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Look to provenance

For some time now we have all shown our appreciation for quality and sustainability when it comes to food products, and we have done so by choosing to pay more. Yet when it comes to wine, still too many Brits are fixed on the idea of buying cheap. It`s why the supermarkets and multiple drinks retailers cash in on the discount culture; they know we all like a bargain, so they mark up to mark down.  And it`s why the average price we pay for a bottle of wine in our country is still under £6, despite the exorbitant taxes we pay. The reality, that you get what you pay for, has never been more apparent to me. In simple terms, it comes down to the fixed costs: the glass, the label, the transport, tax on wine, and VAT. All in, this comes to an average £4.75 per bottle, currently, so for a £5 bottle just 25p is for the liquid. This is not sustainable. Someone in the chain, usually the producer, is losing money. I covered this subject in a previous article about a year ago, making an appeal on behalf of the word`s wine producers. But my main point today is a different one:  The fact is we are doing ourselves no favours buying wine cheap, or rather, buying cheap wine, because it is not good value. Because of the fixed costs, paying even a little more gives you a much bigger return on your investment. You get “more buck for your money!” My recommendation is to pay between £10 and £20  per bottle. At this level it`s a win, win, for everyone, right across the supply line, and to you, the consumer, most of all. If the pockets are not deep, drink less. I bet you will find you sleep better. Those chemical imbued bottles you throw into your trolley are not good for you. Instead, look to a wine`s provenance; buy craft; and I promise you will be rewarded millionfold.

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Not quite dry-January

Is it really the best time to go dry, during lockdown, in the middle of Winter, really? Surely, there`s no better time to enjoy a hearty soul-warming red wine with the beef casserole; or a golden, creamy-rich white wine, with the fish pie.  It`s a good idea to introduce a degree of abstinence, of course, a day or two at the beginning of the week, maybe. I am told our livers benefit from such breaks. But all of January? Anyway, here is my “Top Five” favourite alcohol-free tipples, to help you get through your dry days:

At number 1, Big Tom. The tomato-based drink with a royal warrant is still going strong, and it`s worth mentioning it is gluten free with no preservatives and is suitable for vegetarians. What I like most about Big Tom is that it has a great spicy kick. Ingredients include twenty-two spices, Worcestershire Sauce, celery, and mustard. Who needs a Bloody Mary when you have Big Tom?

At number 2 is Bundaberg Ginger Beer, another fabulous alcohol-free drink with plenty of welly. Using real ginger from Queensland`s Bundaberg region of Australia, this is proper, traditional, cloudy ginger beer, and I love it. The Real McCoy of ginger beers, which, another time, when you are drinking alcohol, makes for the perfect Moscow Mule.

At number 3, Brooklyn Special Effects. Probably the best alcohol-free beer on the market. Technically there is 0.4% alcohol by volume in this beer [in America a beer under 0.5% is labelled Alcohol-free]. It is a hoppy lager with malt, pine and citrus flavours, and a bitter finish.

At number 4, Scotland`s Braes o Gowrie Elderflower sparkling non-alcoholic drink, by Cairn O Mohr, is an alternative to sparkling wine, super-refreshing and dry. Too many of these types are sweet and sickly. This one regularly wins The Great Taste Awards in its category.

At number 5 is J. Lohr`s Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon, a gold-medal winning de-alcoholised red wine, all the way from sunny California. Contains less than 0.5% alcohol and is brimming with blackcurrants, cherries, chocolate, and vanilla.

Cheers everyone!


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Black Tie Bliss

It`s all happening in Great Horkesley

It`s cold, wet, and we are in lockdown. Our General Hospital is feeling the pressure, to levels not seen since March and April. On the face of it there is not much to smile about. But there is good news too. Yes, there`s the vaccine rollout, and the new Astra Zeneca, our greatest hope.  That`s naturally brilliant news, giving us a more rapid way out of this unholy mess.  But I was thinking closer to home, in the here and now. I was thinking WINE SALE, in our shop. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, though our Gift Room is still temporarily closed, the food and drinks store is open, and we have a central display given to around 100 wines which are discounted from 20 to 40%. Truly amazing prices, while stocks last. A great chance for customers to stock up. All we ask is that customers make up six bottles, any mix, to receive the discounted prices. Furthermore, if that is not reason enough to make the trip to Gt Horkesley, also on sale is Riedel crystal glassware, including our prize decanter Black Tie Bliss now reduced from £225 to £167. For those who don`t know this mouthblown, handmade Austrian wine decanter, it has an off-centre heart which compresses the crystal into a thin pane of solid glass, forcing the wine to pool around the element, while neatly providing a place for the fingers to rest while pouring. A fantastic piece of art, it makes the perfect gift for anyone with a passion for wine. Finally – yes there`s more – this evening is the long- awaited return of The Big Friday Night In. Our chef Dominic Carter and his partner Emma Bennett will be serving up takeaway hot meals once again from our car park, 5.30-7.30pm, kicking off with Dom`s world famous Hungarian Beef Goulash followed by Cherry Pie. Next Friday 15th it is Pork Red Thai Curry followed by Pineapple Upside Down Cake ! Taking pre-bookings now on 07587 196 496. Vegetarian options available. Cheers everyone!


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A cigar with your supper, anyone?

It`s been nine years since I gave up smoking cigars, and, until now, it never occurred to me I could have enjoyed the smoking ritual with food. I would have a beer with a smoke, or a glass of wine, but cigar “matching” or “pairing” never occurred to me; me, someone who has been wine and food taster my whole working life.  The age-old alchemy which Aristotle neatly coined “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts”, when applied to the taster matching wine with food, involves choosing a similar, or sometimes a contrasting wine, to show both food and wine in the best possible light. Said taster weighs the balance, or deliberately contrasts.  But what I did not know, is that you can choose a cigar to further the experience as well. The Alchemist now has three parts to work with.  Yes, smoking, while eating and drinking. Of course, smoking while drinking is more commonplace, but why not draw on a big fat cigar, exhale, sit back, exult in the pleasure of it, then take a mouthful of food, before washing it all down with a delicious wine? Furthermore, it reasons to pick the cigar to fit the moment; I`m told a cigar with similar, not contrasting, characteristics. For example, a strong, powerful cigar with a big, full-bodied red, accompanied by a full-flavoured, meaty dish. A milder smoke with a lighter red, or even a white, with a lighter dish. Even better, since smoke, tobacco leaf and cigar box are characteristics found in some wines, a taster might select one of these.  Northern Rhone reds, for example, or a Barolo.  Indeed, a great many oak-aged wines, red and white, can develop woodsmoke and spice characteristics, and even a mellow Cohiba-like, creamy palate, so the taster can work with all of that, for the best possible combination. In our shop, ladies, and gentlemen, we have smoked food products, hundreds of oaked wines, as well as cigars, everything you need. If you are a cigar smoker, indulge and enjoy.


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A distinctly British celebration

Are we feeling optimistic about 2021? It`s seriously got to be a whole lot better than 2020, hasn’t it? What a disaster that turned out to be! The people`s “annus horribilis”. But let`s be positive looking forward. Have we all got our English sparkling wine ready to toast the New Year in? I am proposing a distinctly British celebration this New Year`s Eve. As a country we are entering a new era, after all, with the expiry of the post-Brexit transition period. Whether you voted to leave the EU political union or not, this is a huge moment in our country. We are taking a whole new direction. Surely our glasses should be charged with English sparkling instead of Champagne on this night. England`s Giffords Hall, Nyetimber or Hattingley …. Instead of France`s Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart or Moet.  I`m not suggesting for a minute that we should end our love affair with France, and Europe more generally; not at all, we will always be part of Europe.  But patriotism is not jingoism, and we shouldn`t conflate the two. Anyway, the decision is made. And we`ve left the EU already. The divisions created between “Leave” and “Remain”, these past four years and more, have resulted in far too many people tearing pieces out of each other. I know I`ve made the point before, but I feel strongly about it. Can we please draw a line in the ground now, everyone?  I say, let`s get out the flags and give this moment in time the shout it deserves. Of course, it really does not have to be English sparkling wine. There`s not much more British than beer, and a curry! And cider, of course. Nowt wrong with cider. We also have an excellent alcohol-free sparkling elderflower drink from Scotland. Indeed, we should all try to get creative about how we celebrate this 2020 New Year in. Whatever we decide to do, we can be sure the coronavirus will do its best to spoil it. Good luck with that. And happy new year everyone!

