Knowing a little about wine has a bit of kudos to it: oh, you’re the wine expert, that sort of thing. And the nature of wine is such that one only needs to know a little to know more than most others. Read Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book and you’ll likely know more about wine than the staff at many high street wine merchants, for instance.
I started my wine career in 1997, and before I was let loose on the residents of Marylebone High Street, I trained for three weeks at my employer’s in-house wine school in the outskirts of Paris. Much of the time was spent in the classroom, the rest “on the ground” in their store in the rue de l’Ancienne Comedie on the Left Bank.
The thought of being a barely knowledgeable Englishman working in a Paris wine store filled me with fear. My French was good enough, though I thought my wine knowledge was a long way short. I knew a lot about Chablis, having been a tour guide in the region for a couple of seasons, and I’d done my time in the classroom in Villejuif, but the thought of advising Parisians on what to drink with their coq-au-vin filled me with fear. I put this to my mentor, the shop manager. His answer sticks with me still:
“You might not know much, but you know more than the customer. Otherwise he wouldn’t ask. If you tell him to drink Cahors with his coq-au-vin, and it doesn’t work, he will not blame you, he will think “well, the caviste told me that this would be perfect” and then decide that either (a) there is something wrong with his coq-au-vin or (b) there is something wrong with his palate.”
These words tell much about the nature of the man, but they gave me confidence and, helped by the ingenious aide-memoire devised by my employers I cruised along contently.
The aide-memoire was a work of genius. Prices ended with a “5” or a “9”, so FF3.99 or FF 3.95, say. This was more than monetary, with fuller-bodies wines ending in “9” and lighter wines in “5”. Sharp-eyed customers might also notice that the period separating francs and centimes was not the same shape for all wines. Depending on the style of the wine, it would be square for more structured wines, round for, well, rounder wines and diamond shaped for what I would now describe as “svelte” wines. Genius. And genius which meant that a wet-behind-the-ears Englishman could not only talk with confidence on wines about which he knew nothing, but could even tell the difference between the FF3.99 Bergerac and the FF 3.95 Saumur…