Stuart George

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

My “The China Syndrome” article published by Langton’s

In Travel on December 7, 2011 at 9:50 am



Chile con carne

In Tastings, Travel on November 3, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Today (2 November) I arrived in Chile, my second visit to this marvellous country.

Despite overindulgence in the nightclubs of Valparaiso last year, my friend Sylvia Cava invited me to taste again at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Chile, two days of tasting and awarding Chilean wines.

There are no direct flights from London to Chile so on Monday evening I flew to Madrid and then caught a midnight flight from there to Santiago. The journey from Europe to Santiago must be as far as it is possible for a plane to travel without refuelling – 14 hours I make it.

Jetlag necessitates that this will be a pithy blog entry – at the moment my eyes are a deeper red than a Chilean Cabernet – but I was keen to show some of the sights of Valparaiso that I saw this afternoon.

Santiago was a pleasant 30 degrees this morning. My fellow European arrivals and I were like lavender, desperate for the rays of the sun. We tried to get as much Vitamin D as possible before the drive south to Valparaiso, where the weather is much cooler and overcast, alas.

With most of my fellow Concours tasters, I am staying at the Gervasoni Hotel, which overlooks Valparaiso’s harbour. On the far left is a ship in a floating dry dock. The harbour seems busier than this time last year.

Valparaiso is a vertiginous city; like Monaco, it lies on a splendid coastline and then rises up into the landscape. Brightly coloured houses are scattered along the hillside roads like the balls on a snooker table.

Like Bucharest (in my experience), Valparaiso has a large stray dog population. But the people are a good deal friendlier.

On my first visit to Chile last year I was immediately struck by the amount of graffiti. I am assured that Mexico is even worse (or better, depending on your viewpoint).

Sola GratiaSola FideSolus Christus… Lutherans believe that God made the world, and some residents of Valparaiso believe that Lutherans made them. Like the Barossa Valley in South Australia, German settlers have left their mark here.

We went past Pablo Neruda’s house. In one of his poems Neruda wrote of “Day-coloured wine,/night-coloured wine,/wine with purple feet/or wine with topaz blood”. He must have been thinking of the Concours tasting.


The Third Man: AWC Vienna 2010

In Travel on September 14, 2010 at 10:25 am

In late August I spent a few days in Vienna tasting for the AWC (Austrian Wine Challenge) 2010, my second year as its sole UK representative. As always, Michael Edlmoser and Andreas Peschta were charming and amusing hosts. Among my fellow tasters there was the usual motley crew of beer bellies, socks ‘n’ sandals and hairy top lips. Don’t even ask me about the men.

The AWC was first held in 2004 when about 4,000 wines were analysed. This year over 10,000 wines were submitted from more than 30 countries. Three bottles of each wine are sent, so over 30,000 bottles have to be logged, sorted and prepared.

Wines are tasted single-blind in “cabins” (einzelkosterkabinen) with each desk divided by a portable wall. Scores are done on a 100-point scale in which 80-84.9 is “seal”; 85-89.9 a silver medal; and 90+ a gold medal. Faults were noted according to five categories: oxidative, reductive, microbiological, “uncleanliness” and “deficit of the grapes” (the last two are crude translations from the German). Faulty wines are retained at the Federal College to be examined by its boffins and the winemaker is then advised on what might have gone wrong and how to avoid such things in the future.

At the end of each flight there would be one or two wines that had already been tasted; ringers were also occasionally inserted to keep tasters on their toes. I didn’t nail as many wines as last year but I have done it often enough to laugh off when I completely screw it up, like scoring 12-points apart the same wine tasted twice in consecutive glasses. Michael let me get away with that.

During the AWC tastings lunch each day was at the Stiftscafe, cheek by jowl with the Klosterneuburg Monastery. You could eat what you liked as long as it was Wienerschnitzel mit Erdapfelsalat, breaded veal with potato salad. For a change one day I had Berner Würstel mit pommes frites. A Berner Würstel is a Viennese sausage stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. To revive myself after the 50 or so white wines tasted before lunch, a glass of Almdudler was just the thing. This is a fruit juice flavoured with herbs and is massively popular in Austria. Much better than filthy Coke or Pepsi, which I haven’t drunk for over 20 years.

