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16 April 2014

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Restau-RANT: why can’t more local pubs offer a decent wine list?

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restauRANT bad wine 2012 - RestauRANT.jpgForced to choose between a rancid white and a tannic red, Nina Caplan would go for the coffee. Why can’t more local pubs offer a decent wine list?

A woman sidles into a pub. This isn’t the start of a joke: not a good one, anyway. I’m the woman, the time is a freezing Sunday last winter, the pub is a Railway Tavern in a godforsaken Hampshire town which appears, on a cursory drive-through, to have no easily accessible leisure options and certainly none that is open on a Sunday. Except this pub. The Railway Tavern is heaving. The Ark must have looked a bit like this, once the rain started.

I am in here because I’ve got 45 minutes until my train and don’t want to catch hypothermia in the interim. This place is the English country pub at its grimmest, and I’ve only had to venture an hour’s train ride out of London to find it. There are three whites and three reds by the glass, and you know that the manager – if he or she thinks about it at all, which is unlikely – is proud of having so many. The whites are a tasteless Pinot Grigio for those who’d rather be drinking vodka but won’t admit it; an over-oaked Chardonnay for the sweet of tooth; and a rancid Sauvignon Blanc, otherwise known as the sophisticated option. Provenance? Vintage? Who’s asking and why do they want to know?

I look around at the Sunday crowd, and for the first time I understand the point of alcopops. In the kind of London pub I patronise, where the assumption is that wine drinkers care about the taste as well as the percentage proof, such sugary alcoholic fizz would be an admission of defeat. But here, where the open bottles line up forlornly in the glass-fronted fridge, pleading silently for love like puppies in a dogs’ home, it may just be a survival strategy.

I know the English are supposed to be a nation of beer drinkers, leaving wine to the kind of toff who enters a pub only when in search of an oik to hold his horse. But the French were once a bunch of neck-slicing rebels, the Japanese used to welcome tourists with gunfire and the Italians weren’t a nation at all until 150 years ago. They’ve all got over these historical quirks: what’s the matter with us?

Part of the problem is surely grassroots ignorance. If the only wine you ever try tastes like a punishment, you’ll probably use it as a shortcut to drunkenness when you’re going out in a big enough group to make a bottle of wine a cheap alternative to spirits and mixers. I’m not taking up the fight against binge-drinking here; that’s for another rant. The point is, most young people learn to drink in pubs. They are places of education, unlikely as that may sound, and the barely legal should be given the chance to try something palatable. In pubs with good wine lists, of which there are many, in London and across the country, it is often the driver who upgrades: since they will be drinking only one glass, they are prepared to splash out a little more. Everybody should be encouraged to do this, even – especially – if they’re going to drink a lot more than a glass.

Some never will: fine. But those who do may like what they try; they may buy a bottle of something drinkable one day. After all, there is England’s reputation to consider. We are known both as the best country in the world to buy wine, from a variety point of view, and as a bunch of hooligans who wouldn’t recognise a decent drop if it was forced into us, in which case we’d probably glass the forcer. Pubs – ordinary locals, not just gastropubs – should be burnishing the former reputation, and puncturing the latter.

What about me, in my Railway Tavern in Hell, Hants? Did I hold my nose and down a super-tannic Merlot or an over-oaked Rioja? Did I run weeping from the warm fug of bad booze to shiver sober but smug on that platform? Reader, I did neither, although it was hard to keep from crying as I watched those around me industriously swallowing their medicine. I ordered coffee, then watched in appalled fascination as the bartender reached behind the espresso machine, with its sign saying ‘Try our Fairtrade Coffees!’ and pulled out a large tub of Nescafé. Customers were bringing back the machine-made coffee complaining of grounds, she said, ‘but when I make them a cup with the instant, they love it!’

Never mind that pub: I’m seriously contemplating leaving the country.

Caplan’s top three pub wine crimes

1. Selling Pinot Grigio – there are a couple of good ones, but even nice pubs don’t tend to have those by the glass.

2. Answering the question ‘which wines do you have?’ with ‘red and white’.

3. Responding to a geographical question about an international grape such as Cabernet Sauvignon as though the questioner had asked what the vine’s parents do for a living.

Nina Caplan is the New Statesman’s drinks critic

ILLUSTRATION: Graham Humphreys

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