I love wine, but I like drinking it, or sloshing it into sizzling pans, not talking about it. I don’t like to offer an opinion, when asked if it suits my palate, and I loathe being the taster in a restaurant, even if I’ve been the one to choose the bottle.
So I wasn’t massively keen when I was invited to a ‘Wine Tasting Evening’ at the Old School. It was to be in aid of Horley Cricket Club, and would involve tickets and cheese-boards and local indie wine merchants, SH Jones.
I had dire images of clutching a thimble of Chateauneuf Du Pape, and being asked if I could identify base notes of leather and tar. I knew I couldn’t. I once did a blind tasting, and confidently called Chablis as a Merlot, definitely.
On the plus side though, I was to go with a gang of Horley Housewives that I adore: Curdie, Jules, Damage (Mrs), and honorary HH, Lulu.
It’s Friday evening, and we all collect each other, like beads on a necklace, tripping up Little Lane in our jewel-bright going-out clothes.
‘Bloody shoes,’ says Jules. ‘Heels make me feel like a transvestite.’ We all snort with laughter and bump shoulders together as we walk. We’re gabbling already, gossiping and pointing, exclaiming and giggling. The summer air is soft on our shoulders, and our voices are high with escapists’ excitement. We toss our hair, and the click-clack of our heels punctuate our practised social riffs: our children, our animals, our jobs. The ‘Have you heards’ and the ‘Do you know’s.
Horley is beautiful in June, and our progress is slow; we pause to admire tumbles of aubretia topped with rock-roses, and the final hurrah of the blossom in Charlie Cousins’ orchard. Our eyes slide sideways as we pass Bramshill Manor, with the new people (Have you seen? No, have you? Oh. Perhaps we should…)
Walking beneath the Manor’s mighty copper beech, I tip my head back, admiring the green-gold beauty in the last of the day’s sun.
The Old School is just ahead, beyond the ‘Secret Path’; borage and forget-me-nots brush our ankles and hide lurking dog poo. The School is as familiar to us as our own houses, and is an ‘L’ shape with high ceilings and those glorious long windows particular to Victorian schools. We all brought our children here as babies to Horley Toddlers’, and later birthday parties – later still, discos. It’s where the local AmDrammers hold their plays, and where rain-soaked village fêtes stash the book stall and serve afternoon tea.
We clatter in, shushing each other, eyeing up the little tables set with jolly blue-checked cloths. At the far end of the room, beneath the window facing St Ethelreda’s, is a table set out with bottles. A dapper-looking man with a sweet chipmunk face stands behind his bottles, next to lady with a dark bob, who keeps beaming smiles out at the audience.
Jules procures a bottle of rosé from the bar to get us going, and we find a side table and gulp gratefully.
‘Thank God for that,’ says Lulu. ‘I’ve had a pig of a day.’ She regales us with stories of her work – Paris, Frankfurt, Monaco. She tells us about her upcoming stint at Glastonbury, and we all try not to be too jealous. ‘Knackering,’ sighs Lulu.
Jules and I get into a fascinating nose-to-nose about broody chickens.
We work our way down the rosé, then find a lovely cheese platter beneath a port-red paper napkin. On our table, there’s a bottle of water, a forest of glassware, and a thick wodge of print-out. It contains notes on what we’re about to drink, and a hideously hard, wine-related quiz.
‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘I’m going to be so crap at this.’
‘Pass me the pen,’ says Mrs Damage. ‘No one can read my writing anyway.’
The room is almost full now, an equal mix of sexes and a wide age-range tucked around the card-tables. I spot my friend Wrightie, and wave like a windmill. There’s the steady roar of a cocktail party, and people are already swaying forwards to hear what their neighbours are saying to them.
None of us can answer a single question in the quiz. ‘Bloody ridiculous,’ we grumble, and I feel slightly ashamed. I hate being ignorant.
Rose, a teenaged cricket-club stalwart (and the evenings’ organiser), steps forward to thank us for coming, and to introduce the team from SH Jones. We all clap, genial and approving. Tables nod at each other, and smile, and then we’re off – a short introduction from Janet (who, it turns out, is the manager from the Banbury SH Jones), whilst the chap with the sweet face whizzes round, filling glasses, patiently answering questions. The first drink turns out to be Prosecco, which smells revolting but tastes lovely. On our ‘To Buy’ sheet, we all give it a resounding tick.
We’re starting on white, swirling, sniffing then slugging, before we’re topped up, again and again. Very soon, we’re shrieking with laughter over un-funny things.
Janet holds the next wine up. She has a very clear way of speaking, and explains all of the terms she uses without being patronising.