Every evening during August, a music film is shown on the enormous screen erected outside the splendid 19th century rathaus in central Vienna, a brisk 15-minute walk from my hotel. The weather was more typical than 2009’s heatwave, which saw temperatures in the city reach 31 degrees. But it was still pleasant enough to sit outside, watch opera and drink Ottakringer, albeit not so nice to do it in shorts and sandals.

Food and wine are in copious supply of course. I particularly enjoyed gröstl, black pudding with fried potatoes. Probably I enjoyed it too much – during a recent visit to London my sister noted how over-indulgence was showing on my previously slender frame.

Also eaten with pleasure was ananasreis mit tigerschrimps, though I don’t think that rice and tiger shrimps served inside a hollowed-out pineapple is a traditional Viennese dish!

Tasting 100 wines a day is hungry work so I usually had some desert too, like the gut-busting Kaiserschmarren of diced pancake and apple (or whatever) sauce.

Dinner was washed down with half-litre servings of the local Ottakringer beer in proper glasses. The Helles brand is quite light and refreshing; I found the unfiltered Zwickl Rot version heavier and more sullen.

August evenings at the rathaus are extremely civilised. There is no drunkenness, litter or breakages – only people enjoying the food, music and weather.

In a remarkable coincidence, just like last year my beloved Aston Villa played Rapid Vienna in the first leg of a Europa League match. The home fans were surprisingly enthusiastic for what I consider to be the usually even-tempered Austrians. The cigarette smoke was appalling, as was Villa’s defence in the second match in Birmingham, which I didn’t go to. An horrendous start to the season. Let’s see what Monsieur Houllier can do.

During my annual visit to Vienna I always spend an evening at the wonderful Wiener Prater amusement park and go for a ride on the Riesenrad, which appeared in that great film The Third Man.

Vienna is such a beautiful city. I find its “Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm,” as Graham Greene put it, utterly beguiling. But for the daunting prospect of having to learn German and the paucity of cricket grounds I would live in Vienna. The third man for me will always be an off-side fielding position behind the wicket-keeper!

Open up that Golden Gate: Travels in California

In Travel on October 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm

“Joni Mitchell’s voice and guitar wafted through the speakers as the plane landed in San Francisco…”

The young Joni Mitchell

The young Joni Mitchell

How’s that for the opening sentence to a pulp thriller? At any rate, it was a nice way to arrive in California.

The mood turned Hitchcockian when I was unable to find the driver who had been sent to collect me by my host Dr SuHua Newton. Eventually we found each other—he had even walked right past me while I was sat outside in the sun reading David Frith’s Bodyline Autopsy, one of the best cricket books ever.

Golden Gate in Fog (image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica)Of course, the drive into (or rather past) the city was for me thrilling, especially over the Golden Gate Bridge. I had been told that I would be staying at Dr Newton’s “hotel” in Mill Valley, a prosperous suburb just north of SF. I thought I was staying in her house, so I was bemused to learn that I would be parked in a hotel and one that wasn’t even in the city. When I arrived, all was revealed. The “hotel” turned out to be a splendid house that Dr Newton uses as her office. It was Friday so I would have it all to myself for the weekend.

We went for dinner that evening at a the Tong Kiang restaurant and drank a half-bottle of 2001 Newton Vineyards Merlot, which was mature, balanced and supple though rather short.

Mill Valley, looking towards San Francisco

Mill Valley, looking towards San Francisco

On Saturday morning I woke up and gazed from the patio across Richardson Bay to the city, which was shrouded in thick fog. It was cool too, “a nipping and an eager air.” The climate of San Francisco and the Bay Area is extraordinarily capricious.

I caught a ferry from Sausolito to the city. Taking a punt on the sunshine that had emerged earlier that morning, I was in shorts and sandals. I froze as the ferry alternately bobbed across the water through thick fog or bright sunshine.

