We search in vain for a message on the bottle

The uselessness of wine labels.

This week’s column seemed so simple: just me, a fastapproaching deadline and a list of complaints about wine labels. I’ve moaned for years about the refusal of the French to tell me anything I might want to know on their bottles.
 
It’s like someone who’s introducing himself shrugging contemptuously and walking off after being asked what he does for a living. No grape names, no regional information – none that a novice could understand, anyway. A vintage, an appellation d’origine contrôlée (don’t know what that is? Tough) and probably an owner’s name, but no indication of whether that owner has been dead for 200 years and his inheritors have been bought out by a conglomerate.
 
Often, there is just one label. The French may have a word for the back label – une contre étiquette – but, as we have established, naming things is neither here nor there. Even when there is a second label, it usually has a lot of guff about expressing the authenticity of terroir and respecting nature. “Each year, our recompense is the harvest,” claims the back of my 2002 Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus. Maybe. That bottle is worth £75. Winemakers are legally obliged to tell you when their wine contains sulphites. These hugely useful words are the only English on the label, apart from “Produce of France”. 
 
But let’s not limit ourselves to picking on the French. My 2004 Sassicaia tells me neither the owner of the vineyard nor that this wine was one of the first of the so-called Super Tuscans that made this part of Italy nearly as dribbled over by high-end wine lovers as Bordeaux. (Sassicaia contains two of the same grapes as Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. No, you won’t get that from the label.) The back of the bottle is disturbed only by a label that tells me it “contains sulphites”, in 20 languages. Of all the things I’d like to learn from the outside of a bottle of great wine, how to convey in Magyar that someone has added a preservative is pretty low down the list.
 
It is the New World that has changed this. The Penfolds Magill Estate gives so much information about the handpicked grapes, vineyard, fermentation process and need for decanting that I could probably make a bottle myself. Better yet, with a wine called 2000 Magill Estate Shiraz, it’s not much of a mystery which grapes have been used.
 
“What is wrong with the Europeans?” I wondered, as I examined a bottle of Bolney Estate rosé at its Sussex winery, searching in vain for enlightenment about what I’d be consuming if I chose to drink it. If I buy a top, the label tells me about the materials – and none of my outfits has yet entered my digestive system. A marketing failure of this kind won’t make Bolney’s wines taste as good as top Burgundy or Sassicaia – or Magill Estate, come to that. You’re supposed to copy the innovators, not the old farts. It’s called progress.
 
The reason why this column is not the simple matter it was supposed to be is that, while researching it, I discovered that some labels are not marketing failures at all, even if they are the luxury-goods equivalent of an information blackout. Back in the 1940s, Château Mouton Rothschild began asking artists to decorate its bottles and the practice continues: the list includes Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall. You don’t want to cloud up a Chagall with words and you probably want to buy it, if you can afford it, whatever it’s on.
 
There have been wine labels for more than 3,000 years and most have not catered to the literalist whims of wine populists. Many have been worse than reticent: Bordeaux used to be known for selling a lot more wine than it produced and, as recent forgery scandals demonstrate, Appellation Outright Porky is still flying off the shelves. Nonetheless, I believe that experimental winebuying should be encouraged. And a little basic information, handily situated, would surely harm the punter a lot less than any number of sulphites.
 
Next week: Ruth Padel on nature
Ignorance isn't bliss; winemakers should take a less laid-back approach to keeping us informed. Photograph: Joss McKinley/Gallery Stock.

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 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)
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“All four of us vomited in the library”: Bobby Seagull on life as a University Challenge icon

In an age of attacking the elites, why have British audiences started making cult figures out of University Challenge contestants?

“BOBBY SEAGULL HAS REPLIED TO LOTS OF MY TWEETS!!!!!” cried a lovestruck fan on Twitter earlier this month, punctuated with three red hearts. It was the semi-final of University Challenge at the end of March, and two team captains who had become cult figures were going head-to-head.

One was Eric Monkman of Wolfson College, Cambridge, a bespectacled Canadian with a uniquely intense way of answering questions. His competitor was Bobby Seagull, the whimsically-named and endlessly jovial captain of Emmanuel College, also of Cambridge – “the happiest University Challenge contestant ever”, according to the BBC, and declared “The cult hero of University Challengeby The Times.


Emmanuel College University Challenge team. Bobby Seagull sits second from the right. Photo: BBC

Over the course of BBC 2’s ten-month tournament, these two competitors became unlikely icons, their geeky “bromance” (they’d been friends as students for years) gaining an excitable online following.

“Eric, you and Bobby are indubitably the loveliest, most team-oriented people ever to appear on #UniversityChallenge and we love you!” one tweeter breathed. “I’m sure you both have serious career ambitions but WE WANT TO SEE THE BUDDY MOVIE” demanded another.

And it looks like that wish could be fulfilled. Seagull has barely left our screens since he was defeated by his nemesis and chum in the semi-final. I meet him looking dazed but delighted in the bustling courtyard of BBC’s New Broadcasting House. It is the morning after the University Challenge final, during which the triumph of Oxford’s Balliol College team was overshadowed by an outpouring of love and lament for runners-up Seagull and Monkman.

