Wine in the Time of Pestilence VI – Wine Production

As I said in my last blog post, I want to devote the next few posts to the world of wine and its changing social and cultural context post Covid-19 (then a more normal service will resume!)  The last post also explained how I think that the impact of the plague will not be to revolutionise the world of wine but to accelerate existing changes which are in train.  So in the current post I want to use this lens to examine how wine production and its culture may be changing in the future.  There are two things which I want to consider: one is how the structures of wine producers may change and the other is producer contact with consumers.

I don’t want to be too economic or business focused, but we need to start with a little bit of business economics.  One is the historic failure of wine businesses to make a return on investment – that is to pay for all of their expenses, including land value, and make a profit as well.  In many parts of the world wineries are not profitable.  One well-known New World wine region, famed for its (often expensive) Bordeaux blends, was the subject of a study a few years ago which suggested that only two of thirty vineyards made a profit; they were kept going by money from other sources.  Equally, in much of France domaines are only profitable because the current owners inherited the land.  Thus, as land prices rise dramatically in regions like Champagne and Burgundy those who inherit vineyards valued at many millions of euros per hectare cannot make the business pay in the future. 

The Covid-19 crisis is likely to accelerate this.  In France we already see a number of smaller hospitality businesses close because it just isn’t worth continuing, and this is a good place to stop.  Likewise, I heard anecdotally early in the crisis that it was suggested that in excess of 700 (mainly) small wineries in Australia would have to close because the plague would destroy their distribution.  The age of the ‘lifestyle winery’ (the New World especially) or the domaine without a viable business plan (all over the world) may be drawing to a close.  That doesn’t mean all small and medium-sized producers will disappear: many will stay.  Yet it isn’t a question of the quality of wine – rather good wine allied to business sense – which will keep the survivors going.

Different places will have differing problems with Covid-19.  Champagne grapes are all picked by hand.  Each harvest the sides of the vineyards are full of coaches parked with Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian and other eastern European registration plates; 120,000 pickers, most from other countries, pour in for the harvest.  Lockdown in Europe is easing – but will the same number of pickers want to risk the journey for a few French meals and a fistful of euros?  This source of labour is likely to dry up at some point soon anyway as the eastern economies grow and approach those of the west.  Why do eight hours backbreaking work in northern France when you could have two weeks on the beach in Crete, Croatia or the Costa del Sol?  Perhaps, then, the pestilence will accelerate this trend; the problem, consequently, will be who will pick the grapes?  The French no longer want to, nor do students, nor the Spanish nor the Portuguese; yet the grapes must be picked by hand. 

In a wider sense, the management of harvest – starting in the northern hemisphere within the next six weeks – will be complicated.  How do you maintain social distancing when people pick or work in the cellar in proximity?  Furthermore, how do you stay healthy when you party afterwards?  Are we going to have to revise the protocols for working together not just this year but for the mid-term?

There may be a different issue in the vineyards of California.  Traditionally these many of these were worked and harvested by hand, because cheap Hispanic labour needed less capital than machines.  This has been changing in the last few years; the obvious reason for this may be the xenophobic policies of the current President yet there is another cause too.  The boom of the now-legal cannabis industry has caused many agricultural workers to shift from vineyards to cannabis plantations.  The money is at least as good and the work is less back breaking: cannabis plants are easier to work.  Again, it may well be that the plague will accelerate this trend, thus producing the more rapid mechanisation of the vineyards.

Meanwhile, the fledgling UK wine production industry thinks it is in crisis.  As a comparatively new entrant to the world of wine making it is less secure than most other wine regions.  Additionally, its wines – while excellent – are comparatively highly priced, in a country where price points are culturally very important for wine consumers.  (Wine there, although quite cheap generally, still has connotations of luxury for some consumers – especially sparkling wine which is the main focus of the local industry.)  This is compounded by fears for the coming harvest.  As in Champagne, much has to be picked by hand, and following Brexit the supply of harvesters from eastern Europe is even more under threat than it is in France.

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One group in the production process often overlooked by wine lovers is the grower.  Many people assume that wine makers own all their vineyards, but of course that is not the case.  If there is a declining wine market then smaller and medium-sized producers use their own fruit first and cut down on bought fruit, so growers suffer disproportionately during a vinous downturn.  A report in California has predicted a difficult year for growers in the Central Valley – the powerhouse of the State’s wine production. 