Haight-AshburyDr Newton told me off for leaning out of her car window while she was showing me round the city. (She is a very impatient driver). Apparently some kid had his arms or legs sheared off by a passing car when leaning out of the window so a law banning such things was passed hastily. San Francisco’s weather is capricious but so is its legislation. In the city of Haight-Ashbury, the Beat Generation, hippies and the Summer of Love you cannot even lean out of a car window without breaking the law. This famously liberal city is bound up by legislation tighter than the bark on a Giant Sequoia.

It has a dark and disturbing underbelly, too. There is a magnificent and sombre film made in 2004 by Eric Steel that explores why so many people end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge. The images captured by Steel of people leaping from the bridge into the icy water are shocking and linger in the viewer’s memory like a bad dream.

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

On a more cheerful note, Dr Newton lives in a Pacific Heights house with magnificent views across the city and harbour. We sat in her lounge eating, drinking, talking and watching the occasional container ship go past Alcatraz as it headed out to sea. The ships were rarely fully-loaded, their plimsoll lines usually visible. The shipping industry has been hit hard by the “crisis”. I visited some friends in Hamburg recently and they told me that for a couple of days last autumn the usually thriving shipyards there were eerily still. If local residents were spooked just imagine what it would be like if you worked in that industry.

On Saturday evening we went to a Thai restaurant called Yukol and drank 1982 Newton Vineyards Merlot. The nose was cedary and good but the palate was drying out and left acidity rather than fruit on the finish. Nonetheless, it was a rare treat.

A taxi was ordered at closing time to get me back to Mill Valley. Dr Newton was due on a nightshift in her role as a paediatrician. She is an extraordinary lady—a winemaker and doctor of medicine, with qualifications in every subject imaginable. She also paints well, speaks several languages and used to be a model. What a woman she is! I hope that somebody captures her remarkable life in words before it is too late.

In London, taxi drivers always know where they’re going. If they don’t, they consult a map or SatNav. I assumed my man would know where to go. He didn’t. Nor did I. It was late, it was dark, I had barely seen any of Mill Valley and I was tired. So we drove for at least an hour around Mill Valley to find the “hotel.” He had the courtesy to switch off the fare machine but I had been advised $40 would cover the trip from SF to Mill Valley. So that is what I offered him.

“You’re kidding?”

No, I wasn’t. This led to an earful of abuse. I pointed out to him that UK cabbies usually have a map handy. Why didn’t he?

He wanted to know why I didn’t know the way.

“Are you slow or somethin’?’”

Something, since you ask. And I’m too tired to argue and want to go to bed. More abuse. He sped off before I could note his registration plate. But, like Jerry Garcia, I believe in Karma.

Jerry Garcia

"Captain Trips"—Jerry Garcia

Sunday was spent in a very warm Napa, the temperature hitting nearly 90 degrees that day. Dr Newton showed me her Carneros Vineyard, which supplies grapes for the Unfiltered Chardonnay. Lara Abbott, Domaine Chandon’s and Newton’s Australian-born but US-raised PR, joined us here. She took my digs over The Ashes in good humour. I had been reading about Bodyline, after all.

The Razi vineyard was also visited. The owner had a charming ticking-off (sic) from Dr Newton over various things, irrigation and burned grapes and so on. She explained to me afterwards how she turns on the charm to get the best out of people. A good lesson for life!

I joined a tour group at Newton Vineyards to have a look around the estate. It’s a long way up—the pine tree that is shown on the bottle labels is at 1,700 feet above sea level. Some of the vineyards surrounding Newton’s winery are at a 60-degree slope—nowadays, new plantings are only permitted at up to 30.

Lunch was at the Auberge du Soleil restaurant up in the hills at Rutherford. SuHua and Lara cooed at Colin, the boyish-looking and charming sommelier. It was very good, especially the cookies made to order for Dr Newton. Being a generous soul, she let me and Lara try them.

The afternoon was spent with John Caldwell at his estate in Coombsville. I had arranged to meet John after having had to request images from him for a brilliant Jonathan Swinchatt article that I edited in my previous dayjob.

John and Joy Caldwell

John and Joy Caldwell

John used to sell his grapes to Pahlmeyer Winery and others but began bottling his own wines with the 1998 vintage, though production has remained tiny at less than 1,000 cases per year.