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A White Christmas

The dulcet tones of Nat King Cole greeted me in the shop this morning, as did the smell of my wife`s mince pies. Time of writing, Tuesday 15th. All seemed well with the world. Indeed, I half expected a robin to appear in the window to wish me a good day. Instead, the phone rang. A customer to say thank you.  A parcel destined for his 94-year old mother in Glasgow was found to be broken on arrival. We had dispatched a new hamper immediately and he had just called to say it had arrived intact and how pleased she was. My day just got better. Then a customer walked through the door. He had a big smile on his covered face; you could tell by the glint in his eyes and the pinched crows of his eyes. He had come to buy a mixed case. We chatted about wine while he dropped bottles into his box, and when I carried it out to his car, a ray of sunshine broke through the clouds and fell on me. I could feel the warmth of it on my face.  I thought: Today is a good day!  Indeed, the feeling of wellbeing continued throughout the day. I always enjoy the company of my colleagues, but today they seemed to me especially motivated and in good spirits, and despite the small queue building outside, and the need for social distancing, our customers were chatting contentedly with each other, smiles all round, and the vibe in the shop was festive and fun. I asked my wife that evening: “Was it me, or was everyone especially happy today?” She said, “It`s Christmas, darling, there`s magic in the air”. Despite the coronavirus, the restrictions, and the terrible weather we have endured for most of the last month, I sense the best of people emerging. The spirit of Christmas is as strong as ever. All we need now is a White Christmas, and a robin in the window. Happy Christmas everyone!


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Two weeks to Christmas

“Everyone feeling Christmasy?” As a question this seems entirely inoffensive to me. But lately I have become more aware of the bubble I live in. I am not sure what the bubble is called, exactly. A middle-class bubble, possibly. But at any rate the life I live gives me a perspective, a world view, which won`t be the same as everybody`s. Someone who is having a terrible time of things out there might well read those words and think me boorishly insensitive: “No, actually, things may be tickety-boo for you, pal,  but I`ve lost my job, my granny has just come down with Covid 19, and I`ve just spilled coffee down my front…“   What made me think about the different world view was something a customer said. He asked me to recommend a wine for him to take to someone, as a gift. “A really nice red”, were his exact words. I suggested the Darling Old Bush Vine Cinsaut which is a favourite of mine, £16.99 per bottle. He looked embarrassed, and then he asked if we had anything nice for around £6. You see, in my bubble “really nice gift” = £16.99. But, of course, that`s nonsense. It`s whatever the person can afford, and the thought that counts. Next time I will be sure to ask what price the person has in mind!  Anyway, I reflected, and it occurred to me how for years, in this paper`s column, I have extolled the virtues of many rather pricey bottles. I have done so because I am genuinely passionate about wine, and I want to share my love of it. I can`t apologize for that. But I also acknowledge that for those who can`t afford said bottles I have been spectacularly unfair. I have been Tempter! Trying to seduce you into my world, my bubble, to spend your hard-earned money. And for you, this Christmas, I`d like to share my new wine of the week, the Ravovita Pinot Grigio, £6.99. Pleasantly aromatic,  crisp and refreshing, this blossomy, lemon-tinged white wine will do your turkey proud. Cheers!



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Hurry up with those Christmas orders

Three weeks to Christmas. If you have not organized delivery of your hampers and wine gifts yet, well, you had better get on with it! Courier companies are just about coping, currently, but they are under more pressure than ever. Waiting until the last minute will not help anybody. Perhaps you have not chosen your gifts yet? Men, especially, are known for the stereotypical last-minute-dash. Take it from me, you are better doing it now. This year, if never again, shop early – and then sit back. Just think how smug you will feel getting it all done with a week or two to spare! There`s also the Christmas food shopping for many of you to think about: the smoked salmon, the turkey, the cheeses. You can order it all here, but please, do so now if you have not already. We don`t know what havoc the coronavirus will cause in the supply line, so don`t take risks being late with your food orders. By the same token, we are recommending customers pick-up their wine and food orders early this year, or as soon as is practicable, for peace of mind. After all, there is always a chance of the virus disrupting services here, in the Gt Horkesley shop, as well. PLEASE NO. At any rate, the sooner your food order is tucked away safely at home, the easier you will sleep, no doubt. Then, it`s just a matter of second-guessing who is coming for Christmas day!  And, of course, there`s always the last-minute bits, not least the turkey. Santa brings your G&J turkeys to Gt Horkesley early on December 23rd, before he sets off round the world delivering gifts to the world`s children. Being so busy, and given the coronavirus is still with us, he asks that everyone collects their turkeys from the shop, please, any time after 11am same day.  Gives our elf just enough time to get the mince pies out and sprinkle the magic dust for a day of festivity. Cheers everyone!


