How I got started

I’ve occasionally been asked how I got into wine. This is a bit of a difficult question to answer as I started so young I am not really sure what was the initial spark.

My parents were not at all interested in wine, there was not much wine consumed in the home environment. I didn’t get my love for wine from them.

I’m told that my mother got a free copy of The World Atlas of Wine from a book club when I was about five or six. Apparently, even at that tender age I would pour over this for hours, reading about all the wine regions and different producers. Why I found this so fascinating I cannot recall.

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I do recall the next step in the genesis of my love for wine very clearly. Just before my ninth birthday my mother and step-father visited Alsace. They did not taste many wines, but brought back a bottle of Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile 1979 from Trimbach. I’d read about this wine and producer so I asked if I could try some to see what it was like. I was given a small glassful and as I sniffed and tasted it galvanised me with its lively, exciting set of flavours. I am quite sure my appreciation of it was not terribly sophisticated at the age of eight, but I remember saying to my mother as I tasted it, “Wow, wine really can be good. This one tastes of so many things”*. I love Alsace Riesling to this day.

After this deeply compelling experience I tried to get my mother to buy more wines and let me try them. At that point she was yet to develop her appreciation for wine so joined the unspeakable Sunday Times Wine Club and ordered the filth they sell without realising these were dreadful wines. None of these had such a profound effect on me as the CFE ’79.

I was extremely fortunate to be close friends with a boy at school, Daniel Cadbury (are you out there, Daniel?) whose parents loved wine, and in 1985 they had a family holiday in the Bergerac/Monbazillac area of France. They went to a few tastings and some of the wines we tried were pretty good; I was chuffed to score myself a bottle of ’83 Chateau de Monbazillac.

The most amazing part of the holiday was when we took a day trip to Sauternes and Barsac to try the ’83s and ’84s. We visited La Tour Blanche, Climens, d’Arche and (quite incredible that, as a family group, we blagged our way in here) Chateau Gillette. The differences between the producers and vintages were clear when I tasted so many in one day. Once again, I was moved by the power of quality wine.

Sadly, then it was back to the dross from the Sunday Times Wine Club (with the occasional bottle of good stuff from the Cadburys) until I looked old enough to buy my own wine (it is handy being a tall person at times). That is when things really took off. I read more, purchased widely and tasted with great pleasure. My local wine merchants, Oddbins and Bottoms Up, still had a lot of interesting wines in those days and I would frequently buy something well-reviewed to drink with my school teachers. I didn’t view my fellow students as being enlightened enough to merit having any these precious drops of nectar; I wanted to talk about wine and other teenagers just knew nothing about it. I soon became aware that the teachers didn’t know that much either, but at least they were articulate.

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Sometimes the discoveries were quite serendipitous. I went to the Australian Wine Centre (just off The Strand in those days) for the first time when I was seventeen (with my mother’s credit card) to buy some St. Hallett Old Block Shiraz; I’d read a lot about it and thought it worth trying. I went to pay for my few bottles and the frankly enormous Australian fellow behind the counter said, “You don’t want to buy those, you want some of this.” He pulled out a bottle of Tim Adams Aberfeldy Shiraz, pulled the cork and poured me a slug. I tasted it and said, “I’ll take four bottles. Does this Tim Adams chap make anything else good?” He grinned and said, “Yeah, I think I do.” The man himself was visiting England and doing a stint in the shop. We chatted about wine as we drank most of the bottle of Aberfeldy and I was so impressed by both the charming Mr Adams and his wines I knew I would be sold on them for as long as he continued to make wine. I was right, I still drink and enjoy Tim Adams wines and recommend them to anyone who wants keenly-priced, quality Australian wine. I met Mr. Adams at the London Wine Trade Fair a few years back (he is still extremely tall) and related the anecdote, he remembered!

Then I went to Oxford University and started tasting more wine than I ever thought I would. I was a member of the Oxford Wine Circle, a winning captain of the blind tasting team**, turned up to the merchants’ tastings when they tried to sell wines to the colleges and had weekly tastings with a select few people in evenings which will forever be burnt in my memory as the ‘casa Schleiss tastings’. Not all the wines I tried were the very finest, but a surprisingly large number were considering we were poor students. My chum Mr T and I once went through all of our notes for the past year and were both surprised and pleased to realise we had tasted over three thousand different wines. Good going, but a shame it included a lot of dull, cheap Clarets aimed at the conservative college buyers. This epic wine experience taught me well; I know that Burgundy is best, but good Riesling, Sherry, Champagne and others can also deliver the goods. I even liked the very flashest Clarets we tried, and some of them were incredibly flash, but soon learned they were too expensive for my tastes.

