For an emotional Celt, I am resolutely dry-eyed in public. Nevertheless, there are things that make me fill up at the drop of a hat. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, for example. The potent combination of Moon River and a bedraggled cat which makes the last few minutes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s so poignant. Or the price of Salice Salentino on the wine list of a rather posh gastropub.
Much has been said about the hard lot of the restaurateur, and I confess to being in sympathy with a great deal of it. Greedy landlords, fashionably temperamental chefs and the critical rantings of grub (Street) hacks are not for the faint-hearted. Nor, however, is the prospect of an unpretentious bottle of wine which, in licensed premises, morphs into a £25 extravagance. A silver-tongued sommelier and a goblet large enough to house a pair of Koi carp do not, I fear, justify the premium.
So dependent are our restaurants on the easy profits to be made from doubling, trebling and sometimes even quadrupling the take-home price of a bottle of wine that few of them have embraced the ‘bring your own’ culture one finds in the New World, and, surprisingly, many parts of Europe. I once acquired a bottle of Champagne of the same vintage as my husband, and it was with some trepidation that I approached a temple of gastronomy in Toulouse for permission to toast the birthday boy’s health with something as mature and gracious as himself. To my amazement, there was neither antipathy nor corkage and the chef joined us for a glass. At a Corsican restaurant, the bottle of 1981 Côte Rôtie La Mouline we had brought from home to celebrate an anniversary, was tenderly taken from our hands and poured into an imposing decanter.
If such behaviour is allowed here at all it is at worst grudgingly, at best at a charge which a decent establishment will waive if a bottle of something from their own list is bought as well. However, it’s better to cough up than finish the evening toes-up.
The ‘bargains’ are to be found much higher up the list, where classic bottles are often offered at a much lower markup, presumably because only superannuated rock stars or Russian billionaires would buy them if the same formula was applied throughout. The bar tab will be high, but a fine old vintage Burgundy now and again makes more sense to me than weekly doses of overpriced primitivo. After all, I – and every other member of The Society – can enjoy more reasonably-priced versions of that at home on any night of the week with a bowl of pasta.
In the current climate, a cultural shift on corkage might just tempt out to dinner those of us who are increasingly staying in and finding our inner chef. For now, with more than 1,000 wines to choose from on our various Lists, I for one, am not shedding too many tears about it.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor