A “Serious Acquaintance”: The Wine-Tasting Scene in “Brideshead Revisited”


When a reporter named Greta Moran contacted me for an interview about perfume back in June, she asked how I came to be so passionate and involved in this subject. I constructed a short timeline of my fragrance obsession for her, partly just for my own entertainment. This week, as I’m preparing to take part in a panel discussion about fragrance and writing, I’m thinking again about early influences on my work.

Some of these influences, I’ve realized, have nothing to do with perfume per se but much to do with other memorable sensory experiences—or reading about sensory experiences. One example: a much-loved scene from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945)…

In this early section of the novel, the narrator, Charles Ryder, and his Oxford companion Sebastian Flyte are alone together at Sebastian’s ancestral estate (the titular Brideshead). The family’s butler, Wilcox, shows them the well-stocked wine cellar and allows them to help themselves to its contents, many of which have been sitting in their bins for decades.

Looking back over the years, Ryder remembers the hours during which they made a “serious acquaintance with wine.”

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Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 4.

“We would sit, he and I, in the Painted Parlour with three bottles open on the table and three glasses before each of us; Sebastian had found a book on wine-tasting, and we followed its instructions in detail. We warmed the glass slightly at a candle, filled it a third high, swirled the wine round, nursed it in our hands, held it to the light, breathed it, sipped it, filled our mouths with it, and rolled it over the tongue, ringing it on the palate like a coin on a counter, tilted our heads back and let it trickle down the throat. Then we talked of it and nibbled Bath Oliver biscuits, and passed on to another wine; then back to the first, then on to another, until all three were in circulation and the order of glasses got confused, and we fell out over which was which, and we passed the glasses to and fro between us until there were six glasses, some of them with mixed wines in them which we had filled from the wrong bottle, till we were obliged to start again with three clean glasses each, and the bottles were empty and our praise of them wilder and more exotic.

‘…It is a little shy wine like a gazelle.’
‘Like a leprechaun.’
‘Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.’
‘Like flute by still water.’
‘…And this is a wise old wine.’ 
‘A prophet in a cave.’
‘…And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.’
‘Like a swan.’
‘Like the last unicorn.’

And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining-room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.”

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I was a teenager when I first read Brideshead. At the time, I laughed at Charles and Sebastian’s self-indulgent behavior and their flowery descriptions of the wines. Now, however, doing my own look back in time, I realize that my fellow fragophiles and I have expounded in similar ways about the many, many perfumes we’ve inhaled.

Those of you who have spent countless hours sharing and sniffing this other category of bottle, especially with someone who shared a similar passion for perfume, will understand.

Images from the Granada Television production of Brideshead Revisited (1981), starring Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder and Anthony Andrews as Lord Sebastian Flyte.

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