Drink: A referendum party

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The Independent Culture
TRY TO guess what this mystery trio has in common: Slobodan Milosevic, seaweed and cognitive dissonance. Puzzled? I'll give you a clue: it has something to do with wine. Still stumped? Then read on and all will be revealed. Everyone complains about wine in restaurants. It's rapaciously marked up, unimaginatively chosen, incorrectly or uncaringly served and inaccurately described. Those are the chief grumbles, and I've contributed my share both in print and in private.

At London's 10 Restaurant and Bar (0171 283 7888), where the list bears none of those faults, they had the bright idea of letting the punters have their say. Format: invite suppliers to present six bottles apiece to real live restaurant customers. Procedure: the pros would explain, the civilians would taste and opine. Aim: manager John Masterson (who's since left the restaurant) would take the punters' opinions seriously, but was not going to be bound hand and foot by the results. "If I love something and they don't, I would buy it anyway."

The invited suppliers included two who already sold wine to 10, Bibendum (0171 916 7070) and Percy Fox (01279 633542). Bibendum is a well-known retailer (and frequent visitor to these pages). Percy Fox sells only to the trade, though an affiliated mail order company called Trinity Vintners (0171 493 6165) sells cases. The third presenter was a 10 newcomer, The Wine Treasury (0171 793 9999), which, like Bibendum, combines wholesale and retail activities. On the retail side, it runs a "syndicate" whose members get a 25 per cent discount; all prices quoted here reflect that discount.

A couple of dozen 10 regulars showed up for the Referendum Party out of 60 who had RSVP'd their acceptance. Most worked in the City, which is a euro's throw away. And they took their tasting task seriously. Well, seriously after a fashion. Spittoons had been provided, but the sound of spitting was seldom audible. The sound of talking, by contrast, was plentiful. And of cigarettes being lit. The reps had to struggle to make themselves heard - and why not? This was a party.

Did the tasting notes reveal a consensus? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, no, no, no. Here's one taster on the exemplary Vallania Pinot Grigio 1996, Vigneto delle Terre Rosse (pounds 7.35, Wine Treasury): "Perfect, 10 out of 10." Here's another: "Makes me gag. 0 points." Disagreements weren't always so extreme, but I can't imagine they gave John Masterson much help. The only wine everyone liked was Bibendum's Chilean Valdivieso Merlot Reserva 1997 (pounds 7.64), an "easy-to-drink" wine (as one taster said) if ever there was one.

Nor would he be usefully guided by some of the vocabulary used. Their notes proved that while wine writers may say outlandish things when describing a drink, civilian utterances are not always more enlightening. And this is where the mystery trio enters the picture. One taster said of Percy Fox's magnificently honeyed Domaine Disznoko Tokay 1992, 5 puttonyos (Oddbins, pounds 15.99/50cl): "I'd use this to kill Slobodan Milosevic (or wash up)." One likened the smell of the opulent Cambria Tepusquet Syrah 1994 (pounds 12.73, Wine Treasury) to "old seaweed that has died on the beach". A third laconically commented on Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 1996, Mont Redon (Trinity Vintners, pounds 165 a case): "cognitive dissonance". He later clarified by saying that he was accustomed to red Chateauneuf.

For what it's worth, I thought this was an outstanding bunch of wines and would add another threesome to my list. Alban Central Coast Viognier 1997 (pounds 14.07, Wine Treasury) is a gorgeous cocktail of ripe peach with fresh lemony notes. La Motte Shiraz 1994 (Trinity Vintners, pounds 96 a case, or pounds 8.99 from the South African Wine Centre, 0800 358 3585) will benefit from decanting so that its refined, European-style fruit can open out. Huia Gewurztraminer 1998, Marlborough (pounds 9, Bibendum) is the best Gewurztraminer made in New Zealand, more Alsace than New World in style.

In all, eight of the 18 wines tasted joined the list at 10. What role the Referendum Party played, I don't know. But I do know that as plebiscites go, it was good fun. And who knows, putrefying seaweed may yet find its place in the wine taster's lexicon.

To drink now

Many retailers have largely given up on German wines, but Majestic remains committed to them - and sales are rising on the back of bargains such as this trio. One: Wiltinger Holle Riesling Kabinett 1990, QmP, Mosel (pounds 4.99) has peachy, baked-apple flavours, with refined acidity; a perfect summer aperitif. Two: Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett 1992, QmP (pounds 3.99), fantastic on the nose with steely, delicate, off-dry fruit showing a hint of nuttiness. Three: Trier Deutsch- herrenkopfchen Riesling Kabinett 1992 (pounds 4.99) is full on the palate and nose, with mineral-scented lime-cordial fruit. A youthful wine in perfect balance.