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Andrew Jefford: ‘Can wine help us make sense of tragedy?’

Last month in this column, I celebrated the pleasures of Pinot. As I write this, it’s hard to celebrate anything.

The dark days began when I learned from a visiting Canadian friend about the death of one of the kindest, most gentle and most skilful Pinot winemakers I’ve known, Paul Pender of Tawse Winery. He died in a senseless and tragic act of violence on the evening of 3 February, outside his Lake Erie cottage. A stranger, subsequently charged with his murder, had (it seems) knocked on his door, asking for help. Paul’s sudden, untimely loss has left his family, and the broader Canadian wine community, distraught.

Just under three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. By early March, Chernobyl was under attack, the agony of Mariupol in the south had begun, and Ukrainian children were dying, alone, of dehydration and hypothermia in bombed flats in besieged cities. Serious discussion of ‘World War Three’ surfaced; Europe saw the biggest migration of refugees since the 1940s. Millions around the world were distraught, though awed by the heroism and dignity of Ukraine’s fight. ‘Why not abandon Mariupol?’ asked a presenter, pointing out that the Russians had reduced the city to smoke, ruins and rubble. ‘Do you want to live as a slave?’ replied the city’s deputy mayor, Sergei Orlov.

There is no immunity from tragedy; certainly not in wine or in the wine world. Every life is irreplaceable. In war, everyone loses; it is the failure of everything. Its only spoils are misery.

The open-access ‘Letters from Kyiv’ on jancisrobinson.com help us understand just how comprehensive a catastrophe war is for those running Ukrainian wine businesses and wineries. Russians suffer too, from the same inexplicable decision of their resentful and isolated dictator. Since truth has long been spoofed in Russia, though, many Russian citizens have no means of grasping this, and consider the death of their conscripted grandsons, sent to murder Ukrainian cousins, as a strange sort of patriotic sacrifice. Shame and guilt will come later, when truth-telling can return to Russia.

‘It is a war between two fraternal peoples,’ an expatriate Russian winemaking acquaintance wrote to me. ‘One of them chose to create its own young nation and chose a European democratic way with all its advantages and disadvantages. The dictator of the second people decided that they don’t have a right to choose.’ He accepted that he might lose everything. ‘One of my friends,’ he continued, ‘asked me to call him Sisyphus. Every time he has good results in business, everything is suddenly destroyed and he has to start again from zero.’ The fallibilities of dictatorship are flagrant. Removing a dictator is costly. Leaving a dictator in place is costlier still.

Can wine help us make sense of tragedy? In the short term, it cannot; we push our glasses aside. Those tragically lost must be mourned and grieved over; this process cannot be hurried. There are no explanations for tragedy, though justice must take its course, and prevail. The excavation of truth may take decades.

Wine, though, also happens in long time, time long enough to melt, to re-make and to re-melt all borders and partitions. The first winemakers along the Black Sea coast of southern Ukraine, as along the Mediterranean coast of southern France, were Greek colonists; many others have followed, and will follow in the centuries ahead. Only nature can redeem the ugliness of human destruction, and wine is one of the most memorable ways in which we can feel that restorative power – through tracked seasonal change, gathered fruit, autumn’s plenty transformed into a beauty we can smell and taste. Wine, too, is a celebration of the uniqueness of place, and specifically of places at peace; this touches our souls as well as refreshing our bodies.

None of this is any consolation for the war crimes and universal tragedies unfolding around us. They will end, though, with the voices of those lost urging us to carry on, to replant and to remake. And to remember them in our brightest, wine-lit moments.

In my glass this month

‘Grapes coming from a peasant collective working naturally in little parcels in the middle of woods in the commune of St-Privat,’ reads the label of Jean-Baptiste Granier’s Les Vignes Oubliées 2019 from Terrasses du Larzac, Languedoc: modest honesty. The blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan grown at altitude (300m and higher) and partially destemmed is translucent, fresh and limpid. A conversation of aromas, all flower and leaf; then a lithe, athletic flavour: clean, pure, sappy, strong and truthful. Wine for the times.

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