Wine In the Time of War

Despite Edwin Starr's sage advice that war is good for absolutely nothing, mankind's wilful ignorance and boundless stupidity means that we still cannot resist a 'good old' war. In 2014 the notion of a peaceful world is a chimera. Innumerable atrocities meted by the Islamic State, tit-for-tat exchange of missiles over Gaza, brinkmanship over Ukraine's sovereignty and God knows what else that lies around the corner... the combination is rendering me anaesthetised to this shameful catalogue of internecine warfare. A pound of flesh is never enough. I cannot be the only parent looking at their kids and imagining the kind of world they will grow up in. The prosaic answer is: "not a very nice one."

Wine writers don't dally in politics or religion. That is partly because wine does not recognise political boundaries, only religious ones and even then that is more often a result of historical misinterpretation, a corruption of original scriptures.

I recently read an interesting and timely piece by vinous laureate, Andrew Jefford. His column dwelled upon the perceived immorality for wine writers to regale bacchanals and expensive wines whilst children are being orphaned and ethnicities "cleansed". By sheer coincidence, I visited a fusty second-hand bookshop in my hometown of Leigh-on-Sea a few days after its publication and there upon the upper shelf, I chanced upon a reprint of André Simon's editorials in "Wine and Food" magazine that had been published in 1940. It was so pertinent that I wanted to bring it wider attention, for every word and sentiment is applicable now more than ever.

A little background first. "Wine and Food" was a 'gastronomical quarterly' that debuted in 1934 by the aforementioned eminence gris of the English wine trade, gourmand and prolific author for the "Wine and Food Society". The publication was dedicated to sharing the joys of fine cuisine and wine on both sides of the Atlantic, essentially a precursor to every fine wine website that exists today. Simon commissioned writers to pen articles on dinners that even decades later remain vicarious reads, a glimpse back to an innocent time when there was no speculation or investment funds; just the enjoyment of cellaring a few grandees to pour with friends and family. André's eloquent prose is always worth reading, all the more remarkable given that he was French.

Consider the backdrop. In 1940 the outlook for the British was bleak. Our backs were against the wall and fate sealed but for a stretch of water disconnecting us from the Continent. The Nazis were rampaging across Europe and liberty was being stamped out under the march of jackboots. Many had seen the evacuation of Dunkirk, whilst Hitler's invasion of Britain had merely been postponed. Rationing had been introduced and terrified citizens ran for cover during the Blitz. Given this scenario then the notion of evangelising the enjoyment of fine cuisine and quaffing fine wine would have seemed vulgar. This was the measured response...

"Three months have passed; three kings and a queen have lost their peoples and their peoples have lost their liberty. For the third time in less than three-quarters of a century the fair land of France has been laid waste by the same covetous enemy. If we are to preserve some sanity in spite of the mechanized malnutrition and indigestion - we must still eat and drink in a civilised way whilst we may; we must still take an intelligent interest in our meals in spite of carking cares and bitter grief. Hence our conviction that, within our very humble sphere, we are doing what is right, and in no way do we feel in the mood to apologize for continuing the publication of "Wine & Food".
(Andre Simon - Wine and Food, No. 26)

The defiance of Simon simmers underneath his deftly chosen words, without dismissing or making light of the gravity of the situation. It seems clear to me that he had spent many hours contemplating the role of the publication in wartime and doubtless some had whispered into his ear, that there should be some hiatus until hostilities ended. That is easy to say in hindsight. Remember that it was not necessarily the Allies who would be victorious. In 1940, many must have foreseen no other conclusion but for a German invasion, therefore Simon's attitude was likely to be one of continuing come what may until no longer possible. Several decades on and the sentiments expressed by André Simon still ring true.

The next time I learn of another ominous threat or fatal bombing or stomach-churning atrocity, I will reach for a coveted bottle of wine as a private gesture to a world where at least a majority has kept its freedom and make a toast to both the tolerance of others and that precious thing we call life.

More articles from this author