Champagne growers, dependent on the large Houses for their market, also have specific problems.  Sales, having been stagnant for around six years, have dropped dramatically this year.  As a result the CIVC may well reduce the overall yield for the year; so will growers in the region be able or willing to continue.  The slow but noticeable move by some houses to buy land or tie growers in to long-term contracts may accelerate, thus consolidating further the Houses power in the bipartite management of the industry.

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Covid-19 is also forcing wine producers to change the way they engage with their consumers.  Many have had to think about selling more wine directly in the future as distribution, and especially the hospitality sector, has collapsed.  Those producers who have already been active in wine tourism have often – with temporary pauses – been able to respond with some flexibility.  Others, particularly those who do little but receive clients into their house may have lost markets. 

There is a cultural context to this: many (especially in Europe) practice wine tourism by receiving guests – but don’t believe it is a tourism activity; they are just farmers, after all.  Thus, they just welcome customers.  When those customers can’t come they don’t realise that they should react, maintain the link, and create a sense of community for past visitors.  Many of these also are uncomfortable with the technology required to reinvent wine tourism.  I’ll explain this with a story.

One of my colleagues at work teaches a course on Wine Tourism to MBA students.  This normally includes visits to wineries and wine regions.  In April, of course, that was impossible, so my colleague arranged some virtual wine tourism for the students, using Zoom.  One of her regular visits, a small domaine in Beaujolais was really uncertain about this.  He wasn’t sure about talking to students on his smartphone when he was used to taking them round the place he works.  How could he convey what his place was like?  Yet my friend persisted and so he started talking.  Then, as he talked about his winery, he realised that he could in fact use the smartphone to show them the cellar.  Even better, he could walk out into the vineyards and show his special terroir.  He became more and more enthusiastic.  By the end of the virtual visit he realised, very happily, that he could offer the same to his loyal clients with an online wine tourism service.  Without being challenged, however, he would never have seen what was possible.

Other parts of the world, where wine tourism is culturally much more part of the wine experience, have responded much more proactively. 

There has already been pressure to reduce intercontinental travel because of its environmental impact.  Covid-19 seems likely to strengthen this change.  Some in the wine industry have already seen this so that the owner of the Chateau de Pommard in Burgundy has started talking about launching a new vintage of wines with a virtual campaign, then creating a specific digital platform to allow purchasers of their wine to get full, visual wine experiences wherever they are in the world.  It’s also worth pointing out that the Chateau de Pommard is owned by an American who will perhaps be more attuned to what is possible than some of his more conservative neighbours. Other countries have managed the pandemic better than the USA or some parts of Europe.  By early June New Zealand was seeing resurgence of wine tourism and a chance for the industry to revive as social distancing restrictions eased a little.  However, at just the same time in South Africa sales of alcohol were being resumed but there were warnings that small producers, with limited space, would struggle to meet the health and safety conditions for allowing visitors, and with restrictions on restaurant and other hospitality services.  It’s important to remember that the country was much stricter towards alcohol – banning all sales as it went into lockdown.

So, what do we make of this?  Successful businesses may thrive, or at least survive; less successful ones – which in our world means those which only focus on the style of wine rather than their market – will suffer; as I’ve suggested before, Covid-19 will accelerate this change in the short to medium term.  Yet, as always, culture, social expectations and history all pay a major part in creating the environment and the individual approach which explains where and who is likely to be more successful.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence V

My last few posts have explored how the Covid-19 pandemic is intersecting with different cultural and social norms to change people’s attitudes to and behaviour with wine.  The danger hasn’t passed but many countries are at the point of leaving lockdown or confinement.  Thus, although we aren’t at that point yet, in the next few posts I’m keen to explore how the world of wine may change in the post-pandemic world. However, first I want to ponder a little bit of history.  This isn’t just because I like history; I’m hoping it may also set a bit of the framework for the next three or four posts I’m planning (so for those who really don’t like history, stay tuned for my next post). I’ve already written briefly about Phylloxera in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic – but I think that a further exploration of how it changed wine, wine consumption and the wine industry, may be helpful in thinking about how the current plague may reshape our world.  Phylloxera, of course, was an insect and not a disease, and whilst it devastated vineyards it was never dangerous to humans as Covid-19 is; no one died from its activity.  Nevertheless, within the very limited world of wine production its impact was overwhelming, undermining established businesses and transforming everything from viticultural methods to regional reputations and market preferences.  However, I would suggest that its major impact was not revolutionary; it overturned nothing.  Rather it was a catalyst; it did nothing new but accelerated what was already happening.

