by Edward Wilkinson-Latham

The Toronto Standard

I’ve enjoyed a long, complex history with wine. When my parents lived in France during the ’70s, they would regularly drive to the nearby country winery with two eight-litre plastic containers and, for just a few francs, fill them with local plonk. At the time they lived with my uncle and grandparents, who treated mealtime drinks as a means of hydration between cocktails, so they went through quite a lot of the stuff. My grandfather also kept some very fine vintages — meaning I was raised to drink the good, bad and the ugly. This included my fair share of holy Catholic jug juice, which I knocked back every Sunday with the other altar boys when Father Alexander wasn’t looking (and before performing my duties as an acolyte thurible twirler). In my daily life I now regularly drink it, cook with it, and, during my stag weekend, even bathed in it.

Thus, when my great pal Ray tells me he covertly purchases five-gallon pails of red wine for sixty dollars – which works out at nineteen litres, or twenty-five 750 ml wine bottles at a fraction of the cost – I was a wee bit interested to sample this particular vin de bucket. Ray drags out a white plastic drum from under his kitchen table and takes off the lid. There is a good reason why wine is not legally sold in buckets; it makes boxed wine looks positively sophisticated. Ray’s bucket looks more suited for tanning animal hides and or as an instrument favoured by homeless drummers. Perhaps that’s what happens to you after going through five gallons of the stuff. Ray dips in a metal mug and ladles out some of the rosy contents. A quick sniff and I can almost detect Pez candies. After a sip, a cocky young Beaujolais wannabe struts itself back to my adenoids. I’m silent for a moment as Ray informs me that he likes to drink it with ice and Dr. Pepper, a concoction he calls ‘Sarnia Sangria’. He notes that each bucket of wine that he’s bought has never exactly been the same. “I think this is partly to do with which end of the vat it’s been poured from,” he says, “or whose feet did the making.”

This particular vintage was made by an industrious and secretive Portuguese winemaking cabal. Ray purchased it from the back door of an inconspicuous neighbourhood corner store near St. Clair. It took a personal introduction to open the gates to this underground economy and now Ray turns up whenever he wants, buys a bucket for himself and re-bottles a portion of it that he then sells for $5 a pop as Château Bucket. He sometime sees people at the getting place that he suspects must be from restaurants, stocking up for their house carafe wine, which makes total business sense, even if it is a little bent.

I take another sip and it’s better this time, but I’m hesitant to buy a whole bucket. When drinking cheap, cheap wine I’m reminded how my parents’ continental habits made me acutely aware of the perils of gong juice. I was twelve when it happened. We had gone on holiday to Majorca. I remember the Balearic Island as being rugged and wild, dotted with packs of goats on dry hillsides and its coastline beaches swarming with herds of thong-clad German and Dutch factory workers. It was here that my dear father discovered the local supermarket vino, a Rioja he later dubbed El Rhino. This forty peseta variety (30 cents) aggravated an already existing case of piles, so he graduated to what he thought might be a more agreeable eighty peseta variety. The tasting notes were similar, as was the effect on his system. The result was an irritable holiday Dad who winced at café furniture and rocky beaches. To act on the side of caution I split my Ray-acquired plunder with another friend who’s both a chef and a drinker.

Wine is not the only booze that Ray buys in buckets. After we’ve had our fill of vino, he reaches into his freezer and draws out a large frosted Perrier bottle. It’s filled with homemade vodka, a brew, Ray tells me, made by a wily group of Ukrainians. Now, in my opinion, you should be always careful with homemade spirits, but I’ve had no-name moonshine mescal in Oaxaca and Mekong Whiskey fresh from a still in Laos, so why not? Being Scandinavian himself, Ray thinks it tastes better than anything you can buy in the store. “It has a wallop to it,” he says, “no doubt there, but it also has a surprisingly smooth and rounded finish.” I’m not a vodka drinker so I decline; maybe at Christmas? Instead I take my dozen bottles of red (price tag: all of thirty dollars) home, where I think I’ll first do a French recipe and drown a rabbit in it. I’ll have a glass while cooking and, if the family wakes up tomorrow with fully functioning kidneys, I’ll know the vin de bucket is passable.

Ed Wilkinson-Latham is a Senior Editor at The Toronto Standard