The red wines are big and fleshy, especially the Proprietary Red. Caldwell Vineyards’ winemaker is Marbue Marke—from Sierra Leone! But he hasn’t yet made a blend called “Palm-wine music.”

The Caldwell bottles with the “C” logo mould cost $3.50 each, John told me. Money is tight but “I love it too much to sell.” He and his wife Joy have a young family. He’s one of the good guys and deserves his successes.

Three days is hardly enough to see California but I was due back in New York on Monday night.

At JFK airport I was refreshing myself with a beer when a car ad appeared on the bar’s TV screen. It was subtitled “Do not attempt yourself. Professional driver on an enclosed track.” Only in America…

No sleep till Brooklyn: Travels in New York

In Travel on October 22, 2009 at 6:00 pm

This was my first visit to the USA. Ashes series meant that I always went east out of Heathrow. But an increasing number of friends Stateside made it more attractive to visit than ever. Accommodation and guided tours would be free. All I had to do was turn up.

No Sleep Till BrooklynThe flight was entertaining. Departure was late because of a Spanish-speaking prima donna. The entire plane could overhear her complaints. She was booked into first class but had turned up late and her seat had been given to somebody else. So she had to sit next to me in cattle class. “This is so unfair,” she moaned. Life is unfair, isn’t it? Especially when you don’t get that extra six inches of legroom you paid for. She decided that being sat next to me for six hours was intolerable, so off she went.

“Close the door behind you, please.”

She cut me a filthy look.

There was also a group of Hasidic Jews, who made such a fuss of finding their seats. It must have taken them 20 minutes to be happy with their seating arrangements. They made a bit of a mess with their nibbles and biscuits. A (white American, presumably well-off) lady seated close to me said, “My, they’re a bunch of slobs.” It would not be the last time I heard such casual racism on this trip.

I was met at Newark by the delightful Bernardette Lyon, a friend of a friend who I’d met only twice before. For my first night in NYC she had very generously invited me to stay at her mother’s house in Brooklyn. We drove into Manhattan, me grinning like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy as he looks around NYC for the first time.

SDG and Bernardette in Brooklyn

SDG and Bernardette in Brooklyn

Bernardette took me on a tour of Brooklyn, including Saturday Night Fever territory in Bay Ridge. I think we went through Bensonhurst, too, where that brilliant car chase was filmed for The French Connection. The obligatory pizza was followed by dinner at Tatiana in Brighton Beach, or “Little Odessa.” There are lots of Russians in London (in Belgravia, anyway) but I’m sure Bernardette and me were the only non-reds in the hood.

We walked along the boardwalk towards Coney Island, sat underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Saturday Night Fever again), walked down Cranberry Street where Moonstruck was filmed, and then refuelled at Junior’s, a Brooklyn joint famous for its cheesecakes. A slice about the size of the Isle of Wight (or Staten Island) was put in front of me. Bernardette and the waiter were amused by my horror at the amount of calories on my plate.

*Oct 21 - 00:05*The final pit-stop was at Farrell’s, just up the road from Bernardette’s place and where a scene in As Good As It Gets was made (so many films today!).  Bernardette had never been in there, which seemed surprising at the time but once inside I could see why… It is a very macho, Irish/cops place, though the regulars turned out to be friendly enough and we stayed there until 2am. Bernardette has vowed not to go again unless it’s with me, bless her.

An American Football match was on the TV in the bar. I have not yet grasped how this sport works but today (22 October) I was at The Oval cricket ground to see a friend. The pitch was being prepared for a “top secret” training session by the New England Patriots (or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I can’t remember which) ahead of Sunday’s NFL match at Wembley. They are completely paranoid about their practices being filmed, my friend told me. She won’t be allowed in the The Oval tomorrow (she works there!) and the Americans had expressed great concern about the flats that overlook the ground. They were politely told that nothing could be done about that. My friend also said that the team’s cheerleaders have a full-time (male) manager. The best job in the world or the worst? We couldn’t decide.

After one night chez Bernardette, I spent the next three nights on the other side of Prospect Park with Lisa Granik MW and her partner Sandy at their splendid house.

