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Have I become a bourgeois cliche? My lockdown obsession with fine wine has refocused my attention on life's important little details

When this dreaded curse is lifted, I will open the best bottle I can. Credit: Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty

When this dreaded curse is lifted, I will open the best bottle I can. Credit: Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty


July 23, 2020   4 mins

Sometime back in mid-April, in one of the gloomiest weeks of the early lockdown, a domestic revolution took place in the utility room of the Rectory. The chest freezer was banished to the garage, and the little nook into which it had neatly sat was repurposed as a cellar.

Cellar is too grand a description. Amazon delivered, and I assembled, a wooden wine rack that has space for nine rows of seven bottles. But cellar I call it. And a couple of times a day, I pop in there just to see that everything is all right with the world.

I blame Roger Scruton for my ruinously expensive new passion. Back in January, I wrote a kind of obituary to Scruton, trying to say something about his philosophy of place as captured in his life-long devotion to the grape. That started it. Sure, I have always enjoyed a glass of red or three. But since lockdown began, and the pubs and restaurants have closed their doors, I have started to order in from places like the Wine Society, and to make a point of thinking more carefully about what I am drinking. As I began to read more, I began to spend more. Now it’s become a full-blown obsession.

Only last night, I lay awake at 2.30am, my mind going round and round about the possibility of getting a few bottles of the second wine of ChĂąteau Leoville-Barton. Thank God my membership of ‘the Left’ has been cancelled. It is something of a relief to have given up running away from the fact that I am a bourgeois clichĂ©.

So please excuse the puppy-dog enthusiasm of the recent convert. But thinking about wine has come to be a lot more pleasurable than reflecting upon the miserable state of the world outside. From joyless woke fun-sponges micro-policing our vocabulary for signs of non-compliance, to the genuinely terrifying treatment of Muslims in Communist China along with the realisation that this virus is now in it for the long term — there has never been a more compelling time to retreat back into the domestic bosom, with wine as the evening comforter.

But instead of quaffing it back indiscriminately, I decided to take it seriously. After all, if you spent 30-odd quid going to a play or a concert, you would expect the experience to be enhanced by a certain amount of developed knowledge and by concentrating hard on what was being offered. With plays and concert venues shut down, it makes sense to focus aesthetic attention on something that can be enjoyed within the domestic sphere. And wine is therefore an obvious candidate.

In theory, I see no reason why taste should be, aesthetically speaking, the poor relation of the senses. But can a bottle of glorified grape juice really repay the sort of attention that I have set aside for it? Can there be anything like the sort of emotional and intellectual complexity that one finds in a great opera in, say, a great bottle of Bordeaux?

I started this journey with a considerable degree of scepticism about the sort of thing that people would say about fine wine. Can they really taste leather saddles and lychees and iron fillings in there? And why would you want to?

“Words help us to notice things,” writes the celebrated wine critic Michael Schuster, in his excellent companion for the novice winetaster. It is sensible but often disregarded advice. Indeed, as he goes on to argue in Essential Winetasting, words have a capacity to direct our experience to notice things that might otherwise be lost in the cacophony of sensory stimuli that constantly bombards us.

In this context, Schuster makes a persuasive point about the philosophy of phenomenology.

“The capacity of our senses to perceive far exceeds our ability to articulate all the sensations we can experience … and, of course, we do not need the words to have the experience. But once acquired and linked to the appropriate sensations, words help us locate and identify them subsequently. And when we taste with a wide vocabulary, an active search of the mind generates the words, which in turn capture and crystalise the sensations.”

Schuster’s description of words picking out, and thus drawing attention to, sensations that might otherwise be lost in a flood of sense data reminded me of the opening section of Matthew Crawford’s excellent The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. Crawford describes the experience of being in an airport departure lounge, with screens and advertisements and tannoys constantly bombarding your attention. In such a world, to retain some sort of custody of your senses feels like a form of freedom, a resistance to the cacophony of information that dulls us into some sort of miserable stupor.

Wine tasting is a focused activity, a training in attention. What I learn from others schools my taste, and helps me to notice distinctions that would otherwise have been lost on me. And in these distinctions, the complexity – indeed, the character – of the wine is brought out. And I use character advisedly. Because I am also aware that the sort of skills that I am learning from expert tasters can be applied more generally in the moral life.

Iris Murdoch famously described moral seeing as “attention” — a kind of disciplined concentration on the specific and individual good in other people. And, as she knew, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It takes work.

Lockdown may have helped many of us with our culturally induced attention deficits. It has slowed us down and invited us to pay closer attention — to our gardens or to our children or to what is in our glass — in a way that we mustn’t forget when all this is over. And paying attention in the small things is good practice for paying attention to the more weighty moral issues when they come along.

I am making big claims for serious wine tasting, I know. And indeed, I was chastened in my new found enthusiasm for the analogy between appreciating wine and appreciating people the other week when I tweeted out how thoroughly I had enjoyed a bottle of ChĂąteau PhĂ©lan-SĂ©gur 2014 only to reliably informed that this was also one of Hannibal Lecter’s favorite vineyards. Indeed, Dr Lecter also appreciated wine and appreciated people – but, of course, he appreciated people in a rather different way.

But as I sit out in the evening sun and drink something as intoxicating as Phélan-Ségur, I cannot help but feel I am experiencing some small intimation of the heavenly banquet. Angels are dancing all over my taste buds, showing me the beauty of things I had never noticed before. The glory of God captured within a small draught of brick red liquid. Indeed, how did I miss that there may be a pretty big clue in the fact that our Lord chose to reveal himself in wine?