This is best explored by looking at the Champagne region (although it had a similar impact throughout Europe).  Phylloxera arrived in the southern part of Champagne in 1888 but it took another four years for it to get to the centre of the vineyard area.  It spread slowly there, so only reached its peak a little before the First World War.

In 1888 champagne was produced from a large area – somewhere around 50,000 hectares of vineyard land (but down from perhaps 80,000 a few decades before).  Despite the success of the fizz on international markets over the previous 40 years wine production in the region was of predominantly still, red (or deep pink) wine.  It might be made for local consumption or sold quite cheaply, mainly locally and in northern France, including Paris, as well as Belgium.  Yet, it was comparatively expensive to produce in a cooler climate; yields were much lower than now and the cold meant that vintage variation was substantial, both in quality and quantity.  Since the railway link between Paris and Languedoc had been finished less than 40 years before southern French wine producers, blessed with sunshine that offered consistent, large volumes, had been selling cheaper, red wine to the metropolis, made from high-yielding varieties like aramon and carignan.

The vineyards in Champagne were owned by small-scale growers (sometimes farmers rather than just vignerons) and they would have seemed – to modern eyes – a mess, with vines planted higgledy-piggledy in the vineyard at many more plants per hectare than the current 10,000.  When you needed a new vine, you buried the shoot from an existing plant, let it root, then cut it off from the mother (the same system is still used in some parts of the world – notably Santorini).  The grapes included all the ones known today (though without so much chardonnay) but also such lower quality varieties as alicante and gouais.

Sparkling wine, although the minority of production, was growing, produced by the négociant elite who became wealthy on the back of its success.  The vignerons, of course, could not afford the capital needed to produce fizz, nor could they afford to leave it in their cellars for a few years to mature.  Increasingly there were disputes between the négociants and the growers: the former focusing on branding (and willing to be fuzzy about exactly where ‘champagne’ came from in order to keep the raw material cheap) and the latter seeking to defend the economic territory from which their grapes came and concerned to push the price up given the success of the sparkling wine.

So, what changed after the insect destroyed the vineyards?  The first thing was that many small growers – already impoverished as the négociants were paying them so little – gave up.  Planting new vines from cuttings cost nothing: buying Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks was expensive, and they could not afford it.  The contraction of the vineyard, already taking place, was accelerated.  Many sites became arable or root-cropped and if land had good potential as vineyard it was bought by those with money: négociants and richer growers. 

Much of the land given up was planted with red grapes, and the supply of cheaper red wine, both locally and to Paris and Belgium, dried up – Languedoc had won the battle for the Parisian working man’s throat.  The focus in Champagne evolved to be entirely on sparkling wine.

In turn, this augmented the power of the négociants as they had the capital to make, age, and export sparkling wine.  And with that power they could press down even more the price paid for grapes from the growers – whose sole role now was to supply the négociants.  In the longer term, moreover, it accelerated the development of grower cooperatives, which were being founded just as Phylloxera arrived.

What also happened, though, were a series of changes which were used to reinforce the quality and reputation of champagne – and thus justify the high price charged for it.  The first of these was a long struggle (only really completed in the second quarter of the 20th century) to rely only on the ‘quality’ grapes (chardonnay and the two pinots – noir and meunier) and push out the lesser varieties.  This has become part of the mythology of champagne – that only these three will do for great wine.

Alongside this was the battle – again one which pre-existed Phylloxera – to determine what champagne is; that is, what it represents.  Was it a style of wine, made by a well-known House, or was it wine made from a specific and clearly marked place?  The latter view was that of the growers, because limiting the origin of the grapes preserved their scarcity and thus enhanced the growers’ bargaining power.  In the end this was a battle the growers won (with the support of some of the more perceptive négociants who saw that to underline the reputation of the place Champagne would add other forms of value to their wine).  Ultimately this focus on place as the defining character of wine (which was being articulated at the same time in some other French wine regions) led to the appellation system in the 1930s and the modern world’s focus on origin as a defining label for a wine (unlike, say, beers, or many spirits).

