Before Oddbins and Majestic Wine there was Peter Dominic wine merchants, offering a range from the petillant Portugese favoured by students to stuff that was distinctly a grade above.
I don't know whether I was lucky or whether they had enthusiasts as managers in all their shops, but I learnt a great deal from these gentlemen....the best lesson being to trust your own judgement.
Father had a fondness for Nuits St. George which he bought through The Wine Society and had a nasty shock when he bought a bottle elsewhere...it was coarse and heavy, the colour staining the glass.
Yes, said the Peter Dominic manager when I told him. No surprise at all. They're cutting it with the Red Infuriator...stuff from Algeria.
They're all at it.... coarse stuff from the Languedoc to stretch the Rhones, better stuff from the Rhone bolstering the Bordeaux.
Never trust a label. Trust your own judgement. If you think it's foul...it is.
As I was to learn when moving to France years later, nothing much had changed, nor has it to this day, but at that point it hadn't crossed my mind to move to France, nor had it crossed the mind of a devotee of Chambery vermouth and Pouilly Fume that I would like a dessert wine when the manager of the branch I then frequented produced a bottle from the fridge.
Go on...you'll be surprised.
I was... it made me think of honey and orange, it sent wonderful smells up my nose and it was anything but heavy. I hadn't tasted anything like it.
Moulin Touchais. Coteaux du Layon. Twenty years old.
I bought what they had until the branch closed and my Moulin Touchais was no more.
And then one day I moved to France.
I looked in various areas: Brittany, the Limousin, the Charente and, not finding what I wanted, moved on to the Loire Valley.
In hindsight it is clear that the other areas did not come up to the mark because my unconscious mark was the Loire Valley itself!
I saw all sorts, then found an estate agent whose method was to allow you to look through files of houses printed in black on coarse yellow paper, pick what you wanted and then send you off with keys...where they existed....and general directions, broad finger on the map...we are here and the enemy is there.
Just the style I loved. Thanks to him I was off the beaten track, getting to grips with what was behind the tourist facade.
I was frequently lost and on one occasion pulled up on a hillside..... a stumpy stone building on the hill above, vines below and a river running at the bottom....the River Layon, upon whose Coteaux I was sitting.
Though I did not buy a house in the Layon area, I used to frequent it....buying wine, visiting friends....and grew to love its quiet beauty.
Downstream was Clere sur Layon, nestling in the valley among its vines, its roads made perilous by the lorries running to and fro the vast quarries behind the village, the drivers on piece work and stopping for nobody.
Downstream again to Nueil sur Layon....for the annual horse racing up at the Chateau de Grise before it was sold to the Japanese who stripped it of all its staircases, fireplaces and ornamental detail and sold it on again to be a hotel. The project failed...and such was the low price put upon it by Credit Agricole that I thought of trying to raise the money.....but of course, Credit Agricole had a purchaser all ready...a local bigwig given a present on a plate.
It was in Nueil that I first heard of the festival of Quasimodo.....wondering what on earth this could be - and how it would be celebrated - I was half reassured, half disappointed to learn that it was the first Sunday after Easter, when the introit to the mass of the day began 'Quasi modo....'
Racing was popular...downstream again, on the way to Les Verchers sur Layon was the Chateau d'Echeuilly who also had an annual race day, but that too finished before I had been there long.
Above Les Verchers the bluff rose steeply, barring the way to the Loire via Doue la Fontaine and the Layon took a right angled turn under the steep hillside, cattle grazing the fields alongside as the road followed it toward Concourson sur Layon, a quiet, nondescript village -claim to fame a site for camping cars. But there's a lot more to Concourson than a pumping station for caravan loos.
Shallow pits were dug...some of the airshafts are still visible...and local men would make a contract with the landowner to dig until the seam was exhausted and then return the land to its previous state.
The coal was used to heat the local limestone to reduce it to lime which in its turn went to the building trade...and on the fields.
France being France, in the mid eighteenth century the royal government decided that while individuals might own what was on the surface, what was under it belonged to the state, who could thus issue licences for its exploitation....and, despite revolts and resistance, managed to impose this new scheme on the Layon coalfields. The new wealth generated can be evidenced by the Chateau des Mines, still, I believe in the hands of descendants of the mine owners.
Monsieur was to become Louis XVIII at the restoration of the monarchy after the fall of Napoleon, but his canal fell victim to neglect and destruction in the wars of the Vendee and was not, itself restored.
There is another link to that period in that one of the administrators of the mines based round St. Georges was the Comte de las Cases who as a boy acccompanied his father to St. Helena with Napoleon....and who went to great lengths to try to challenge Sir Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's gaoler, to a duel after the death of the Emperor.
No sign now of the locks as the Layon runs south of Martigne Briand, the chimneys of its chateau visible for miles around
But with all this talk of water....where is the wine? The Coteaux du Layon? The wine which tempted you into reading this post?
It is all around you as you travel downstream....from Passavant to Chalonnes you are on a river of wine: the dessert wines of the Coteaux du Layon; dry Anjou Blanc from the same grape, the Chenin, as the dessert wines; Anjou Rouge from, predominantly, the Cabernet Franc and with a bit of luck the pale wine from the Grolleau Gris.
A river into which you can, indeed, step twice.