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Two Men Walk into a Bar – Stories from Gerald’s Bar

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22 December 2021. Words by YGOW.

Gerald Diffey and celebrated wine writer and historian Max Allen have spent much time together at Gerald’s eponymous and iconic wine bar – a welded on classic in our annual Wineslinger awards – in the leafy calm of Carlton’s Rathdowne Street. So, it’s no surprise that Max was conscripted to convert Gerald’s musings scribbled on scraps of paper into the handsome hardcover memoir that is Beggars Belief.

With thanks to Liebherr wine cabinets, we caught up with Gerald and Max for a glass of wine to chat about the new book, wine culture and how a shopping bag stuffed with a lifetime’s worth of anecdotes was transformed into book form.

How did you two meet?

Max: We first met in the jungles of Borneo. Gerald was on the trail of the Madagascan Snow Leopard, and had been held hostage by a particularly vicious tribe of the Mujahedeen. I was the foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times at the time, and had manged to track him down … no, that’s not true. Obviously. We actually first met at Marco Pierre White’s first restaurant in Soho, The Knob, where Gerald was the wunderkind maître d’. I was the restaurant critic of the Sunday Mirror at the time. There were rumours that Marco had named his first book, White Heat, after Gerald … No, that’s not true, either. We really met a couple of doors down the road here in North Carlton, at The Kent, in the mid-90s …

Gerald: … when Max was the wine critic for the News of the World …

Twenty-five years is a while, but it goes by in a blink. How have wine bars – or wine culture – changed over that time?

Gerald: I think that what we have done here, and a few other notable Melbourne places have done, like Bar Lourinha, is embraced European bar dining whereby you can go and have a very casual experience, and not only drink good wine, but eat really good food and sit at the bar. And that possibly didn’t really exist 25 years ago.

It seems that people are comfortable drinking a more eclectic range of wines these days – the ‘traditional’ alongside things more ‘esoteric’. What do you think? Are wine drinkers today as eclectic as the decor here at Gerald’s Bar?

Gerald: Yes, absolutely. Our wine list does reflect that. I chose the wines originally, but over the years our managers have added their loves and likes, and they know our customers, possibly better than I do. So, there’s a whole new wave of people that want orange wines, natural wines, skin-contact wines. And the list has evolved to include those things. But there’s also an awful lot of traditionalists out there that just want to have a classic, and I think that’s why the list is the way it is. It’s still within the parameters of 50 per cent imports, 50 per cent local – with 70 per cent of that Victoria.

Max: Although, after the launch of the book at the bar last week, there’s hardly any wines left at all …

Beggars Belief is a wide-ranging collection of stories and musings. What was the genesis of the book? Can you tell us about how you collected all the stories? Are you a committed diarist? Or did you just make it all up?

Gerald: Well, I made a lot of it up … No. It’s interesting because how I remember things might be quite different to the way other people who were there remember them. We all have unreliable memories. But to me, what’s in the book is exactly how things panned out.

So, Max, how did you come to work with Gerald on the book?

Max: He got me drunk one night and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or pleaded with me to help him. One of the two. I can’t remember. I was very drunk at the time.

What was it like, that process of bringing the book together?

Gerald: It was a breeze. I met David (Tenenbaum from Melbourne Books) and he read the stories that we’d put together as a teaser, and he just said, I want to publish it. And then Max did beautiful illustrations and edited it brilliantly. And it was a very enjoyable, easy process.

Max: Unfortunately, Gerald now has a completely skewed view of what it actually takes to put a book together.

Max, how did you see your role going into this book? Did you think it would be like a winemaker guiding great fruit, trying to frame without leaving too many thumbprints? Or did you think you’d need a big bag of tartaric in the kit? Or sugar, maybe? And what was the reality?

Max: You know the old saying, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”? Luckily, what Gerald gave me was a shopping bag full of silk. I just needed to pick the right colours and the right thread and then sew it all together.

Gerald: They also say, “you can’t polish a turd”. Lucky I didn’t give you a bag of shit.

In many ways, this book feels like it’s from another time, and in the best way possible. While many of the stories are exotic, or to quote the book’s blurb, “funny, poignant, insightful and just plain ludicrous,” they are still about everyday life. Are we missing some of the important detail of our lives these days, and the lives of those around us?

Gerald: I come from a pub background in the UK. Traditionally, the pub was where everything happened. You meet your first girlfriend there, you have your first drink there, your engagement, your wedding. And then, of course, you have the divorce. It’s the hub of all life. It’s not just a place to go to eat and drink. It’s the most important focal point of a village and has been for centuries. It’s so much part of the lifeblood of a place. This bar isn’t any different. It’s a modern pub, if you like, that plays a central role in people’s lives.

Talking about central roles in people’s lives… Wine is the love that’s brought us all together. Got any golden rules or words of wine wisdom you’ve accumulated over the journey?

Gerald: My glaring error when I was moving houses all over the place was that I had a small cellar of wines which moved with me, and by the time I actually got to drink them, they were all heat-affected because I never had them under any sort of proper storage. And that really hurts when you’re talking about expensive bottles. It’s all about temperature. I know it’s about humidity, too, but it’s about temperature: constant temperature. Not fluctuating temperature. That’s what sucks. So I learned the hard way.

Max: I reckon my big tip is: don’t wait too long. Don’t leave wine too long. Don’t wait till it’s 20 or 30 years old because it might be too late. Because you never know what’s going to happen. If you’re reading this just before Christmas 2021, I think you’ll understand the sentiment.

Thank you, gentlemen for your time!

Beggars Belief: Stories from Gerald’s Bar is out now through Melbourne Books. It is available direct from Gerald’s Bar in North Carlton; if you’re very unlucky, Gerald himself might even be there to sign it for you. You will also find it in all good bookshops, including our friends at Readings and Books for Cooks.

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