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Tuesday Tributes
Drink Wine In England At Your Own Risk

By Charles Olken

I have not had much luck with wine in England. Not sure why. Must be my own fault—or maybe just bad luck. The English like wine so why has it been so hard for me over the years to find a good bottle to drink across the pond in Olde Blighty?

The Olkens spend a fair bit of time in England. My wife’s family on her mother’s side lives in England to this day, and since my wife spent most of her early days in the UK, it was that group of relatives that became her extended “family”. Between the occasional wine visit (yes, there are wine reasons for a California to go to England) and family get-togethers, we have spent a fair bit of time, most in summer, over there.

It’s not hard to find a good bottle if you know where to look. I just have not found the key. And the news from England suggests that it is getting harder, not easier. Our early refuge for things vinous was the chain of stores called Odd Bins. It existed all over the UK, and even up in the northern Scotland, one could walk into Odd Bins and find a decent selection. And in those days, Odd Bins was owned by Seagrams, which also owned Sterling among other wineries in this country, and it would not be unusual to find a few California bottlings on the shelves as well. Now, it turns out the Odd Bins, having changed hands, is out of business.

I will admit that London is easier. The big department stores have substantial wine sections, and there are lots of specialist wine merchants in all of the posh parts. But, out in the country, visiting relatives from Bournemouth and Bury St. Edmunds and Manchester and Dorking and Cleethorpes, the pickings get a little bit less exciting.

On one trip not so long ago, we were staying with cousins in Dorking south of London and discovered that there was a real, honest to goodness winery just north of town. We called ahead, identified ourselves as important American wine folk and arranged a visit. When we got there, we were shown the tasting room, got a ten-minute discussion from a secretary and were told that we could sign up for a paid tour tomorrow if we wanted to taste. “What if we were from Decanter”, we asked. “Well, they have never been out here, but if they did visit, it would be different”.

We have subsequently visited a number of wineries that have popped up in our travels around England, and the reception has been much friendlier. “Out of wine”, said one producer. “My husband is riding to hounds” said another and swore that she knew nothing of his “hobby”. We did have a fine visit to an old windmill turned winery. The folks could not have been nicer. The wines, well that was a different story.

But our most bizarre visit came when a befuddled owner took us into his winery and asked for our opinion about his late harvest Riesling. It was June and the wine was of the previous harvest, and he was having difficulty getting it to ferment. He poured us a glass and asked if we had any advice about how to cure the problem. Well, the one thing that CGCW has assiduously avoided over the years is telling winemakers how to make wine. But this gent was insistent, and after a few minutes obfuscation, we broke our own rule and advised our new friend to pour the stuff out. It had turned sour, oxidized and had been oversupplied with yeast in his continuing attempts to make it ferment.

It was just a few years ago when the relatives decided that they were going to make sure we had a good bottle of wine. Off we went to a very fine restaurant in an old manor house in the south of England. It was a spectacular location. And the wine for the main course had been hand selected by the restaurant. It was a California wine.

I kid my English relatives a bit about the situation, but the fact is that they are whisky drinkers and beer lovers, and they don’t really get my fascination with the fermented grape. I don’t much mind. Uncle Ron always has a nice selection of Single Malts and he knows every coutryside pub for miles around. A Sunday pub lunch accompanied by a pint of bitters has never hurt anybody.


Sometimes You Just Gotta Give
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:5/17/2011 10:08:31 AM

Had the same issue when I was in London, whole damn place had been taken over by Australian and New Zealand wines of which I am not too keen. Ended up just sticking to beer, (and being a SoCal kid I wished for more hops) and Gin & Tonics while there. As much as I missed my wine I just couldn't settle for drinking things I don't much care for just to have it....

Heading to England
by PaulG
Posted on:5/18/2011 10:10:22 AM

Was hoping to visit some wineries, but maybe not so much. Thanks for the heads up (back away from the barrel... make no sudden move...)

Jolly Olde
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/18/2011 10:28:28 AM

Hi Paul--

Like you, a vacation is always an opportunity. Forget the name but there is a place in the southeast (Kent, I believe) whose bubbly beat mid-priced Champers in a tasting recently.

I wouldn't let my experience stop me from visiting wineries that pop up along the way (mostly south and stretching from Bath to the English Channel).

Of course, there is a reason why Decanter does not right about them, but the drive to Burgundy is a bit long for a day trip. Have fun. The Olkens will probably go in 2012.

try harder
by Richard
Posted on:5/26/2011 7:30:25 AM

Seriously, you need to look harder. There are supermarkets everywhere, and the wine buyers are much better than those at Vons  /US Safeway etc. I can get a very drinkable and sometimes fantastic Spanish and italian wines for £5 on one of their perma-offers, and some rather good (if too young) claret for £20. Decent Riesling for $10, or a good own-brand-sourced Alsace Gewurz for £8. 

There's a lot of dreck, as anywhere, but if you avoid the pink shelves, and the imported American, Chilean and Australian, and the rubbish end of the South African, and use a bit of judgment you'll do fine.

IMHO it's impossible to find good wine in the States outside the large cities. So stop eing so ethnocentric and start using your noggin.

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