It's no secret that Ronald loved wine! In the Channel 4 news footage of him around his 90th birthday he delighted in admitting 'bubbles give me ideas" and I can attest from lunching with him that copious glasses, bottles even, were consumed. A different bottle accompanied each course- a light rosé, champagne, a chilled red- it was a pleasure to see a connoisseur indulging his guests and a task to keep up!
On my last visit chez Searle I was amused to see his shopping list consisted of only one item. . .
Here's an interview from 2007 where Ronald indulges in some winespeak. It's a revealing read; we see even in his eighties Ronald's joie de vivre was matched only by his prodigious work ethic and his distaste for wine snobbery and the Riviera set is hinted at too.
'You may not recognise his name, but you’ll instantly recognise Ronald Searle’s wickedly energetic style. Scratch this cartoonist and you’ll also reveal one of the world’s most impassioned wine lovers.
Searle minces neither words nor images, but his barbs are so witty they cause as much delight to his audience as discomfort to his subjects. In the prologue to his 1983 book, The Illustrated Winespeak, he calls the majority of wine writers ‘that grotesque international band of snobbish inarticulate sponges, incapable of thinking beyond their incestuous little circles, [and who] do as much harm to the world of wine as they do to the language’. This fills me with confidence for our encounter.
‘When I returned to England in 1945, my first ambition was to indulge,’ he says. ‘Since then, I think I’ve eaten in virtually every restaurant of interest, standing, quality and value in London, Paris, Berlin and New York. After scanning some 60 years of wine lists at a certain level, it’s inevitable that some understanding of perfection in wine would brush off. I’ve drunk my way through some remarkable bottles and am still standing.’
After many years living on the Left Bank in Paris, he and his wife Monica ‘settled in Provence some 30 or more years ago in a tiny village 2,000 feet up in the mountains – as far away as possible from the Cote d’Azur and its repellant so-called people.
‘Here in the south we tend to drink cool. We have a lovely Rhône rosé that goes with anything: Domaine Remejeanne from Cadignac/Sabran.’ Other favourites he cites are Henri Bourgeois’ Sancerre rouge and blanc , plus his ‘remarkable’ Pouilly-Fumé.’
For someone aged 86, Searle’s workdays are long, a testimony to his love of drawing – or perhaps his inability not to draw. ‘I drink quite a lot of Champagne. My daily dose is an extremely delicate, delicious, quite cold Billecart-Salmon brut rosé around noon. Otherwise – as I am working more or less from 9am to 6.30pm – I don’t drink until dinner.’
Asked to elaborate, he continues, ‘Every wine drinker has his own exclusive – and to him or her unique – insight into perfection in the bottle. It’s all very egotistic in that wine drinkers/snobs/connoisseurs are totally convinced that their special bottle is the One and Only, into which they have the insight.’
As a child in a modest family in East Anglia, wine was not in Searle’s world. But long ensconced in Provence, it is part of the rhythm of life. ‘In our small village, wine is drunk as an essential part of the meal, without pretension. At noon the village is silent. Everyone is at table: the masons, the gardeners, the workers in the fields, the labourers, the children, the postman, the drain cleaner. The chat, if any, is about food or crooked politicians. A table wine from the local minuscule ‘Superette’, a wild boar stew, bread, cheese – that’s it. Wine here – and probably all over the French countryside – is a part of life. And after all, isn’t that the root and the basics of the grape and the natural enjoyment of it?’
What did you drink last night?
With the remains of a cold chicken and a tomato salad, half a bottle of Beaujolais (Juliénas 2002 from Domaine Gérard et Nathalie Margerand), sent by a friend.
What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle?
This family does not go in for exotica. The most it has ever spent was on two bottles of Yquem 1967 which, I am often told, was a year of years. It was also the year we were married. I can’t tell you how much was paid because it was a present from Monica.
What’s your Desert Island wine?
The above, naturally'
Cru Café Capetown, South Africa has a Searle 'WineSpeak' mural. According to Grape 'the Castelein brothers went so far as to fly to France and pay handsomely to obtain the rights to display Ronald Searle's wonderfully abandoned and imbibing characters in their new Cru Café wine bar and restaurant.'WOSA elaborates on the story: 'the artist is notoriously reclusive - and "dangerous with his pen" according to fellow artists and corporations foolish enough to commission work. He's fiercely private, "his bite and bark are equally ferocious", he doesn't use email or a cell but does have a post box in London - which is how the owners of Cru Café tracked him down to a village in Haute Provence.
Two South African restaurateurs, brothers Jacques and Tom Castelein (former owners of Tasca de Belem at the V&A Waterfront), were determined to exhibit Searle's caricatures - so Tom flew over to France to talk to him. Living up to his quirky reputation, Searle idiosyncratically granted reproduction rights in exchange for a rare vintage of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1961 (with artwork by Georges Mathieu) - an appropriate deal for Cru Café, a wine bar named after a vineyard of superior quality. Tom flew back to London, sourced the wine, then, several thousand pounds the poorer, returned to France to present the highly-prized bottle to Searle. '