Thus, a pestilence changed champagne, and in turn shaped the modern world of wine.  (For those who want to know more about this evolution there is a great book by an American historian, Kolleen Guy, When Champagne became French: Wine and the making of a national identity.)  Phylloxera changed viticulture, industry structure, image management and wine styles.  Yet the key point I’m making – and one which will give the context for my next posts – is that in the end the louse did nothing new; what it did was just accelerate the pace of change which was already happening.  It was not a cause, it was a catalyst.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence IV: A Footnote

This is a short follow-up to my last post on consumers and wine during Covid-19.  I developed my ideas further in an article for the French version of The Conversation: the online journal which tries to put academics and their ideas in contact with a wider public.  If you are interested, and can read French, the article is here.

I quickly got a very interesting response from one reader, Lam Idelo, which I translate as follows:

I had the children over at my house to celebrate the end of lockdown.  I’d stocked up on beer – of which they’re enthusiastic drinkers. To my surprise they had adopted attitudes more commonly associated with older people:  pastis and whisky for an aperitif; red wine with the meal (they had even brought two very good bottles with them). I don’t know how to interpret this return to wine amongst youngsters (they are around thirty years old).

A great anecdote on how the pestilence is turning people back to tradition and security.  Also – perhaps – it reflects what some of us have seen with younger drinkers in some western countries (stereotypically labelled millennials).  That as they are growing older they are consciously moving from volume to quality consumption, and with that many are moving from spirits to wine.  But that is a broad generalisation which needs to be treated with caution. 

Wine in the Time of Pestilence IV

There has been a lot of press chatter around the idea that we are drinking more in the Covid-19 crisis.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that online sales for one retailer had jumped by 50-75%; Nielsen tracking figures for wine sales in the USA showed dramatic rises in wine sales in the two weeks following the start of lockdown in key states, then a dramatic fall, then two more weeks of increase (though less intense).  There has been an increase of wine sales in the USA of 29.4% since the ‘start’ of Covid-19 – just behind the increase in spirits sales but well ahead of beer on 19%; this has also seen a surge in sales of cabernet sauvignon – as if consumers want to go back to what is tried and tested.  Meanwhile in the UK I’ve heard through the grapevine, that for some UK retailers March was their best month ever.  What seems to be selling is their core range – so that consumers are indeed sticking with brands they know well and feel comfortable with, with sales of these wines almost one quarter up on normal.  That could include things like Rioja, Argentine malbec and pinot grigio.  The winners, it seems, are winning even more.

So, the sales figures seem to bear this out this general idea that everyone is drinking more wine, though the detail is much more complex than that.  As I’ve noted previously, the ease of buying wine in France isn’t mirrored in South Africa, for instance.  So how is our drinking behaviour changing?  By which I don’t just mean how much we drink, but how and what we drink – and why we may be drinking more.  Looking at my own drinking I felt it was changing, and anecdotally it appeared that others were changing theirs as well.

So, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to find out how some dedicated drinkers have been changing their relationship with alcohol during the spread of the virus.  To do this I chose my own colleagues in the Institute of Masters of Wine with a short survey on how they are drinking during the time of pestilence.  We asked both numeric questions and asked them to add comments about their drinking – and this is what transpired.  As this is a blog about ‘wine and culture’ I’m going to focus on the most interesting cultural findings.

I received completed surveys from 142 Masters of Wine, which is a good response rate and the sample was broadly representative of the Institute’s gender and geographic make up (65% male and 47% based in the UK).  The ‘typical’ respondent was aged about 56 and had been in confinement for just over 18 days at the point when they responded.  They pay on average just under 18€ per bottle when they buy wine, drinking about 5-6 days per week.

Forty-two percent said that their wine consumption had increased since the onset of Covid-19, while 15% said it had decreased, and for 43% it had not altered.  However, an examination of who is drinking more or less reveals some interesting and statistically significant results.  Those who are drinking less wine are disproportionately male (85%) rather than female – but those drinking more are proportionately more likely to be female.  The following quotation illustrates this:

I think anyone home-schooling kids whilst working from home during lockdown is definitely drinking more wine.

