I’ve been ranting on about this for weeks to anyone who is within range, so apologies if you’ve heard this before, but when I’m slightly traumatised I’ve a tendency to repeat myself indefinitely.
This is a story about wine. I think I’ve covered my appreciation of wine sufficiently in the past, but I haven’t shared when I fell in love with it. On an inter-railing trip, twenty years old, I decided that beer around the Mediterranean wasn’t worth salivating in anticipation for, but that even the most mediocre wine was superior to the cheap pap I’d been buying, occasionally, from Safeways in Sheffield. Only occasionally, because I just wasn’t that sort of bloke back then. I’d baulk at spending £4 on a bottle and so I got what I deserved. Suddenly, here was something genuinely exciting to drink that didn’t leave me with a hangover.
But that wasn’t when I really fell for it. Strangely enough it was a guy’s fault. A guy whose name I think was Paul. An odd man. A Johnny Cash obsessive long before Man In Black and the American Recordings gave his wonderful tar gravel voice to my generation, Paul had inherited a pallet business which, as far as I could work out, ran itself leaving him to focus on his obsession: Languedoc wine. He imported it directly, tying himself up somehow in some sort of failed family. He had a badly-lit photo of a daughter in his wallet. She sat on some dusty street, no shoes on her rust brown fudged feet, leaning back against a pale yellow plaster wall. He’d drive it over from some vineyard yet to be exploited and hawk it around the travelling French markets that, at the time, cropped up on our high streets and in our town squares every Saturday. Weekdays, drive down to the south of France, weekends, up and down the English motorways. Bristol, Luton, York, Morley, Huddersfield, Bootle, Sandwich, Salisbury, Redditch, a life on the road and just Johnny’s tales of rebels bleeding their guts out in the gulley and finding God’s love once again on the stereo.
Lewisham, I think I met him at Lewisham market. I can’t really remember; it was a long time ago. I did him a couple of favours, as you do, and he paid me in wine. And, my, what lovely stuff it was too.
That was the moment. At that point, when I realised there was so much more to it than just buying and uncorking a bottle. Wine came with its own brand of craziness and history, heritage and heartache. That was when I fell in love with it.
This was all back when I first moved to London and it was shortly afterwards, on a evening stroll around Brockley looking for somewhere less threatening than the long-gone Alpha Jazz Bar (and that had more than just straight gin with no ice on offer) for a drink that I stumbled across Mr Lawrence’s.
Mr Lawrence’s wine bar is a pillar of the SE4 community, a bona-fide institution that doesn’t give an arse about current trends. He just wants to keep selling wonderfully myriad wines that have character and will charm you all the way to the next morning and if you want to join him, then by all means come on in. I love the bar, but I am also deeply attached to the off licence next door. After twelve years of visiting I only just feel as though I am getting to grips with its Byzantine mixed up shelves. People moan about the poor customer service, but I find the occasional bout of being curmudgeons to be justified. I am just delighted that everything will be wonderful, especially if you’re willing to chance a little more money. I have never had anything bad for a tenner, which may seem excessive for wine to some (in which case I’ll keep quiet about some of the other bottles I’ve bought), but this is the sort of wine that isn’t to get drunk on. It’s wine which will tell you a story and slips into your own; every bottle a memory drunk.
The bar is here to stay but, it’s such a shame, the off licence has closed down.
Second date, almost three years ago: My then not-quite girlfriend and I had been hanging out in Battersea Park. I’d kept one nervous eye out, as we sat outside the Prince Alfred, for Google Steve given that he lived about three hundred metres away. It was too early to be interrupted. I was supping an ale, she half a cider. It was warm, if slightly overcast.
It was never going to be an ideal afternoon for a date. England was playing its opening match of the world cup and the pandemonium which follows for drinking establishments was kicking off. Battersea, for all its lovely red brick mansion blocks, ornate bridges and gentle parkland, is rubbish for restaurants and so we decided to chance inside the pub for something to eat.
‘Shall we get some wine?’ I asked as we perused the menu, by which I meant ‘Let’s get some wine.’
She hesitated. I’d already learnt, through my internet dating, that not all women are quite as keen on booze as some of those who I’d been entangled with, but, still, I wondered, what’s wrong with a glass of wine?
‘I suppose I could have a glass of rose,’ she offered.
‘Yeah, why not?’ I replied. ‘I think I’ll have a glass of red,’ I sounded cheerful, but inside I was thinking ‘she doesn’t drink wine? How’s that going to work?’
England scored the opening goal and the pub went wild. They went on to draw with the USA and the pub got sweary and moody. My dinner was nice, my wine was good and the company was excellent so I was able to tune them all out. Later on, we walked through Battersea Park towards the stations as it closed up, the street lights extinguishing in a rolling wave just a couple of metres ahead of us.
True to form, I missed the last inner loop train to London Bridge via Brockley and found myself on a night bus once again.
So, what was wrong if she didn’t drink wine? Nothing, I guess. I think I’d still have fallen in love with her, but fortunately it was just a blip; she just didn’t really fancy a glass. That was all. So we’ll never know. I mean, I still don’t quite get it: I always fancy a glass, but it’s better than not having it in common. Sharing a bottle of wine, the mutual taking, the perfect for two size, it’s a metaphor for everything in a relationship, surely?
Just before Christmas, I was in Sainsbury’s buying a week’s worth of groceries and, quite by accident, found myself amongst the wine. ‘Hmmm,’ I mulled, ‘what shall we have this week?’ Suddenly, it struck me: they are always the same and they are boringly functional. There’s little wrong with most supermarket wines, obvious exceptions aside and that annoying inflating and cutting prices thing they do, but most are fine for a midweek sup. They are, however, pedestrian and predictable. There is rarely that excitement in the pop and sniff of opening something wonderfully different.
‘Sod it,’ I muttered and left without.
The news of Mr Lawrence’s decision to close the off licencehad broken on the local news blog that week and whilst the bar had been home to some of my favourite nights out in SE4, the shop was where all the best nights in began. Whenever anyone comes around for dinner, or I just fancy making something a little special, off I go to buy a couple of bottles. I walked out of Sainsbury’s and drove straight there, filling the car up with bottles, spending more money than I really have spare at the moment.
Then I did the same thing in the New Year.
For Christmas my girlfriend got me a wine decanter and I have gleefully, precociously, sloshed bottles to the hilarity of guests, waxing lyrically about the air crashing through the grapes and the width of flavour it creates. Yes, there is something painfully middle class about the inevitability of migrating away from beer as you get older and beginning to understand how wine works and yet I just can’t help it.
I’m going to miss that shop, even if I am now the proud owner of a wine cellar.