Wine in the Time of Pestilence I

One of my fellow Masters of Wine, one of the most amusing and dynamic, is Fongyee Walker, who runs a Wine School in Beijing.  The one aphorism I remember from her above all others is ‘it’s only wine, after all; it’s not a fucking cure for cancer’.  In these times those of us who work with wine can only sit back and carry on with our work as far as possible but feeling fairly superfluous to the world-changing events unfolding all around us and the very significant work that so many are doing to keep us alive and well.

Nevertheless, enforced confinement in France does give a bit of space to ponder more how alcohol in general and wine in particular is fitting into this world turned upside down.  We are in a state of near lockdown with all but essential services closed, yet this being France I have still received an email from a local drinks store reminding me that (presumably as one of those ‘essential services’) they remain open for all my liquid needs.  I wonder how long that will continue.

One of the puzzling things about human choices in a time of crisis is the obsession with toilet roll – something which appears in Australia, France, the UK, and seemingly everywhere.  Toilet roll seems for many to act as the adult equivalent of the infant’s comfort toy.  As long as we can exit a supermarket clutching three or four super-sized packs of Andrex, Cottonelle, or Charin we will sleep safely at night, knowing we are now able to face any crisis.  Yet it’s not just toilet paper; alcohol too can offer some of that comfort.  When I was in a supermarket the other day the person in front of me was bulk-buying bottles of rosé wine.  Nor is it just wine – as this picture of the lager aisle in a UK supermarket, courtesy of the blog’s editorial manager, reveals.

Some commentators are suggesting that wine is now a ‘crucial survival tool’.  According to an article posted by W. Blake Gray on Wine-Searcher.com the Californian Wine Institute has stated that wineries are ‘essential’ services in their State so that they should continue working during the state of emergency there.  Meanwhile the same article notes that Sonoma County has specifically allowed wineries to go on making wine (although they can’t sell it); the thing is that (as is happening in many places) regulations are issued very speedily yet without precision or clarity.  As a result the Wine Institute have advised its members that they consider what their members do is essential, so they should carry on making wine.  Meanwhile in the UK the Mail Online has noted that sales of wine ‘soar as tipplers stock up on the essentials in case they have to go into coronavirus self-isolation.  Purchases by ‘panicked customers’ mean that Naked Wines have had to suspend accepting orders temporarily.  Again – it’s an essential.

In a time when chaos and disaster seems to lurk just outside the front door we all need treats to ease our worries.  As the Bible says, ‘wine gladdens the heart of man’ (and maybe women as well), and certainly all of us who drink it know how a glass or two can lift the spirits.  Maybe, though, it goes further than that.  Wine is a magical product, which can transform us; we may try to rationalise that magic now, but for millennia drinkers with no knowledge of fermentation attributed the drink to some kind of deity; so because a god or goddess made it so it can magically change us in turn.  Perhaps in drinking wine (or any kind of alcohol) there remains a subconscious belief that the drink will transform us into an immortal, and keep the disease away.  No one will seriously believe this, of course – but then no one really thinks they need 150 toilet rolls to survive the next few weeks.

At a more personal level, I’m currently very fortunate.  At the time of writing, one of the five very specific reasons for which we are allowed outdoors in France (each of us clutching a sworn statement ‘on our honour’ explaining why we are not at home) is ‘short excursions, close to home, for physical exercise’.  As we live by vineyards, hills, and forests we can get good walks (maybe not so short) to break up the monotony of being indoors.  You occasionally meet a few like-minded people, smile and pass on opposite sides of the path, keeping as much space between you as possible.  Then, when we get home, the cellar has enough wine in it to last us a few years if necessary.  Meanwhile the market in the village is still open (although fairly deserted) as are the supermarkets.  Families with uncomprehending young children are stuck in small flats in towns and cities and single frail elderly people struggle even to get necessities.  It induces a level of guilt.  What to do?  I think this is the time to revisit Camus’ greatest work la Peste, which I haven’t read for 40 years.  After that, maybe, read for the first time Love in the Time of Cholera.  They won’t make the world a better place, but may help us to have more understanding of what others are going through and ensure that how we live can take more account of them. This particular blog theme is likely to be continued…

Wine and the end of life

When my favourite aunt died we held a party to celebrate her life – and we drank wine at it.  Not just wine, in fact, but champagne (although in the mind of most consumers a death is the one time it is inappropriate to drink champagne she had loved it, and it seemed entirely appropriate).  We don’t talk about death and wine so often but there is a long historical link.

The oldest wine press in Europe

I’ve just visited an ancient wine press from the Minoan era at Vathipetro in Crete – said by the Greeks to be the most ancient in the world (although probably only the oldest in Europe, as there is an older one in Armenia https://prehistoricarch.blogspot.com/2011/01/at-6000-years-old-wine-press-is-oldest.html).  This prompted our guide to talk about another Minoan press at Archanes, nearby, which is situated by a cemetery.  Wine was probably used in the funeral rites of the Minoans – hence the need to have it on tap at a burial ground – so to speak.  There is a logic to this.  Wine and the vine were the ancient symbols of the cycle of life and death around the Mediterranean.  Its annual life cycle mirrored that of people, it reflected ideas of fertility and was – after all – a magical drink capable of transforming the way drinkers felt. 

The Minoans believed in an afterlife and were often buried with grave goods.  Some, it seems, have been found with miniature wine presses in their grave.  The representation that the deceased was a wine maker perhaps?  Or a connoisseur?  Or maybe that when moving on to the afterlife they wanted to have the opportunity to go on making their favourite drink as compensation a for having left the world of the living?

Even today, it seems, wine remains key in some Cretan wine rituals.  Often, when people die they are buried but then dug up some years later for a final reburial.  Before this happens, however, their bones are washed in red wine – the most symbolic local liquid which could represent their passing.