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Coarse Rugby and Claret

A Christmas Consolation, or ‘Coarse Rugby & Claret’ – my ‘lightbulb moment’ in wine

Aged 23, I was captain of the 3rd XV of the local rugby club. One might think that this was a prestigious position, but fans of Michael Green’s ‘The Art Of Coarse Rugby’ will understand the true extent of poisoned chalice that this was. Two weeks before Christmas 1988, we were going to play the 4th XV of a larger club, about an hour’s drive away.

As was often the case, late call offs in both our team and in higher teams, and the reluctance of some to answer a late call two Saturdays before Christmas meant that we travelled with 12 players. On arrival at our opponents, we asked to borrow a few players who might be looking for a game. This was no problem, as our opponent’s 1st XV had no match that day & several of them had turned up looking for a game. We were lent two reluctant players from the 4th XV whose places were taken by first –teamers.

Suffice to say, we lost by about 60 points (these were the days of 4 points for a try) to nil, and were somewhat lucky to get the nil. The sense of triumphalism in the opponent’s clubhouse & the lack of flavour in the tea offered (post game teas varied widely – some were superb, others dire) conspired to leave a gloomy mood among the team, and we departed for home soon afterwards. Four of us were in one car, as we lived within a short distance of one another. Ian, our hooker, a classic car journalist, suggested that we call at his for a glass of wine as ‘he had a few friends in the trade’ who had been generous, and living on his own he thought it would be nice to share the largesse he had received.

As a 23 year old with no background in wine (my widowed mother & I usually only had wine at Christmas – typically a bottle of Liebfraumilch), this sounded pleasant enough, but nothing to get too excited about. Arriving at Ian’s small cottage, the four of us piled in & made ourselves comfy. I noticed Ian carefully easing the long cork out of the bottle & pouring it into a decanter, apologising that the wine hadn’t had time to breathe (you can imagine the jokes about it not getting much more time). Glasses were distributed, and not being experienced in wine, I took a mouthful straight away, without sniffing.

I stopped in my tracks. What was this? Where had it been all my life? This lush, mouth-filling, velvety liquid, so smooth yet so rich, so complex. This was a world away from any red wine I had ever encountered before – my first experience with red had been a rot-gut brand called ‘Discobole’ on a school ski trip, 5 years earlier, bought from the local supermarket at 5 francs a litre (about 50p). Now I was being served this flavour-filled glass of wonder. I couldn’t form any words to describe this miracle in a glass before me. For some time, like many (most famously ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’), I had chuckled at critics like Jilly Goulden & Oz Clarke on ‘Food & Drink’, with their florid descriptions. Now I marvelled at the language they could bring to such a wondrous liquid that had literally struck me dumb.

A sniff preceded my second mouthful, bringing amazing scents that I couldn’t identify. I was lost in wonder and befuddlement, not really knowing how to process this experience I was having. Ian noticed how quiet I was and asked me if I was alright. I mumbled inadequately about how incredible this wine tasted and how I’d never tasted anything like it. He said he didn’t know much about wine himself, but the wine journalist friend who’d given him a case of this had assured him that it was a “decent claret” & that it would be enjoyed by anyone who tried it. I didn’t commit the name of the wine to memory at the time, but the copper-plate picture of the chateau front came back instantly 12 years later when I unpacked a case of Cos D’Estournel to put out on the shelves of the Oddbins store where I had become the Assistant Manager. Only then did I truly marvel at Ian’s generosity, and that of his friend, as I understood why the wine had had such an impact on me.

A spark had been lit that evening, and it was fuelled 2 weeks later on Christmas Day with the gift of my first copy of ‘Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide’, a volume that has been updated on my bookshelf every year subsequently. It would be another 12 years before I worked in the wine trade full-time, lucky enough to complete my Diploma and enjoy all the wonderful experiences that our business has to offer, but my mind still casts back to that wet Saturday afternoon and evening in December 1988 and what began on that day. I suppose I should be grateful to our Coarse Rugby opponents, but the person I’m most grateful to is Ian. I understand he’s no longer with us, but I hope he’s enjoying a glass of something good, wherever he may be. Cheers, Ian.

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