Essentially Nonessential: Wine in Strange Times

Wine writers from around the world reflect on the meaning of what they’re pouring right now

Paula Redes Sidore
Mar 24 · 16 min read
© Paula Redes Sidore

With reporting by Valerie Kathawala and Paula Redes Sidore


ine writers understand that we are, in the parlance of these dark times, non-essential. Yes, we know: Wine is luxury. But it is also our livelihood. While the last few weeks have concretely reaffirmed that there are far more important issues at stake than the contents of the next pour, for many of us, wine is a crucial piece in the larger puzzle of life that links people, place, and time. Jancis Robinson reports her cellar should last her six years of isolation. Not all of us are so lucky. So in this time of uncertainty, the question we asked a dozen prominent wine writers around the globe is: What, in this strange time, does wine mean to you now?


Jancis Robinson, MW, Author, Journalist, and Editor. London

Photo by Elizabeth Clancy

“I’m finding myself oddly drawn to top quality Champagne. Two fingers to the virus, perhaps.”

My first reaction to self-isolating or self-quarantining (you choose) was to be extremely grateful that all our wine is in our temperature-controlled cellar at home. I then worked out how long supplies would last. I think we’re okay so long as this virus lockdown doesn’t last longer than six years. For wine anyway. As for food, we have so far been benefiting directly from the fact that our son has been emptying the fridges in the four London restaurants he has been forced to close, poor thing. The virus has had a profound effect on my working timetable. I am only just now getting back to my usual work. See this. On Wednesday afternoon it was just a suggestion from our Italian specialist Walter Speller. By Thursday and Friday it had taken over my life and wine merchants around the world are still asking to be added. When it comes to the bottles themselves, I am taking my time deciding which bottles to open to honour the memories of Michael Broadbent and Carlos Falco. But quite apart from that, I’m finding myself oddly drawn to top quality champagne. Two fingers to the virus, perhaps.


Rachel Signer, Editor of Pipette. Basket Range, Australia

“When we lose most of our everyday pleasures — whether it’s seeing friends, going to restaurants, or taking pilates classes — wine can be our main source of joy.”

Over the past week I’ve been reaching for French and Italian wines. Out of solidarity and also sadness that I had to cancel upcoming trips. First world problems, maybe, but France and Italy are my spiritual homes! We recently enjoyed a Posca Bianca, a white blend made of perpetual reserves by Federico Orsi, who has biodynamic vineyards near Bologna. And we also had a 2010 Tokaj from Radikon that was showing really beautifully, as well as a chardonnay called La Justice from Domaine de Belle-Vue in the Loire, which had wonderful richness and mineral tones. I hope to soon be drinking these wines in their home countries! Wine is a reminder that despite all the odds — climate change, politics, recession — people continue crafting beautiful things for enjoyment around the world. I actually make wine here in Australia, and we’ve been in the heat of vintage during the rise of coronavirus. It’s been really comforting to work with my hands and body as the news becomes increasingly dire. In addition to my own family, we also now have our “vintage family” — a few interns who have been living with us for several weeks. Drinking together is our most social and human act right now and we are drinking like it’s the end of the world. Busting out the Champagne. The last bottles of whatever. Why wait? Enjoy the special moments as much as you can, right now. When we lose most of our everyday pleasures — whether it’s seeing friends, going to restaurants, or taking pilates classes — wine can be our main source of joy. Honestly, wine has been sort of keeping us going as we have only begun to come to terms with how drastically the world is changing right before our eyes.”


Felicity Carter. Editor in Chief, Meininger’s Wine Business International. Neustadt, Pfalz, Germany

“I plan to wait until the wine bar opens again before returning to the really exciting stuff. For me, part of the joy is other people, and that isn’t available right now.”

So here is the terrible truth: I don’t keep wine at home. When I feel like wine I go to the local wine bar in my small German town. The woman who runs it has great taste, and she’s always excited about new things she buys in small quantities and pours with great delight for her regulars. We are utterly entranced by German sparkling wines and (in winter) by spätburgunder. I also drink a lot of the local riesling of course, as well as some of the new wave chardonnay from around the Pfalz. Because of the new regulations, the wine bar closed on Monday. To avoid being wine-less, I’ve ordered some local whites and spätburgunder rosés online. Our literal neighbor, Weingut Weegmüller, for example, is headed up by Stephanie, the first female winemaker in Germany. Her wines are full of flavour. Also the wines of Oliver Zeter, Reichsrat von Buhl and Katrin Wind, a very talented younger winemaker. But for me, the thrill is the discovery, especially with other engaged people. Because my partner was working in Australia when this happened, and the borders between us are closed, my wine consumption will plunge. A bit of white and rosé, perhaps, but I plan to wait until the wine bar opens again before returning to the really exciting stuff. For me, part of the joy is other people, and that isn’t available right now.


