Most visitors to London eventually find themselves in a pub with a glass of beer in hand, feeling very English. And while English beer and English pubs certainly are part of the social fabric, a glass of wine is equally imbued with tradition.
Wine is usually associated with France, Germany or Italy, a continental beverage far from the roots of Old Blighty. In fact, London offers a vinous netherworld of Dickensian wine merchants, moldy cellars, august auction houses and dark-paneled wine bars on secluded streets where you can delight in overly civilized ambiance, an absence of tourists and a selection of wines astonishingly broad. The most pleasurable way to find them is by haphazard perambulation.
Remember, the English created the Bordeaux wine trade, after the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine brought the English palate into fatal contact with the wines of southwestern France. The English did the same thing for port, a fortified wine able to make the rough passage from Portugal to England. And sherry -- Falstaff's "cup of sack" -- is equally bound up in British fireside misery.
English weather -- particularly English rain -- has precluded the production of great English wine. But if you doubt that imported wine is an English tradition, take a look at the wine lists on British Railways, or the one in the unpretentious Tate Gallery restaurant, where you can buy first-growth Bordeauxs and Burgundies, champagnes, fine Loire and German wines, all at amazingly low prices.
Before setting out, there are a few things the wandering enophile should know. For instance, London is full of wine bars that really aren't. Most of these are singles bars where women may go without feeling the oppressive maleness inherent in the British pub mentality, sterile places with a few bottles on the shelf and distinguishable at a glance from the real thing (bars with a broad choice of wines, an ambiance more congenial than co-genital and a decent choice of food). Also remember that wine, unlike beer, requires food, and the better wine bars tend to be crowded at lunch and dinner time -- precisely when you will want to be there.
Four real wine bars that offer inexpensive wine with good food by British pub standards are owned by a retired trumpet player named Don Hewitson. One of them, the Cork and Bottle just off Leicester Square, is difficult to find, but worth the trouble. ("It's just past the sex shop," the newspaper vendor told me.) Wine enthusiasts, many from the London publishing firms in the neighborhood, gather in the cellar for their knosh and a wide assortment of daily wine specials.
Hewitson's other wine bars are Shampers, across town in Kingly Street, catering to advertising folk; Bubbles in North Audley Street, which attracts film stars and film technicians; and Methuselah's, where members of Parliament tend to drink their chardonnay, in Victoria Street. You might start your tour there, if you rise late inflicted with jet lag and want a light lunch with a glass of Mosel.
Afterward, you can walk past Buckingham Palace, through the glade of Green Park to St. James's Street, an area of specialty shops and a crusty clientele accustomed to traditional pleasures. Drop into Berry Brothers & Rudd, the merchant house that has been supplying kings and lesser folk with "claret" (Bordeaux), "hock" (English for any Rhine wine) and other appellations since the 1700s. You'll see a few dusty magnums in the window, and some wine paraphernalia lying about, but not much that is drinkable.
The big merchants keep their stock in cellars and warehouses outside the city; the attraction at Rudd is the floor, a steeply sloping affair that has apparently been subsiding for centuries, so that the antique writing desks have to be propped up on one side to keep them from sliding into a pile. The clerks wear half-specs; you won't see any computer terminals here, just pens scribbling customers' orders on paper.
Just up the street is Justerini & Brooks, another merchant house with a thoroughly contemporary decor but similar roots. They do an upscale business and even help customers build individual "cellars" by storing wine for them and making judicious additions each year.
Cellars are serious business in Britain, and it is these magnificent wine collections from all over the country that fuel the auction houses of Christie's on King Street and Sotheby's on New Bond Street. Tastings of prospective lots are held the day before auction between noon and 1 o'clock. The price of admission is a catalogue -- one of the best deals ever for a wine tasting -- and the auctions themselves are both amusing and instructive. (You must call to find out when they are held.)
