Quite suddenly, writing about wine does not feel so important.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has spread across the world, lurking in plain site among asymptomatic people, and sending ordinary citizens into panic-buying of toilet paper (of all things). Fear and uncertainty have sent much of the global economy over the brink of a waterfall, and the entire nation of Italy — a recurring subject-matter here on the pages of Opening a Bottle — is under a complete quarantine. That’s 60 million people and Europe’s fourth largest economy shut off from the world until April 3.
Just three weeks ago, I was in a room with scores of Italians, enjoying their camaraderie and feeling as though they/we temporarily dodged the bullet of expanded tariffs on European wine. “What a disaster that would have been!” was the common refrain.
Now, here we are: Italy on lockdown. Parts of America cordoned off. States of emergency imposed. If there is any comfort, it is that China’s cases appear to be plateauing, some two months after the start of the epidemic there. At some point, that will happen in Italy, the rest of Europe, America … right?
Yes. Suddenly, wine does not feel so important.
And yet, what could be a better way to impose a regime of normalcy in our lives than to return to familiar tastes? I discovered for myself four years ago, when a beloved family member underwent chemotherapy for a rare form of pediatric cancer, that little bits of normalcy are the strongest beacons of light in the darkness. To some, that may seem like a lamely poetic excuse for drinking, but hear me out. We all have our own thing. That thing which drowns out the noise and restores calm. For some, it might be shooting hoops on the driveway. For others, going for a hike in the woods or perfecting their homemade pasta recipe. It’s these little bits of normalcy we love that counterbalance the big, scary, terrifying news of the day.
It goes without saying that for me, increasingly, that “little thing” is wine. Not because of its alcohol content and the effect it has on me (although that can be nice on days like this), but rather because of the stories that wine embodies. A Teroldego from old pergola vines set underneath imposing cliffs, a Moulin-à-Vent that is robust because of the winds that concentrate its grape clusters, a Pinot Noir from a remote vineyard seemingly floating on the clouds above the Sonoma Coast.
Take me away with your scent! Sweep me off my feet with a sip! The threats and anxieties of modern life will bring me back in a hurry, so do it now.
There is one place that has come to my mind a lot lately. It is the small vineyard of Venissa on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian Lagoon (pictured above). Comprised of Dorona grapes and propagated from old, forgotten vines from a nearby island, they are a symbol of resurrection and endurance in the face of constant threats. Last November, historic floods nearly wiped them out, and more floods will likely come in future years because of climate change and the snail’s pace of engineering a solution to the lagoon’s volatile tides.
Right now, the vineyard and its workforce are under mandatory quarantine, just as the rest of Italy is. The COVID-19 coronavirus has hit Venice and the Veneto especially hard. But more than most places, the vines at Venissa speak of a longer time frame. The Dorona grape made the wine of Venice’s ruling doges, then slumbered in solitude in the lagoon for centuries, only to be resurrected within the last 10 years. It is a stretching story arc that will seemingly outlast all of us.
Oddly, I take comfort in that fact. And wine is rife with such stories of endurance and perseverance.
We should not forget what a luxury it is to have these nice things we love. We should always be mindful of the suffering in this world, and do whatever we can to help alleviate it. And sometimes, you have to retreat from “saving the world” for a time to protect those closest to you. To crawl back into your shell and wait it out.
Just don’t forget to shoot some hoops, perfect your pasta, or pour that glass of wine that means something to you.
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