Simon Woolf, Author The Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine, Editor of The Morning Claret. Amsterdam

“Wine continues to connect us all socially and culturally, in ways that continue to surprise me.”

Lately, I’ve been looking mainly to whites and oranges, to match with what we were cooking or eating. A stellar Blaufränkisch (Lichtenbeger-Gonzalez Leithaberg 2015) got pulled into service to partner a meaty pasta dish. Wine gives me comfort in that there is still much of life that can be enjoyed, and also the realization that I’m incredibly lucky. We have a sizable stash of delicious bottles squirreled away in our apartment and my partner and I have each other to enjoy them with. As we’re keen cooks, we eat and drink a lot at home in any case. So far our wine choices are pretty much business as usual. That said, I’m definitely feeling a bit more devil-may-care about what gets opened. Boredom or depression is just not an option! I’ve been feeling more a reaffirmation that this multifaceted liquid holds the keys to sensory enjoyment, mood enhancement and so much more. Wine continues to connect us all socially and culturally, in ways that continue to surprise me. Last night I hosted an Instagram live stream where everyone joined and opened a bottle of orange wine. We interviewed winemakers and wine lovers from around the world, and I got to see and chat with good friends I haven’t seen in a while. I also learned new details about wines and producers I thought I knew well. It was a lively, enriching experience stuffed full of good vibes and a sense of togetherness fueled by wine.”


Stuart Pigott. Journalist and Author, Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story. Frankfurt

“I take comfort in knowing that what was fresh grapes several years or even a couple of decades ago has continued transforming, sometimes in ways I never expected.”

These days I find myself reaching for more of the wonderful mature wines in my cellar than I would have under “normal” circumstances. That doesn’t mean, however, that all the last bottles of great wines have been opened in one mad orgy. I’m expecting to be here next month and next year, and I expect you will be, too. I do keep thinking of the people I would like to share the most delicious bottles with, and can’t. Since several of them have been dead for many years this is not an entirely unfamiliar situation — just more extreme than it was a few weeks back. And yet, I take comfort in knowing that what was fresh grapes several years or even a couple of decades ago has continued transforming, sometimes in ways I never expected. Nature is strong outside in the fields and forests, but the biochemical processes in closed wine bottles are, too. I believe in science and since the turn of the last century, we have learned a great deal about how the vine grows, the synthesis of aromas, tannins and other substances that influence taste. The current lack of diversion has made me focus more on the taste experience, and there’s always something mysterious about that because the human psyche is involved. Namu Amida Butsu.


Meg Maker, Editor of Terroir Review, Artist, Consultant. New Hampshire

“We are simply opening our favorite house wines, made by people in France or Italy who may at this very moment be sick or dying. We are opening these wines in solidarity with them.”

My husband and I are used to being home alone together. On any normal evening around 6 p.m., I leave my office-slash-studio and head to our kitchen. We open wine and I start to cook our meal. Our cellar isn’t deep. Neither are the shelves of the wine shops in our neck of the woods. I do receive a slew of wine samples, but evaluating wine requires focus and time, and it’s hard to muster that energy at the end of a workday. So we have a rotation of house wines. Recently it’s heavy on the Rhône, Provence, the Mâcon; Piedmont, Trentino, the Veneto. Ideally, the wines are organic or biodynamic, sustainably made, family made. Mostly, we’re after affordable refreshment, just plain deliciousness. Normally, I cook, we eat, we drink some modest wine. But nothing’s quite normal anymore. As an antidote, we cling to the normalcy of our dinner hour, and to wines of comfort. Wine is work, and my brain is already overheated processing the pandemic. So we are not opening the single bottle of 1995 Mouton-Rothschild my husband bought as a future. (It’s not ready yet anyway.) We are not opening any of our scant supply of unicorn wines. We are simply opening our favorite house wines, made by people in France or Italy who may at this very moment be sick or dying. We are opening these wines in solidarity with them. We are toasting our collective good health.


