Known primarily as a parliamentary sketch-writer, Simon Hoggart has been wine correspondent of The Spectator since 2001. He has written many books on politics and other things but this is his first on wine. There are some interesting and quirky choices here, such as Swiss Chasselas (p.24), Camel Valley sparkling wine (p.26) and Wickham Special Release Fumé (p.149) – the latter two English, of course.
His political journalism background comes through strongly. Hoggart’s story about an enormous lunch in Strasbourg being paid for because he was, as his hosts told him, “a guest of the European Socialist Group”, suddenly seems very pertinent (p.66). But perhaps in the current UK political (and economic) climate it was no bad thing for Robert Maxwell MP to have sold off the House of Commons wine cellar, even if Hoggart still feels aggrieved – “it was an extraordinary act of vandalism” (p.76).
Throughout Life’s Too Short Hoggart espouses an inverse snobbery in which anything expensive must be “vulgar”. He doesn’t like Russian oligarchs. But he is a terrible namedropper. Of Kaiken Ultra Malbec, he writes “I was once offered it at the celeb-haunted Ivy restaurant in London, where fellow guests included Melvyn Bragg and Ant & Dec (though it might have been Dec & Ant)” (p.74). He recounts the story of how he used to go out with a Concorde air stewardess – lucky him. The happy couple would drink leftover bottles from the plane with their fish and chips.
“Last time I looked,” writes Hoggart, “the 1990 Château Le Pin cost £3,800. Per bottle! The same vintage of Château Pétrus was £3,600” (p.5). Neither of these estates uses the title “château” and the prices he cites seem excessively high, even for these wines. The prices on the fine wine exchange Liv-ex are nowhere near this vaunted. And, with the exception of the 1982, Pétrus is always more expensive than Le Pin.
Hoggart asserts, “most people if asked to compare even a basic white Burgundy with Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from its Blossom Hill equivalent, or any decent small château claret from Mouton Cadet (sic), will not only tell the difference but prefer the first” (p.6).
I am not so sure. Like many wine writers that have not spent time working at the sharp end of the wine trade, he makes assumptions that are simply not true. I know from many painful experiences during five years of working in wine retail that most people cannot tell the difference between what an educated palate says is “good” and what is “bad”. But he conveys the importance of context brilliantly: “A crummy bottle of French supermarket wine… can taste like nectar if you’re in the flower-festooned shade of a garden in southern France, with cold meats, cheese and fresh baguettes in front of you, and good friends all around” (p.9).
So many writers and “experts” totally miss this point, as Hoggart later alludes to when describing the House of Commons wine committee: “They are all wine enthusiasts but not necessarily wine experts, which in my view makes their judgements more reliable, since they are in touch with the public palate in a way that those who taste scores of wines each day for their living may not be” (p.76). It is good to know that some MPs are “in touch” with the public, even if it is only with their palates.
Life’s Too Short to Drink Bad Wine is well-written and well-informed but somewhat lacking in focus, as the mix of generic and specific entries for wines and lack of specified vintages suggests. This is inconsistent and causes some non sequiturs. For example, Louis Latour’s Bâtard-Montrachet is one of the author’s “Top Ten Wines” on p.11 but for the generic Bâtard entry on p.18 a Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard label is illustrated.
The book’s binding is lovely. But the pull quotes are rather clumsy, at first glance looking like boxed text. There are no indents for the Château Lafont Menaut entry on p.78. And shouldn’t “Château Latours” be “Châteaux Latour” (p.22)? Semantics, I suppose.
He is perfectly entitled to mention The Spectator Wine Club but this is perhaps a bit too blatant a sales pitch: “Naturally, I would love it if you bought your wine from The Spectator Wine Club, mainly because we do try to select wines that taste terrific and don’t cost too much” (p.43).
A Master of Wine acquaintance of mine once told me that he had some dealings with Hoggart via The Spectator Wine Club. He doesn’t know much about wine, the MW sniffed. But that MW was no prose stylist. I have always believed that it is better to read somebody who knows a bit about wine and can write well than somebody who knows a lot about wine and cannot write. There are too many of the latter. We need more from Simon Hoggart, who knows about wine (rather than soil types) and writes well.
Ominously, I have seen Life’s Too Short already discounted to £4.99… Let us hope that is due more to the parlous state of publishing than to the worth of Simon Hoggart’s book.