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Local High Spirits

If you like spirits and you enjoy buying local produce, you will probably have already come across Wilkins & Sons fruit gins from Tiptree in Essex. The Wilkins family have been fruit farming forever, since the 1800`s, and a happy union with the Hayman gin family gave rise to their English Damson, Raspberry, and Rhubarb, among others. We`ve been selling them for years. Then came along another Wilkinson family with ideas of their own. This one from Sudbury in Suffolk. This time, The Suffolk Distillery. Master Distiller, Gary Wilkinson, had a dream. Initially it was “to escape the rat race”, and later it became, “to create a premium craft-distilled gin that embodies the very essence of the county that he is proud to call home”. Thus, Suffolk Dry Gin was born, using only the best distilled English grain spirit and natural botanicals, of juniper berries, coriander, cassia bark and cinnamon. We are delighted to have this in stock now, along with half-bottles of his Strawberry and Cucumber Suffolk Gin, Salted Caramel Vodka, and Bolivian Chocolate Spiced Rum. How lucky we are to have so much talent on our doorsteps. Then, there`s Jumbo gin, of course, a best-seller here in Gt Horkesley, named after Colchester`s iconic water tower, creation of Hayter`s Independent Spirits. Master Distiller Chris Hayter produces his gins in Highwoods. He describes his gins as: “Distilled and handcrafted in England`s oldest recorded town”. Thankfully, not Britain`s 1st City!

Finally, there`s Oystermen gin. While not actually distilled locally, it is inspired by a love for the Essex coastline and product development is local, in Abberton. Created by friends Godwin Baron and Gavin Miklaucich, the gin is infused with oyster leaf, and the nautical label, of an oyster trawler, is a linocut by Wivenhoe artist James Dodds. Additionally, on the reverse side of the bottle, there is a poem entitled “The North Sea”, by Wivenhoe poet Martin Newell. It is already selling like hot cakes in our shop. Indeed, a big hoorah for all these local innovations. They deserve our support. Cheers everyone!



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Support local and British

Just five weeks to Christmas Day and end of lockdown within our sights. Thankfully, The Wine Centre is still trading, working hard to make the shop festive, welcome, and safe. Others have been less fortunate. Before lockdown, The Crown in Stoke by Nayland did a brilliant job of incorporating a marquee in the garden, creating a new outdoor space. The Anchor, Nayland, went one further, extending their indoor space. The owners, at considerable expense, built a new glass house, which is delightful. Well done them. We should all support their efforts by booking tables, just as soon as we can.  Indeed, I have no doubt at all that everyone`s local store, pub, and restaurant, wherever you happen to be, will be needing your support, in these impossibly difficult times. I say: Use them. Or lose them! Instead of turning to the internet and Amazon for Christmas gifts, buy local. Instead of going to the multiples, shop with small independents. And buy British. British holidays, British cars, British food & drink.  Our economy depends on it. What better time, with the post-Brexit transition period nearly up, and Covid in our midst, than to dig deep and do our bit for the country.  Whether you were for “leave” or “remain”, I say this is time for us all to come together, figuratively I mean, and to put the old struggles behind us.  We need those old divisions cast aside. We have left the European Union already, back in January, now let`s get on with making Britain a country we are all proud of. I know everyone is going crazy with lockdown and the coronavirus, and the future may seem bleak, but let`s try to be positive. After all, we can still hope to have our families with us this Christmas. And for many of us, there is so much to be grateful for. On New Year`s eve let`s all raise our glasses and toast the new era in, a fresh start, working together. Cheers everyone!