Wine in the time of Corona – and wine get-togethers

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Raghu Bahadur 

 

No, I am not about to present an apologia for uninhibited indulgence in wine to while away the mind numbing hours of the lockdowns: quite the contrary in fact. I am here to propagate a wider enjoyment of wine, not to replace one malady – unwelcome and, dare we hope, destined to die soon – with another that could be more pernicious.

 

Wine get-togethers have for a long time been a well-loved activity among professional women worldwide. In India, too, they have established a niche in a few metropolitan towns, particularly those that are in, or near, wine-producing regions. Unfortunately, the advent of PCE (Post Covid Era) has brought in its wake some drastic changes to the existence of this popular institution. The first step in the fight against the virus was imposition of the lockdown, which practically ended all social gatherings as well as non-essential travel. The wine get-togethers fell well within the ambit of these restrictions and ended abruptly, even the small, informal ones – such was the fear of catching the virus and suffering two weeks of quarantine, or worse. In the gathering gloom and uncertainty stocking up for future get-togethers was put on the back burner.

However, you cannot keep a good idea down for long. Hi-tech soon resuscitated the get-togethers in a new avatar, thanks to the Zoom virtual meeting app. Internet communication lines lit up with a vengeance, hitches and glitches were quickly sorted out so as not to jeopardise the rebirth of a favourite pastime, and wine get-togethers were on again, this time in virtual space. Participants greeted each other on their computer screens, settled comfortably in their favourite spot at home, with a bottle of wine, an empty wine glass and a corkscrew within easy reach, eagerly waiting for the party to start. As to the question of the wine itself, the raw material and the raison d’être of the whole enterprise, the best that could be done was to drink whatever was available in the participants’ homes. In an ideal setting the same wine would be drunk in each home, but that was too much to expect as the option of rushing over to the wine shop for a last-minute purchase was no longer available, the lockdown having made sure of that.

So it is that the Wine Zoomer took birth, welcomed alike by those who had experienced the real thing and were missing it, as well as by newcomers. It soon gained an eager following due to the ease with which it can be arranged at short notice. All you have to do is to make a, well, guest list – long, short, or maybe just one guest in case you feel like having a long chat with a friend over a glass of wine – send each one a ‘let’s Zoom’ message and the party is on. Unlike the original get-togethers no special arrangements have to be made other than to ensure that the children, and husband, remain well occupied in another room. Keep the wine ready of course, with the bottle visible to the others, along with your tasting notes, if any – it is after all a wine get-together.

As for devotion to duty, if not to the cause of wine – a Taiwanese sommelier is taking wine tasting classes online. Going under the apt professional name of Peter Petrus, he says he had to go online to keep his business afloat during the Covid outbreak. He diligently pours tasting size amounts into smaller bottles, labels them and despatches them to his students, who join him online, drinking and flipping through course material.

Like other Zoom meetings Wine Zoomers, too, have a slight element of disarray. At times the whole group is not visible as one unit and the conversation gets a little disjointed. This usually happens when two or more people start talking simultaneously, sometimes even at cross purposes. The fact that they are drinking different wines adds to the problem. In such a milieu the more assertive participants tend to monopolise the airtime, but that is an inherent feature of group behaviour.

Nevertheless, Wine Zoomer is without doubt a sensible alternative to the age-old girlfriends’ wine get-together where all participants would gather together under one roof. Yes, it has taken away the intimacy of physical togetherness, the air kisses, the clinking of glasses, the hugs, but, in our present virus-imperilled existence, it has thankfully also taken away at least one source of the dreaded virus, which these charming social customs are known to transmit. As for the minor operational glitches, the technology that made Wine Zoomer possible in the first place will sort that problem out too.

When Corona free days are back (surely not too much to expect) there will be a problem of plenty with both versions of the get-together, the classic and the Wine Zoomer, existing simultaneously. I expect the entire cast involved in this drama will be satisfied with this denouement, and the situation will continue for as long as it can sustain itself. If anything Wine Zoomer will come into use more often because its structure is less rigid, and it is much easier to arrange and manage.

Meanwhile, home get-togethers have staged a cautious reappearance, made possible by the latest batch of social distancing norms, which have to be observed strictly. However, as the fear of infection still remains, the number of participants is kept low in order to ensure that the mandated minimum distance of two metres between guests is not breached. For larger groups houses that have functional gardens are attractive venues. In America girls welcomed their “regular yet life- affirming pre-Corvid ritual” with plenty of excitement. Calling it the “real thing” after enduring more than two months of “Zoom cocktails”, one girl said she felt as if she was greeting a “long lost lover.” Another girl, coming out on her own after the long isolation, “felt like a new mom on her first night out without the baby.”

To conform to social distancing norms backyards in houses serve as the setting for the party, where guests sit in a wide circle, looking like a sitcom family filming an outdoor scene. Since the virus is still active the advice to guests is, “BYO (Bring Your Own) everything, including wine, snacks, wineglass, tissue, bottle opener; and please, no sharing.” And the best one for last: the long evening means you will need to use the loo, “so come dressed to squat behind a bush.”

How come I know all this about girls’ wine get-togethers? Well, I have two active reporters, my twin daughters, one reporting from Bangalore and the other from America. Their groups are quite knowledgeable about wine and their level of enjoyment and enthusiasm is boundless. As for myself, whenever I am present at either location I happily volunteer to help after the party to bring the leftover wine to an honourable conclusion.