Château Caplan overlooked no vineyards but the cellars were spectacular, if slightly peculiar. To most people in 1980s south London, Australian wine was as much an oxymoron as military intelligence. Or Labour government.
My Melbourne-born father saw no contradiction – not that he’d have minded, since as a child psychiatrist he more or less made his living from them. I grew up with Freudian chatter and fruity reds, which was a better combination than you might expect. But my vinous education didn’t halt at Botany Bay: it couldn’t, since in England then it was easier to get hold of a job lot of snail porridge than most top Antipodean offerings, and anyway Dad was no more averse to a fine claret or a chewy Châteauneuf-du-Pape than the next oenomaniac.
I am often asked where I get my interest in wine from. The answer died ten years ago this month, after a startlingly short illness. My father left me good wine, inexhaustible grief and a technicolour array of memories: the variegated pinks of hams laid out at the poolside in Portugal, with a palest-gold Vinho Verde; dinner parties where fulsome reds glowed candle-backed ruby.
I recall a story involving a precious elixir, smuggled from Australia, then dropped between cellar and kitchen. As sighs wafted across the crockery, my father grinned, produced a decanter and asked: “You didn’t think I’d only bought one bottle, did you?”
Love of wine is rarely a solitary pursuit. Dad became part of a community that met principally at Mike and Liz Berry’s shop La Vigneronne, in Chelsea, and at the Wine Society. The Berrys sold up years ago but a weekend at their southern French vineyard was one of the transcendent experiences of my adolescence: champagne flutes balanced atop the car, buckets of fresh shellfish and spit-roasted tuna served with a lightish local red whose name I can’t recall but whose agility will stay with me forever. Dinners ended with vin doux naturel – delicious, underrated Roussillon dessert wine from Banyuls or Maury – and although I tottered to bed every night, two drops short of a singalong, there were no hangovers. Drink great wine, friends, and there won’t be.
My father’s other spiritual – and spirituous – home has stayed put, thank goodness. The Wine Society was the result of unprecedented British restraint: Portuguese growers’ complaints, when their wines remained undrunk at the 1874 International Exhibition, inspired a series of vinous luncheons. So began a co-operative that charges £40 for life membership, sells excellent wines at reasonable prices, has allocations from superb small producers such as Domaine Armand Rousseau in Burgundy and still holds terrific lunches.
The reason Dr Harold Caplan merited an obituary in the WS newsletter – a lovely one, praising his “deep and compendious knowledge of wines” and his propensity “to provide behind-the-scenes help for which he expected little recognition” – is that Dad, incapable of doing anything by halves, had joined the management committee. Man and society were natural companions: both convivial and bibulous, broad of outlook, sharp of focus and generous as wine-lovers should be. Dad might mutter of pearls before swine as he plonked Clare Valley Riesling or Château Margaux down before youthful me but plonk them down he did and asked what I thought. I have inherited the belief that good things must be shared, even with those who may not fully appreciate them, and that nobody’s ever too young to hold a valid opinion.
So, whatever your drinking habits, I bid you welcome to Château Caplan, which has changed locations, vintages and, sadly, inhabitants but still boasts overflowing cellars and the presiding spirit of a man whose wit and intelligence flowed like good wine and whose good wine was never stinted, either.