Jon’s first tentative stumble into the cobwebbed world of wine was in Dublin when he was employed by a licensed grocer dreamed up by Charles Dickens after a night on the Malmsey. (For more on this episode, read The Weighing Room, the second part of Jon’s autobiography, due out Christmas 2008). Jon was a shy fourteen year old at the time, Elvis drove a truck in Memphis, and Liverpool was relegated to Division Two. Wide eyed with wonder, his Pledge Pin in place, young Jon climbed the tall shelves and gazed at the stacks of Dublin blended and bottled Burgundies, Clarets and Hocks; South African and Cyprus Sherries, Australian Tawny and Red Biddy. Wow! He had accidentally discovered the sophisticated world of wine.
Three years later Jon left Dublin on the Princess Maud for England, forlorn and freezing, clutching his mother’s Rosary beads, with his father’s words booming in his ears; ‘For Jaysus sake, forget the feckin’ wine trade, it’s fulla ponces.’ Jon avoided the lure for another three years, until he succumbed to an invitation to pick grapes in a God forsaken hole in France called Chablis. ‘Wear shorts and a wide brimmed hat’, a bemused elder advised, ‘because sunburn’s an absolute bugger.’ It hissed down for a months. Jon slept on straw in a derelict mansion devoid of windows and doors, worked from seven in the morning to six in the evening with twenty-three nationalities, drank vinegar and ate rabbit. The grapes rotted, the grower fumed and shook his horny hands at the sky. It was a bleak experience, the only redeeming feature being the grower’s blonde young wife playing with a hose in the chaise.
Back in London and now firmly ensconced in the wine trade, Jon worked at every aspect, bottling, labelling, selling, buying and enduring dry lectures at the Vintner’s Hall delivered by ex army men with enflamed noses. Jon wandered the wine world, from Barolo to Chile, from Beaune to Oregon, imbibing wine and knowledge with the men and women who magicked wine from grapes. Then at the age of 32, Jon and Heather moved to Herefordshire, after a farm holiday there reminded Jon of his own beloved green and easy going, Ireland. A month or two of gazing out at rain slanting rain on grey roofs and green fields, bent trees, gurning at mystified Friesians and eating nettles, Jon hung John Seymour’s book on self sufficiency in the dunny, invented Wineweekends and registered the name at Company House.
The press soon got wind of this unusual cottage industry. Almost every weekend a hack ventured down, dodging cowpats in their high heels, to inhale fresh air, pick mushrooms, or sloes, apples, then sip and slurp until they collapsed on the Chesterfield before a log fire with silly grins on their faces. On one of those lovely undisciplined occasions, Heather who doesn’t do out-of-control got fed up with a leery hackette drinking us out of house and home so she grabbed the Port decanter and hid it. When she appeared with the coffee the brazen hussy, with a nose like an anteater, had located the Port and was pouring herself another tumblerful.' For Jaysus sake let her,’ Jon yelled from the sink where he was chained, ‘it might lubricate her pen as well’. It worked. News of the odd little shoestring business spread. Jon in his pinny could soon reach those awkward places were dust accumulates by standing on a stack of scrapbooks oozing anecdotes and embarrassingly lavish praise.
The bookings rolled in with such unexpected regularity that the Hurleys were booked up two years in advance and bought an abused Renault 4. Harassed housewives, friendless estate agents, alcoholic doctors, dentists and vets, pilloried social workers and deviously plotting accountants, impoverished teachers, insider traders, right wing brigadiers, burly stone masons, smelling of gelignite and granite dust, broody librarians, and gay tractor mechanics, all arrived in colourful droves to seek the cure. Most returned for more of the medicine, many ten times, some as many as twenty times, and one dear couple over 40 times. Quivering novices gained confidence from the array of bottles they sampled, and Decanter wielding pseuds felt sufficiently unthreatened to tilt their glass towards the fire, loosen their ties, and exclaim;‘Willyah look at the legs on that!’