Lisa is smart, funny and very candid—which is to say she speaks with great honesty and integrity. Her brilliant mind (and palate) and links to Russia mean that she does not fit easily into the mainstream.

Lisa invited me to a dinner in Chinatown with several of her friends and colleagues. Before coming to the restaurant I met Lisa and her friend Gaetano and we tried the esoteric Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé Le Clos Tête de Cru 2004—as puzzling as The Times crossword—and a quite lovely Huet Le Mont Sec 2005, with not a discordant note anywhere. I brought with me to the restaurant two vintages of Dr von Bassermann-Jordan’s Deidesheimer Kalkofen Riesling Spätlese Trocken. The 2001 was very tightly coiled, with acidity like the lash of a bullwhip. By comparison, the 2002 was a big softie. It was hard to believe that two such different wines came from the same vineyard and cellar.

We also tried some Champagnes—a simple Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montguex Blanc de Blancs NV; a good Piper Heidsieck Rare 1999 and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 1999 (though not at all flattered by the restaurant’s glassware); and a woody and fat Vilmart Grand Cellier NV.

Lisa, being a responsible adult, went back home after dinner but the rest of went for cocktails in the West Village. I was asked by one of our dinner companions, “Don’t you ever laugh?” It’s true that my natural expression is a curmudgeonly frown. But I do laugh at things that I find amusing (as this picture taken at Santiago airport proves).

SDG vaguely amused by somethingBy midnight only Gaetano and myself were left standing. We went to a bar where he knew (and fancied) the manageress. A youngish bloke and four younger ladies parked themselves on the table next to us. I struck up a conversation with one of them, “Kath, from Michigan.” She was blonde, had lips that implied the assistance of collagen, and wore a skirt slightly narrower than my belt. At first glance she was attractive She told me she had studied Victorian Literature in Glasgow. I was excited—perhaps finally I had found an intellectual soul mate wearing a two-inch skirt.

“And who is your favourite Victorian poet?”

“Oh, I think that would be Edmund Spenser.”

SDG and Kath from Michigan

SDG and Kath from Michigan

Kath then made me an offer that normally I simply could not refuse. But, having put Spenser in the nineteenth century, I declined. Perhaps they do teach Spenser as part of the Victorian Literature course in Glasgow. But more likely Kath was a dumb blonde who was drunk or stoned or both. She looked thoroughly discombobulated by my refusal. As Spenser wrote: “But the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit,/And vertuous mind, is much more praysed of me.”

Gaetano did not believe that I had received such an offer. I told him to ask Kath. Then he was downright disgusted at me for refusing it.

The chaperone, who spoke fluent Italian, claimed to be an “erm, historian” and blinked nervously like the villain in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, was a very odd fellow. Think of Ed Balls’ (the UK Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) twitching eyes, too—would you trust him? I suspect that accepting Kath’s offer might have meant an exchange of cash before anything else.

I got back to Brooklyn at 5am. Fortunately I did not have any appointments that day and was able to sleep off my evening of over-indulgence. But in-between the cocktails, interesting offers and hangovers, I did actually do some work. I went to the “California Wine Rush” tasting at Grand Central station, Terry Theise’s “Tasting Grower Champagne: Your how-to Guide” and a Sauternes tasting at Vermilion Restaurant.

I interviewed Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s head of wine, and have written-up this for Harpers. Rik Pike of Christie’s was met on an informal basis. I also caught the train from Grand Central to Scarsdale to speak with Jeff Zacharia at his enormous and copiously stocked Zachys store.

After four nights in New York, I went to California for the weekend before returning to NYC  for one night. I had planned to stay in the airport but all the best sleeping spots had already been taken and I needed to wash and rest. So I paid $170 for the privilege of staying in a very basic Best Western hotel next to the airport. Ouch.

Led Zeppelin Physical GraffitiThat left me with a full day to kill before flying to Brazil in the evening. I raced around the city, doing all the cheesy things that English tourists are supposed to do— walking through Central Park, going to the top of the Empire State Building, eating hotdogs, seeing the Yankee and Citi Field stadiums, the Chelsea Hotel, walking over Brooklyn Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry… I also did a few things that would only occur to me, like going to the building at St. Mark’s Place in the East Village that was used for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. (My dad was at school with John Bonham!).

