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I left the Jolly Vintner Too wine shop in Pokesdown just after 4pm, as business began to pick up on a sleepy, sunny Saturday afternoon. It felt like the right time to leave because it became impossible to maintain conversation with the vintner as he poured his knowledge of wine, spirits and everything else into the wisdom-carrying vessels of each of his customers. I'll also admit that I began to feel woefully inadequate stood behind the counter of the shop, as Jim's customers expected that I too should know the difference between a bottle of red wine from France and another from Lebanon: I had no idea, but I knew I'd be back to find out.
I hardly know where to begin in this attempt to tell you about Jim Dawson, a man who triumphantly defies any attempt at categorisation (as we so love to do at present) of class, nationality or occupation: he'll tell you that a wine has flowery and sensuous notes on the nose in the same breath as explaining that the wine trade is a "load of bollocks" when it has too high an opinion of itself; he grew up in Scotland, but for now, hangs his hat along the southern shores of England; he's a vintner, certainly, but he has several unpublished novels tucked up his sleeve and his career history contains more twists and turns than the Ian Rankin thriller he's currently reading.
Jim has struggled with beginnings too. The first piece of his own writing that he shows me tackles the messy business of beginning, interrogating his own origins and the reasons a writer feels compelled to put finger to keyboard in the first place. So what are Jim's reasons? They're manifold, and to understand them we need to take a closer look at the Jolly Vintner who greets you with a smile and leaves you, like a rich and luxurious wine, feeling like you've discovered a new truth about this sad and frantic world.
You may meet Jim at one of his increasingly popular wine tastings: "When you taste a wine," he explains, "The first thing you should do is examine its appearance: is it red, ruby, garnet, purple, pink, white or as golden as straw?" This, you are told, offers you clues to the wine's story; so let's do the same to Jim.
I couldn't tell you how tall Jim is, because I'm hopeless at that sort of thing, but he's not a small man. He stands firm, filling the room with a physical frame that matches his presidential charisma. Jim was a body-builder many years ago (no steroids but an intoxicating dash of narcissism) and a hint of the "brick shithouse" remains, but not so much that he's threatening. In fact, to see him changing his 1 year old son's nappy on the shop counter is a tender and gentle sight. He's ruddy and tanned, suggesting he's often to be found in hotter climes than these, and isn't always confined to his shaded shop. Overall, you may say that Jim is still in fine condition for a 56 year old vintage.
The next aspect of wine that we examine is its bouquet, or more plainly, its smell: "To put it bluntly, does it smell vinous?" asks Jim.
Now, it would be verging on creepy if I tried to put in to words Jim's aroma – so let's just say that he doesn't smell bad. However, when you sense a wine on the nose, what you are really doing is drawing comparisons between its unique aromas and the scents that you are already familiar with. In other words, you can't say what a wine smells like without saying it smells like something else, whether it's blueberries, chocolate or HB pencils. If you do the same to Jim, you find that he's like a hard backed historical novel: bound full of trustworthy information but infused with stories that keep you wanting to know more.
What else? Hmm, maybe a hint of mischief lingers there, in the way he knows he has your rapt attention, and you're hanging on his every word, not just about wine, but about everything and anything. It's not devious, but playful and light hearted, teasing almost.
His voice is whisky-like, a lowland Scottish brook that flows steadily but gently into the Dumfries river, the river upon which Jim learnt to row as a child (he'd go on to row at Henley and use this achievement as ammunition against any middle England toffs that pegged him for a lowly Scotsman). And, just like the lowland whiskies, it's mellow and gentle, devoid of the peaty harshness that accompanies the highland drams.
At the tasting, after a few glasses of wine, your olfactory senses begin to tire and become dulled; the comparisons become harder and harder to make. You find yourself wishing that you'd spent more of your life smelling things, so you'd have a huge palate of scents to choose from.
Now on to the most exciting part of the evening – the tasting. When Jim tastes a wine, he pours it into his mouth and tips his head back as if he's a child swallowing his first paracetamol. Except tonight he doesn't swallow: he gives the wine a "big old swirl" to coat every part of his mouth with the silky elixir of joy. He savours the taste, mentally flicking through all the flavours he's ever known until he finds the perfect match. Next, he spits it into the spittoon with all the force of a 1940's US marine ejecting his chewing tobacco before battle begins.
This well rehearsed process provides Jim with all he needs to describe a wine: "It's peppery, warm, with hints of blackberries and oak coming through. That nice long finish tells us it's a good quality wine. Remember, the longer the finish, the better the wine. Some wines have a finish that lasts an hour..."
This isn't patronising. It's refreshingly democratic and open. If you disagree, no problem. Sensations are unique to us all; such is the wondrous nature of human subjectivity. Jim simply encourages you to decide what you think, his insights serving only to help you identify the wine's unique characteristics.
So what of Jim's flavours? Certainly, this is a complex vintage, filled with contrasting notes that combine to provide depth and a remarkable finish. You find wisdom and well rounded character; aspects that have developed with age.
First, the wisdom: this comes from learning from the many mistakes that have been made along the way. To take one, his time at Edinburgh University which he describes as "a complete cock-up". Jim's attempt to study and become an architect was doomed from the start because he believed he already knew it all. His photographic memory enabled him to sail through school as he learnt facts and figures by rote with minimal effort. Similarly, in his formative years he spent a great deal of time at work on the A74 with his Grandfather, a sanitation engineer, absorbing all there was to know about building a road from scratch.
In light of what he perceived to be a head start over his peers, Jim dedicated the first 6 months of studying to drinking, rowing and drinking some more. If this wasn't detrimental enough, he wrangled a job in an Edinburgh nightclub, so any lectures he bothered to attend usually amounted to little more than a nap in an uncomfortable chair.
