Opening Lines: Buyers and cellars
The column: On a tastebud-tickling journey through the wine country south of Melbourne, Howard Jacobson remembers dims gone by
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 14 November 1998
I would like to say I'm doing the Peninsula with a view to laying down a cellar, but I know myself better than that. I have bought a few zippy adolescent Merlots that will need to be kept for a couple of months (six weeks, anyway), but otherwise it's into the boot and down the hatch. You need to have the right personality to lay down wine. You need to be a mean bastard, for a start, capable of looking your dinner guests in the eye at 11.30 and saying "Do you really want me to open another bottle?"
There was none of that when all any of us could afford was Mateus Rose. We were generous when we were poor and knew from nothing.
It's sad, I have always found, buying wine from wineries. Wine country is invariably melancholy: undulating hills, long vistas across deep valleys, delusions of paradise, and those eternal avenues of cuffed and fettered vines, bound to their whipping posts like so many invitees to a surprise party for the Marquis de Sade. I can never get over the contrast between the cause and the effect of vineyards: such fanatic order in the preparation; such wild disorder in the polishing off. (Unless you're one of those self- denying bastards with a cellar, in which case it's discipline from start to finish.)
Spring on the Mornington Peninsula is heavenly when it's not hellish: the clouds high and blowy, the sun playing peek-a-boo through the trees, the bays whipped up to a vanilla froth. A grand time, if you can hold back the tears, to be out on a tasting safari. This is my second day. Yesterday I had my mother-in-law in tow. For a person who is usually content with flat Gulch Creek non-denominational white spritzed up with tap water she turned impressively picky, spitting out Decanter Magazine's choice for the best Semillon ever made anywhere. "Not herbaceous enough for me," she said. "An insufficiency of floral notes."
Since she lost her memory we have been keeping her sharp by appealing to her old gift for spelling words backwards. "What's Semillon backwards, Joy?"
"N, o, l - oh, goodness - l, i, m, e, s."
"And Gulch Creek?"
"K, e, e, r, c, h, c, l, u, g." Not a suggestion of a falter this time.
She knows what she likes, my mother-in-law.
Today, though, I am homo solus. Cricket on the radio, the roads at my mercy, my palate mine to tickle exactly as I please. The last time I had the state of Victoria all to myself like this I was working as a rep for Cheshire Educational Publishing. Twenty-seven years ago. Not many wineries in Victoria then. And not a hint of what Victorians now take for granted as winery food - char sui of Tasmanian salmon with glazed clementines and a vinaigrette of walnut and turnips; Mulataga yabby tails on a bed of warrigal greens and paperbark smoked with kumera with a lemon aspen dipping sauce.
Dim sim, that was what you ate in those days, the first Melburnian attempt at an Asian culinary crossover. A dim sim, if you have never tried one - and if you think it's the same as dim sum, then you have definitely never tried one - is a sort of shatterproof dumpling the shape and consistency of a severed thumb, filled with wood-shavings and rain-forest, and either deep-fried or steamed, depending on whether you want it to taste like a charred cricket ball or a roll of sticking plaster. The great thing about dim sims, from the point of view of a publishing rep with a vast territory to cover, was that they came drenched in soy sauce in a brown paper bag with a greaseproof lining, so you could eat them while you were driving. So what if the deep-fried ones took the skin off your fingers, if the soy sauce stained your lips love-bite purple, if you sometimes mistook the contents of the bag and bit into your own thumb - we were men in a hurry, and besides, there wasn't anything else.
Deem sum - Cantonese for "touch the heart". And the memory of a dim sim touches mine, for there is nothing that goes into the mouth that doesn't, in recollection, make you sad.
Dim simmed out at the end of a long day, I would pull into a motel restaurant and join the other reps for lobster thermidor washed down with a bottle of Chianti. If one of the reps happened to be a woman you would give her your straw Chianti flask to make a night-light out of. Also sad - all that wasted gallantry, all those needless night-lights.
It's funny I should be recalling this remote period in the history of Victorian wining, dining and publishing just as I am rolling into Stonier's Winery. More than funny, bloody heart-breaking. Because no sooner do I enter the grand corrugated iron winery and start to sniff the forest-floor Pinot than someone shorter, happier and perhaps even a little older than me, extends a hand and reminds me of the time we were book reps together.
My God, the coincidence, I tell him. I've just been dreaming about lobster thermidor.
"Then you'll be pleased to say hello to Brian Stonier again," he says.
"Brian Stonier my old boss from Cheshire Publishing or Brian Stonier whose vineyard this is?"
I know the answer before I've finished the question. There aren't two Brian Stoniers. The Brian Stonier of Stonier's Winery is the Brian Stonier who paid my wages.
Yes. And here he is, still with authority in his aspect, still executive chairman of Pan Macmillan, but best known in this neck of the wood for Pinot Noirs to die for.
"Books and wine!" we laugh together. The old nexus.
Two of life's three great consolations. The third being? A dim sim in soy sauce .
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