Neighbourhood Watch – Leo Johnson and the creation of the Unthinkable Drinkable Brent Wine
Leo Johnson is the more “invisible” of his notable breed. While his brother Boris rides towards Downing Street, his sister Rachel publishes books and edits magazines, and the other brother, Jo, enjoys politics too. But Leo likes to keep the lowest possible profile, enjoys family life and is content with working on projects that are both creative and crazy, and the crazier the better.
A while ago he was recovering from a leg injury, walking on crutches in Brent park, muttering over the news about a woman from Bournemouth who died alone and was discovered six years later.
“In a city like London”, says Leo Johnson while he tries to serve me his best espresso, “it’s possible to live many years without even saying hello to your neighbour. I was walking on my crutches in the park, recovering from an injury, when I was approached by a lady who told me ‘I know you. You are the gentleman who is always talking on his phone’. What came to my mind was a lady from Bournemouth, who died in her apartment and was only discovered after six years . I realised that we are not used to knocking on each other’s doors anymore and it was time to make some changes. I live two doors down from Paolo Santini, an Italian gentleman of 84, who used to make his own wine in Italy fifty year ago. I called for help and put together a small group of 30 enthusiastic wine-makers, among them Padre Natalino, the priest with the oak barrel, John Joe, the Irish engineer with a fruit press, Luz, a filipino great-grandmother, and Leo’s daughter, their “human grape-crusher”. They crowd-picked and crowd-pressed 200 kilos of Brent Fragolina grapes, mixed with 100 kilos of Montepulciano grapes (yes, not very orthodox, but the Napa Valley of the North is more relaxed than the Californian one). Their crushing, pressing and laughing at the same time attracted the attention of an Iranian family who had arrived two years earlier from Esfahan, a place they had to leave because of the father Ramak’s love of wine. Needless to say, they joined the group, adding their expertise to the venture. Forty days after, the day of St. Martino, when they crack open the barrels in Italy, they transferred the wine to glass demijohns and put it to rest, not in a proper cellar, I have to say, but in a shed in the front garden of Leo Johnson’s house.
“If everything goes wrong”, he told me with one of his charming smiles, “we’ll have a lifetime supply of vinegar”.
Four months later, the improvised winemakers were ready to bottle their product. They even had a label: NW6 (with the wrong year printed on it, and that was another of Leo’s vagaries as he changed it from 2014 to 2015 with a felt pen. Who cares, after all? NW6 will never make it to the supermarket chain. “On D-Day we were very nervous”, Leo continues. “We bought the worst wine in Brent to compare it to hoping ours would be better.They prepared some spicy-cumin-flavoured samosas, in order to deceive their palates and blind-tasted the wine. Leo is honest enough to admit the taste was nothing compared to a great Merlot or a Barolo, but it was not so bad, at least set side by side with the cheap wine from the supermarket. And with a bit more time to rest and a pinch of sugar (the Iranian sugar called Namat, as suggested by Ramak) it could even be described as drinkable. Drinkable was unthinkable at the beginning of the adventure. In its way it was a success then. Nobody will serve NW6 with a sumptuous meal or with special guests, but the community wine was born, proving that no man is an island, but everyone can be a barrel.