by Andy Neather

Humanising The New Normal

There are places in Europe where crowds gather to watch cows being let out of their barns after a winter shut up eating hay. It’s a gladdening sight: the beasts charge out into the Spring sunshine: galloping, almost frolicking in the grass. I was reminded of this at Tim Atkin’s recent sixtieth birthday party, where friends from the wine world and beyond gathered. After 18 months of uncertainty and fear, our hunger for shared laughter and celebration was palpable. We seized the joy.

I seized it especially hard – yes, I was less than sober when I left – because last month I’d had the comforting notion of a return to post-pandemic reality torn away me. Despite being double jabbed, I’d just recovered from Covid, like my wife and a couple of dozen other vaccinated friends and acquaintances. Feeling rough, cancelling everything, isolating, and several weeks of not feeling quite up to scratch were infinitely preferable to suffering Covid unvaccinated. Still, it was a rude awakening to the reality of post-pandemic life. I think that reality will take longer to negotiate than does the oddness of first time you’re in the same room as lots other people again – say, the first wine tasting – after the pandemic.

Most of us assumed through this crisis that life would at some point snap back to “normal”. It won’t: while most restrictions are over, this is not life as it was before. Covid is never going away now. And while no politician will yet admit it, we are going to have to get used to living with endemic Covid. It will take time.

It’s not just a question of the years-long rolling programme of vaccine boosters and continued travel restrictions that the new reality will demand. More significant for our daily lives looms the uncertainty now inherent in any planned event; the cancelled parties, dinners, performances; the friends still too terrified of the virus to socialise. Life seems more contingent than it did.

Wine can and should be at the centre of our effort to live with that reality. Wine brings people together. I wrote¬†at the start of this pandemic in March last year, as events spiralled out of control, about how we had to continue to make time for wine simply because it’s one of the threads that tie us together as social beings.

Even in lockdown, for most of us the social remained vital: the park walks with friends, the virtual cocktails and family quizzes, the Zoom calls with a screenful of parents and siblings. Physical isolation did not change that craving for sociability. My own family enjoyed a late, intense stretch of enforced sociability, with teenage and university-age children at home and unable to go out. And wine threaded its way through those evenings around our table, kindling our conviviality.

Yet wine is even more important at this end of the pandemic, as we try to humanise the new normal. Drinking wine and talking about it across a table is a reminder of the things you can’t do online, of the interactions you lose when exploiting the frictionless interactions of the internet. The pandemic sparked remarkable innovation across the wine world: the online tastings and masterclasses, Instagram interviews and the rest. Those were essential in lockdown and they will, like homeworking and default online shopping, long outlast the crisis. They have become a vital part of the wine economy’s business model. But they’re not the same as social wine.

So we need to make the effort to socialise and gather together for wine – and to recognise what online interactions can’t achieve. At the brilliant recent Wine Society tasting, Peter Richards MW told me about a recent decision he and colleagues had had to make about whether to cancel a wine dinner: he said he had gone ahead with it in the spirit that wine brings people together. I fear that may sometimes take determination this winter. But it’s worth the effort.

Wine is, quite simply, conviviality in your hand. We understand wine better when we discuss it face to face with others, while tasting and drinking it. This week in Piraeus, I met my old friend and Greek wine guru Markus Stolz (Twitter: @elloinos). Together with US importer Steve Schran of Boston’s Vineyard Road, we drank, yarned and laughed, while marvelling at Syros winemaker Edward Chrichton’s sublime 2019 Ousyra Fokiano, at Melitzani’s pure, supremely expressive 2018 Xinomavro, at Moraitis Estate’s fine 2018 Paros Reserve. It was a life-affirming moment. We should celebrate those times and learn from them – even as we emerge, blinking, into the light of a changed post-Covid world.

Photo by Scott Warman and Unsplash