I don't take up invitations to government departmental receptions these days. I went to a couple in years past - one at the Home Office, one at the Department of the Environment, and the format was similar. Mid afternoon. A large, open room with a podium at one end, lined with buffet tables serving red, white or orange juice, a hundred or so guests, forty minutes of mingling then the minister entered with the VIP guest (presumably following a long lunch together), short speeches from each, the code / leaflet / scheme launched, a smatter of polite applause. Ten minutes of glad-handing from the minister as he made his way to the lift shepherded by civil servants. So why don't I go any more? These are just the sort of networking events a diligent chap might welcome, you may ask. Well, it's the wine. It was dreadful.
Catching my sour grimace, a fellow guest commented, holding his own glass of red for inspection, "I think the caterers are making a few bob on this". The labels were respectable, but the wine was foul. I always put it down to civil servants having no idea of what wine should taste like, but oh how wrong can one be. It now emerges from an FOI request that these receptions are staged for one reason only - to quietly get rid of the government wine committee's buying mistakes.
It could have been the 1er Cru Cotes de Beaune described as 'clunky and stewed, OK with duck' or the St Aubin Burgundy described as 'poor, suitable for receptions only' or another 'boring, ugly and disappointing' Burgundy, or any other of the C-list wines that civil servants thought could be quietly drunk by construction industry guests without notice. One can imagine the phone calls. "Claude? I've got thirty cases of a truly disgusting claret .. can you set up a reception for the motor manufacturing industry?".
Predictably, Tom Watson is calling for the contents of the government wine cellar to be sold off, but he's quite wrong. Apart from the mistakes that we got to drink, the committee, no doubt made up of wine hobbyist senior civil servants, has made some spectacularly sound investments. The value of the cellar is a pittance at £2m, and it enables the UK to serve A-list wines to really important guests at a fraction of the cost we would pay if they were bought as-required from wine merchants. Their good buying decisions are very good indeed, and have vintners slavering in jealousy. But please don't ask me to help hide the little mistakes any more - life's too short for bad wine.