Our community, high on its ridge above the Vale of the White Horse, was luckier than many. The refugees from Gloucestershire told a sorry tale of waterlogged barns and spoiled crops, in the midst of which their abandoned houses stood like tombstones on their own ghostly reflections, solitary perches for the magpies and the crows. We were shivering from the worst of it when the little white van struggled through the floods with its relief supply of wine. We settled down to comfort ourselves with the taste of sunlight, as it had been distilled three years ago on the banks of the Rhône.
As the rays warmed our dampened spirits, we reflected on the wisdom of our ancestors who, instead of fleeing each summer in search of the sun, had done as we were doing, and imported the sun in bottles. Had people abided by this wisdom, and not poured all that pollution into the atmosphere, the jet stream may have stayed in place, and the thin ration of sunlight intended for the Anglo-Saxons might have remained available in the small but reliable doses that our temperament requires. How wise were the farmers who had taken refuge here, and who were spending their first-ever summer away from their fields. If only the world would follow their example.
One bit of the world, at least, has done so, and that is the Bernard family, based in Orange since the 17th century, and growing wine there since 1794, on land acquired after the revolution. Their virtuous relation to the earth is expressed in their wine, which both tastes of the place and gives an insuperable reason for staying there.
Like many other growers in the region, the Bernards have to suffer the law that subsumes their wine under the generic appellation of Côtes du Rhône, which has become a byword for mass-produced plonk. Yet their wine, carefully made from old Syrah vines grown partly on clay and limestone, partly on sandy soil similar to that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is one of the best products of the southern Rhône.
To draw attention to its merits they have given it a somewhat pretentious name - "Les Sens de Syrah", or "the meanings of Syrah", being indistinguishable in sound from "'essence de Syrah" - and presented it in a bottle embossed with a heraldic shield, in a similar manner to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is the only blemish on a wine that is surely one of Corney & Barrow's greatest bargains.
The other wines on offer are highly respectable examples of their kind, the Côtes du Rhône from Gonnet being a lesser attempt in the same direction as that from the Bernards. The Muscat recalls the sweet wine of Samos for which Socrates had a particular taste, and we poured a libation to the philosopher, whose destiny was the never-ending fate of wisdom in a world where folly prevails.