Even in times as troubled as these, I don’t drink to forget: oblivion requires a vast quantity of alcohol and the memories just tend to return the next day, only exacerbated by the hangover. Instead, I drink to remind myself of the best that the world has to offer.
Good wine is so much more than grapes and yeast; dedication, effort, care, love and patience all go into the bottle, as does the heartening belief that the liquid will be shared by civilised people as an enhancement to fine food and intelligent conversation. At the table, we drink and disagree; warmed by a liquid that distils a season’s peaceful ripening, we find a resolution. Take away the table and the bottle, as a winemaker once said to me, and you have a war.
That seems less fanciful than it once did. As we stalk from the European dining room and slam the door shut, I am preoccupied by visions of catastrophe. Brexit will leave us, like characters in a Dantean parable, lapping frantically at a lake of English wine. This, far from quenching our thirst, will simply increase our longing for inaccessible foreign nectar. (I am not against English wine – far from it. But I don’t want to be deprived of every other kind.)
Then I recall that wine is not my only comfort. There are also words:
With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress; In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.
So wrote WH Auden, on mourning Yeats, conjuring a vineyard to convey the healing power that wine and words share. Catastrophe has its roots in Greek: katastrephein is “to overturn, trample on, or to come to an end”. This reminds me that the seemingly violent act of trampling on grapes releases the juices that ferment into wine – in other words, that endings lead to new beginnings. I also look up “disaster” and find that the “astrum” in disastrum is a star or heavenly body in Latin, so that within this ill-starred word, another world glitters.
Some of my favourite wines are Greek: stony, imperious whites from old Assyrtiko vines sunk deep in the volcanic rock of Santorini. The entire island was shaped by an eruption so violent it caused earthquakes and tsunamis; now vines suck nourishment and gain flavour from stone that was once molten lava.
For other wines I love, I can thank the Romans. Their conquest of Gaul was devastating, but along with the Pax Romana, Caesar’s soldiers brought the vines whose descendants would one day make France the glory of the world.
It is not to diminish the grim importance of natural disaster or politics to point out the resilience of a plant that has weathered both for more than 5,000 years, thrives on steep hills and poor soils and appears to die each winter, only to be reborn in spring.
We need that resilience. Now that we have left the European Union, our wallets and our palates will both suffer. And as I slide the bottle across the table towards my glass, I wonder how many more ententes we can trample before European vineyards are ground beneath soldiers’ boots again. Fighting is fruitless, in every sense. We are knit into each others’ languages and lives, and I will continue to drink to that.
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose