When it came to lockdown, I had a head start. Just before Christmas, a bout of pneumonia led to a thermometer-busting fever and the kind of hallucinations that some people would happily pay for. Out went any sense of smell or taste – not handy in my profession. Instead, everything tasted of fish. The worst was tea with milk (though tea with lemon, strangely, was fine).
Was this the early onset of coronavirus? Thinking back, I was in Alsace, which was badly affected by COVID-19, around Armistice Day. Who knows…?
I was fully recovered by the early part of the year, but my return to work proved to be short lived. I remember waking up on the first morning of lockdown and being reminded of the opening pages of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
And indeed there was. Such was the combined impact of the need to socially distance and the increased thirst of confined customers, The Wine Society was forced, for the first time in its history, to close down. It took us two weeks to sort out working practices in the warehouse – an essential step, since we were, at the time, overwhelmed with orders. Members of this Victorian institution, no doubt panic-buying loo rolls and pasta, were just as sensibly adding substantial purchases of claret and Mâcon-Villages to their baskets. We saw a massive increase in sales at the staple end as members stocked up on weekday wines. Just in case the triffids were on the move.
As for me, with winery visits and tastings off the agenda, what to do? Catch up on all those never-read books, perhaps? Proust, maybe. I’ve tried reading A la Recherche du Temps Perdu many times and have always given up at around the same spot.
There was no such question for Fiona, my other half, who was suddenly near-overwhelmed with her work as an investment analyst – she specialises in media – doing 12-hour days, relentlessly. All of which led me to step up on two fronts. Firstly, in the kitchen – cooking for the family. And secondly, opening plenty of bottles, to keep morale up. The only problem was that, with The Wine Society closing down, we very quickly ran out of weekday wines and so, faute de mieux, I began to plunder my stock of the finer stuff.
When it comes to wine, I am not so much a collector as a hoarder, with a hoard of mostly odd bottles. I like my wines well aged so inevitably though, the hoard is not small. It is also virtually inaccessible and there is always a worry that once I am in my cellar, I wouldn’t be able to get out again. Like Pooh Bear when visiting Rabbit.
In terms of quality, the bottles I have extracted from my den have been mixed, but some have been memorable. 1991 Northern Rhônes for one. It was a vintage that was ill-timed, coming after the great 1990s and 1989s and at a time of war. Yet for me, it’s one of the great Rhône vintages. My pick among lockdown bottles? Gilles Barge’s ’91 Côte-Rôtie and Robert Michel’s ‘91 Cornas. Meanwhile, a 2000 Cornas from Thierry Allemand was a rare treat and possibly the best bottle I’ve had this year.
Cooking offered a fun diversion, with notable failures that almost resulted in being furloughed from the family. My attempt at a mighty Alsatian Baeckeoffe might have found an appreciative audience in a Ferme-Auberge, high up in the Vosges, but in north London, during a heatwave, it was a miserable failure. On the other hand, it was a fine excuse to bring out a couple of excellent Rieslings from Trimbach, and – best of all on the night – Bürklin-Wolf.
A fortnight after closing down, The Wine Society came back to life. Or rather, we zoomed back into life. Forget conference calls; we now have Zoom meetings to discuss this and that, challenging the broadband to beyond its limits while the rest of the house are streaming (new to me) content from Netflix. Ultimately, this can only be a good thing. Since its creation, The Wine Society has been paper-based in all its correspondence. That was, of course, beginning to change but lockdown has forced us in to the digital age for good. We are looking forward to an online AGM this year – a monster Zoom-hosted webinar with 100,000 members or more…
The downside of lockdown has, of course, been the isolation. Opening these wonderful, venerable bottles without friends and colleagues on hand to share them. And so began my entry into the world of YouTube as, once a week, the kitchen becomes a film studio – you can see me battling with a particularly stubborn cork here. This venture began modestly enough but has since evolved thanks to the efforts of my son, Nicholas, who has been adding to our collection of cameras and lenses. Fortunately, comments on social media have been fairly kind, both about the wine and the progress of my beard, which has become something of a fixture in lockdown.
Our home too, has been transformed – the hall and nearly everywhere else resembles a warehouse as samples are now delivered chez moi rather than the office . Hristo is the DPD driver who turns up every other day with a box or two and a friendly smile. Tastings to look forward to include the first really serious wines from the 2019 vintage: Chapoutier, Dönnhoff and Schloss Lieser. Friends and neighbours are already volunteering to relieve me of the leftovers.
Finally, I feel like a wine buyer again. Only now, also a budding influencer, inconsistent cook (with a penchant now for Greek dishes) and ineffective cleaner. The Proust, alas, remains unfinished. Perdu for good, perhaps. Instead, I’ve given myself a new challenge – to master Bach or Satie on the piano. I just need to learn to play the thing first…