March 29, 2011
Richard Ames’ The Search after Claret; or a Visitation of the Vintners (1691) takes the reader on a pub-crawl around London in search of a glass of the Bordeaux wine, or as Ames sometimes specifically refers to a glass of Pontac: the family name of the owners of the Haut-Brion estate.
In his Grands Vins, Clive Coates explains that the Pontac dynasty was founded at the turn of the sixteenth century by Arnaud de Pontac, and that the Haut-Brion vineyards were consolidated from bundles of land by his son Jean, who lived to be 101. Each successive son became a premier président of the hereditary Bordeaux parlement, and, after the Restoration, a representative of the family came to London to promote the family’s produce and to open The Pontac’s Head, alleged to be a fashionable dining spot. But in 1689, when England joined the Grand Alliance — the European coalition against Louis XIV’s France — French import channels to England were closed down, stopping the flow of Claret in London pubs and therefore sending Ames on his satirical search. Numerous publications from the Company of Vintners throughout this period enable the historical charting of the sanctions and their opposition.
The pub-crawl, which starts at Whitechapel, lasts two days, and is filled with unsatisfactory drinks, empty glasses and everywhere the news that stocks of French wine were dry. The text is fun for its sense of atmosphere, including invocations of certain bartenders and landlords and signs. Everywhere on the men’s journey they encounter and exchange brief words with other drinkers:
At his Door with a Rummer we found Neddy Dr______ner,
And perceiv’d by his looks that he was a Complainer.
We whisper’d in’s Ear, and desir’d (could he spare it)
To let us have a Bottle or two of old Claret;
He started as frightened to hear our Demands,
And answer’d, why Gentlemen (holding up’s Hands)
D’ye know what you mean? Let me die like an Ass,
If this twelve-month I’ve seen, smelt, or tasted a Glass.
We shook our Heads at him, and crossing the way,
At the Globe we attempted another Essay;
When askt for old Claret, the Drawers were inchanted,
And we for our parts thought the Mansion was Haunted,
So leaving the Tavern in study profound,
We concluded indeed that the Globe was turn’d round,
At the Mitre we call’d in, and walking the Entry,
Spy’d a Soldier in Habit much unlike a Centry,
Who spewing, did in his short intervals say,
Pox take your Red Port, and so Reel’d on his way,
We soon took the hint from his Stomach’s Alarms;
They’re wise gain Experience by other Mans Harms.
All manner of different traditions of drinking are linked to the various inns. The Mitre in Aldgate is where ‘young married couples to make their hearts lighter / Take a jolly brisk Glass to embolden ’em to say / That very hard chapter, for ever and for aye’. Peacocks at St Paul’s is surrounded by a bustle of drapers and chair-makers ‘whereof some are Christians, and others are Quakers’. The last bunch of drinkers they encounter, on the second day, is easy to picture:
The last Tavern we came to, was that of the Rose;
At the Door of which stood such a parcel of Beaus,
Who in Eating and Drinking great Criticks commence,
And are Judges of every thing else but of Sense,
When we saw ’em make Faces and heard one or two Swear,
That the Wine was the Devil they lately drank there;
We rely’d on their word, and ne’re stept o’re the Groundsil,
But thought they spoke truth like General Council.
The two-day search is at once acutely local and international, as the inn-crawlers obtain news from a variety of London drinkers about whether various hostelries contain produce from Bordeaux. Politics intersects with drink in a text where the insides of inns and conversations with exasperated drunks reflect the state of England’s international relations.
*Clive Coates, Grands Vins (University of California Press, 1995), 311-3.