I started this month in Tunisia visiting the wine regions there for 80 Harvests. As a mainly Muslim country, wine consumption isn’t exactly high. However, there are a brave few who produce wine despite the social, political and economic pressures that are stacked up against them.
Although wine consumption is low, Tunisia struck me as a remarkably tolerant country. While I’m sure there are always extremes, the Tunisians I met there were quite happy if their neighbour did, or didn’t, drink alcohol – the only concern was that everyone could make their own choice. Freedom of choice is all the more poignant in a post-revolution society, and it felt as though the main motive for winemaking wasn’t about the market but rather about defending their right to make, and enjoy, wine and the culture that surrounds it.
I felt some similarities to my experiences visiting the Nashik wine region in India a few years ago. One winemaker I met told me that when he started working at the winery his family cut him off, ashamed that they had lost him to the dark world of alcohol (the fact that he had never swallowed a drop of alcohol at that time was beyond the point). Despite the difficulties, he pursued his career and within five years he had moved up from lab assistant to head winemaker, after which I’m happy to say his family eventually came round – even enjoying the odd glass of wine with him today. But it can’t have been easy.
I always admire people who suffer for their passion, or their profession. This might be rather a Homeric attitude, but a protagonist has to surpass suffering to become a hero in my eyes.
Some of the greatest wine stories have that element of suffering: continuing to fight against the ravages of war; overcoming family feuds to harvest for future generations; losing everything in a devastating vintage before going on to make a legendary wine…
I’m not sure that wine writers have quite the same plight (mediocre pay and belly aches after overindulgent lunches don’t really compare!) But I do think we have a duty: to celebrate the heroes of wine, regardless of how sweet – or bone dry – their success tastes. After all, heroes don’t exist without a bard to tell the tale.
Next month, I’ll be republishing my own piece on Tunisia’s wine revolution on The Circular and I would like to encourage members to send in any of their own stories on unsung wine heroes.