Seagull is a smile in a suit. A compact figure and nattily dressed, he wears a grey blazer, pink shirt, white pink-striped tie, ocean blue chinos and brown leather shoes – fresh from doing a round of BBC morning shows.

He carries a Cambridge crest-emblazoned overnight bag almost as big as he is. He caught the 5.45am train this morning to London from Cambridge, where he teaches maths at a local state school. Remarkably youthful-looking at 33, he gets mistaken for a pupil in school if he doesn’t keep his facial hair – a groomed moustache and beard.

We sit down for a coffee, and he commands the whole café with his garrulous anecdotes. “I got a question in my first round horribly wrong, when they asked for a Dickens book and I ended up making up a book called Little Miss Dorrit,” he hoots. “There were tweets saying I should be taken out of Cambridge! In the last few years, we’ve seen Twitter definitely develop a relationship with contestants. Eric and I have taken it in good humour. We joke about ourselves. I think that’s endeared us to the public.”

Seagull’s personality – “hammy, chatty, gregarious”, in his words – and intellect now have him lined up for other quiz shows and potentially as a presenter on a new TV programme about maths.

“I grew up with gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see”

Seagull started life on a council estate in East Ham, east London, which he describes as “rough, difficult” – a place with “gangs, violence, things that young children shouldn’t see” that was a 40-minute walk from the nearest shop. Born to immigrant parents who left Kerala in south India for London in the late Seventies, Seagull was the second of four brothers. “Two rooms, two bunkbeds”, is how describes his family home.

“This sounds like I’m playing the fiddle now,” he groans. “In my family we were quite lucky; we had a really strong family unit. But for a lot of people there, it wasn’t an easy path of growing up.”

Seagull’s father got a job as an IT consultant and his family eventually moved into their own home in East Ham. Seagull puts his grasp of general knowledge down to his parents, whose support of their sons’ education would often lead them to spending money meant for groceries on second-hand books.

“All of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy”

Every Saturday, his father would take them to the local library and they would read books for four or five hours – treated with listening to the football scores if they behaved well (Seagull is a big West Ham fan).

“There was one amusing time when I think we had food poisoning. First, one of my siblings vomited in the library,” he giggles. “And then the next one five minutes later, the next one ten minutes later, so I think all four of us vomited in the space of half an hour. The library was not happy!”


Bobby Seagull in Cambridge. Photo: Lloyd Mann (University of Cambridge)

Still, Seagull had only ever watched a few minutes of University Challenge before he applied for his college team and got a place on the show. “Now, if I have kids at some stage, they are going to watch this show from the age of five, and they’re going to win it!” he cries. “I won’t tell them I was on it, I’ll just make them watch it casually and if they get something right, I’ll chuck them a biscuit – Pavlovian condition them to get the right answers. So maybe in 30 years there’ll be a Seagull lifting the trophy.”

When he was 15, Seagull found an advert for scholarships to Eton in a copy of The Times. It asked: “Are you are bright boy?” he recalls, while struggling to open the plastic pot of granola he’s having for breakfast. “I’m really bad at practical things,” he pleads. Eventually, I open it for him.

“People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge; they support anyone else”

He left his London state school, where former Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw was headteacher, and started at Eton when he was 16. Just like everything else he’s done, he loved it. A contemporary of Prince Harry and Eddie Redmayne, Seagull was perhaps destined for such an unusual journey – after all, his namesake is Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the eponymous character of Richard Bach’s pseudo-philosophical Seventies novella. His father loved the book, and gave two of his sons the surname.

“In this book, the seagulls eat, sleep, catch fish; a monotonous routine. Jonathan Livingstone thought there must be a greater purpose to life. And he tried to inspire others to fly,” Seagull beams. “The weird thing is that my life is following that path in terms of I think my passion is numbers and I want to encourage a love of education.”

So he decided to go into teaching, and is also about to begin studying for an education PhD at Cambridge. This was after a few years working in the city as a banker and then an accountant. He was a trader at Lehman Brothers when it collapsed in 2008; he saw trouble brewing in the firm when it began to stop stocking the stationery cupboard, and took action. He had £200 on his vending machine allowance and didn’t want it going to waste if the company went under, so he spent it all on chocolate bars just before the crash.

“We’re just sort of normal people, relatable. Maybe a bit eccentric”

“I think we’re still in a country where people do look at the liberal elite, the city, the top professional institutions, MPs, Oxbridge, and there’s a sort of us-against-them mentality,” he reflects, looking mildly less euphoric than usual. “People come up to me and say they don’t normally support Oxbridge on University Challenge; they support anyone else.

“But this year, because of me and my friend Eric, they actually think, ‘we really like the way you’re just sort of normal people, relatable’,” he says. “Maybe a bit eccentric, but likeable people who they would like to have a conversation with. That's given me a great sense of satisfaction. In the modern world, things are changing all the time. Society, Brexit, we’re constantly changing. But University Challenge gives us that familiarity.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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