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Jefford on Monday: Wine In Troubled Times

August? That's when you go away on holiday and nothing much happens, isn't it? It used to seem so. Not this year. The last three weeks in in Gaza, Iraq, West Africa, Syria, South Sudan and Eastern Ukraine have been hard to ignore.

Workers in the Moet & Chandon vineyards in Champagne during World War 2

Those events, of course, have nothing to do with ‘the wine world’, and you may consider what follows ridiculous. Personally, though, I feel some unease at such times – about carrying on as normal, about opening more bottles and merrily effusing about their contents, about assuming that there are no lines of connection whatsoever between a family annihilated in a bombed home and a blocked malolactic fermentation, or between a swiftly fatal disease with no cure and the decision about when to harvest a vineyard of grapes. These spheres have, after all, collided in the past, as commemorations of 1914 remind us – and from the highest perspective, every event on earth is connected in some tenuous way.

In practical terms, of course, one can do something: donate to aid organisations instead of buying more bottles. (Bravo, in passing, to Jancis Robinson and Nick Lander’s Wine Relief initiative, which enables wine lovers to do both simultaneously. Wine Relief has raised more than £4million for aid projects since its inception in 1999.)

What, though, about merriness in tragic times? Can there be any kind of moral justification or even value to wine drinking, or is the very idea fatuous?

Merriment, whatever its cause (and at merry wine gatherings, the cause is never wine alone) is misery’s antithesis. Those experiencing misery at present will, save in the most abject cases, have some recollection of merriment in the past; indeed they may cling to such memories in order to help themselves traverse the horror of a present crisis. Merriment, in this sense, is a resource, promoting psychological health. Sufferers surely do not wish their suffering to be universal; they wish for it to be known, and acted upon by those in a position to help. This is most likely to happen if by-standers are themselves psychologically healthy.

Secondly, wine creation is an act of high agriculture, and the ability to farm unimpeded by invaders and persecutors is perhaps the most important practical benefit of peaceful times. When you drink wine, you celebrate that agricultural act, and the peace it implies. If you have paid a lot for the wine, you provide incentives, even if distant, for the creation of conditions which make such an agricultural act possible. Note that a single season is never enough for wine: five years of peace is needed to bring a vineyard to fruition, and half a century or more of peace for a wine of place to acquire an international reputation. You can’t create a vineyard, as you might chance a field of poppies, during a lull in the fighting.  

You hope, naturally, that the peace in which vines can be grown is a just one. But not all peace is just; that is why some reflection is necessary before buying wine (or any other agricultural product) from former zones of conflict, or lands acquired by one nation following the invasion or persecution of another. We ought to remember, though, that there are few vineyard areas either in Europe or outside it which are cultivated by truly indigenous land-owners alone; almost all winemakers everywhere are the descendants, even if multi-generational, of invaders and colonists. These wrongs are rarely righted. You must decide what passage of time is necessary to redeem a land-grab, or how vile a recent act of expropriation in-fact is.  

One of the effects of alcohol, finally, is to put its user into a heightened emotional state. In this state, the user may be more likely to sympathise with the plight of those in a less fortunate situation than themselves, and perhaps pass to action with a credit card or in some other way. This may be a reason for watching or listening to the news with a glass of wine to hand. Of course, any heightened emotional state may also result in an outburst of bigotry, xenophobia or self-righteousness. I like to think that wine drinkers tend to the former rather than the latter — but I might be wrong.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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