‘This one is a ‘frizzante’ she says (pronouncing it ‘friz-ont’, rather than the Italian way), ‘which means sparkling, and less bubbly than champagne.’
‘Good name for a bantam,’ hiccups Julie.
Lulu and Curdie are agreeing they’re not all that keen whilst they drain their glasses and hold out for a top-up. All the bread from our cheeseboard has gone, as we try to mop up the alcohol.
We’re introduced to a Chilean white, and we all pull yak faces. It reminds me instantly of awkward pre-school fund-raisers, when you stand in stilted groups trying to trade your children’s key-workers.
‘Bucket,’ hisses Curdie. We don’t want to be seen as rude, but we definitely can’t drink it. In our notes, it tells us it should be paired with curry.
‘Yes,’ says Jules. ‘A vindaloo.’
Mrs Damage calmly takes our glasses and discreetly disposes of their contents into the bucket. Her cool insouciance makes us laugh even harder. We gasp like fishes, and as Janet moves on to reds, I stagger to my feet to go to refill our water bottle.
The handsome boys from the cricket club are arranged like skittles along the back of the room, behind the long counter of the bar. I cannon into them, heading to the sink, and they put down their red tins of coke to steady my progress.
‘Make way for Mrs Lee,’ I hear. ‘She’s definitely swallowing.’ They all laugh and I try hard not to blush.
Back at the table, the others are getting stuck into Beaujolais and doing Derek Trotter impressions.
Then we all discuss why our mothers loathe the word ‘belly’, and made us say ‘tummy’ as children.
By now, the bridge of my nose is sore from trying to get it into too-small glasses.
‘Tip your head back,’ says Curdie. ‘You’re drinking with a stiff neck.’ We discover that I cannot raise my chin to drink without feeling horribly self-conscious. I choke in the attempt, and the others pat my back.
Outside, the new leaves of the birches are inked against an ethereal silver-grey sky. Practising head-tipping, I see the last rose-pink streaks of sunset.
Next comes a most amazing wine, that as soon as we smell we all coo in appreciation. It’s American, and called Scotto Old Vine Zinfandel 2009. It tastes like memories of the best sort of dinner parties, with excellent food and attractive men with which to flirt. The sort of wine that makes you feel deliciously grown up and wearing a satin frock.
We’re advised that the wine has a ‘good length,’ and when we ask the sweet-faced chap to explain, he goes bright red and zips off back to his table. We barrack noisily, and make him come back with top-ups.
‘Sorry, sorry,’ we say. ‘We’re being serious, we promise.’
‘It’s to do with mouth-feel,’ he says earnestly, then freezes in horror as we all swoop on the double-entendre. He legs it again as we all howl.
We’re free-wheeling now, utterly out of control and enjoying ourselves enormously.
Janet is telling us about a Grenache grape.
‘Grenache?’ I say, puzzled. ‘Is it chocolately?’
‘That’s Gan-ache, you dope.’
Several people are starting to look similar to the stuffed owl, high on one of the School’s shelves, except they’re all smiling.
Our last drink, and Janet holds up a slim bottle. ‘It’s Trentham Noble Taminga,’ she tells us. ‘From Australia.’
I wrinkle my nose: I loathe dessert wine, and it always seems to smack of pretension, if anyone orders it in a restaurant.
Oh I’m an idiot! It’s a total revelation – utterly gorgeous, like the sweetest nectar with no cloying after-taste. It makes me think of the Illiad, and the stories of gods laying around topping up their ichor.
I raise a silent toast to Dionysus, and fail once again to tip back my head.
The tasting is over now, and there’s speeches, then continued top-ups and people ordering cases. I wave my arms.
‘I’ll take the lot,’ I shout.
‘No you won’t,’ says Curdie, and she confiscates my handbag. ‘Go to the shop with Stevie in the morning.’
We call thank you and goodbye, wincing at the guilt of leaving our chairs unstacked.
‘Too pissed,’ says Julie, briskly.
We try to take Lulu to the pub, but she’s clinging onto Big Steve with her pretty eyes crossing.
Outside, it’s pitch-black, and we follow Julie’s white trousers down the hill. We can smell lilac and new-mown grass, and somewhere there’s music. Our heels skitter on gravel and we’re all holding each other up.
‘What a lovely night,’ we say. ‘Brilliant fun.’
‘First thing tomorrow-‘
‘Very first thing-‘
‘Must get to SH Jones.’
‘I wonder if they’d do a tasting session for other fundraisers?’
‘Yes, we would, most definitely.’
‘Wine tasting, cloth ears.’
‘God, yeah. Absolutely. Like a shot.’