#44: Bolivia

Year: 2016
Grapes: Tannat, Malbec
Producer: Campos de Solana
Alcohol: 14%
Source: Marks & Spencer!

It’s been a funny couple of days.

On Thursday night, Liv and I went to a carol service in Clapham, organised annually to raise money for Trinity Hospice. It’s held in a beautiful church with a very talented choir, and this year the congregational carol selection was close to perfect. Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful, In The Bleak Midwinter, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a strong line-up, and we belted each one out with appropriate gusto.

Halfway through the service, a member of the hospice’s fundraising committee stepped up to the lectern to deliver an address. He was maybe five years older than me, had an open, kind face, and spoke with a voice that only wavered or trembled occasionally during what turned out to be an extraordinary speech.

His wife died at the hospice in July, at the age of 38. He didn’t talk at all about the illness that caused her death, nor did he touch explicitly on the pain it had caused him or his children. Instead he told us how wonderful the staff and facilities had been at the hospice. What a difference they made to his wife’s morale, and how much they improved the last three weeks of her life. He talked about the peace and dignity with which she’d confronted death, and about the joy and vitality that defined her as a person.

He spoke eloquently, and with a depth of emotion that most of us are rarely capable of channelling coherently during our private conversations, let alone in front of a spellbound audience. He was, by turns, wry, reflective, funny, inspiring, and visibly, unapologetically consumed by grief. To listen to him was to feel – just for those few moments – the extent of our capacity to love another person, and our ability to bear the most devastating loss without crumbling into pieces. It was something truly special.

I started crying about halfway through his address, and never really stopped until he left the podium. I don’t think I was alone in that respect. After the service, I hugged Liv for a long time, and we had one of those conversations where words weren’t really required to communicate what each of us was thinking and feeling.

Later that evening, we went to the BFI IMAX for an 11pm screening of the new Star Wars movie. The Last Jedi isn’t just the cinematic event of the year; it also features Carrie Fisher’s final on-screen appearance, in scenes filmed a few months before her death last December. When we saw Leia for the first time – her face projected out in glorious 3D – I was surprised to hear a collective gasp ripple across the auditorium. It was like people had been waiting for that moment; for the catharsis of saying goodbye to the character, the actress, and the woman all at once.

I’m confident I’m not spoiling anything if I say that death – recent, impending, and actual – is one of The Last Jedi’s underlying themes. It’s a film where the main characters don’t come wrapped in plot armour, and it never felt like anyone was immune from the consequences of the danger and destruction unfolding around them. For some reason, that added poignancy and emotional weight to Carrie Fisher’s scenes; Leia is the heart of the Resistance, but more than that she is its soul, and the movie succeeds in making us care deeply about her survival, even as we know that the woman portraying her is gone.

As the end credits rolled, I fished my phone out of Liv’s handbag and opened an email from my dad. After living with MS for many years – a disease that tugs without haste or mercy on the threads that hold you together as a person – his cousin had suffered a number of seizures, and was not expected to survive the night. Sally was a lovely woman, full of wit and cheer. I’d hugely enjoyed her company at various family events, and that of her husband David too, but hadn’t seen either of them for three or four years. Sally’s sister, Rose, had contacted my dad to say that she was no longer in any pain, and that it was time for her to die in peace, with her children and David for company.

On Friday morning I got another email to say that Sally had passed away during the night. She spent her final days writing cards and wrapping presents for her family; she was the sort of person who’d always want Christmas to be perfect for the people she loved most. The funeral will take place on December 28th, and Rose made it clear that they all want it to be a celebration of Sally’s life. There’s a lot to celebrate.

Death comes to us all, in time, and few of us get to choose when or how it arrives. It can be fast or slow; cruel or merciful; dignified or squalid. It’s the one certainty in life, which is probably why it feels so consistently terrifying.

However, death can also be redemptive, inspiring, and even liberating in the impact it has on those left behind. Each of those three people – my dad’s cousin, the famous actress, a woman I’d never heard of before last night – left their mark on the world around them. They live on in the stories told by a proud, passionate, grief-stricken husband in a church full of strangers; in movies that have thrilled cinema-goers for 40 years, and will continue to do so for as long as people are still watching movies; and in the soft echo of a thousand kindnesses that friends and family will never stop hearing whenever they think of their mother, wife, sister, cousin, or pal.

Like the seeds of a dandelion, they were blown out onto the breeze, and only time will tell where they land.

If it seems incongruous to talk about death here, it really shouldn’t. Our mortality is the best reminder that pleasure holds huge value; that life is here to be lived; and that “we ought to submerge ourselves and those we love in joy at every opportunity.” Thanks are owed to my friend Lizzie for that one.

I walked around town at lunchtime on Friday feeling unspeakably grateful and blessed: not just for meeting and marrying Livvy, the love of my life, but for all the moments of happiness I’ve been lucky enough to experience over the years, and all the people who made them possible. Who continue to make them possible.

Many of those moments have been documented here, and indeed the whole wine challenge itself has proved to be yet another reservoir of joy – the kind of shared experience we can store away and use to top us up when times are tough. I hope everyone reading this can say the same about something they do, whether small or large, public or private.

It’s pointless and self-defeating to go through life with half an eye on the stories we want people to tell of us once we’re gone. However, we ought always to keep in mind the fact that we only get to do this once (in this body, at least), and every moment we waste dangling a toe in the water is a moment that could be spent fully immersed in whichever pool, lake, or deep blue ocean we want to swim.

Best to dive straight in.

Wine Info

From the Campos de Solana website:

Campos de Solana, the leading wine brand in Bolivia, was founded on the principle of using the height of the Tarija Valley to create world-class wines.

Managed by the Granier family, which has a deep-rooted history in the wine industry dating back to 1925, Campos de Solana has become the quintessential Bolivian brand. The quality of its wines is due to the location of its vineyards, highly qualified personnel, and its technological avant-garde.

Campos de Solana cultivates its vines in one of the world’s highest wine-growing areas. Its vineyards, located at more than 1,850 meters (6,070 ft.), receive more sun than traditional cultivation sites; therefore, its fruits have more flavor and aroma.

From the International Wine Challenge website:

Dense cranberry aromas, deep structure and integrated fruit, fresh youthful finish.

Wine Notes

Chris

This was an unexpected gem! Our lovely friend Rachel tipped us off to the existence of a Bolivian wine in M&S’ online collection, but with a minimum order of six bottles, we initially decided to pass. I was delighted, therefore, to discover it on the shelves of the large Simply Food store near one of my offices last week.

We drank it late on a frosty Tuesday evening, alongside oven-baked chicken pieces and mash. A Tannat/Malbec blend has the potential to overpower any food it’s paired with, but this was soft and rich rather than heavy, and fresh enough to make me feel like I could drink it on just about any occasion. For £11 a bottle, I’d highly recommend tracking it down in your local M&S, or even grabbing a case online – it’s really good value for money.

9/10

Livvy

This was a dark and very drinkable red; rich and a perfect accompaniment to roast chicken. It was tannic and had a slightly fruity flavour that took the edge off the delicious spicy finish. It reminded me of the reds from Uruguay – mainly spicy with a fruitiness that softened it, which is how I like tannins. Very good!

8/10, more proof that South American wines are good. How exciting!

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