It started with a tweet: "42,804! Beat that score." The tweeter, a member of the international wine-writing fraternity, usually wastes no opportunity to boast of his work-related conquests: the ancient bottles drunk; the fancy meals eaten in remote corners of the globe. This time, he couldn't contain his glee at his mastery of an online game, and had taken to the Twittersphere to alert his followers.
My interest piqued, I clicked the link and was taken to Jeux Geographiques, a quiz website. The wine example involved the player being shown the name of a particular appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), and then having to pinpoint its center on a rudimentary map of France. The greater the accuracy and the faster the click, the higher the score.
My competitive nature surfaced. I hit 'Jouer' and the words 'Sainte-Croix-du-Mont' flashed up. Bingo. I knew it was a small appellation in Bordeaux, lying on the right bank of the Garonne River. I clicked the mouse, the scoremaster (or mistress) calculated I was only 10km from the epicenter and I scored 4430 points. How easy was this? Each game had 20 apellations to locate, so I worked out that I could easily score more than 80,000 points. Surely.
The name of another appellation appeared: 'Rangen.' The Teutonic tone could point to only one region, Alsace, but my courage faltered. Haut-Rhin or Bas-Rhin? I clicked 'Haut-Rhin' but by then precious seconds had elapsed. I scored a lowly 1210 points. Rats.
Then came 'Chignin.' Where was that? Flustered, I pumped for a location in the Loire Valley sub-region of Anjou Saumur. I was way out. Chignin is in Savoie. "Trop loin" [too far], I was scolded. No points awarded.
I realized that my knowledge of classic regions was good but I had less understanding of Savoie, Bugey and the more obscure French appellations. Boudes, Pupillin, Côte Roannaise? Where on earth were they? More importantly, my MacBook had too small a screen. I needed a bigger monitor to score more accurately.
Commandeering the family computer, I was soon honing in on regions more confidently. If it was an AOC I had never heard of, I clicked somewhere in the Savoie and more often than not I was near enough to score points. A holiday in Corsica long ago meant that Cap Corse and Patrimonio held no fear.
After an hour or so, I finally had a decent tally (47,154) and was about to take to Twitter to brag when my eye caught the scoreboard at the bottom of the page. 'Les meilleurs scores' showed that several players had scored 85,000, and more. Now I was depressed.
Two options were open to me. One, I could start on articles promised to several wine publications. Or, I could do what any self-respecting freelance writer does when faced with work: hunt for yet another distraction. There must be other quizzes that would allow me to shine?
I didn't have to look far – to the website of Berry Bros & Rudd, in fact. The London-based company was established in 1698 and is still family owned. The holder of two royal warrants, from the Queen and the Prince of Wales, it embraced the internet with great speed and efficiency. Its website is packed with information, and not only about the wines it lists.
There, lurking in the wine knowledge section, was a game so deliciously British in character that I could almost smell the wood paneling and aged wine cellars of Berry's St James's offices.
Players follow cartoon character Pickering the Butler into the cellar, and field various questions. Dragging and dropping the bottle into the correct cellar bin scores points, but if an answer is wrong, the bottle smashes to the floor with a very satisfying crash. Some categories are straightforward and simple, such as choosing the correct 'New World Country,' but others are more tricky. The 'Which Bordeaux Growth?' category contains such curly challenges as Château La Tour Carnet, which I thought was a third growth; it turned out to be a fourth.
After an hour’s playing, I still couldn't compete with the top scorers (FinoFiend appeared to be on a roll). There was nothing for it but to commence writing about pinot noir.
Are games such as these a waste of time? I prefer to think of them as professional development.