The same trend is even more marked for buying wine: women are more likely to be buying more wine than before Covid-19 by 60% to 40% for men. 

Interestingly, when we look at the country of residence of Masters of Wine drinking more or less there was no obvious difference between the regions of the world – except that none of the Australasian Masters of Wine claim to be drinking less (statistically it should have been three)! 

Many of those drinking less listed health concerns as a major reason to cut down – though a few also qualified this by noting that they are drinking better.

I am drinking less as I want my immune system a bit stronger.  I’m drinking less per week , but definitely increased the price point (doubled).  So drinking less, but better.

A great many Masters of Wine who responded to this survey noted that they were ‘raiding their cellars’, and this is related to the quality level of wine being drunk.  Over 46% of all Masters of Wines feel that the quality of what they are drinking is better than it was before.  However, one unfortunate London-based Masters of Wine lamented that his cellar was outside the capital and he couldn’t access it during lockdown! 

So why is the drinking behaviour of Masters of Wine changing? When we look at reasons for drinking more wine, a number mention that the sense of mortality is having an impact on their decisions: 

I’m glad you asked if I’m raiding the cellar for the good stuff. I am doing that, as are many people. Why save it for the apocalypse – we are in the apocalypse.

Reward and celebration as well as the need to avoid boredom were also noted, as was the fact that the family is together.  Thus, food and wine combined were often mentioned, including jointly preparing meals and the overall pleasure of cooking – suggesting that community and family support have become more important.

I enjoy drinking wine even more now because it’s usually during mealtime with family and it helps bring us together. Since being sheltered at home, our lives have fewer outside distractions, which allows us to focus more closely on what we’re consuming

Additionally, many Masters of Wine noted the need to use wine for ritual: the marker of the end of the day at a time when lockdown has removed from us the normal routines and rituals of the working day.

It’s too easy to feel you need to mark the break in the day as you move from day to evening, work/busyness to leisure/family time with a glass of wine. Easier to justify it than normal: unprecedented times require a little reward/enjoyment on a regular basis

There was also an implication in some of the comments that in isolation wine gives a link to a previous, less threatening time, or to a wider, exciting world from which we are currently cut off – the world of wine being a notoriously convivial place!

Wine is a way to ‘travel’ with our senses, through the magical way it can express its origin, and capture the flavours and essence of wonderful places, and transport you around the world in our imagination. (For example, last night we said ‘let’s make a delicious fresh pasta and open a Chianti Classico and pretend we are on holiday in Tuscany!’)

Consequently, like the rest of the population, Masters of Wine have not been immune to the lure of virtual consumption, and online aperitifs are becoming more popular.

What are the key conclusions from this?  The first is that probably Masters of Wine resemble other wine drinkers in that few are decreasing their alcohol consumption and a number are increasing it.  It is also probable that the reasoning is generally the same for the wider population (isolation, family, boredom, apprehension, and the need for reward against health and maybe financial concerns).  They also mirror the general population in that some, at least, are having virtual aperitifs, and seeking reasons to celebrate.  The key differences are that they pay more on average for their wine.

A key marker of Masters of Wine however may be the quality of what they drink, which appears to be going up for many – and rarely going down.  This is affected by the fact that most have access to a cellar and the current crisis has acted as a catalyst to make use of that cellar and drink better wine.

Otherwise, the key conclusions seem to be the following.  It is female Masters of Wine who are driving the increase in wine consumption and the Australasian Masters of Wine have resolutely turned their face against drinking less in this time of pestilence.  Additionally, try to ensure that your wine cellar is where you live, and not away from your home.

Meanwhile, together with a work colleague I’m extending this research to the general wine-drinking population:

https://schoolwinespiritsbusiness.limequery.com/346558?lang=en

Please do complete the survey – we want as many responses as possible from all kinds of people: those who drink wine no more than a few times a year up to weekly imbibers – and please pass it on to friends as well: we need to get as many as possible completing this.