The Hurleys never had a freezer, a micro-wave, dishwasher, or bottled Badoit. Heather was so low-tech she would have happily washed the sheets in the Wye. Instead they toiled in the garden, growing their own vegetables, surrounded by butterflies, ladybirds and slugs, all munching away. They were organic long before it became obligatory and diluted by supermarkets and pizza faced effing chefs on telly. One of Jon’s vegetable memories, (don’t ask him, he can bore on for hours about the colour and flavour of his knobbly carrots), was going out in a snowstorm trying to locate where he had planted his parsnips.
In those early days Jon bought his wines from a promiscuous number of small, impoverished merchants, or a small number of promiscuous merchants who operated out of their front rooms, crouching over paraffin stoves, warming their mitton’d hands while awaiting a knock on the cottage door. One used to open a crate of vintage claret while Jon nodded and spat. He went to prison after, the merchant, that is. Most passed away hideously bloated and purple cheeked. Those who survived still supply Jon with their eccentric choices.
A Matter of Taste by Jon Hurley
From the Sack of Shakespearean England to the supermarket Chardonnay of the twenty-first century, wine tastes in this country have changed dramatically. This book takes an irreverent (yet-impeccably-researched) look the development of our national tastes. The eclectic scope of the book includes a detailed discussion of the wine list at the coronation of George VI, the impact of French Chateau legislation in 1855 upon the obsessive Victorian claret fiends of the day, the explosion of Hock as the typical plonk of the 1970s and the many frauds, marketing ploys and outrages perpetrated on the traditionally naive British market over the years. Lavishly illustrated with paintings, photographs, labels and woodcuts, this light-hearted journey through the cultural history of wine wears its learning lightly and is a wonderful book for anyone who enjoys a glass or two.
ROGER SCRUTON for the NEW STATESMAN [Full article]:
...Jon Hurley has persuaded me that taste in wine is as significant in the evolution of society as taste in art. The British have relished wine by way of relishing the world. And the French and Germans have shaped our temperament as much through their wine as through their spasmodic attempts to invade and annihilate us.
This was reviewed in January 2007.
Despite a chapter entitled ‘Wine Writers: Necessary Parasites’, Jon Hurley’s ‘A Matter of Taste’ is a relentlessly entertaining, irreverent, and probably libelous collection of mini-essays on every conceivable aspect of the social history of wine ... Delve around for nuggets like a Tanner’s list containing Australian Cabernet in 1893, and some beautiful picture plates.'
CHRIS ROBERTSON, journalist, said in February, 2006:
"The author's enthusiasm and witty approach beguile and delight the reader while offering an education into the subject at the same time’. Also-Jon helpfully dismisses a good deal of the stuffiness surrounding wine tasting’ also- ‘ ‘A Matter of Taste’ is a book to be savoured like a good wine. It could become a hand-book for anyone wish to dazzle with their knowledge of wine and its origins’.
BLACKWELL'S on Line:
‘This book takes an irreverent ( yet impeccably researched ) look at the development of our national tastes.’ and ‘ the eclectic scope of the book etc. And ‘lavishly illustrated with paintings, photographs, labels and woodcuts, this light-hearted journey though the cultural history of wine wears its learning lightly and is a wonderful book for anyone who enjoys a glass or two’.
Sub-titled 'The History of Wine Drinking in Britain', I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would, fearing initially that it would be bone-dry in style. Instead, author Jon Hurley (who works in the wine trade but who's previous book was on the history of bare-knuckle fighting) has written a very thorough and comprehensive history book, but has peppered his text with irreverent tales of dirty goings on in the wine trade, frauds and back-firing marketing ploys, that keeps it engaging and easy to read. There are nicely done illustrations, from paintings and photographs to labels and advertising materials that bring many of the points in his timeline to life.
The following are a few more publications which Jon has written:
Wine for Game and Fish, The Sporting Wife’s Wine Companion by Jon Hurley, 1986.
It’s Late Very Early Ogma Publications, 2004.
The Weighing Room Legend’s Press, 2009.