by Peter Pharos

Wine Cultures

I think it was the bottle filled with urine that did it in the end.

I felt bad for my friend. This was meant to be the evening of a lifetime for her. After all the years of loyal fandom, finally an opportunity to see her favourite band live on its native soil, at a concert that was already billed as historic. I was generously invited to tag along, so I did, even though I knew well that I was an infidel among true believers. The group could hum every single one of Blur’s riffs, could recite every lyric backwards. They had caught them live a few times across Europe and had the paraphernalia to prove it. Instead, I was there because Hyde Park sounded nice and I liked the one that was in Fifa ’98.

In fairness, I had tried to warn my friends that reality would miserably fail to live up to expectations. I explained that the English are on the rowdy side, and the scenes at Faliraki are not a Purge-like annual activity, but a normal Saturday night. I mentioned that, in England, Blur is Radio 2 fare, the type of music that can soundtrack a Full Monty recreation one day, Jeremy Vine talking about bike chains the other. I hazarded that Hyde Park isn’t such a big deal.

I went unheard. Anecdotal lived experience can hardly expect to do battle with ten years of organised worship, all the liner notes, and magazine features, and video clips. I had no clue what I was talking about, I was told. “Even if” made many appearances. At some point there were dark murmurs that maybe I should reserve my opinions for things with trumpets. It is not that I took active pleasure in my friends making the acquaintance of the Great British Concert-going Public a few days later, but I probably didn’t avoid a pseudo-innocent grin when I pointed out the contents of the bottle that landed next to us. In response to the grimace of horror, I calmly observed that at least it was not a direct hit. “The English say ‘be thankful for small mercies’”, I enlightened them.

I think back to this story when a new oenophile acquaintance comes back, disillusioned, from a wine-focused trip to France, Italy, or Spain (the “proper wine countries” in the English mindset). Often, almost everything seems to go wrong. The locals have ideas that are narrow, outdated, or just plain wrong. Restaurants ignore the very basics of wine service – do they not know that Jancis Robinson says that you can ask for an ice bucket for a red? There are even bottles of piss flying around. (The flying and urine might be mercifully metaphorical, but, on the downside, the bottles don’t come free.) Perhaps most annoyingly of all, the natives are absolutely convinced that connoisseurship is some sort of innate birthright, and a foreigner’s pretence to vinous knowledge is treated at best with patronising amusement, at worst with outright contempt. This reaches its apogee among the French, a nation whose main purpose on Earth seems to be to show the English how the rest of us feel when we deal with them.

One could be forgiven for thinking that traditional wine countries are not the right place to enjoy wine properly. There is just too much misplaced self-confidence, too little willingness to learn, too much history, too much baggage. And the public, they have all this wine at their feet and they just don’t appreciate it! There is a charitable clarity in places like England, the Netherlands, or Sweden. A place either does wine seriously, or doesn’t pretend to engage with it at all. In traditional wine cultures it is all so…muddled.

But then again, this is how my friend experienced Brit pop in Britain. The Hyde Park crowd was not interested in making history. The finer points of the solos held little sway on them. If there were any semantics in the NHS specs of the guitarist, they would not ponder them. Instead, they were there to collectively leave sobriety by the fastest means possible, send some ill-advised text messages to past romantic interests, and, perhaps, yell “Woo-hoo” during the encore. An argument could be made that anywhere else in Europe, or, indeed, the world, would provide a more serious, coherent, and overall rewarding music experience.

I am usually loath to say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but sometimes it does. The heart and soul of anything, at the end of the day, lies with the community and culture that produces it. Excellence arrives when something is prevalent across a society, rather than appears on the sidelines as a genre. Genre interests are good for producing scholars, but the thousands of kids who will pick up an electric guitar to reproduce the music of their environment will count for much more than the one bar in Limoges that will be super serious about it. And when something forms part of the cultural mainstream, it’s also more difficult to get away with snobbery and academicism. Wine, or pop music for that matter, should after all be primarily vectors of fun.

Yet there is something to be said for the earnestness and blank slate mindset that committed outsiders bring to something. The benefits are more than purely economic. Their agnosticism of the cultural background can provide a useful interrogation of ossified structures. Their willingness to consider creators as artists can bring out the artistry in the creators themselves. Some prophets are accepted in their hometowns, but others need to make it elsewhere first. But both as a concert goer (ret’d) and as a wine writer, I do draw the line on bottles of urine flying around.

Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash

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