One of the pleasures of the TV programme Food and Drink, when it was in its first incarnation on the BBC in the 1980s, was watching and listening to the effervescent Jilly Goolden. Goolden was known for her exuberant descriptions of the flavour and smell of drink, especially of wine. With Goolden the language of wine developed an expressive palette of referents and descriptors. A wine might be said to be ‘creamy, nutty with slight honey notes and an apple oak taste’. But that would be Goolden with the hand-break on. On more memorable occasions she could invoke the smell of pencil shavings, the hint of liquorice, kerosene notes, the slight scent of wet tarmac, and so on. Mythically – but perhaps actually too – she could invoke an echo of cat pee meandering through some Chardonnay.
To my ear it sounded excessively detailed. To others it was hugely pretentious and seemed to ‘out’ would-be sommeliers, oenologists, viticulturists (the exotic names were enough to condemn them) as snobs and toffs trying to make their booze of choice something posher, more highly cultured than it was. It was wine. It was red, it was white and occasionally it was pink. It either made you wince or it didn’t. It either went down-the-hatch with pleasure or not.
Some years later I heard Goolden being interviewed on the radio. It was fascinating. When she first got interested in wine, reviewers could write such things like: ‘this is the kind of wine you could shake by the hand and introduce to your club’. Not only was it thoroughly aristocratic it was also ludicrously uninformative. All you got was the equivalent of a thumbs-up, or thumbs-down. Goolden’s emphasis on description and the reference to tastes and scents in the world was a radically materialist refusal of this world of gentlemen’s clubs and the posh back-slapping that went with it. Hers was an intervention that aimed to offer sensorial accuracy and democratic availability. Cheers Jilly.