Jim is fully aware of the gravity of this failure, and the opportunity that he passed up so blithely. This is why, when he shows me his oenology textbook filled with complex equations that presume to reveal the mystery of wine making, he shows a distinct sense of pride that he taught himself how to study: he didn't just memorise this mathematical magic, he truly understood it. All of his wine merchant certificates are testimony to his realisation that if he wanted to make something of himself, he had to work for it.
There are other mishaps that Jim recalls for me, all with a blunt honesty that indicates he won't be repeating these episodes. I could tell you all about his two assault charges when he worked as a nightclub bouncer in Edinburgh, but both were admonished (albeit due to a loophole in the Scottish legal system) and we must do the same.
We could also dwell on Jim's first marriage, a disaster from the start whereby he chose lust over love and learnt, the painful way, that people aren't always honest. But what's the point? Jim's moved on, and all of this adds to his deep perception of the unpredictable whims of humanity.
The wine tasting continues, and several glasses later the wine shop has become a wild hangout, full of delighted bellies filled with wine and cheese and loose lips swapping words, flavours and stories until Jim, making sure that everyone knows it's time to go, starts clearing the shop for the night.
After prolonged goodbyes and many over-zealous cries of, "Thank you so much for the wine!" you make your way home trying to remember the name of your favourite tipple.
Looking back through the mist of the post-wine tasting hangover, you remember observing that out of Jim's complex history comes an unexpectedly well rounded character. How so? Unlike Jim and his wine merchant's education, I have not been able to study the human condition in such depth. However, I hope that by examining the chaos of his past I can explain the serenity of his present.
In less an hour of talking to Jim about his past, from student failure to his rise through the ranks of Oddbins as a successful marketing manager, we arrive at the subject of his mental health.
"I'm completely bearing my soul to you now," Jim remarks, as he explains how he suffered an emotional breakdown so severe that he was hospitalised, after his first marriage ended. "I shouldn't be able to remember what happened because you're supposed to lose your memory after such a traumatic event. But with my photographic memory, I can recall every second of it, each nightmarish hallucination and incoherent thought."
Even if Jim wasn't able to remember what happened, he made sure the breakdown was recorded. He shows me a typed up version of the stream of consciousness confession that he scrawled across management training notes, the Yellow Pages, any paper he could find in the midst of this crisis, with a thick black marker pen:
I am not God. I am not a manager. I need to write. I want to learn to play an instrument...
The words go on and on, great prophetic gestures, swipes of anguish and whimsical observations that flowed from this broken man as he fell into the void of his past, crashing down through the fathomless dark depths. These words, however grim their origins, mark the beginning of Jim's authorial journey.
I ask Jim how this could happen to someone who now seems so sure of his own worth; he tells me that he had never experienced unconditional love until his marriage, and that as a child, his parents, although he has acquitted them, treated him dreadfully.
The atmosphere in the wine shop becomes fragile, as if time has taken its leave whilst Jim confides in me. I hope that no one will come through the door and shatter this reflective moment to pieces.
Jim lists the problems he faced following this breakdown: taking sick leave with Oddbins for 6 months for a seemingly symptomless condition meant he was denied a promised pay rise and given "a shit job, in a room with no window" when he returned. Nevertheless, he managed to increase sales figures from the windowless room so he demanded to be paid what he was owed, as well as a further pay rise.
Of course, Oddbins refused. Jim was paid off and essentially forced to leave the company. With his dignity intact, he embarked on a series of successful enterprises, including restaurateur, photographic collage artist and bookshop keeper, until he returned to the wine trade and opened the Jolly Vintner Too. I sense that Jim isn't all that bothered about being forced out of a job by Oddbins; rather, it may have been an important moment because it allowed him to take control of his life once again.
This control wasn't to last, however. In 1991 Jim married his second wife, with whom he has an 11 year old son. This marriage came to an end following Jim's second breakdown, an event as equally traumatic as the first. His wife refused to confront these deep-seated emotions with him, choosing instead to ignore them in the hope that they would disappear. This only compounded them, and Jim was abandoned once again.
Jim struggles to find new reasons for this second mental collapse but suspects that he had never really recovered from the episode years earlier. To heal himself, he took more time off from work and explored his artistic tendencies. His first breakdown began with his ceaseless writing so his recovery process would begin with it.
Jim became a house husband and spent his days attending creative writing classes, putting what he learnt into practice and playing golf in the afternoon to relax. He is keen to emphasise the strains of being a writer, feeling worthless when you have nothing substantial to show for a day's work but believing that writing is the only occupation worthwhile.
We spend hours looking over his myriad writings, which he shows me between customers with restrained pride and humility, explaining his inspiration for each poem or short story in great detail. I am now half way through a psychological thriller written by Jim and I'm hooked. It puzzles me as to why he remains unpublished – perhaps it shows that his writing is a form of therapy, not a marketable entity. Possibly it's because, for all his outward confidence, his craft remains a site of insecurity.
I don't know. What I do know is that Jim certainly hasn't put his writing on hold. When I ask him if he still writes, he tells me he hasn't the time. But then he gestures around the shop and I see that every wine has its own handwritten label, no longer than two or three sentences, telling the wine's story and even a few of Jim's own tales. Most of the descriptions begin with "Wow!" because this is the only true and honest reaction to a good wine, but each one is profound and considered, communicating the vintner's unique experiences to the world.
Jim seems to have found peace for now, in the security of his loving wife and children, and you cannot see any sign of his psychological scars. Indeed, none of his customers could possibly have any idea that this most approachable man who displays such a thorough knowledge of his trade could have arrived here through such a turbulent journey.
So, if you go to Pokesdown of a lazy Saturday afternoon, pay the Jolly Vintner a visit – you'll certainly discover a new wine, but you'll learn so much more about the world too.
- Nick Taylor