Wine shops in St. James's tend to specialize. For instance, Collison's in Bury Street displays a broad selection of South African wines not seen in the United States. It is run by an Englishman, Nick Clark, who is also president of a curious organization known as Masters of Wine, a kind of pantheon of vinous superstars and heirs to the longstanding expertise of the wine merchant. There are only 107 Masters of Wine in the world, including two in America, one in Bermuda, one in Barbados and one in Johannesburg. (I asked Clark what a person would have to do to become an "MW," as they are known. "God, would he have problems," he said, including an apparently endless series of examinations and some years spent "in trade.")
By now it is time for tea, another British beverage to be taken in high form at the Stafford Hotel on St. James's Place, just around the corner from Christie's. The maitre d' will be happy to show the Stafford cellars -- low, vaulted arteries trailing off in various directions through the gloom, packed with hoary bottles. "Back there," he said, pointing down one corridor, "is a tunnel that led to St. James's Palace."
At the end of another corridor we came upon a room with sandbags stacked beside the door, the Stafford's Better 'Ole Club, where the staff does its drinking and occasionally entertains famous people. "Prince Charles has been here," the maitre d' said casually. The name of the club is taken from a famous World War I cartoon showing two doughboys in a trench, one saying, "If you know of a better 'ole, go to it."
The cellaring tradition in England has not only made a good selection of wines and vintages available to hotels and restaurants, but also to the individual wine shop that is willing to buy at auction and to seek out its own supplies. These vintages are unavailable or at best difficult to find in the United States, and the prices for old Bordeaux, for instance, are amazingly good. The enophile wanting to bring back some rare, moderately priced bottles, or simply interested in the selection, should drop into La Vignerone on Old Brompton Road, near the Brompton Road tube stop, a short ride from St. James's.
Dinner can be had with style and a broad choice of wines for a reasonable price at the Ebury Wine Bar in the same part of town. The neighborhood is rife with "Sloan Rangers," the British equivalent of preppies who live in the area around Sloan Square. As in America, you can spot them by their clothes: The women wear short scarfs tied under the chin, the men wear shooting jackets emblematic of weekends on country estates.
A near-indispensable guide to things vinous in England is the "Which? Wine Guide" edited by Jane MacQuitty, 650 detailed pages that cover it all. One recommendation is the Boot and Flogger, an antique wine pub on the south side of the Thames, in an alley that requires a compass to locate, and the most interesting place I found in several days of wandering. Look for Redcross Way under the railway overpass in London SE1, between Blackfriars and Southwark bridges.
The Boot and Flogger is an amber dream from another century, built over an extensive cellar, with dark paneling and a trade consisting mostly of financiers who cross over from The City for lunch.
The entrance way is lined with beveled glass, and the bar extends the length of one narrow room. Beyond it the floor opens up, crowded with little tables and captain's chairs. A pale glow from the window is augmented by lamps, giving the place a comfortable, yet worldly air. Conversation is subdued and intimate; this is no local pub.
I arrived to find people drinking champagne from pewter mugs. I ordered game pie, and was told to look out for shot in the meat. The wine steward politely refused to sell me a split of '59 Chateau Margaux (only $22) because the wine should not be moved up from the cellar right before serving; he asked that I call him 24 hours in advance next time.
I asked the origin of the pub's name; the waitress brought me a black leather bucket -- the "boot" -- and a heavy mahogany paddle -- the "flogger" -- implements used to bottle wine in the days when it arrived in England by cask. (The bottle was placed in the boot and the cork hammered in.) The Boot and Flogger is just one of the Davys chain of wine bars that includes the equally arcane names Bunghole, Chopper Lump, Crusting Pipe, Grapeshots, Gyngleboy and Skinkers.
After lunch I walked across Southwark Bridge for a glass of port at El Vino in St. Martin Lane, near Cannon Street. Huge casks towered behind the crowded bar; a pale luminous shaft fell through the skylight onto a table of ruddy-faced gentlemen in pin stripes, sharing a bottle of something red. There wasn't a glass of beer in sight.