Meanwhile, public authorities have been telling us how we ought to drink. Early on in the pandemic the World Health Organisation warned that using alcohol is an ‘unhelpful coping strategy’ in lockdown. The trouble is that one person’s ‘coping strategy’ is another’s ‘reward’, or ‘ritual marker’ which becomes a pleasant, psychologically beneficial; and while WHO suggested that it is unlikely to alleviate stress it seems that many drinkers disagree with them. Meanwhile, and more usefully, organisations like Drinkwise in Australia and Drinkaware in the UK are promoting a message of moderation rather than abstinence, and reminding people of the sensible limits for consumption.

Finally, some people have been using this time to tell us how to expand our wine activities to get us through lockdown.  The trade magazine The Drinks Business have run articles explaining the best wine-related crafts to help break through the boredom (if you want to ‘repurpose’ your empty bottles or create wine-dyed cork straps this is the place for you).  If craft isn’t your thing then they’ve listed the ten greatest wine films to watch in lockdown – from Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons keeping a Californian wine company going during prohibition to a recent fictional release based on the life of Master Sommelier in training.

What to do? 

This blog theme will be continued…

Update: if you enjoyed this article, I have since published a small footnote related to it, found here.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence III

In the midst of gloom and disaster a slight glimmer of humour.  Humour is, after all, one of the ways in which humans, who unusually in the animal world can see into the future, manage to cope with the inevitable disaster which awaits us.

In France, as in all Western Europe, we are in lockdown.  Being France, this is of course a bureaucratic, precisely organised form of lockdown – it’s culturally embedded.  We can only leave home for one of six reasons (one of which is to have one hours exercise each day – though no more than one kilometre distance from our home).  When we do venture out we must have an attestation sur l’honneur – a sworn declaration showing the reason for our departure, the date and time we leave, our name and address, and – of course – our date of birth.  (The French are obsessed with declaring date of birth on any form.  Even when you have a contract to buy white goods or sign for a delivery you may be required to provide it, otherwise ‘the machine won’t work’.)  I’ve been stopped twice by the gendarmes wanting to check that my attestation is filled in and correct.

As I’ve noted in a previous column, only essential purchases can be made at present.  This excludes hairdressers, buying clothes, or bars – but does include places selling alcohol, including shops attached to wine producers. A story in an English-language French news website the other day caught my attention.  Three men went into a store attached to a chateau in the Bordeaux region. Two engaged the store manager in conversation while a third went behind the counter, dipped his hand in the till and extracted 40€; he was seen by the manager who chased all three but failed to catch them.  The manager returned to the story and called the police – then noticed a piece of paper on the floor.  It was the attestation of one of the thieves – correctly and entirely legally filled in!  He was arrested at home later that day.

This particular blog theme will be continued with something marginally more serious to follow shortly – though even that won’t be without an element of surprise…

Wine in the Time of Pestilence II

(Thanks to Cathy van Zyl MW, Neil Jing Zhang, and Paul McArdle for some leads which helped me develop this post).

Phylloxera began to spread through France in 1863 – and reached the furthest north around 1890 – so it took its time.  One of the interesting things about its spread is that while it eventually ruined vineyards in every region, before it arrived most regions had a reason why it would not affect them.  Soil, or variety or viticultural techniques: each place would be spared from what the others had endured – because they were, after all, special (thinking about it now, as an aside, I wonder if this played into the later development of notions about terroir?  Hold that idea – perhaps we’ll return to it one day).

The spread of Covid-19 in the western world had me thinking about this more.  The Chinese attempted to ignore it for a few weeks but – with the experience of SARS – when they took action it was severe and proactive.  The same in South Korea.  Yet when it arrived in Italy they took time, and ultimately only locked down a few provinces and regions (which in turn prompted an exodus of people, many crowded into trains whilst no doubt infected, to the south of the country).  Thus it spread rapidly, and with devastating effect.  Spain and France looked on but dilly-dallied.  Certainly we had the sense here that our lockdown, strict as it was, should have come a week or ten days earlier, given what was happening in Italy and Iran.  Boris Johnson should have seen this and acted sooner; and what can one say about the catastrophic shambles of federal leadership in the USA?  In each case there was a sense – even if only unconscious – that ‘we are different, it won’t be quite so bad here we are more special than those who have already suffered’.  I’m not claiming the Phylloxera was as bad as the current disease; it didn’t kill people. Yet the response was similar.  And while Phylloxera killed no one it did reshape an entire industry.  Hundreds of thousands of smallholders stopped producing wine, vast swathes of vineyard land disappeared (Champagne went from between 50,000 ha. and 80,000 ha. to the current 34,000) and what is now Algeria became for a while the main source of French wine.  The fallout from the current crisis on markets and distribution, if not production could well produce changes that are as momentous.

