Red wine being poured in Paris. Photo: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
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An inspired sommelier loves two things at least as much as wine: people and stories

I’ve nothing against celebrated wines: enormous care and attention goes into their creation. Still, a little imagination is a heavenly thing.

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions or, more likely, a slew of spoiled ballot papers, but I’ve always maintained that the path to heaven is overlaid with good wine lists, floating enticingly towards that Great Restaurant in the Sky in which, if I manage not to insult too many people in this life, I hope to spend eternity.

My candidates for celestial beverage menus are not, generally, those Bible-thick tomes, bursting with famous names, that have nearly as many champagnes and Bordeaux as they have zeros at the end of their average bottle price. I’ve nothing against celebrated wines: a restaurant that’s trying to carve out a place at the top of the culinary totem pole must offer them, and enormous care and attention goes into their creation. Still, a little imagination is a heavenly thing, and an inspired sommelier loves two things at least as much as wine: people and stories. Without the former, it’s all just fermented grape juice. And a good story, like fine crystal, cups and holds the liquid, readying the mind for the treat the mouth is preparing to deliver.

At Enoteca, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Hotel Arts Barcelona, I admired a page-long list of Priorats, the powerful red wines from a hill south-west of the city so steep that many vines are tended by donkey. It wasn’t the only page of Priorats: Florian David, the young head sommelier, says that some diners wish to drink only Catalan wines, and Priorat is the region’s grand cru (it is the sole Spanish wine region to hold the top-rung DOC status, other than Rioja).

There are many great Priorats and at Enoteca you can range from a €65 Terroir al Limit Torroja 2012, made by a Bavarian called Dominik Huber, to Daphne Glorian’s renowned Clos Erasmus 2004, which will set you back €1,400. You may, if your group is thirsty or numerous, choose to compare the two, contrasting the Torroja’s Garnatxa-Cariñena blend with the Erasmus’s Garnatxa, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the last two being international grapes that some consider less appropriate to Priorat’s peculiar slate soils. Combinations of wines, like wine matched with food, enliven as well as educate the palate: this is sensation-seeking of the strictly legal sort – boundary-testing that tastes a hell of a lot better than anything we try as teenagers.

Boldly, we ventured into the wilder reaches of the wine list. David paired tuna escabeche with Thierry Germain’s sharply aromatic L’Insolite Saumur, contrasting it with another, softer Loire Chenin, a Vouvray by Philippe Foreau, whose wines are so good partly, David says, “because he’s crazy about food”.

We lauded the underrated wonders of white wine (“Sometimes I only have one red on a whole tasting menu!”) and mourned the reluctance of some diners to move beyond the safe parameters of familiar wines, which is like choosing to live in prison because it’s dangerous outside: technically true, but a tragically dull existence. I learned about the trio of French winemakers creating great Garnatxa-based Priorat as the Trio Infernal; about Alain Senderens, the chef who returned his three Michelin stars in 2005 in favour of a more relaxed, informal style of dining, then won them back on his own terms; and about where to drink and eat in Russia, Mrs David’s native land and a country I love, despite the paucity of vineyards.

Conveyed by a series of stunning wines, we ranged the world from France and Italy to New Zealand and Babylon (well, the Pyrenees, but the legendary Loire winemaker Didier Dagueneau’s southern vineyard is called Les Jardins de Babylone). Eventually, sated with stories and flavours, I concluded that heaven was in fact right here at this table, meaning that in theory, I could insult whomever I please. But I felt far too content to bother.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.