After a visit to Waddesdon Manor’s wine cellar last week, it reminded me of something that happened a long time ago.
Many years ago I was working in a rather run-down branch of Victoria Wine in Windsor that was being managed by a couple of people who did the bare minimum to keep it going. Hardly any stock and what was available was packed in wide rows on shelves to cut down restocking efforts during the week.
Eventually, they left and I took over as manager for want of anyone else wanting the job, and spying an opportunity based on customer enquiries, started buying in some better wines to fill an empty space in the shop that was designed for fine wines, but the previous managers left empty. As hoped for, I was able to build up a loyal customer base of wine enthusiasts.
I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started, but started reading books about wine and got a feel for what the customers liked, and they taught me a lot in return.
Sadly being on a retail wage meant it was all theory and no practical.
I was though very lucky that many of my upper-mid range wine customers weren’t wine snobs, but people who revelled in the joy of wine and loved experimenting. And if I found interesting wines in the order books to try out, all the more fun, even when they turned out to be awful. Dessert wines from Lebanon, so many cases of unlabeled bottles of cheap random red wine from Bulgaria, and one of my greatest finds, a German red wine — which was awful but customers kept buying it because it was so unusual.
It was more work to keep restocking shelves with a wider range to put out, but that was supposed to be our job anyway, and the wider range was bringing in a lot more customers without also alienating the “half a vodka and pack of fags” customer base.
At the time the Victoria Wine chain was being run less to make a profit than to give its parent group, Allied Domecq a route to sell its own products outside supermarkets. Out of the thousand-odd stores, it was said that only around 100 were profitable, eventually including mine.
I had to carry Allied Domecq products, and as far as major lager brands were concerned, not those of rival groups (so yes to Castlemaine XXXX, but no to Fosters). I was also only supposed to order fine wines and spirits if I had a confirmed customer, but it turned out that wasn’t enforced, so off I went.
As I grew the range, I was progressively clearing out more space in the cellar storeroom and finally got to a corner with enough cobwebs to keep a Halloween store in business for several years. In here, I found a box of bin-end written off stock, and my area manager said to sell it for a tenner — so I did. To myself.
To put that into context, £10 was still a decent chunk of money for a person on a retail wage at the time. I think I was earning about £80 a week at the time, including doing a lot of overtime.
Inside that bin-end box were a few bottles of good champagne and some really good red wines. Over the years, they were slowly consumed on special days, except for the one bottle that turned out to be corked and I still shudder in memory of the smell.
This carried on until I had one bottle left. I forget the vintage but it would have been the early 1980s*.
That last bottle was Château Mouton Rothschild.
Maybe a decade later I had a gang of “sunday pub” friends, and one of them decided to host Christmas lunch. He cooked and we brought the booze. I’ve always treated myself to a decent bottle of wine on Christmas Day, and thinking this was a very good reason to open that last bottle, a Christmas Day about 15 years ago saw me walking down a rather rough part of South London carefully carrying a decanter of red wine.
Now, these were all pub-mates, and maybe in my naivety, I rather assumed that people who drink beer in pubs like me, also drink wine at home like me, even if only on special occasions.
I was wrong.
There were some small tastings of the wine out of politeness, but they left me to my wine while they stuck to their lager.
Now that was their choice and we all like different things, which is great. Except, I spent Christmas Day with a whole bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild to myself, and even though I knew everyone else was perfectly happy with what they brought, I still felt awkward having what was for me, this amazing bottle of wine all to myself. To me, Christmas is for sharing, and I wasn’t sharing, and even though everyone else was happy, it still felt a shame not to share the experience.
For what an experience it was.
If silk could be liquified and poured down a throat, it would barely do justice to that bottle of wine. Thanks to its age and quality it was the richest flavours possible, but all the tannins had mellowed to take away the harshness of a young wine while adding unbelievable depths and textures to the wine.
Imagine you’re driving along a rough road and then hit a smooth patch where they’ve relaid the tarmac, that’s the difference between a supermarket wine and a really good wine. I spent most of the afternoon sliding off the chair in utter delight.
I have never tasted such a red wine before, or sadly, since.
Baring marrying a rich husband or a lottery win, it’s unlikely that I will ever get to taste a wine that great again, but at least I got to try an exceptionally fine wine once in my life with enough knowledge of wine to appreciate it, and that is a memory that I am very pleased to have.
So, that’s the story of how the legacy of working in an off-licence ended up with me drinking an £800+ bottle of wine one Christmas day.
*They use a different label design each year, and looking at labels, the 1982 vintage label looks vaguely familiar, but I really can’t be sure.