Theatre of Wine, a wine merchant run by actor Daniel Illsley and research scientist Jonathan Warren, sounded too intriguing to resist. So I headed for Greenwich and a front-row seat. With Elvis intoning "It's Now or Never" from behind the dingy shop front, first impressions weren't promising. But after a glance at the quirky and individual wines on the shelves, I could hardly wait for the curtain to rise on tonight's topic, The Next Big Thing.
Just as well I'm reviewing the show incognito because I've never heard of five of the nine wines we're about to taste. This makes it almost as much of a rite of initiation for me as for the Americans, Canadians, Kiwis and locals sitting round the wooden salvage table made from old claret crates. There are 10 of us in the group, so, at £10 a ticket and a cost of £117.20 for the 9 wines on show, I haven't quite worked out how Daniel and Jonathan pay the rent.
There's no "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen" to start Act 1, just Daniel surprising everyone with the merits of English fizz, specifically the 1996 Nyetimber Classic Cuvée, £19, with its "marzipan and almond" characters, "a very breakfasty sort of champagne" (yes, he says champagne). This draws him into a recent spat between wine writers on the merits of English wine, one a total idiot (not me, phew!) for spending his life writing about £2.99 wines and trying to make them sound like Château Latour.
English fizz (top-notch) leads on to the delicate, almost chablis-like 2001 Inama Soave Classico, £8.50. Soave, Daniel tells us, is "a wine coming back from the grave".
Enter stage right, a man off the street asking for "something expensive and vintage". He pays his £30 for a claret. After an expensive "blackcurranty" Tasmanian sauvignon blanc, we continue with an oaky, "tarry", Minervois, 1998 Domaine La Tour Boisée, then a 2000 Château Moujan from La Clape. Audience participation gets out of hand as we discuss who's had La Clape. Daniel brings us back to the Languedoc, which "has gone from being a gloomy glut of mass production to becoming the New World of France".
The 2000 Condado das Vinhas Tinto, £7.50, from Antonia Lança in Portugal's Alentejo is deliciously brambly and refreshing with a sour cherry/damson flavour. "What are the grapes?" "No idea," admits Daniel, scrutinising the back label for clues. Cue a soliloquy: "The world needs more unusual flavours like this, not more cabernet sauvignons, which all taste the same." Finally the curtain comes down on Spain, with three idiosyncratic reds including the superbly seductive, richly oaked 2000 Mas Estela Vinya Selva de Mar from Ampurdan-Costa Brava (jokes about a Benidorm appellation), £21, made from organic grapes.
The group is really getting into it now, although a vegetarian threatens a walk out - especially when fellow audience members describe one wine as smelling of "dead rabbits".
"Once you get through the fear factor, it's very exciting," says Daniel. That's the thing about Theatre of Wine. On the Greenwich wine stage, you can taste, learn and express yourself, however outrageously. I still haven't worked out how they pay the rent though. E
Theatre of Wine, 75 Trafalgar Road, Greenwich, London SE10 (020-8858 6363, www.TheatreOfWine.com)Reuse content