Has Anyone Got A Straw?

Info For Beginners

or

How Wine Became A Hobby

University was an eye opening experience for me. I was a geeky, socially awkward kid from up north (I say “was”, still am really), but I was determined that this would be a fresh start. So I turned up first day, ready to go, first day of the rest of your life and all that…

One of my saving graces when I was younger was that I was into sports. You name it, I would have a go, although admittedly to varying degrees of success. It was pretty much one of the only ways I knew how to meet people and by the time I was 18 my sports were hockey in the winter, cricket in the summer. So there I was, wandering around the sports hall for the clubs and societies fair. I signed up to the hockey club straight away. “Well,” I thought, “it’ll keep me fit and might meet a few guys and girls at the same time.” I was right about one bit of that.

The hockey club at uni, like many other clubs, was a blur of booze filled nights out and incestual shenanigans. Unless you were in the first team (which given hockey’s amateur status, most university first-teamers were playing national league hockey at weekends), which I was definitely not, hockey sort of…well…got in the way of the drinking. The first social as a fresher I popped my pint-downing cherry. Now that I do remember! It was laced with a few shots of gin and dually reappeared to great applause from the older members. It might not have been pretty, but I was in, and that was how it continued for my 4 years there.

Now by the time we’d entered second year the bloom was coming off the rose in terms of the novelty of being at uni. Students are in possibly the most sociable time of their lives, university is set up for that, but let’s face, you’ve got next to no money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, everyone was in the same boat. You just learned to get around it. That’s when I learnt the art of the strawpedo!

Wednesday afternoons were messy in every sense of the word. You’d play a game of hockey in BUSA competition early afternoon, and then hit the boozer where all the other teams in the club would meet to celebrate/commiserate. Heading down the pub for hours on end, however, is a bit on the punchy side for your average student so a few of us followed a tried and tested pre pub ritual. You would head down to the nearest shop and pick up the cheapest bottle of wine you could. And a straw. Now the trick is to pop the straw in at an angle such that the air going into the straw pushes the wine out faster, and thus it’s possible to drink the whole bottle in under 10 seconds. The result is you’re smashed for the next 2-3 hours for the princely sum of £2.99.

So that was it. A wine was great if it was cheap. We’re not from a wine-producing nation. It’s not in our culture. I’m not condoning it, but then it’s a bit hypocritical for me to condemn it also. I’ve grown up in a service industry run by Wetherspoons and pound-a-pint promotions. What did I know, or care for that matter, about the wine industry?

That all changed thanks to my Dad’s inability to stop buying things. My parents were out in northern Italy for a holiday, and my Dad struck up a great friendship with the owner of the guesthouse they were staying at. The next day, suitably hungover, they jumped into his little cinquecento and drove round a selection of run down, abandoned farm houses in the area (I should point out my Dad is a DIY nut, and likes to make sure he has a “project” or two). My parents were sold. They were the proud owners of what I can best describe as four walls on the side of a hill in a region of Italy I’d never really heard of other than the cherries you sometimes got in home baked cakes in the 80s. Piemonte.

As the rest of the family joined up we ventured out around the area, making a few friends in the surrounding area. We soon realized there was one main business in this region: wine. I’m not going to go into details (yet) about the different varieties and styles and the rest, it’s a complex business. What I would say is that I realized very quickly that this wasn’t just another drink. The passion, the pride, the over riding sense of what matters in their lives is completely infectious. I know this sounds overly romanticised rubbish, I’m reading it back to myself trying to think of a better way of saying it, but I can’t. If you’re a wine producer, this is a job that takes up 52 weeks a year, 7 days a week, and at times 12-14 hours a day to get it right. I started to realize I probably should start showing a bit of respect.

That was it really for the next few years. I was hooked on wine. More specifically I was hooked on Piemontese wine. I knew 4 grapes and a handful of producers, and that’s about it. For a long time this wasn’t a problem, I felt happy in my comfort zone. Ever so gradually though I started getting a bit sick of walking into the local wine shop and not having the first idea about what I was doing and what I should be looking for. France? Forget it! The New World? A bit of a toughy! The neighbouring region in Italy to the one I’d spent most of my time? A step too far! So what could I do to change it?

Well, to be honest, I still don’t know. But I thought a decent start was to sign up to some wine knowledge courses, and as they’ve begun, I realized very quickly that it only takes a little bit of info and the picture changes completely. So I guess this is what this blog is going to be about. It’s my experiences of going from a bit of novice to, hopefully, a bit less of a novice, and in time, who knows? Hopefully it’ll be an easy read and the plan will be to share the info as I meet it. I once got told at work that there’s no such thing as a stupid question or a stupid action, unless of course you do it twice! So the plan is for this to be a guide to build the confidence and the knowledge for those who don’t know where to start. I’m not planning on spouting out a lot of tasting notes about different bottles I buy, and I’m not going to say what you should or shouldn’t try. I’m just going to throw the info out there, and you can use it as you will.

So if you don’t know your Sancerre from your Chablis, or your Malbec from your Merlot, then don’t panic. No one ever does until they get told for the first time. We don’t come from a major wine producing nation, it’s not in our culture. But the British have always been open to new experiences, and although wine isn’t anything new, the next generation of wine drinkers are, and as one of them I can say that a little understanding goes a long way.

So feel free to have a read. I genuinely hope it helps.

Cheers

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