Ursula Heinzelmann, Journalist, Author of Beyond Bratwurst : A History of Food in Germany. Berlin

© Arda Ipek

“Just as in more normal times, evening and relaxation start for me when the first glass is being poured…In other words, life goes on.”

I live on my own and I love being at home, so I’m drinking now like I always do. Some wines I needed to taste for a piece I’m working on (Teroldego and Nosiola from Trentino), some were in the general tasting line (Saumur from Arnaud Lambert), and some I just felt like drinking: Nahe Riesling from Weingut Tesch, Czech pet-nat from Dobrá Vinice. Just as in more normal times, evening and relaxation start for me when the first glass is being poured. My cellar is (or at least feels) well stocked, so all is well because Corona PLUS no wine would be unbearable, as much for (let’s be honest) the alcohol as for the pleasure. In other words, life goes on. I’m still drinking!


Rémy Charest, Journalist. Quebec City

“I don’t personally feel it’s quite the moment to pull out the 2006 Rougeard or the birth year Barolo.”

“Right now I’m reaching mostly for comforting, easy-going wines. Something that makes you want to relax and helps drop the stress level a bit. This doesn’t feel like a time for overanalyzing and intellectualizing wines. Connection has been the driving force: Drinking wines from producers I know, whose vineyards I’ve seen, whom I’ve known over several (or even many) vintages and whose wines thus fit into a continuity. I was particularly happy to drink a Mother Rock white blend from South Africa when making homemade pizza with my kids. I’ve visited the country twice and it’s become very dear to my heart. The first time I visited was after a really bad breakup, in 2015, and visiting a place at once so welcoming and so different and beautiful was the beginning of a personal reset, so I guess the positive emotional connection was particularly welcome. When I’m not traveling, I’m rather happy to stay home, so a lot of the “regular” drinking already happens there. Being more focused on the home cellar, the selection shifts a bit, as it becomes more about managing existing stocks. I am looking into sourcing wine from local producers as time goes by, but since we’re strongly encouraged to isolate, I’m focusing more on what I have on hand right now. I’ve been pulling out better bottles than average, but more in the “let’s wait for a dinner with friends or a really great meal” category, nowhere near unicorn wines. After all, as I’m writing this, it’s only been a bit over a week since we’ve been steered towards isolation and I don’t personally feel it’s quite the moment to pull out the 2006 Rougeard or the birth year Barolo. Higher level comfort, yes, but still with an eye to the longer term. This will pass, and I still want to have really good things to drink when dinners with family and friends will resume. Questions about trends and fashions seem extremely trivial, but wine as a daily presence and ritual certainly seems important in maintaining normalcy and providing comfort and a good sensory, even aesthetic experience — not unlike music.


Alder Yarrow, Editor of Vinography, San Francisco Bay Area

“Wine continues to play the role it has always played, reminding us how lucky we are to live and love and taste what we can in the little time we have on this earth.”

Our household wine consumption hasn’t changed much in style this past week, in that we normally just drink whatever strikes our fancy from among the wines we’ve bought for ourselves to the never-ending pile of samples that keep arriving. This week we’ve polished off a sample bottle of 2015 Dalla Valle Maya with some steak, a 2014 Wind Gap Pinot Noir that I bought at fire sale prices, a sample bottle of 2016 Maison Champy Pernand Vergelesses Rouge, and a 2017 Suertes de Marques Valle de la Ortava Vidonia from the Canary Islands. What HAS changed this past week is the frequency of our consumption. On an ordinary week, we might have a glass with dinner two or three nights of the week, but this past week we’ve enjoyed wine every night. Home is where I do most of my drinking anyway, with the exception of occasional nights out with friends. Wine blunts the edge of anxiety. That has been a welcome balm in recent days, and will continue to be during these troubling times. I will admit to reaching for the “reserve” section of my cellar a bit more in the past few weeks. The last dinner out I had before the shelter-in-place order came through featured a few precious bottles that I had hand-carried back with me from Hungary and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, among other places. When life is upended by crisis and disaster, there are a lot more important things to worry about than what wine is going to be in the glass. But in the moments we have to relax, share a meal, and take care of each other, wine continues to play the role it has always played, reminding us how lucky we are to live and love and taste what we can in the little time we have on this earth.


Emily Campeau, Writer, Beverage Director, Candide Restaurant. Currently somewhere outside Montréal

“I am absolutely aware of my good fortune despite this terrible situation.”

