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At the Bar: Raising a (socially distanced) toast

Wine is the answer, now what’s the question? Even at a social distance, sharing a favourite bottle brings people together, writes Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants

Even at a social distance, sharing a favourite bottle brings people together, writes Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants (42537840)
Even at a social distance, sharing a favourite bottle brings people together, writes Hal Wilson of Cambridge Wine Merchants (42537840)

This Christmas I will be sending a bottle of wine to everyone I normally see over the festive period. Normally I give anything but wine as it’s a bit too predictable. But this year I have been constantly reminded that wine plays its part in keeping us socially tied and I will happily share with friends and loved ones gifts that have real meaning to me. So this column is from the heart and in it I try to explain some of the reasons I think wine is, actually, quite important.

Wine is officially one of life’s essentials. Back in March we will remember what the panic-buyers emptied supermarket shelves of first: toilet paper, flour and wine. It tells you something about our priorities doesn’t it?

My business doesn’t sell toilet paper or flour and as a retailer we dutifully closed our branches on the Monday of Lockdown, only to be told on Wednesday that we were an ‘essential service’ and should reopen. It seems on that point the Government caught the nation’s mood and agreed that wine is an essential for many adults in the UK (33 million of us on latest estimates).

In April we couldn’t go out, so we took to our computers and boy did we shop. For our business the surge in online orders replaced the almost total collapse of on-trade orders (from restaurants, pubs, hotels and colleges) that make up half of our turnover and kept us going. Most of those orders were from people local to the Cambridge area who wanted to support local businesses that they liked. Most of the names were unknown to us, even though I’m sure the faces wouldn’t have been, and we are so grateful for your support.

Most online orders were for wine and many were placed as gifts for delivery to people who were struggling to buy essentials as they were shielding. My friend Eleanor was one such person and her experience of sending a selection of wines to her friend Elisabeth was really moving. Elisabeth had mentioned she couldn’t order wine online with groceries and people who were bringing other essentials to her door were neglecting to bring any wine, something she cherished and missed. Eleanor was so moved she wrote a wonderful story about our shared connection to wine in difficult times. You can read it on the Blog space of our website - cambridgewine.com/blog.asp. Thanks Eleanor, it’s beautiful!

Our relationship with alcohol in the UK has been the focus of huge amounts of research, debate and policy making over the last 20-plus years I’ve been in the wine trade. So much so that it is easy to feel that I am part of the problem not part of the solution. Yes, alcohol consumption involves increased risks to health. Yes, we need to understand the risks better and consume in moderation. Yes, we play our part in protecting children and vulnerable groups from coming into contact with alcohol as responsible licensees. And yes, wine plays a role in making our society tick, making it healthy in spirit as well as body.

Martin Luther wrote ‘Beer is made by man, wine by God’. He wasn’t drinking the amazing ales we’ve been selling recently, but he clearly draws a distinction between two types of alcoholic beverage. Wine plays a central part in Judaeo-Christian religious traditions which has passed into our western cultural practices. If not God then certainly Mother Nature has a huge hand in winemaking. You make wine once a year and it reflects the conditions nature bestowed on the land the vines grow in. Each passing vintage reminds me of the small miracle that reveals itself in the glass in front of me.

So enjoy wine, enjoy sharing it with friends and those you love. Send it far and wide as a meaningful gift. In difficult times it reminds us of our blessings. Cheers.

Hal Wilson is the owner of Cambridge Wine Merchants, which has branches on King’s Parade, Bridge Street and Cherry Hinton Road, as well as managing the University Centre Wine Bar on Mill Lane.

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