There is another result of Covid-19 which is having an impact on the world of wine.  The plague has shut borders.  A viral mutation has managed to achieve what neither Brexit nor Donald Trump nor even Viktor Orban had attempted in order to keep foreigners out.  ‘The foreigners are dangerous; the disease comes with them; and so, conversely, we need to focus on what our own country offers’.  What are people drinking?  Their local drink, so much safer, more hygienic that that ‘foreign muck’.  OK – I’m exaggerating rather, but it’s interesting that some producers of English wine claim to be doing very well.  Mark Harvey, of Chapel Down, says that ‘retail and online is flying’ – particularly the sparkling bacchus.  Which makes sense, because bacchus (even if created originally in Germany) is the quintessential British grape variety.  Are drinkers in times like this more likely to revert to drinking what their own country produces out of a sense of solidarity with their compatriots and a need to identify with the national fight against ‘the enemy’?

Having said that it maybe that only certain types of wine will sell, and in specific places.  Another friend who works in the UK wine industry said that their premium fizz (pinot and chardonnay) is not moving so much – because it is the drink of celebration, and this is no time to celebrate.  I always remember listening to Yves Dumont, former CEO of Champagne Laurent Perrier, when the 2008 financial crisis arrived.  When there is a recession, the Anglo-Saxons refuse champagne – it is not appropriate in a time of crisis, when belts tighten and we should not be happy.  The French, on the other hand reach for something which sparkles; it is necessary to cheer you up amid the gloom.

This pandemic and the lockdowns which have become widespread have certainly revealed different cultural attitudes to alcohol and wine.  Today (4th April) I received an email from a high-quality wine store in Dijon telling that me that next Saturday would be ‘happy Saturday’ with 20% off all wine.  They are still open, and you can go there to buy what our government terms ‘purchases of première nécessité’ – essential products, which is what wine is after all!  On the other hand, South Africa has banned all alcohol purchases during its lock down, which prompted the following observation from one commentator:

‘The South African government has effectively decided, without consultation, to wean its population off alcohol (and nicotine) cold turkey, a decision that could end up killing more people than the virus it hopes to mitigate. Unmanaged cessation of alcohol consumption can result in death, which is just one obvious shortfall. The other is that people will either end up brewing their own nuclear-powered mampoer, and/or illegal liquor sellers will take hold of the market.’ 

I’m uncertain how many will die from enforced abstinence – but as history suggests that the final prediction is inevitable.  For those with large wine cellars, of course, it will have very little impact. 

Western Australia also decided that the crisis was bad enough to introduce limits to the number of purchases people could make ‘to limit excess drinking’ – but their conclusion contrasts with the South African one. From the 25th March the maximum you can buy is three bottles of wine a day!  Hardly a restricted intake for one household – especially when you can add either a carton of beer or a litre of spirits to that.

Meanwhile, in some parts of the Southern Hemisphere it has been harvest.  According to my friend Paul McArdle in Margaret River, cabernet is coming in as I write (where the main health concern was backpackers who pick grapes during the day then ignore all social distancing rules as they party at night).  New Zealand, too, has been facing the dilemma of harvest during a state of emergency.  The wine industry, like agriculture more generally, has a dispensation allowing it to work to harvest and process grapes, with protocols in place to ensure safe working environments.  However, in Marlborough, where over three quarters of all of the country’s grapes are harvested, there has been something of a backlash. It seems that some local residents have complained that the harvest is threatening to increase disease transmission – which is a particular problem as the region has the highest proportion of over 65s in the country.  It was reported that one doctor at the local hospital used Facebook to voice concerns, claiming that wine is a ‘luxury’ and that the harvest is ‘risking lives’.

What to do?  Returning to the sparkling wine theme – I commend to you the words of a French poet-cum-diplomat in the 1930s: Gentlemen in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.’

