That most readable of wine wordsmiths, Johnny Ray of the Spectator, caught my eye (again) last month. Empty wine bottles were the subject. Recycling was the context. Putting on a different spin, as it were, I used to jettison the bottle straight into the blue topped recycling bin, but such was the explosive crescendo of smashing glassware that I now lay them gently, one by one, into their next home. Not to placate our lovely neighbours, but out of courtesy. The said bottles have done great service, played their part in our daily lives and now deserve comfort in their temporary wine rack to oblivion.
During my wine cellar restoration, I have reluctantly bid farewell to many memorable empty bottles that I have kept lovingly over the years. The few I have retained have their own special stories to tell.
Such as the Château Latour 1957 that I shared with my accountant son when he became a director of his company. He broke away for a moment, then re-emerged with a curious grin on his face. ‘Just looked at Wine Searcher, Dad. Glad I am worth xyz!’
Then there is a magnum of Le Piat de Beaujolais 1967, the forerunner of Le Piat d’Or. As the UK brand manager, to fulfil a time deadline, I had driven to Mâcon, home of legendary Beaujolais producer Charles Piat, to personally collect six cases of magnums – a first for our important customer, Fortnum & Mason. Only a little out of my way.
Which reminds me that one freezing November day during the 1980s, I found myself driving my open 4½ litre 1928 Bentley to Paris, with my wife and some friends, to celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau week. Arriving back in London, we all met up in Covent Garden, where we noticed overhead, a bevy of parachutists gently swaying to earth. Unbeknown to me, as a promotional wheeze, each parachutist had a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau attached to one leg. Just my luck that the bottle belonging to the parachutist above me, became loose and cascaded to the ground. ‘Hey!’ I shouted, ‘that just missed my old car’. ‘To hell with your car,’ quoth the elderly lady nearby ‘that nearly killed me.’
I still have the broken top of that Drouhin bottle, with the cork intact, next to my magnum of Piat. Little and large.
Wine labels can remind us of good times past, of places we have holidayed, of historic moments, of laughter with friends. In that context they serve the same purpose as menus, postcards, photographs, even invitations.
Every bottle of manzanilla reminds me of a very, very long lunch at El Bigotes, the popular seaside restaurant in Sanlúcar, where half bottles of chilled manzanilla flew down the long dining room table every 30 seconds or so. Every bottle of Valdespino Innocente Fino reminds me of Rafael and Miguel Valdespino’s generous hospitality during my first visit to Jerez in 1963.
I will also keep the empty bottle, once enjoyed, of my mid 19th century amontillado, to remind me of its social media debut. It must be one of the oldest vinous celebrities. Pre-phylloxera; pre the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, and from a time when the safety pin was being invented… Any ideas?