I have committed myself to a pretty brutal travel schedule this year, at least until the end of July. Since the end of January I’ve been in New Zealand, California and Portugal, and travel to California again tomorrow. Then it’s Prowein, then Bordeaux, South Africa, a gap for the International Wine Challenge, then Champagne, then Beaujolais, Alsace, Germany, Canada, Washington State/Oregon, then Australia. That takes me through to August.
This is a bit bonkers, and I think I did it partly as a means of escape. But travel is something I enjoy, and I will learn a lot, although this will put immense pressure on the time I’m actually in the country. It is also very hard to write sensibly about wine without actually travelling. Tasting bottles in London can only get you so far in your understanding of wine.
The irony of being committed to endless wandering while studying a liquid that is so rooted in place has not escaped me. Wine is very much about roots. It is about communities settling. In ancient times, the emergence of wine culture likely paralleled the transition from nomadic communities to those who settled in one place. If I plant a vineyard it is a statement that I’m intending to stick around for a while. After all, it’s a few years until the first crop, and then a few more until the best grapes are produced.
If wine is about settling in a place, then it’s a happy coincidence that of all agricultural products, none achieves such an imprint from the place as does wine. In this sense, the French appellation system is something to be marvelled at. It’s the official sanction of a remarkable joint endeavour between place and people. Local communities decided among themselves that certain varieties expressed their place best, and agreed to cultivate them to the exclusion of others. Coupled with this was a recognition that some sites were especially privileged. This joint enterprise, a collaboration of land and people, sanctions the expression of place in a wine in a way that is now legally framed and protected.
As a wanderer, I am rootless, and psychologically this can sometimes be hard to deal with. There’s something about being part of something bigger – joining a community and sticking with it – that is very attractive. I think I would like to find a place where I belonged. Maybe one day. In a world that is full of constant change, where nothing is permanent, and which seems to be dulling its pain with frenetic activity, the quiet ancient voice of the universe calls us to pause, to slow down, to be rooted, and to stay. As we drink wine – an expression of belonging to a place – we hear this voice.
But for now, I am a wanderer, and this brings with it some benefits. The change of scene keeps me open to personal change and growth. I learn so much from seeing different places and different groups of people. Society has always needed nomads and journeyers, just as it has always needed artists, poets and writers to reflect and challenge, as well as to entertain. So for now I am a wanderer writing on a liquid that is very much rooted in place.