This blog theme will be continued…

Social distancing in the Burgundy vineyards…

Wine in the Time of Pestilence I

One of my fellow Masters of Wine, one of the most amusing and dynamic, is Fongyee Walker, who runs a Wine School in Beijing.  The one aphorism I remember from her above all others is ‘it’s only wine, after all; it’s not a fucking cure for cancer’.  In these times those of us who work with wine can only sit back and carry on with our work as far as possible but feeling fairly superfluous to the world-changing events unfolding all around us and the very significant work that so many are doing to keep us alive and well.

Nevertheless, enforced confinement in France does give a bit of space to ponder more how alcohol in general and wine in particular is fitting into this world turned upside down.  We are in a state of near lockdown with all but essential services closed, yet this being France I have still received an email from a local drinks store reminding me that (presumably as one of those ‘essential services’) they remain open for all my liquid needs.  I wonder how long that will continue.

One of the puzzling things about human choices in a time of crisis is the obsession with toilet roll – something which appears in Australia, France, the UK, and seemingly everywhere.  Toilet roll seems for many to act as the adult equivalent of the infant’s comfort toy.  As long as we can exit a supermarket clutching three or four super-sized packs of Andrex, Cottonelle, or Charin we will sleep safely at night, knowing we are now able to face any crisis.  Yet it’s not just toilet paper; alcohol too can offer some of that comfort.  When I was in a supermarket the other day the person in front of me was bulk-buying bottles of rosé wine.  Nor is it just wine – as this picture of the lager aisle in a UK supermarket, courtesy of the blog’s editorial manager, reveals.

Some commentators are suggesting that wine is now a ‘crucial survival tool’.  According to an article posted by W. Blake Gray on Wine-Searcher.com the Californian Wine Institute has stated that wineries are ‘essential’ services in their State so that they should continue working during the state of emergency there.  Meanwhile the same article notes that Sonoma County has specifically allowed wineries to go on making wine (although they can’t sell it); the thing is that (as is happening in many places) regulations are issued very speedily yet without precision or clarity.  As a result the Wine Institute have advised its members that they consider what their members do is essential, so they should carry on making wine.  Meanwhile in the UK the Mail Online has noted that sales of wine ‘soar as tipplers stock up on the essentials in case they have to go into coronavirus self-isolation.  Purchases by ‘panicked customers’ mean that Naked Wines have had to suspend accepting orders temporarily.  Again – it’s an essential.

In a time when chaos and disaster seems to lurk just outside the front door we all need treats to ease our worries.  As the Bible says, ‘wine gladdens the heart of man’ (and maybe women as well), and certainly all of us who drink it know how a glass or two can lift the spirits.  Maybe, though, it goes further than that.  Wine is a magical product, which can transform us; we may try to rationalise that magic now, but for millennia drinkers with no knowledge of fermentation attributed the drink to some kind of deity; so because a god or goddess made it so it can magically change us in turn.  Perhaps in drinking wine (or any kind of alcohol) there remains a subconscious belief that the drink will transform us into an immortal, and keep the disease away.  No one will seriously believe this, of course – but then no one really thinks they need 150 toilet rolls to survive the next few weeks.

At a more personal level, I’m currently very fortunate.  At the time of writing, one of the five very specific reasons for which we are allowed outdoors in France (each of us clutching a sworn statement ‘on our honour’ explaining why we are not at home) is ‘short excursions, close to home, for physical exercise’.  As we live by vineyards, hills, and forests we can get good walks (maybe not so short) to break up the monotony of being indoors.  You occasionally meet a few like-minded people, smile and pass on opposite sides of the path, keeping as much space between you as possible.  Then, when we get home, the cellar has enough wine in it to last us a few years if necessary.  Meanwhile the market in the village is still open (although fairly deserted) as are the supermarkets.  Families with uncomprehending young children are stuck in small flats in towns and cities and single frail elderly people struggle even to get necessities.  It induces a level of guilt.  What to do?  I think this is the time to revisit Camus’ greatest work la Peste, which I haven’t read for 40 years.  After that, maybe, read for the first time Love in the Time of Cholera.  They won’t make the world a better place, but may help us to have more understanding of what others are going through and ensure that how we live can take more account of them. This particular blog theme is likely to be continued…