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

I hope that your new hobby proves less expensive and crazy than mine. When I find the news too unbearable and the liberal left too crazy I start perusing the auction catalogues for antiques. I’ve just bought a coromandel dining table in not very good condition, and every time I think of it I smell the beeswax polish I will have to apply and the turps and so on. Then I combine that smell in my mind’s nose with the musty smell of my old dining room and all its other musty old furniture and my heart rate goes up as if I’m a teenager thinking about my true love. Then I think about all the months of family allowance I will have to save up to get it professionally restored and how cross my husband will be and I want the earth to swallow me up and I can’t really console myself with the thought that Christ sat at a dining table, because I already own several others and supper tables.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
3 years ago

Please consider buying South African wines. South Africa had an initial 55-day prohibition on the sale of alcohol at the start of lock down which was re-imposed last Sunday night, apparently for a further 8 weeks. This has had and is likely to have a devastating impact on the alcohol value chain, including wine farms and wine farm workers. During the first ban not even export was allowed, but in this current version of prohibition there is an exception for export.

ray.wacks
ray.wacks
3 years ago
Reply to  Jean Redpath

You omitted to mention that the best of them are superb.

Katy Randle
Katy Randle
3 years ago

What a lovely article! Made me smile.

It has made me think – my way of retaining my sanity during lockdown has been to try to improve my painting. Really learning to look. Very much in parallel with your really paying attention to how the wine tastes. And I loved the quote from Schuster.

Cheers!

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
3 years ago
Reply to  Katy Randle

Mine was observing and identitying wild flowers on walks around my home here in Avoca, Ireland. Really learning to look and pay attention to these beautiful tiny miracles of nature.

piers.bishop
piers.bishop
3 years ago

Giles. I sympathise. I too have been partially infected by this ailment. I cannot stop myself dreaming about the en-primeur news coming out this year with apparently great prices. Having never really had the budget for this stuff I find myself trying to justify a small investment in a few cases of something special that I dream of being able to savour with a few good friends. Then sadly I wake up…..

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Welcome to the club Giles. We continued with our weekly (sometimes more often), high level blind tastings during lockdown, often in my garden. On the other hand, the annual trip to Gigondas was scuppered.

Try to move beyond Bordeaux, there are much more interesting things out there.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“In vino veritas!”

Jane Steele
Jane Steele
3 years ago

Hope you are exploring beyond boring Bordeaux Giles, otherwise you truly deserve the title of your article.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Funnily enough I once attended a fancy dress party as a bottle of Leoville Barton, the party theme being ‘Heroes’. Someone brought a ’96 to the recent Midsummer Night’s Dream tasting. It was superb and I identified it blind.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

I’m jealous.
But the £3.99 from Liddle’s is drinkable.
Think how virtuous that makes me!!

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
3 years ago

Become, Giles?

Andrew Eccles
Andrew Eccles
3 years ago

Leoville Barton would be well worth it Giles so, if you have the wherewithal, do it, but remember it will age more quickly in a makeshift cellar than if it is stored ideally. I don’t think there is a second wine though; it’s already the second wine of Leoville Langoa Barton (that’s where the vinyard is) so if you buy a Leoville Barton it’s just a Leoville Barton. No guilt required on any aspect of your new passion aside from the purchase of the rack from Amazon (you are surely still enough of a liberal leftie not to feed the beast….)

David Gee
David Gee
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Eccles

La reserve de Leoville Barton?

Andrew Eccles
Andrew Eccles
3 years ago
Reply to  David Gee

You are right and I stand (gracefully on your part) corrected. I’m now, myself, tempted…

nick harman
nick harman
3 years ago

I totally agree, but unfortunately my low spending power, coupled with my pressing need to end each evening in a benign haze, means most of my wines come from Aldi.

I must say though, that they do a good line in inexpensive reds. These may not result in angels dancing on my tongue, but they do make shouting insults at Jon Snow, as he pulls that condescending ‘interested parent’ face when interviewing black people, a lot easier

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

You did not become you already were

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

‘Have I become a bourgeois cliche?’ – Wait, when exactly were you not one?

Malcolm Beaton
Malcolm Beaton
3 years ago

Absolutely agree with all sentiments expressed above but how do you deal with opened bottles of red wine?
I like a glass a day of red a day but opened bottles of red do not keep without a ruinous nitrogen air replacement system
Do I have to have 2 drinking companions round every night to finish the bottle?
If I order half bottles- still expensive and still requires 1 drinking companion every night
My wife’s white wine (her preference) however keeps well in the fridge for days-certainly over the 4 days required to finish the bottle-very unfair!

Simon Trigg
Simon Trigg
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Beaton

Malcom – I normally find that any halfway decent red wine actually tastes better on the second and third days, after it has had a chance to properly “breathe”. Failing that, a VacuVin might be a good investment…

Dan Lane
Dan Lane
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Beaton

I would second the VacuVin recommendation. It’s kept some of my wines drinkable over the course of a week.

Andrew Eccles
Andrew Eccles
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Beaton

Red in the fridge too, for temporary storage, after opening (and closed). Needs a small amount of forward planning to remove and bring back to room temperature. I would not necessarily recommend it with a very decent red but I’ve been doing it for forty years with everyday drinking reds. This also has the advantage of allowing the wine to be breathed in advance of drinking again. I see Jancis Robinson has written similarly, so I’m not entirely out on a limb here.

Michael Hobson
Michael Hobson
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Beaton

With your next full bottle, pour half the wine into a saved, washed and dried half bottle before you start drinking – cork and put in the fridge. It’ll keep at least a week with little noticeable deterioration. Follow the same procedure, if needs be, with small 200cl-ish bottles. With a screw top you can fill these to the brim and they will keep their condition in the fridge for days. Half and small bottles used in rotation this way will let you to control how much you want to drink.