Our attic bedroom is a mess. There’s a rack of wine wobbling on plastic boxes along a wall. Bottles line the stairs. The bed is stripped of sheets and covered in corkscrews, books, Coravins and coats. A camera is perched on a table in the bathroom and a microphone sits on the floor.
The camera’s narrow lens hides all the detritus. It shows me, three bottles and the rack of wine, looking stolid next to the bookshelf. Like all those media-savvy politicians, I’ve ‘curated’ the titles. The Sexual Politics of Meat was a casualty; Ben Howkins’ Sherry took its place.
All of this is because for two weeks I’ve been doing a daily video diary for The Wine Show, talking about wines from independent merchants across the UK. These are the merchants who didn’t benefit from the massive increase in sales when people hurriedly stocked up for lockdown. Instead they watched reports of empty supermarket shelves while their own shelves groaned under the weight of bottles no longer being sold to their core clientele – restaurants. I wanted to do something to help.
After one diary had aired, Jo at the London merchant Jascot’s sent a delighted text. She’d sold a case of wine. One case. It was the first wine she’d sold in a fortnight. “Thanks SO much,” wrote Justin Howard-Sneyd at Domaine of the Bee. “We’ve had a lot of new sign-ups, orders and a new Club Member”. New customers. New friends discovering new wines.
The format is simple. It’s not about wine at all. I try three bottles. I wear silly hats. I tell daft stories. I answer viewer questions (some of those are daft too). And I share a story about a paramedic I know, or a firefighter, or a GP – and go off on a mildly rambling detour about TS Eliot, or sing a folk song about a Glaswegian pub. I open the wines with a Coravin, because at the end of the tasting the bottles go to doctors and nurses to share among their colleagues.
There’s no money in it. It’s something to keep me busy while I’m tucked away at home. But that doesn’t mean the venture is short of rewards. That first text from a friend has been followed by emails and calls and messages from independent merchants across the country, back to doing what they do best: selling wine.
I’ve had emails from firefighters and doctors and nurses too. James, a firefighter in Yorkshire. Lucy, a new Public Safety Officer on her first day. Danny and Cat, doctors working in London’s hospitals, thanking me for recognising them (and passing on the wine). But also for giving people something to stay in for. It’s a bit like the wartime concert party in that old sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum; I’m keeping the troops entertained.
That first text from a friend has been followed by messages from independent merchants across the country, back to doing what they do best: selling wine
There’s a community of regulars who gather and comment on YouTube. Some ask after regulars who aren’t there. Others explain their absences when they arrive late. “Yummm, I’m a sucker for food,” says Ana. “Me too, Ana, me too…” says Brigitte. These two people live on different continents but they’re brought together by wine and coronavirus. “Hey, I’ve got two more friends joining us next week,” types Brigitte. “Aloha from Oahu, Hawaii” says Jamie.
We’ve always talked about the convivial nature of wine: the bottle size that’s perfect to share for two, or the magnum that brings a party together. From Holy Communion to Prosecco in the pub, wine has no parallel in its ability to unite us. By rights it should be facing its darkest hour – in popular culture, the solitary drinker is shorthand for despair – but today, being separated needn’t mean being alone. The rich complexity of wine – its history, symbolism, nuance, and its relationship to places we’ve loved, and want to love again – make it the perfect companion for our times. And it can even introduce us to new companions for the future.