James May

Illustration of a car and alcoholic drinks

Lock, stock and barrel

Last year, for BBC2, I made a programme called Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure. It was a simple idea, really. I would travel around France with a very old man called Oz Clarke, who was one of the first people ever to appear on Logie Baird’s new ‘Televisor’ and an acclaimed expert on everything to do with wine. He would reveal the mystery and wonder of the grape to me, wean me off the bitter in my local and turn me into a Chablis-sipping sophisticate able to hold my own at any level of polite drinking society.

Obviously it didn’t work. For a start, almost everyone we met in France was French, and thus something of a communist. The whole business of French wine is deliberately obscure and organised in such a way that the rural grape-growing population is locked in the middle ages and unable to see the benefits that might be accrued for their endeavours through science and technology. It was all bloody donkeys and smocks and methods used by Pierre in 1750, and everyone over the age of 21 claimed to have been in the resistance. By the end of it I’d decided that wine was poncy, so it was back to the pub for a pint of and a game of arrers.

I’m afraid I just don’t go for all this rustic-is-best nonsense. I like to think of myself as a post-enlightenment member of the industrial world, and I believe in the power of large-scale production to improve my life. Take the example of the car. The BMW Z4 coupe, a car I rather like at the moment, is doubtless the deeply creative work of people whose muses may be the same as those that inspired the cave painters of the stone age. But because we live in the age of manufacturing, it is a completely repeatable artefact, which is what makes it accessible to so many people. All BMW Z4 coupes are the same, which is exactly as we want it.

If this is possible with something as complicated as a car, it ought be a piece of cake with a bottle of wine, surely? The French don’t want to acknowledge it, because they like to think that the wine is something only they could possibly understand; that it’s in the hands of the gods, and that if the butcher from the nearby village farts in the direction of the vines, the bouquet will be subtly and uniquely altered in a few bottles, thus increasing its cultural and fiscal value.

This brings me to California, where I am currently making Oz and James series II. It was my idea to come here, because I believed that the amateur wino would be better served by the US than by any other nation on Earth. In France, everything is unpredictable as an old Citroen. But in California, the terrain, the weather, the workforce, the growing season, the bottling plant and the economy are all utterly and minutely understood, and so making consistent wine on a grand scale should come naturally to these people. It was the US, with its enduring optimism and devotion to mammon, that popularised things that in the old world seemed totally elitist – the pocket watch, the motor car, the domestic refrigerator, the quarter pounder. I could rely on these people to make me a decent drop of consistent quality at a reasonable price. Bingo!

"I believe that the function of alcohol is largely to help shy and possibly ugly people to meet each other and have sex"

And they can. Two-Buck Chuck makes his California Chardonnay for a pound a bottle, and it’s really not at all bad. More to the point, it’s always the same. Likewise one or two other producers whose names you would recognise from the bargain shelf at your local office. They make their wines in huge factories that look more like coking plants than the vision of bucolic innocence we expect in Burgundy. Yet the stuff is perfectly drinkable, and no more expensive than real ale. It works for me. Oz Clarke, however, is not entirely convinced.

And they can. Two-Buck Chuck makes his California Chardonnay for a pound a bottle, and it’s really not at all bad. More to the point, it’s always the same. Likewise one or two other producers whose names you would recognise from the bargain shelf at your local office. They make their wines in huge factories that look more like coking plants than the vision of bucolic innocence we expect in Burgundy. Yet the stuff is perfectly drinkable, and no more expensive than real ale. It works for me. Oz Clarke, however, is not entirely convinced.

And now we arrive at the fundamental difference between us. With the best will in the world, I’m just a bit of a drunk. I enjoy drinking, I like the taste of wine and the belief that, after a bottle or two, I am an avant garde composer at the piano. I believe that the function of alcohol is largely to help shy and possibly ugly people to meet each other and have sex.

But Oz is actually a wine enthusiast and connoisseur. He likes to look at gravel in vineyards. He likes to stand on a hill and think about how the wind and temperature dictate the rate of grape ripening and the effect that has on fruit flavours and acidity. He likes wine labels, wine corks and the boxes wine is shipped in, and knows everything about them. He can happily take out a bottle of rare wine, stand it on the table and just look at it. He admits that when he’s with other wine writers they might all get together with a bottle and simply talk about it, without necessarily opening it. Oz likes the unpredictability of an expensive wine and gets as much of a kick out of a disappointing one as he does out of a good one, because it increases the sum of his understanding either way and gives him even more to talk about in the future. Oz is, by any normal person’s standards, a wine bore.

And the tragedy of it all is this: not that I’m stuck with him for a month in a mobile home, but that in his 120-year-old face I see a tragic mirror of myself, another bore merely immersed in a different subject. One of the wine makers we visited drove an old Citroen DS and I discovered I could talk about it, uninterrupted, for nearly half an hour. In the end, I’d driven the bloke to drink.

Oz Clarke is amazed and outraged that people can be satisfied with a formulaic industrial wine that holds no surprises whatsoever. But it’s only a ruddy drink, for Pete’s sake. Then again, it still staggers me that so many people can sleep peacefully at night knowing that they own mid-size MPVs with diesel engines. But they’re only cars. Most people couldn’t give a toss about either.

And at least if you drink, you can forget.

 

 

James May, Column

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