I’m not sure if I should get a medallion or something, but it’s been over a year since I had my last glass of wine. Today I finally broke that streak, with a glass of my favorite Peruvian offering, the Viña Vieja Chenin Blanc. It’s literally the first wine I’ve tasted with “2020” on the label.
You know why, too. COVID, that’s why.
Living in Peru has been nothing less than a nightmare during the pandemic. Most first-worlders can’t imagine the absolute chaos, terror, and simultaneous ambivalence that residents of Peru have faced.
For me, it’s been personal. My father-in-law died after one moment of weakness, following nearly a year of solid adherence to strict protocols. Prior to his death, he had given up nearly his entire normal way of living — which involved active work with the Policia Nacional del Peru (PNP) and helping retired police officer — for the sheltered life of a hermit living under pandemic conditions. An extrovert and social butterfly, we knew he hated it, but he sacrificed his lifestyle for the overall benefit of his family.
Until one day he didn’t. Invited by his fellow police officials to a brief luncheon in downtown Lima, he gave in to weakness and went to a restaurant. he came back with COVID. Less than two weeks later, this healthy lion of the PNP was thrown into a dusty, tented parking lot and left to die. Whereas he once was an official member of the presidential protective guard, he was now denied all dignity and allowed to suffocate without proper oxygen or medication. The Peru healthcare system had all but collapsed, and stories similar to his were happening by the minute throughout all of Peru.
Worse, he had infected others in our family. His wife, my mother-in-law, contracted COVID, as did members of my immediate family. All survived, with some showing no symptoms at all, while others struggled and barely made it. Meanwhile, we watched as hearses came nearly weekly to cart away some other neighbor.
I was closer to my father-in-law than I was my own father, who I had fallen distant from as soon as I hit 16. With my father-in-law, I felt had recovered a father and while we disagreed at times, we also enjoyed a real adult father-son relationship. He also loved trying the various wines I would bring home, and he was my co-conspirator when cracking open a new bottle.
For my part, I decided in April of 2020 that I would quarantine and stay quarantined until a vaccine emerged. I did just that, leaving the house only four times when absolutely necessary: doctor or dentist appointments. I changed my entire business model to providing remote services only, and developed new methods to conduct all of my work online. I hunkered down and intended to stay that way. I’ve done that ever since.
Peru, meanwhile, fell apart. Oxygen ran out, as did medical supplies. Doctors were found re-using masks and gloves, and medicine was in short supply. The country went through three presidents in two weeks. The spread of COVID was the worst in the world. The people on the street adhered to rules for toque de queda (curfuws) for a month or two, then resuemd their normal lives. They wore masks, yes, but social distancing in an overpopulated city was impossible. And transmission rates skyrocketed. The police enforced cuarantine rules for a few months, and gave up. They simply couldn’t fight against 99% of the country’s population which needed to go back to work.
Peru had the money to pay people to stay home, but like most governments, was so beholden to institutions like the IMF, it opted instead to try to maintain an economic model that was based on pre-pandemic conditions. So everything fell apart, and hundreds of thousands of people died.
Bringing this all back to the subject of wine, there was no way I was going to exit my house and buy wine or attend events to write wine reviews. In the grand scheme of things, survival was more important, and I was literally fighting to survive. Every day I was trying to avoid infection, unsure if my immune system could battle this beast or not. I preferred not to find out.
Meanwhile, wine in the local shops was sitting on shelves in un-airconditioned conditions. Even if I had the inclination to go out and buy, whatever I bought was likely to taste like horse urine. That’s when I decided to temporarily shut down Winepisser, and cancel the 2020 Winepisser awards entirely.
The other day, however, I was finally able to get my first vaccine shot, promising a view to a return to normalcy. Perhaps not tomorrow, but very soon. I still need my second shot, and others in the house still have to get vaccinated before I can return to shopping at wine shops or going to restaurants, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
I decided to celebrate with a bottle of Viña Vieja Chenin Blanc because it was readily available, cheap as hell, and infinitely enjoyable. I was also able to grab it at a nearby supermarket where I could dash in — wearing double face-masks and a full face shield — and risk low exposure to COVID.
The Viña Vieja cee-bee has been a routine favorite of mine since arriving in Peru, and has come close to winning a few awards, but — so far — hasn’t made it over the finish line. The fact is that the wine is cheap, it’s a dime-a-dozen, and won’t be served at any sophisticated events. But it’s just plain fun. It goes equally well with a plate of fish as it does with a bit of chocolate. And in the end, isn’t enjoyment what matters?
I’m still not ready to start venturing into places where I can buy expensive bottles. I still dont’ want to go to tastings, and I have cancelled all international travel so I won’t be visiting restaurants while on travel. Soon, though, I’ll start skulking around the wine shops to see what I’ve missed while away. Soon, I will re-launch the Winepisser Awards and begin publishing reviews again.
For now, it’s nice to have survived — to date — and just have a quick glass of chenin blanc to celebrate making it this far.