In years to come, when you pull the cork or twist the cap on a bottle of wine from vintage 2020, what memories will this year provoke? What stories will you tell? In among the sediment, will there be lessons worth a drink or two?
In wine lingo, a wine from a great vintage denotes a wine of exceptional quality from a year of optimal conditions. The term describes a wine shaped and elevated by a specific and unique combination of weather, place and time.
Wine enthusiasts revere a 2005 Burgundy or a 2009 Bordeaux because in those years, in those French wine regions, the weather gods conspired to deliver almost perfect growing conditions for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, respectively.
Conversely, 2011 was a bummer (broadly speaking). Across Europe, the year was characterised by a back-to-front growing season: by a hot spring, a cool summer and an erratic autumn that threw the vintage into chaos.
Monumental advancements in winemaking techniques mean that commercial winemakers now have the skills and technology to make decent wines in average years.
Even so, first and foremost, wine production remains an agricultural enterprise – a fancy form of farming – hostage to the elements and dependent on a dose of luck. Inevitably, some years are better than others.
Whenever I share a bottle of wine, I note the year on the label and ask those at the table to tell me what it was they were doing that same year: Did they travel, for example, in 1999? Where were they living in 2013?
Soon I will be asking, “Did 2020 bring you anything worthwhile?”
Personally, I am grateful for many things this year. I earned a steady wage, in a job that I treasure, at a time when COVID-19 was levelling whole industries and decimating livelihoods.
I spent the extended pandemic ‘lock-down’ in the company of my wife. I love my wife and my wife loves me; ours is a happy home. I don’t take that for granted.
I wrote a bit. I cooked a lot. I drank my share of decent wine. I saw with clarity and certainty the kind of life I want to lead when things return to ‘normal’.
I know a lot of people who did it tough this year. I saw them stretched to breaking point, but I never saw them bitter: they were never less than open, never less than true.
The woman who missed her father’s funeral because of COVID-19 travel restrictions: how that winded her, how it played on her mind, and yet she kept her equilibrium.
The woman whose world was abruptly up-ended, when her marriage fell apart: how she found the courage to ask for help, and the humility to be consoled.
The mate who spoke at his father’s funeral with gravitas and insight: how the stories he told, and the way he told them, seemed to summon his father one last time and embrace the old man’s spirit in nothing but thin air.
The friend diagnosed with cancer who underwent a sudden and aggressive form of chemotherapy, then wrote me an email that contained these words: I remain determined to prevail, stay positive and have some sort of celebration when I turn 45 in January.
On balance, it is these people – and others like them – who got me through this wretched year. I saw meaning in their struggle and a purpose to their pain. Their dignity was obvious, no matter how they felt.
And now the year is almost done, another vintage over.
I’ll drink champagne on New Year’s Eve. I’ll take a bottle from the fridge and tear the tin foil from its neck. I’ll wish you health and happiness, then press my thumb against the cork and aim it at the sky.