I find myself in an unusual situation. I live on the border between Austria and Hungary, even though I am from Montréal and still have my main employment there. I call both of these places “home” and feel constantly torn by not seeing enough of one or the other. Montréal is where I was when the corona disaster hit. Afraid to go back to a chaotic Europe, I made the decision to stay in Quebec until the storm passes. My best friend and I packed our bags and headed north to a friend’s cabin in the woods. We have been sipping through the selection we put together at the speed of light. It is a punky mix and everyday brings a new vibe: pet-nats, Champagne, world-class pinots (Wasenhaus, Dandelion, Santini), structured whites for the table. The anchoring ability of wine to bring rhythm and ritual to the long days in the company of a person I never get bored of, is my ultimate comfort. Picking wines for the evening, the long preparation of meals accompanied by the ever-changing apéro, the decision to cork the bottle for a quieter night or open another one when the discussion won’t go dry, are all synonyms of nurturing for me. The place of wine hasn’t changed in our household, but the conversations have grave themes, like how the hell are we supposed to come out of this recession when the time comes, how many restaurants will we lose along the way? I miss my husband, who is still in Europe, greatly, but I am relieved to be living this crisis in Quebec, where I speak the languages and am aware of what to do if a situation gets critical. I am absolutely aware of my good fortune despite this terrible situation.


Michael Schmidt, Writer covering German wine for JancisRobinson.com Bad Neuenahr, Germany

Reading Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov at the moment can be hard going and benefits from a little lubrication. Dry German Riesling from Gut Hermannsberg, von Othegraven, Kloster Eberbach, Spätburgunder from R & C Schneider and Ziereisen and a delightful Weisser Burgunder from Salwey. But I’m not xenophobic, so an Alvarinho from Portugal, a Chardonnay from South Africa and a Chateau Potensac 2001 round out the line up. I am fortunate enough to live in a place where self-isolation does not prevent me from a walk in the woods or vineyards, and as wine has always been a top priority in my life, nothing too much has changed. My relationship with my cellar has always been an intimate one. Other people stock up on loo paper. I buy wine, but never in panic.


Chandra Kurt. Writer, Publisher, Consultant. Zürich

“Wine provides a comfort in the twin poles of calm and imagination, and I am trying to savor the time I now have to drink slowly and with serenity.”

We have a WhatsApp group where we share what we drink and cook. The simple act of opening a bottle makes cooking at home these days both celebratory and calming. On the one hand, I am enjoying my local Swiss wines, especially Non-Filtré Chasselas from the 3-Lac-Region Neuchatel. And on the other hand, I’m relishing hope for the future, a feeling that this will get better, that comes when I open and drink wine from other countries. Wine provides a comfort in the twin poles of calm and imagination, and I am trying to savor the time I now have to drink slowly and with serenity.


Christoph Raffelt, Host of Originalverkorkt Podcast and Blog. Hamburg

© Cordula Kropke

“I spend a lot of time these days thinking about how I can best support not only these great winemakers but also the retailers who bring these wines into the wider world.”

For me, wine now is not actually that different from other times. I taste many, drink a few, and write about them all along the way. Sometimes a few really stay with me, like the Clos de Beru and the Côtes aux Prêtes Sans Soufre by Athenaïs de Béru. Or a Chenin Blanc called Poïèsis 2018 by Oliver Lejeune (Clos des Plantes). I decide what to open based on what pairs best with whatever I’m cooking for dinner that evening. Yesterday it was a simple Chinon. On Thursday and Friday it was a mature Tuscan Sangiovese — a bottle I had left in the cellar for a decade to see how it developed. For me, it is this development and pairing — not the unicorn bottles — that are crucial elements of my relationship with wine. I spend a lot of time these days thinking about how I can best support not only these great winemakers but also the retailers who bring these wines into the wider world. Personally, that is why I have decided to buy more bottles than I usually do. I am also amplifying the message through various channels such as podcasts to make people aware that if they have money left over they should think of buying wine from the winegrowers and merchants who need it most.

Planet of the Grapes

Exploring the world of wine, with pleasure.

Paula Redes Sidore

Written by

Writer| translator | wine nomad. Old world taste & new world attitude. Editor, Planet of the Grapes. Founder www.weinstory.de

Planet of the Grapes

Exploring the world of wine, with pleasure.

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