Joe Fattorini: Your glass or mine?

Whether wine or whisky, drinking is, by its very nature, a shared, social experience, not given to cautious precision. So what are we meant to do now?

Words by Joe Fattorini

Joe Fattorini

The zoologist Frank Buckland was notorious for bringing his pet bear to wine evenings. I suppose that’s one way of making people keep their distance. Today it would be called “Ursine Social Distancing Enforcement”. Doubtless one of the Prime Minister’s misfit advisors is working on just such a proposal right now.

Wine and minimal social distancing are natural bedfellows. Whole cultures are built on the latter. Sweden’s sense of fairness is based on the idea of “Lagom”, or “just the right amount”. It reputedly comes from a Viking habit of drinking from a communal cup and ensuring that everyone has an equal share. No wonder the Swedish infection rate is so high. (The country’s current advice is to socially distance by the length of “a small moose”. Honestly – I’ve seen the signs.)

The natural tendency to share when we are drinking forces us to suspend our better judgement. The worst flu I ever had was after sharing a “treasure chest” cocktail with someone who had the snuffles. I also learned never to trust the antiseptic properties of Crème de Menthe.

To drink well in the age of Covid, we need to welcome a new snobbery

Curiously, however, to drink well in the age of Covid we need to welcome a new snobbery. What’s sometimes called wine snobbery – passing the Port, drinking wines in order, taking time to talk about what’s in the glass – can be a subtle way of regulating intake, a socially-enforced way of withholding the potential dangers of alcohol. Some of those old rules, like the arcane ceremony of the Loving Cup, used shared drinking to develop fraternal bonds. Now we are in an age where we need “rules” that protect us from the dangers of drinking together. Those trinkets that sit around the stem to identify everyone’s glass will be back in vogue, while there’ll surely be a prize for the first person to invent a non-clinking toast.

The first place you and I will see new rules will be in restaurants. The ways sommeliers can interact with customers is already restricted. No hand shaking with regular guests; no assistance with their chair. At the Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines conference earlier this month, Marc Almert of the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich half jokingly suggested male sommeliers might need to start wearing eye-liner to counteract the impact of wearing a mask. “Much of service works through smiles and using your face” he said. And how do you empathise, emote and engage with a customer when you’re wearing a mask?

A table of half-drunk wine glasses is now a host's worst nightmare

On a more realistic front, Almert’s was one of the first restaurants to introduce a QR code wine list. Simply scan the code and read it on your phone. So much better than reassuring the guest “don’t worry madam, our wine list is wipe-clean…”

It’s just one measure the hotel has taken to pivot towards the new normal. It launched an open-air cinema and started offering a boat tour on the Zurich lake that is smack bang on its doorstep, with a picnic basket and a bottle of Champagne. “Basically we’re trying to generate some new food and beverage revenue that way,” said Almert.

Being a very classic Swiss hotel, until a couple of weeks ago, guests would receive a bottle of water and some Swiss chocolates on check out. Now they get a bottle of hand sanitizer. “Because that’s what people need more at the moment,” he added.

Right now, service is all about adapting to the situation. Anyone wondering how our wine rules will evolve in the aftermath of Covid should read up on the sociologist Norbert Elias. He traced how standards regarding violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions and table manners gradually changed from the Middle Ages to now. Each one transformed by increasing thresholds of shame and repugnance. In effect treating the grand sweep of European history as if it were a maturing adolescent. His analysis suggests that sharing each other’s glasses, clinking toasts, and communal spittoons at tastings could soon be as revolting to our descendants as eating off someone else’s plate or farting at dinner is to us. That said, it’s preferable to being chased out of a wine tasting by a bear.