I do not try as many wines these days and largely limit myself to wine styles and producers I enjoy. I confess to being pleased I no longer have to regularly put New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in blind tastings to try and teach people to recognise it. That being said, my knowledge of wine is still broad and I get a lot of pleasure out of blind tasting. A few years ago I was working for an unmentionably filthy wine merchant (I lasted almost two months before the inevitable ‘going totally insane and trying to kill myself’-experience which has characterised all my 9-to-5 jobs since developing paranoid schizophrenia; this was the longest I managed to hold down a regular job since 1999) who paid for their employees to take the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Advanced Certificate exam. I skimmed the course text book, finished the exam in quarter of the time allowed and passed it with a distinction.

So that, dear reader, is the story of my early years with wine. As I said, I cannot pin down the initial spark that made me want to learn about wine, but I am slightly amused that I have been compelled by properly fine wine from the age of eight onwards.

*) I’ve had CFE 79 on many occasions since becoming more deeply educated about wine and wine tasting, and I was clearly right with my first assessment, it always has tasted of a lot of things.

**) I’m told I was a very demanding blind tasting instructor. When someone (who shall remain nameless) said that a rather large Australian Shiraz was Beaujolais I laughed so much I fell off my chair. I don’t suppose that was terribly supportive or encouraging.

  • ed tully

    everyone has an off day. Perhaps it smelled a bit “villagey”.

  • David Strange

    Ah it wasn’t just ‘villagey’ but ‘specific village in France villagey’. The way you mocked that arse and his asinine tasting note shows I had taught you too well when it came to running the team blind-tastings;)

    We had one hell of a vinous education whilst at Oxford, and a lot of larks as well. I imagine you’ll recall when we took Mrs Chateau Margaux to the Chiang Mai kitchen. I asked if she had a daughter of suitable age, she instantly called her daughter on her mobile and passed the phone to me. I was so surprised I found it hard to be my normal charming self. Must be why I didn’t score with her… At least I made sure I remembered Margaux daughter’s phone number.

    How about our conversion to loving fine Sherry when the generous, charming and incredibly cool Javier Hidalgo turned up? He brought enough wonderful, wonderful Sherry for fifty people to taste, but only fifteen turned up (fools). Javier insisted we should drink the lot. How I got home is still a mystery.

    Another tasting that the less enlightened members of the Wine Circle missed was Egon ‘Yoda’ Muller’s. So many kept away because they thought sweetish German Riesling was a bit naff; what a bunch of arses. Egon then and now makes the most expensive young white wines in the world and they are screamingly brilliant. The slight smile on Egon’s face as we poured and drank our way through what must have been tens of thousands of pounds worth of hilariously fine and rare wine showed that he was totally confident that all who attended would remember that tasting and love his wines forever.

  • edtully

    Ah memories! For sheer alcoholic excess little can trump the whisky tasting for forty when only five stalwarts made it. We were doing amusing whisky experiments for months. As I recall microwaving it for ten second bursts ten times has a most wonderful effect. It’s difficult to forget La Mission 83 “in the shadow” of Tom Tower and without glasses. More and more these days I remember the people and circumstances first, then the wine. In our wild youth it was the other way around. One final tear-jerking memory: the terrible twins guzzling Krug Clos de mesnil in the eccentric russian’s kitchen with a pound tin of Sevruga between us. We were shovelling the stuff in in handfuls! Never again such innocence!

  • David Strange

    “David, can you help me out with something in the kitchen?” I certainly could when it required necking vast quantities of caviar and washing it down with loony-expensive fizz. Did I feel guilty about our extreme free-loading? Not in the slightest!

    That whisky tasting was indeed crazy. The couple of bottles we gave to Mr Feller, Oxford’s best butcher, resulted in some of the most incredible meat bargains I have ever experienced. The person in the queue after us on the memorable ‘fillet steak for a fiver a kilo’ event was vexed he didn’t get the same price. A good butcher is a great friend to make.

  • ed tully

    And who can forget pop guns at dawn in the loire? Not just dawn so much as the entire night. Larks! The Kid was reminding us of the time when you almost succeeded in adopting Gnome Verset as your father: “Papa!”. For sheer face-melting fun the “blindtasting” at champet where six wines in a row turned out to be the 96 also brings sunshine into a rainy world.

  • Peter

    Lots of memories to make us chuckle all over again. We must make new ones! I’m glad to say I was present for several of the ones you mention, and am kicking myself for the times I was not there. My life has been blighted by not taking part in the Krug and caviar fest.
    A particularly fun memory for me is necking Chave 91, all huddled under a huge umbrella on the bank of the Cherwell, in the pouring rain – and then the high jinks on the way back to port. Gernot! What a super star!

  • ed tully

    For sun-dappled joy, the Palmer 61 in the master’s garden before and after croquet. And who can forget the famous bordeaux vs burgundy taste off at casa Schleiss? I think Greg’s medical opinion and bedside manner on the occasion of TVD’s “illness” in Gernot’s bathroom deserve a mention, as does his proposed treatment.

  • David Strange

    The Chave 91 drank al fresco in classic English summer weather was a huge joy. I think we all acquitted ourselves brilliantly that day; it is always great to annoy the unreasonable and irrational types just by having fun. I feel no remorse for pissing Larissa off, the silly cow. Jeremy’s rugby tackle to get me in the Cherwell was one of the most professional I’ve seen.

    Palmer 61 being popped 30 minutes after I finished my finals made me feel special (in a good way). What a wine!

    Many of the wines in the Burgundy thrashing Bordeaux tasting, even some of the Clarets, will live in my mind forever. Well done Gernot and Jeremy for delivering the goods with those fantastic wines.

    Finally, it is important to realise that we have done fun things since leaving Oxford. Quite by chance I found a picture from my 30th bash at Triennes, you will recall on the day itself England won the rugby world cup. Peter won’t remember the stage of the evening when the picture was taken, but it does bring back happy memories. I warn you that this picture is definitely Not Suitable For Work nor indeed for the weak of stomach, but I’ll still give the link to it here.

  • Peter

    In some ways even more disturbing than having missed some fun-filled occasions are the times when I was present, but have no recollection of what happened. The Palmer 61 day is one of the most ludicrous. It’s not that I was drunk. Just that I was concentrating so hard on trying to beat Edward at croquet that I hardly even noticed the Palmer 61. Bugger!

  • David Strange

    Oh Peter, Peter… Important as croquet is, and even more important to beat Edward (a feat rarely managed if we can be honest), you must get your priorities right. Palmer 61 was one of the greatest, most staggeringly poised and utterly beautiful wines I have ever tried; quite a feat for a bottle of Claret! I know you like Palmer, Peter, why oh why oh (spells yo-yo) did you not feel it worth engaging for a few minutes with the best vintage of it ever?

    A couple of other drinks from that afternoon stick in my mind. Peter, you brought along a bottle of Bollinger 88 that I liked so much I got my mother to drive down to Christ Church via my cellar and drop off one of my bottles of then still wonderful Bolly 85, just so I could compete. The other drink of note was thanks to my ‘taller lying down than standing up’-girlfriend. She gave me a bottle of filthy Mumm Champagne (eeergh!) which, with the help of a bottle of yellow Chartreuse, we turned into the dissolute cocktail known as the Olympique. These fine beverages completely evaporated the pain of trying to remember the names of the bones in a chicken’s wing in my final exam (I was a theoretical biologist, never the kind who could identify animals or bits of them).

  • Gernot

    Many happy memories of my UK stint. Casa Schleiss evenings were extremely educating. Most of my knowledge goes back to these days.The Bordeaux tasting did in my live what Stephen Spurriers tasting made for California – changed my wine world. Now I am proud owner of a lot more Burgundy than Bordeaux. Thanks Jeremy!

  • David Strange

    Thanks for dropping by, Gernot. The casa Schleiss evenings were incredibly educational; we drank richly and broadly.

    The Claret vs. Burgundy tasting was one of the most brilliant occasions of my wine-tasting life: all those amazing wines! I think Jeremy’s influence has been very formative in developing lots of our love for Burgundy, and for that we can only be grateful.