‘The context in which we drink is as important as what we drink.’ – Josh Elias.
Four years was far too short a lifetime for such an ambitious, far-sighted, quality drinks publication as Alquimie www.alquimie.com.au which recently announced sotto voce that its 8th edition, second quarter 2017 was its last.
The perfect amalgam
Though the focus was broad in that it covered a wide range of drinks, for me, its wine content was of particular interest. I shall miss it, firstly because it sought to integrate (and occasionally juxtapose) vinous, gastronomic and cultural themes with style, sensitivity and élan. No easy task.
Secondly because it sought to bring a confident, mature international palate perspective rather than a local, introspective, chest-beating ‘there’s nothing like Australian plonk’ viewpoint. And thirdly because it was a long overdue and welcome alternative to the narrowing, conversation-killing, constraint of rating wines by points, as exemplified by the 100 point system.
Edited with deft touch and a critical eye it was eminently readable, legible, uncluttered, free-flowing, at times provocative and challenging, invariably informative, occasionally cerebral – and always entertaining. And that’s just the written word – its format, layout, graphics and photography complemented its editorial to a tee. As a wine-friend of mine said ‘You could instinctively tell you were in for a treat before you opened it, just by feeling the quality and texture of the paper it was printed on.’ It was to drinks writing like Henry Bucks is to menswear or Liebherr is to wine storage, as near to bespoke as we are likely to see today.
Style and substance
Like a fine wine it had structure, balance, complexity and an understated finesse that enlivened your curiosity, stimulated your appetite and left you wanting more. Subliminally its message was that though vintage like beauty may fade, wine remembered is immortal.
Tilting at Windmills.
Born of meritocracy it shone like a beacon in a sea of mediocracy. It sought to ‘breathe new life into drinks’ – but sadly ran out of puff, not for the want of trying, but more as a victim of its inherently high cost of production coupled with the current mass carnage within wine print media. It was not alone in this dilemma.
For example two interesting publications, one on food and one on drink out of the UK folded within a year. ‘Fork & Knives’ had about fourteen issues whilst ‘Gin & It’ lasted only two. It’s as if only the glossy magazines with photo spreads of moody celebrity chefs and censorious sommeliers seem to survive.
In a sense Alquimie was counter-cultural in that it sought to deliberately fly in the face of the howling, pervasive gale of the digital domain with its insatiable appetite and nebulous clutter of instant opinion. It was not a sop to the fashionable or a regurgitation of the blatantly obvious – and for this it paid dearly.
At the risk of drawing a long bow, for me Alquimie was reminiscent of ‘The Compleat Imbiber’ a sublime (and obscure) series of books first published six decades ago in 1956 under the editorship of Cyril Ray. And closer to home, to the adventurous, ground-breaking work of The Epicurean magazine (1966 – 1993), the brainchild of the enigmatic Anglophile Alan Holdsworth and a showcase for the brilliant graphic designer Les Mason.
The Compleat Imbiber
The Compleat Imbiber sought to imbue intelligent drinking with a heady distillation of literary wit, humour, bonhomie and savour faire (keep in mind it was published in the England of the late 1950’s, 1960s & early 1970s).
The quality of its vinous and gastronomic writing was exceptional given the likes of Cyril Ray, Raymond Postgate, Michael Broadbent MW, Hugh Johnson Edmund Penning-Roswell, Julian Jeffs, Elizabeth Ray, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Henri Gault & Christian Millau and our very own, Australia’s first wine writer Walter Senior James were regular contributors.
Interwoven into this rich, sybaritic tapestry were contributions from the likes of Alan Herbert, Compton Mackenzie, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch, Laurie Lee, Ogden Nash, Bernard Levin, Graham Greene, Flann O’Brien and Australia’s Colin Thiele of ‘Storm Boy’ fame. It was a masterpiece of understatement which oozed self-deprecating humour of the kind that would have made Alan Coren and ‘Punch’ readers chuckle.
Epicurean gave voice to a veritable who’s who in wine and food writing in contemporary Australia and, given time, Alquimie might have done likewise.
Keep in mind that Australian wine writing in the mid-1960s showed excessive deference to all things English and by implication, many things French (in as much as London was the centre of the French wine world). Before Jancis Robinson became a household name it was French-born London wine merchant, gourmet, bon vivant and prolific writer André Simon who was hugely influential.
Epicurean Vol. 1 No. 1 of May 1966 borrowed heavily from the pages of ‘Vintage’ Magazine, an English wine trade publication, with a risqué leader called ‘Wine, Women or Song’ peppered with opinions from the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, Raymond Postgate, Richard Burton, Norman Hartnell and a young David Frost. Sexist and outdated by today’s standards, although deemed popular then, but nevertheless an attempt to broaden wine’s then fledgling popularity.
Importantly both ‘The Compleat Imbiber’ and ‘Epicurean’ valued ‘the context in which we drink as important as what we drink’ – a belief Alquimie’s editor Josh Elias held true to.
Though ‘The Compleat Imbiber’ and ‘Epicurean’ are no longer, a little-known, hedonistic, half-yearly publication called ‘Repast’ www.respast.com.au (in the same vein as Alquimie), survives. Published by Francophiles Jeremy and Heldi Holmes from Tanunda in the Barossa Valley, ‘Repast’ is an electric assemblage of ‘tales of eating, drinking and travelling.’ It’s an attractive publication printed on fine stock with oodles of colour coupled with an appealing layout. The Holmes’s run a fine wine (mainly Burgundy) importing business called d’Or to Door Wines Direct which bankrolls ‘Repast’.
First issued in 2012 ‘Repast’ preceded Alquimie by a year, and as alluded to earlier, both share similarities in look and feel. Whether the former inspired or gave rise to the latter I know not.
Put simply, Alquimie engaged this reader in that it flew in the face of the fatuous, the fashionable and the clichéd in search of cultivating a deeper appreciation, enjoyment and conversation. Once read it was made for collecting and keeping and as such will remain on my wine library shelves for future reference for many a year.
An understated masterpiece
As Josh Elias aptly put it – Alquimie ‘channelled the warmth and generosity of the many stories, bottles and people that would otherwise have been left to gather dust in the cellars of human complacency.’
For want of a little more warmth, enthusiasm and acceptance from the local wine world, it may have survived a while longer – who knows?
Below is the introduction to the first Compleat Imbiber:
This beautiful book, like a vintage wine, has been assembled with loving care from inception. Each author has contributed of his best upon his favourite subject; each artist has drawn with affection. This is a perfect bedtime remembrancer of pleasure past and a counsellor for banquets yet to be.
I can think of no better lament than the above for the understated masterpiece that was Alquimie. It deserved to go out in style with a celebratory bang rather than with an unheralded whimper! – Vale Alquimie.
Alquimie (2013 – 2017) was a collaboration between lawyer Josh Elias, graphic designer Nicholas Cary, sommelier Raul Moreno Yague and photographer James Morgan.