Question: What is the connection between Barack Obama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Helena Bonham-Carter, Lord Coe, Tom Hanks, Janos Csak (the Hungarian ambassador to the UK), Richard Branson, Ken Clarke, The Lady Phillips of Worth Matravers and Kevin Spacey?
Answer: They all drank £800-a-bottle Burgundy last night, and I paid for it. And you helped out too, quite probably.
Sure, when there are important visitors in town we should want to show them a good time. We might decide to give them some decent food and a bit of fine wine. But there is a point where a bit of basic generosity tips into unacceptable excess. Good wine costs £20 a bottle. Very good wine costs maybe £50 or £80 a bottle. This, though, was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 1990. This isn’t just a decent bottle of Burgundy, it is a great bottle, from the most famous producer. It is generally treated with reverence, and deservedly so. It should not be served over dinner to 171 guests, washed away on a tidal wave of wine that also included English pink fizz (£25 a bottle), grand cru Chablis (£45), Champagne (£45) and vintage Port (£90). Never.
If such a quantity of incredibly fine wine had been so wastefully poured away by some Russian oligarch or Saudi oil baron, I would have considered it an act of heinous excess, but one over which I have and deserve no control. But this was a state event, funded by the taxpayer, at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer may well have blathered on to his unfortunate neighbours about the terrible state of the economy and the need for us all to tighten our belts. It is not just jealousy that makes me consider it somehow hideous (though there is, of course, jealousy).
Many people who buy wine for long-term storage will at some point have luckily happened upon one whose value rises so significantly before it is ready to be consumed that they are forced to ask themselves whether they can possibly justify opening it. There is no reason why the state’s own wine cellar should not also be subject to the same questioning, and for me there can only be one answer. If the nation has a fat store of classic, super-premium wine then it should either be sold off for everybody’s benefit, or it should be distributed a bottle at a time to appreciative citizens chosen by lottery. It is not OK for a few dozen rich people simply to open it all up one night. We also had a store of gold (and still do, just not as much), and when the chancellor decided the time was right, he sold it. It was not melted down and given away to the Lord Mayor of London and a small handful of old Etonians.
The world of fine wine is one of the least socialist parts of society. The best stuff will always be consumed by rich people who aren’t me. That’s the way it is, and I can cope with it. But that doesn’t mean that we, a nation that can’t afford to fund libraries or Sure Start centres, should be stumping up the equivalent £29,000 (a very conservative estimate, assuming everyone had one small glass of each wine and there was no wastage) on the drinks bill of the President and his pals. While Britain may eventually gain in tourist dollars from the pomp and pageantry with which we welcomed him, it cannot be right for he, the queen, our cabinet and their guests to drink away a teacher’s annual salary in a single evening.
And I bet half of them didn’t even like it. Or notice it. And that, perhaps, is what hurts most of all.