Other things that amused me during this first trip to NYC included the umbrella salesman on the subway and his rhyming sales rap—“It’s going to rain, it’s such a pain, buy an umbrella, it’ll last forever” or something similar. At the Chinatown restaurant there was a reassuring sign in the loo: “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.”

I will write about my travels in California, Brazil and Chile soon…

Cruise Bourgeois: Travels in Bordeaux and Montpellier

In Travel on July 7, 2009 at 11:10 am

I spent most of last week in France, two nights at Château Giscours in Margaux and then two nights in Junas, near Montpellier.

I arrived at Giscours, saw the imposing château and assumed that I would be staying there. But the château is mothballed and guests stay in comfortable (albeit quite rustic) accommodation in an adjacent outbuilding.


My host was Dutch-born Alexander Van Beek, manager of Giscours and its neighbour du Tertre. He is married to Haut-Bailly’s delightful manager Véronique Sanders. They have recently had a little boy so I was left to my own devices for dinner. Alexander recommended the Brasserie du Lac at the Golf de Margaux, a swanky golf club that overlooks the Île Margaux in the Gironde.

Driving up from Bordeaux to Margaux on the D2 that day I was confronted by a seemingly endless stream of Bernard Magrez signs – even one for Château Fombrauge, his St-Emilion estate. So in revenge I ate Magret de Canard.

Alexander had very kindly given me a bottle of Giscours 2003 to take with me to dinner but it was far too hot for red wine, so instead I drank Château Turcaud 2007, a clean and simple Entre Deux Mers Sec. It was bottled under a Nomacork, the first time I have seen this closure on a Bordeaux wine.

While the water sprays kept the greens lush, the Tiepolo clouds above gradually turned grey and a huge storm broke to the south, with forked lightning hitting somewhere in Bordeaux. In bed at Giscours, the heat was unbearable and I scarcely slept – no air conditioning.

Wednesday was spent mostly with Alexander, visiting Giscours and du Tertre. The latter has been restored – at great expense probably – to a superb standard. (There is a reason why Giscours languishes while du Tertre lavishes, which I will explain in profiles of the estates to appear on this blog in due course). In the afternoon I paid a brief visit to Château Palmer to taste the 2008 with Bernard de Laage, whom I first met in 2006 at the Young Wine Writer of the Year award ceremony.

du Tertre

I left Giscours on Thursday morning at 7.30 to ensure that I could return my hire-car in good time before catching a train to Montpellier via Toulouse. Another huge storm hit Bordeaux, causing flash flooding in the city centre.

Traveling by train in France is so civilised, with none of the rubbish that one has to endure in the UK. I used to enjoy the journey from Marylebone to the West Midlands to visit my family but over the last couple of years it has become a free for all, with people treating requests not to use mobile phones in the “quiet carriage” with contempt. Broken Britain…

At Montpellier, I was met by Florence Brutton, translator extraordinaire of Michel Bettane’s text for The World of Fine Wine. Among many other things, Flo did the translation for the People’s Century television documentary broadcast in 1995. I watched every episode.

Flo, her husband Mark and children Louis and Amy live in Junas, a small village north-east of Montpellier. They used to live in south-west London but relocated to France in 2003 to their then holiday home, which has guest accommodation available to rent. Junas hosts an annual jazz festival in its disused quarries, has a decent boulangerie and altogether a nice feel to it – a good place to rest for a few days.

Junas carrières

On Friday, Mark and his neighbour Santiago took me to Bouzigues to feast on the local oysters and mussels. I ate 16 oysters and at least half as many mussels. The three of us shared two bottles of Picpoul de Pinet, the tasty local white wine that is such an excellent match with shellfish.

Bouzigues (image courtesy of Stéphanie De Nadaï)

That evening, Flo took me to Domaine de Trépaloup, a small wine estate in St-Clément, not far from Junas on the so-called “Terre de Sommières,” run by the Vendôme brothers Rémi and Laurent. They produce a series of varietal Vin de Pays d’Oc – Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – as well as some AOC Languedoc blends. The wines generally showed good varietal character, though always in a rustic Vin de Pays style.