04 January 2011

n.d.p. in london: fortnum & mason, piccadilly

If you google "negative epiphany," among the top results are answer-forum queries from writers seeking a single word that might permit them to avoid using the clumsy, rather ad-hoc sounding phrase "negative epiphany." There's isn't one, to my knowledge. This is probably due (inasmuch as the organic manifestations of language and meaning can be "due" to anything) to the fact that "epiphany" by itself ought to mean only a striking revelation or insight, not necessarily a positive one. I suspect it is the fault of literature, which admirably prizes understanding above all else, that the word "epiphany" in contemporary idiom must be accompanied by a qualifier such as "negative" if one wants to avoid conventional rosy connotations.

Anyway, it was in the basement floor wine section of chi-chi London grocery megastore Fortnum & Mason that I had the first negative epiphany* of my recent trip to London.

For at least my past three visits to London, I'd become increasingly mystified as to why my friends there seemed unable to direct me to decent wine shops. Until now I'd contented myself with just drinking good ales, or shopping at St. John Restaurant.** For this visit I'd decided to follow the advice of the fellow at WineAnorak, UK wine journalist Jamie Goode. 

To his credit, his list of London wine shops contains the caveat that it was written in 2008. Goode explains he is in the process of revising it. To his discredit, at least in my (viciously overcritical) eyes, I don't see why any wine journalist who wasn't just a cheery industry booster would bother recommending Fortnum & Mason as a place to shop for wine in the first place.

Fortnum & Mason, located smack in heart of swank Piccadilly since 1707, is primarily about Luxury. Luxury, as a concept, is about not having to learn about or search for things or understand them or whatever - it's about having a servant put them in easy reach on a silver platter and then quietly retire. Careful appreciation is not really the spirit of the venture.

As such, in Fortnum & Mason, you find little more than a Things Rich People Like selection of commercial home-runs: Sassicaia, Tignanello, Château Leoville-Barton, DRC, Conterno, etc. All great wines, yes, but they are all as successful as air travel - which is to say you can find them in just about every major city on earth, sometimes in actual airports. Because I needed to buy something, I bought a bottle of Bodegas Hidalgo's classic Manzanilla "La Gitana," which set me back all of £10. It was the one excellent wine on display that would not have been infinitely cheaper in Paris.

Does it really need to be writ large, that the only way for wine in general to remain a vital, expressive form will be for wine shops to educate consumers, by seeking out and offering interesting, place-specific wines at relatively introductory prices? That is not really the role of Fortnum & Mason, assuredly, or any other gigantic blockbuster product-mover. It is the role of independent cavistes, who would surely have been listed in droves on M. Goode's website, if they existed in London.*** 

Instead WineAnorak lists, alongside Fortnum & Mason:  Selfridges, Harrod's, Harvey Nichols, etc. Many of these are also clients of the fashion company I work for. What does that tell you? They are fine places to buy high fashion. 

* Yes, there was more than one. I seem to get them like some people get migraines. 

** When it's open. This does not include the period of time between Christmas and New Year's. That is how you tell when a restaurant has achieved too much success: when it can afford to ignore one of the chief responsibilities of a prominent public establishment, which is to be open at those times when the clientele are most inclined to visit. 

*** In any appreciable quantities. Also, please please please no one pipe up to helpfully suggest I visit one of those highly ambitious overdesigned wine-concept boutiques in which one can sample wine from around the globe through a sophisticated airtight spout system. These places are like go-kart courses for wine beginners and possess no interest for me whatsoever. 

Fortnum & Mason
181 Piccadilly
London W1A 1ER
Tube: Piccadeilly 
Tel: +44 207 7348040 

Related Links: 

A Port Tasting with the buyer from Fortnum & Mason @ WineAnorak

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