This spring, as the coronavirus pandemic swamped the world, sales of wine in America skyrocketed. In April, San Francisco-based online retailer Wine.com was shipping 50,000 bottles a day. One theory had it that people were buying to make sure they had enough wine on hand if things got even worse.
As we all sheltered in place, friends far and near set up online ‘happy hours’, where we were able to sip our favourite wines together and philosophise via Zoom or FaceTime or Skype. Every night, my husband and I gravitated towards comforting bottles that reminded us of life before lockdown – a sojourn in St-Emilion, dinner in a ristorante in Piedmont, our first trip to the Napa Valley. We toasted the winemakers, and were grateful to be together.
And all this made me ponder the many ways wine is woven into the lives and memories of so many people across the globe, who were doing the same thing. So for my last regular column for Decanter, I want to talk about why wine matters.
‘When borders are closed, wine opens them.’
First off, wine is a powerful link with history. People have been fermenting grapes into wine for some 8,000 years, which makes its creation part of the rise of civilisation and our common humanity. For millennia, wine has been an anchor note of rituals for both solace and celebration. Every sip reflects that past and those traditions.
Wine’s importance as one of life’s pleasures has, amazingly, persisted through wars, plagues, economic depressions and many other dark times.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the late Serge Hochar of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar (the first Decanter Hall of Fame Award winner in 1984), surely one of wine’s heroes, who harvested grapes and made his delicious reds and whites with bombs dropping in his vineyards and the sound of machine guns in his ears, during a war that lasted more than a decade. The wines are infused with a sense of that place and his indomitable spirit.
Wine is also the great social connector, linking us to people and places around the world that we don’t even know, becoming a symbol of the fact that we are all bound together, sharing one planet.
Even when we can’t cross borders or continents, wine lets us travel to Sonoma, Luján de Cuyo, Ningxia, Stellenbosch or Barolo, all through bottles that call to life those very different landscapes. When borders are closed, wine opens them. For the first time, Bordeaux’s en primeur week in April was cancelled this year, but I – and the thousands of other usual attendees – can still savour the famous region’s wines from Pauillac, Pessac-Léognan or Pomerol in solidarity with the families who make them.
Every wine is a wider story of workers and owners, labour and vision, sustainability and the environment, soil and geology, and the state of society, and puts us in touch with nature and the earth, reminding us that we are responsible for preserving it.
In better days, wine pulls us around a table with friends – but even in a time of pandemic it still enhances what we eat and creates an atmosphere of sharing and generosity.
Taste and smell are the most intimate senses, and they let us experience something direct and real, in a world that has become ever more digital and virtual. Wine is often viewed as an elite drink, pretentious even, thought by some to be merely a ‘discretionary consumable’ in these tough times. I heartily disagree.
This spring, as happened last year, and in the years before it, vines reached out towards the sun and began budding, starting the growing season cycle once again. Come harvest, people will pick the grapes and make the wines of 2020: a vintage marked by disaster and sadness.
When I eventually enjoy those bottles with friends, though, they’ll remind me how much value wine brings to our lives.
This column first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Decanter.