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Andrew Jefford: ‘The jolts of 2020 have been an education’

Andrew Jefford reflects on 2020...

A year ago, I anticipated ‘a series of sharp shocks’ for the wine world over the next decade. They’ve begun swiftly, jolt on jolt, during the extraordinary year now drawing to a close. I wrote about fires in the Adelaide Hills in the April issue of Decanter magazine, and the Covid pandemic in June.

Most traumatic of all for the wine world was the Glass Fire of late September and early October in Napa, Sonoma and Lake Counties. Many Decanter readers will have visited these wine regions, and may remember a now-devastated property in its former glory days of sunlight and contentment. The Meadowood Resort and Newton, in particular, were both exquisitely Californian, albeit in different styles: the lavish and expansive; the manicured and pretty. Today they’re ashes.

I visited Spring Mountain back in 2016, relishing the long drive up through the forest and the airy vineyards up on the valley edge, rolling away in free-spirited style. My guide was Cain’s Chris Howell, a good friend and a thoughtful interlocutor of his landscape. Both Spring Mountain Vineyard itself and Cain have been devastated, too, with Cain losing two harvests. Chris’ home is gone.

The fortitude of those involved is remarkable. Bill Harlan intends to make Meadowood ‘even better’; LVMH will rebuild Newton. Chris and I exchanged emails, and he pointed out how much worse life was for those, for example, caught up in the Syrian conflict. I only hope I’d have the strength to be able to make such a comparison at such a moment… but he’s right: wine is a developed-world luxury, where rebuild resources (and insurance) are not wanting.

Australia’s 2019-2020 fire season burned 18.6m hectares, an area more than twice the size of the entire island of Ireland, while fires on the west coast of North America have burned more than 3m ha in autumn 2020. When I wrote about the fire horrors which hit the world’s winelands back in 2017, the combination of events seemed singular; now we see a pattern. Wine needs sunshine and dry summers. A hotter world means more heat, more drought, more wind, more lightning – and more disorder in nature. As I learned in the Okanagan last February, a drought-stressed forest is vulnerable to insect depredation, and sick trees worsen fire risk. Wine-growers will dread fire and smoke for generations to come.

Meanwhile, cases of Covid-19 are rising again as the northern-hemisphere winter draws on, smashing like waves against the wine world with colossal irregularity.

Over a distanced cup of coffee in Canary Wharf in August, a wine-importing panel chair at the Decanter World Wine Awards told me he had never had such a profitable six months. He sells mainly to supermarkets. A few days later, I visited friends in Acton, west London, who own a small importing business selling small growers’ wines to restaurants; the story was reversed. Wine drinkers and, I don’t doubt, Decanter readers will share those disparities of fortune in 2020. There have been some great en primeur offers this year. Not everyone will have been able to play.

Things, in sum, look bleak… but Christmas is coming; we have a duty to gather strength, look forward, find hope. The jolts of 2020 have been an education. The lesson is care: Covid has taught us to care for each other; fire and other climate disasters insist we now care for the atmosphere and the biosphere. We cannot afford more carelessness.

Across this month, we’ll all sit down to taste the best wines we can. Each is a message from somewhere: ‘this place is special’. Every wine resumes a season, a climate narrative; every wine tells a story of human partnership with nature. Its passage to your table comes at some environmental cost, and that we must rectify; but wine’s 8,000-year history is also proof that we can draw sustenance and joy from our environment without causing it damage. Quite the contrary: wine inspires care.

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