Shoreditch looked almost handsome in the late-winter sunlight filtering through the big windows of the Ace Hotel’s top floor. As I chatted to Jim Clendenen and tasted his crystalline Au Bon Climat wines, the COVID-19 epidemic was a persistent cloud at the back of mind, though not much larger than those scattered across the sky outside. Perhaps others felt the same, with the Essential California tasting less rammed than I’d expected.
That was less than a fortnight ago. In the past 12 days the pandemic has galloped through our collective consciousness. Daily, its progress shocks us, every few hours grimly re-arranging our expectations. I have worked for 25 years in communications and journalism, 11 of them in Fleet St, through the news-cycle insanity of wars, elections and terror attacks. I have never seen anything remotely resembling the dizzying speed and spiralling fear of this event.
And writing now, in virtual lockdown at home, about that all-too-recent Californian tasting?
I had wanted to write about Alex Krause’s astonishing old-vine Birichino wines, his graceful Besson vineyard grenache and zinfandel; about a lovely Brand & Family La Marea Spur Ranch Grenache, and Pax’s cool-climate Mendocino County syrah; of the idiosyncratic fiano and other Italians grown in Paso Robles by Giornata, and engaging Spanish varietals from Ferdinand Wines; and lovely wines from old favourites like Stag’s Leap and Au Bon Climat.
Yet to do so now seems at best off-key. And at worst? Bertolt Brecht wrote in his transfixing 1938 poem, To those born later (An die Nachgeborenen):
“What kind of times are they, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
When the man over there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?”
“Truly I live in dark times!”, Brecht begins his poem, writing in a Europe about to slide into the charnel house of World War II. In Britain this evening I believe we are on the brink of almost certainly tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths (there’s no good reason to believe we’ll fare any better than Italy); the likely collapse of large parts of the NHS; and catastrophic economic damage. Dark times – though not the darkest. So writing about wine does not seem a crime. Just, well, a bit silly.
I count myself fortunate in not depending on wine writing to put food on the table: for me it is nowadays just a hobby. Still, it is hard to concentrate – on anything – with the constant presence in our hands (“doom surfing”) of the BBC news site and Twitter. And it’s very hard to keep any writing on wine and food in perspective.
Yet at one level we have to keep writing simply because that is what we do, and because normality is so desperately important in such abnormal times. Even if you don’t need to write to live, any writer still has to write to stay sane.
More important, wine goes beyond such routine. Whether wine is our livelihood or not, for all of us it is fundamental to our enjoyment of life and social living. Wine is joyously present in so many of my memories, whether I can remember the particular bottle or not: the Hermitage I somehow bought for my father’s birthday when I was 17; the Chateau Musars I shared with Serge Hochar as the machine guns rattled in East Beirut; the fabulous burgundies drunk under the stars one July on my first visit as a critic to Beaune.
It is the modest Tuscan red I sip next to my laughing three-year-old daughter in a holiday picture 15 years ago and also the glass of Vacqueyras I share with her as a beautiful, super-articulate young woman at the dinner I cooked this evening (pic above); the drunken night when dear American grad school friends presented me with my first Oxford Companion to Wine; the glasses of Crémant de Bourgogne my wife and I raise in our wedding photos.
Wine is life. It’s a daily celebration of the sensual and of our social being: a pleasure that exists to be shared. It’s one of the threads that hold our humanity together. So yes, even at this moment we continue to celebrate it. Because it is one of the things that, shared, will surely help us through these dark times.
Andy Neather was the London Evening Standard’s wine critic 2005-2012. He now blogs at hernehillandy.tumbler.com, where this post first appeared on 19 March 2020. Twitter: @hernehillandy