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The profits of plonk

Observations on wine

Here’s a solution to Alan Johnson’s problem with the culture of binge drinking: all the Health Secretary has to do is round up the nation’s serial topers and bus them to Knightsbridge, to the late Queen Mother’s favourite hotel, the Berkeley. For here, I am confident that even the most heroic of epic boozers would soon throw in the towel. The reason? This swish but unremarkable hotel charges what must be the highest prices for wine in a city notorious for squeezing the maximum profit from even mediocre plonk.

I speak from personal experience. Arriving early and thirsty for Sir Dai Llewellyn’s memorial service at St Paul’s Church at the end of March, I sought refreshment at the next-door Berkeley. I wasn’t the only one. The hotel’s Caramel Room was dotted with fellow mourners as I approached the bar to order a glass of house white. The barman explained it was table service only and invited me to take a seat, which, in light of the subsequent experience, was an offer I’m glad I accepted.

A waitress appeared, and I asked about the provenance of the house white. It was a Chardonnay. That will do fine, I replied. I was in rather a hurry as I was saying farewell to an old friend in the church next door in 20 minutes. Would she bring the bill with the drink? When she returned promptly with both, I had already removed a £10 note from my wallet. But as she stood over me, I saw that the bill came to £21. “Surely a mistake,” I mumbled. “No,” she replied, “it is correct.” Noting that the printout had the audacity to leave a gap for an additional service charge, I asked how much a bottle of house white cost. She confessed that she wasn’t sure, but certainly over £100.

As I said, I was fortunate to be sitting down. This has to be the largest markup in the metropolis. My friend Lord Gormanston, at an adjoining table, sensibly confined himself to spirits and paid less than I – £20 for two vodka and tonics.

Contrast this with a bar near my home in South Kensington. The Rydges Kensington Plaza Hotel, a popular berth for foreign airline crews, has a long-standing “happy hour” during which a large glass of house white – in no way inferior to the Berkeley’s Chardonnay – costs £2. So a robust drinker could put away ten glasses of plonk at Rydges and leave a pound tip for the barmaid, all for the price of one snifter at the Berkeley just down the road. If Dai were still with us, there is no doubt he’d be holding court in the Berkeley – if someone else was paying. Otherwise he would be the life and soul of the bar at Rydges.

A year before his death, the great “Seducer of the Valleys” watched a TV documentary with one of his daughters in which a doctor warned about the dangers of excessive drinking. For men, he advised, three units of alcohol daily were more than sufficient. Remarked Dai: “Three units! Why, I spill more than that every day.” I’ll drink to that.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know