Cheap Shots

Drink - Terry Waite sends Victoria Moore on an economy drive

Terry Waite told me the other day that he prides himself on never spending more than a couple of pounds on a bottle of wine. "I'm always getting my leg pulled by my friends about my wretched wine," he says.

I don't know about leg-pulling. It's more likely, I think, that Terry's mates are horrified when he pitches up to their dinner parties with wine so cheap you wouldn't risk spoiling your cooking with it. They probably laugh through clenched teeth.

That said, a burgeoning part of me is secretly both thrilled by and jealous of this economy. How much do I habitually spend on wine in these profligate days? Six pounds a bottle? Seven? Eight, from time to time. And how many bottles do I buy each week? Seven, at least. Imagine if, in a single blow, I quartered this expenditure, how much would be left to squander on such modern necessities as seaweed wraps.

Fired up, I reach for the telephone. Terry only drinks still red wine, so that is what I am after. He has set me a fearsome target. "I got a very drinkable bottle of red wine for about £1.60 from a shop in Sudbury, in Suffolk," he claimed. "Special offer. And I just got some more the other day. It was expensive. £2.99." Perhaps anxious to protect the exclusivity of his find, he would give me no help on brand, grape or country of origin.

The wine merchant Majestic is the first company to put me in my place when I call. "You can't get anything here for £1.60, I can tell you," I am told firmly. "Personally I'd worry about going that cheap." They can offer a "nice Chilean at £2.99". "That's expensive," I reply, revelling in my newly discovered thriftiness, though I can't resist asking whether it's actually any good. Majestic are cautious but fair. "Down that end of the market, wines are very soft and very easy to drink. The Chilean is very good value." There is also a Vin de Pays de l'Herault, but at £2.49 I consider it, too, way beyond my means. Eventually they concede that they once had an Italian bin-end discounted to £2.19, but that such offers don't come up very often.

I make more calls and draw several blanks. Oddbins has Oddbins red at £2.99. Berry Brothers' cheapest wine is a claret at £4.95. Sainsbury's also fails me, as do a host of other places. Tesco is kind enough to send a couple of bottles to me at work, and I decide to try its offerings, even though its prices also exceed the bounds of decency for people such as Terry Waite and now myself. Marques de Tena, a Spanish table wine at £2.49, is given the cold shoulder by my colleagues - to a man, snobs who recoil at the sight of its screw-top. Myself, I am pleased that precious pennies have not been frittered on the frivolous trappings of cork and cover.

But alas, Marques de Tena is too vinegary. In a blind tasting against Tesco claret at £2.99, it is roundly insulted. The claret, however, actually earns some praise. "Not a bad table wine," says someone. "My doctor has told me to drink a bottle of wine a day. Perhaps I ought to have another plastic cupful."

But I am no closer to Terry Waite's holy grail. Then, suddenly, success seems within my grasp. Netto says that it sells heaps of a delicacy called Baron Romero that retails at £1.95. Alas, sources close to Netto whisper that this Spanish red is "bloody foul". Having tried some, I can confirm that this is a reasonably accurate description, if perhaps overgenerous.

But then it's scarcely surprising. Once you've taken the cost of duty, VAT, shipping, profit margin and dry goods (cork, label and bottle) out of the equation on a £2 bottle of wine, you're looking at spending a measly seven or eight pence on the wine itself. This rises to about 40p on a £2.99 bottle.

Setting aside the suspicion that Terry Waite's tastebuds rotted in captivity, I can only conclude that to find anything remotely drinkable for less than £2, he must be a very resourceful chap indeed. But then we knew that already.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics