly not to let one author, a well-known cricket writer, to get hold of the wine list. Another writer I worked with used to attack lunch as if he hadn’t eaten or drunk for weeks. He’d have a cocktail to start, a bottle with the meal and then order a brandy afterwards. It seems like a long time ago now.
In the 80s publishers began to merge into corporations. The largest was created in 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. Editors now have to build a consensus with sales often having the final word. I remember the soul-destroying corporate speak of editorial meetings: ‘going forward’ ‘KPI – key performance indicator’ and, oddest of all, ‘pre-mortems’ – a budget sheet that editors filled out before acquiring a book. It’s what Jeremy Lewis refers to as the “Perrier Culture. “
You have to be sober to deal with all that. One can hardly blame publishers for becoming risk averse though when sales are often so poor. Nielsen, the company that track book sales, published data that showed in 2001 the average novel sold 1152 copies, now it’s 263. No wonder publishers are so cagey about releasing figures. The writer Roger Lewis (a relative of Jeremy Lewis’s) told me: “The point really is that ever since sparkling water came in and boozy publishers’ lunches got the heave-ho there has been no actual improvement in English literature. No discernible improvement whatsoever.”
The market has become polarised between the authors who sell in large quantities and those who sell next to nothing and advances reflect this. Philip Gwyn Jones, one of London’s most experienced publishers with stints at Harpercollins, Granta and now Scribe, told me about “the evaporation of midlist, nowadays advances are either under £25k or over £100k.” Paying large amounts is a way to get attention both in house and without. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. Big books are hyped up by literary agents who “skew the market” according to Ros Porter from Granta magazine. Agents have become increasingly influential as most publishers now don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.
There are still some larger than life personalities stalking the corridors of publishing houses, however. Figures such as Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury and Jamie Byng at Canongate function as ambassadors for their firms, their authors and for literature in general. When Canongate won the Booker Prize with Yann Martel’s the Life of Pi in 2001, many newspapers were more interested in Byng than the author. Byng with his trademark poodle hair is probably the nearest thing we have today to a publishing celebrity but I doubt even he is widely known outside the industry.
Ravi Mirchandani at Picador is more low key but he has a formidable reputation within the industry for, as agent Charlie Campbell puts it, ‘swimming against Nielsen.’ “Spending too much time paying attention to what previous books sold is not particularly helpful when acquiring literary fiction. A publisher’s job is, in part, predicting what the public might think” Mirchandani told me. He points out that pre-Corrections, Jonathan Franzen had woeful figures.
As the publishing conglomerates get bigger and less nimble, it presents an opportunity for small presses. In private most publishers curse Amazon because it eats into their profits and author royalties, and puts the traditional bookseller out of business. But it can be a boon for the small boys: Humfrey Hunter from Silvertail press, a one man publishing house, is “very very pro-Amazon, I wouldn’t have a business without them. They open up the world for company like mine.” He was the only British publisher brave enough to publish Lawrence Wright’s American bestseller on Scientology and scandalously also penned an article in the Bookseller in favour of leaving the European Union.
Despite all the changes, one of the reassuring things about publishing is that even in the vast super companies, everyone reads. The heads are usually from a publishing background rather than outside corporate types. “It’s still a business governed by instinct and charisma. That hasn’t changed” Philip Gwyn Jones told me. And most publishing deals are still done over lunch, they just tend not to be terribly long or boozy. Me, I left publishing in 2015 to pursue a career as a drink writer. Now, there’s an industry that still knows how to lunch.
This is a version of something I wrote for a website called Heat Street which has now disappeared. You can read something of its rather tortured genesis here.
Regular readers will know that blind wine tasting is not one of my fortes. You can read about my misadventures at the Oxford vs Cambridge annual wine competition here. But I think when the pressures off, I might actually be getting better at it.
My wife and I were invited down to Pied à Terre – a Michelin starred restaurant in Fitzrovia – for a meal. I’ve noticed that other wine bloggers such as The Wine Loon have also been down so it seems that Pied à Terre are doing some of PR push with London’s influential wine blogging community.
We sat in the front of the restaurant in a cosy little room. In fact cosy would be a good way to describe the whole experience, there was none of the starchy formality you usually get in Michelin-starred places; nobody interrupted our conversation to explain the food. Just to give you some idea of how non intimidating this place is, one of the sommeliers looked just like cuddly comedian Michael McIntyre.
I won’t go too much into the food but it was also nicely unfussy: a huge octopus tentacle with romesco sauce and squid ink tasting much like it might in a good restaurant in Barcelona despite the Jackson Pollock presentation, and the partridge breast cooked rare and served with a confit leg and red cabbage was almost like something you might get at Rules.
Rather than Mcintyre man, we had an avuncular Frenchman, Emanuel Hardonniere, as our sommelier and in a non-competitive he way brought out wines and asked me to guess what they were. I started badly thinking a white Tokay was Burgundy, I got better with a Cape wine guessing, sorry deducing, correctly that it was a Muscat.
And then I literally caught fire correctly identifying a Greek grape variety, a Xinomavro; next he gave me a wine to try which I thought was a St Emilion but turned out to be a Lalande de Pomerol, very close, though I did guess the vintage correctly, a 2010; my last near triumph was with a sweet wines served with the pudding which I thought was a Jurançon but it turned out to be a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, again very close, both are from South West France and made from Gros and/or Petit Manseng.
The only off note in evening was a natural Gamay from Serbia with a serious dose of hamster or goût de souris as the French call it – some sort of yeast or bacterial infection that you only notice as you swallow. It’s something not uncommon in ‘natural’ wines – come on lads, just use a bit of sulpur!
We finished with one of my favourites, a Rivesaltes served with pear cooked in port and thankfully by this stage of the night M. Hardonniere was no longer playing games with me.
Below are the bottles we tried. All were good in their own way except the Serbian Gamay (top row centre right) though I have heard good things about it when it’s not infected with the stench of rotting rodent.
Me last Christmas: I can’t understand why I’ve put on so much weight. We didn’t do that much feasting.
My wife: yes but after every meal you had cheese and port
My problem with port is that I find it a bit too delicious. If there’s a bottle open in the house then I’ll want a glass every evening and when you’re having a glass of port you’ve got to have some cheese. And then it all starts to add up. So I’m taking a port break until Christmas proper kicks in when I’m going to go a bit mad.
But before I take my port holiday, I have to tell you about a special offer at Tesco. They are selling Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny for only £16 until 11th December. It normally sells for at least £20. This is one of my absolute favourite fortified wines. I love the combination of bright strawberry fruit and then layers of walnut and tobacco. It’s one to give to people who think they don’t like port because it’s much lighter than vintage or vintage style ports – though still 20% so don’t knock it back like claret like I did one year.
I did a talk recently with Slightly Foxed magazine with some Taylor’s tawny for the audience to try and everybody loved it. In fact it completely upstaged me as everyone just wanted to talk about how good the port was.
Perhaps that could be the advertising line for the Port Marketing Board – the trouble is it tastes too good – and then adverts could show the havoc caused by the irresistible port. I don’t think it’s been done before.
Photo of me sitting on a throne whilst high on tawny port.