by Tim Atkin

Wine in the time of Covid-19

Everyone seems to have advice about how to get through lockdown.  Even if we’re all still sitting here in December, our diaries emptier than your local Wetherspoons, I can’t imagine the well-meaning guidance changing much.  Eat healthily, exercise, take up a new hobby, read a book, tidy your cupboards, call your friends and family, order food on line.

You’ve probably done some or all of these things yourself. If so, you (or rather we) are the lucky ones. For some, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought untold stress, destitution and possibly an untimely death. For many of us, however, especially those who are furloughed or just short of work, it’s been a case of filling time, stuck inside our own heads. There are moments of collective pleasure – the Thursday night clapping for the NHS, the Instagram Live tastings, meals with your family, unless you live alone – but this is mostly a lonely slog.

Where does wine fit in? “Avoid alcohol”, a list of 13 “survival tips” I received from The Spiritual Scientist advised me this week, as “overconsumption could lead to having an addiction”, but frankly stuff that. The Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said recently that football was the most important of the least important things in life and that’s how I feel about wine. Now more than ever, I look forward to a glass or three in the evening. I’ve kept a vase with all the corks in as a memento. My cellar and my liver have both taken a pounding.

The most disquieting thing about lockdown is not that it won’t end – it will, and probably sooner than is safe for us – but what we winos will find on the other side. Will people want to go to restaurants, assuming they have the cash? Will they feel comfortable attending tastings, with folk spitting in close proximity, sharing plates of water biscuits and handling the same samples? Will they be relaxed about long-haul travel, breathing the identical air with other passengers?

I decided very early on, at a time when people were still blithely going to trade tastings, that this virus was scary. Apart from the odd masked visit to a local shop, socially distancing with the best of them, and a careful daily run across Wimbledon Common, I haven’t been out in public two months. The last time I ate in a restaurant was on Friday March 13th; I had my hair cut that day too.

Two months on, COVID-19 seems even more terrifying, although my chances of catching it remain mercifully low, not something that can be said of a care home nurse or a bus driver. As David Wallace Wells wrote in a recent article for New York Magazine, entitled “We Still Don’t Know How The Coronavirus Is Killing Us,” the disease itself “appears to be shape-shifting before our eyes”.

Until we have a vaccine, I don’t see how the wine trade can return to business as usual, whatever usual will eventually mean.  The on-trade has been devastated and the businesses that rely on it will struggle to survive in their current form.  And tastings, the places where we meet, socialise and exchange gossip and ideas, are not going to start again any time soon. Mail order and some on-trade sales will continue – the supermarkets, Majestic, the Wine Society and even some independents have reported near-Christmas period levels of demand – but will this be enough to keep the greater UK wine business afloat? I have my doubts.

And what about us wine communicators? For those of us who love travel and regard it as a vital part of our jobs, there’s been a rethink. We’re tasting samples at home, talking to producers on Zoom and doing dozens of online chats and webinars, all wondering how, or if, these will ever be made to pay. No one ever feels sorry for journalists, least of all those who write about food and drink, but there must be a lot of my colleagues who are considering a career change. Delivery drivers are much in demand, apparently.

If there’s a silver lining to this pandemic, it is surely that we have all had time to pause and reflect. Not least about clear skies and roads, climate change and what we can all do to mitigate its effects. Fail to act, individually and collectively, and ten years from now we may look back on Coronavirus as a warm up act for a much greater disaster. And this time there will be no vaccine.

Originally published in Harpers

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