The English wine trade has given us many things, such as wine and food societies, a great depth of literature covering the descriptive and technical aspects of wine and wine regions, notably on French wine, a sophisticated wine auction system and more recently teaching schools such as the Masters of Wine.
Perhaps more than any European country they developed an appreciation of wine that saw it as much more than a beverage, indeed an enjoyment to be taken as seriously as any of the arts, a view extending back to the seventeenth century, and one that has produced a remarkable number of wine books that are personal reminiscences about the intellectual pleasure of wine.
These books show little interest in technical aspects and a great deal of interest in the company with whom great bottles were drunk and the stylised manner in which they should be served and talked about. Because many of the authors were highly educated they can contain allusions to the classics, may quote poetry, and at all times promote the view that wine is a civilising and serious topic. Some of them can seem a little strained today but they were never the forerunners of today’s ‘wine nerd’ and the authors would probably be rather amused by the intensity and often the banality of 21st century wine amateurs and some professionals.
So a cold wet day in Tanunda found me reading again one of the classics, ‘Stay Me with Flagons’.
The book was first published in 1940. This edition was published in 1949 and has an interesting introduction by Sir Norman Birkett, a legal contemporary of Healy, and was annotated by Colonel Ian Maxwell Campbell an English wine merchant and the author of several wine books.
Initially a teetotaller from Ireland, Healy seems to have taken an interest in wine in his early 20’s and learnt fast enough to publish a book on the wines of Bordeaux in 1934. Here is his account of the first sip. “And to my amazement the Canon (Canon O’Mahony a parish priest), a gold badge of the League of the Cross on his watch-chain, suggested a bottle of Chianti. ‘But, said I, ‘you and I are teetotallers.’ He looked at me gravely, but with twinkle in his eye. ‘We took the pledge,’ said he, ‘for one of two purposes, that is to say, either we wished to avoid becoming drunkards or we wished to give example to others. Now, we can’t give example, good or bad, here because nobody knows us; and the third of a bottle of Chianti couldn’t intoxicate anybody!’.”
You read a book like this to imagine you are with the man and to think of days gone by and of the dinners, the company and the bottles drunk and mostly to enjoy the stories. The descriptions of wine making regions and technical aspects, of that time, are best found elsewhere, for example the closest that Healy got to Burgundy was passing by in a train.
It is also a different era not only in the way wine was approached, for example wines were judged and argued about, though he found it rather odd that one of his friends wanted to score wines with numbers, but also because you entered a ‘club’ that taught you to compare wines of different vintages and within vintages in simple and straight forward ways with nothing like the clinical exactitude and the profundity that is shown today and leads to evaluations which are probably wrong.
It was also a time that the drinking of fine wine was consumed by a small educated group, not necessarily wealthy, and the book is a roll call of the great names and vintages of France, particularly Bordeaux; wines that now belong on millionaire’s row. To drink the equivalent today, adjusting vintages to the 65 year shift since this book was published would cost more than I care to add up. Yet the wines were readily available and specific vintages could be ordered at London clubs, hotels and other places for periods of over a decade and the story that most appealed was that ‘the Chateau Lafite 1912 was listed on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company for many years.’
Healy loved his jokes, and those interested in wine should take note as these could be played on you. Many have been the times I have confused sherry cask, aged malt whiskies for cognac and this authors favourite was to use old Irish whisky with the same glee. During the depression champagne sales fell away and still whites from champagne came onto the English market and he would serve guests this white as Champagne after placing it in a soda syphon bottle to add the sparkle.
And wine merchants were gentleman dabbling in the arts or as he describes, and Campbell concurs, one merchant as being a saunterer who sauntered around and looked the part; not the forerunner of the current Tesco buyers.
The chapters are a roll call of the French regions that were drunk in this era, there are some references to grape variety but I do not recall a mention of chardonnay which is normal for this time when all emphasis was on the regional identity, and there is no reference to Alsace which again was not unusual. It is also before the English became interested in the French concept of terroir although we are told about the unique soils of Chablis, and the word terrain pops up a few times plus there is the odd comment about the relationship of the location to taste. Enough indeed for Healy to tell us; ‘The Australian soil appears to be so rich that it cannot produce a wine. It is stiff with iron; and the so-called wine goes rusty in your mouth.’ Still this country is lucky to get a mention and rightly so as if you can drink the best of France every day for lunch, why explore.
Books like this set the scene and after the war as wealth returned they ushered in a new longing to learn about food, an opening seen by Elizabeth David with her first book, Mediterranean Food (1951), and assisted in the explosion of wine books that culminated in the masterpiece, The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson (1971) which finally combined descriptions with the sense of place and perhaps inspired the story telling and reminiscing series of books, The Compleat Imbiber, of twelve volumes published between 1957 and 1971.
This book represents the passing of an era that had lasted for several centuries. Maurice Healy was born in 1887 and died in 1943.