Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 1998
* Seriously Concerned *
The life of Dr Eric Appleby, the Director of the charity Alcohol Concern, must be a miserable and joyless affair. For his organisation is not one, as you might imagine, that exists to alleviate suffering amongst alcoholics and others with serious drink problems, something that would be a worthy and fulfilling cause. Its aims are rather to promote the awareness of drink-related issues in society at large, from a viewpoint that is staunchly opposed to alcohol in all its manifestations.
Whenever anything is proposed that will improve the lot of the moderate drinker, from longer pub hours to lower duty, they are the first to condemn it. Whenever there is any bandwagon that aims to curb the rights of drinkers, or show alcohol in a bad light, they lose no time in jumping on it. They won't admit it openly, because they'd be laughed out of court, but they wouldn't shed many tears if Prohibition was introduced.
The idea of people actually enjoying themselves over a few drinks in the pub must fill them with paroxysms of jealous rage, while the sight of a closed and boarded pub will cause a flicker of joy in their stony hearts. They are the lineal descendents of Cromwell's Roundheads, who for a while in the 1640's succeeded in having Christmas officially banned. You could be forgiven for thinking that these people suffered some grave childhood trauma that forever robbed them of the capacity for fun.
And why should anti-drink pressure groups such as Dr Appleby's enjoy charitable status, while it is denied to responsible pro-drink bodies such as CAMRA, which in its short life must have done far more to increase the sum of human happiness than the likes of Alcohol Concern could manage in a thousand years?
* Uncorking the Market *
While there's been a revolution in the quality and choice of beer available in most pubs, all too often the selection of wine has been left in the dark ages. You're confronted with a choice of dismal "house white" and "house red" which are usually the sort of stuff that Sainsbury's wouldn't dare put on their shelves. But, in our homes, we in Britain have become highly sophisticated wine consumers, and the general level of knowledge about wine is greater than that about beer, however much we beer-lovers may regret that. Although it's been a long time coming, there are now signs that the wider appreciation of wine is starting to spread beyond a small group of up-market establishments to pubs in general.
But a problem confronting pubs selling wine is the incredible conservatism of the trade in insisting on sticking to 750 ml bottles, which are far more than most people actually want to consume at a sitting. Every time a licensee opens a bottle of wine and pours a glass, he's taking a risk whether he'll be able to sell the rest before it goes stale. This is a particular deterrent to pubs just wanting to put their toe in the water. It's like only supplying real ale in hogsheads. It would make a lot of sense for the pub trade if wine producers made decent wines available in 250 ml bottles - enough for two small glasses - so customers were assured of a fresh drink every time. These might even take off in the take-home trade, as they would help eliminate the inevitable dinner-table arguments over whether to go for the Chardonnay or the Sauvignon Blanc.