It’s been a long time since I posted; if anyone was hanging out for my next piece I’m sorry for the delay! It’s been a difficult time. The most important reason for the silence is the inability to travel. My reflections on wine and its place in culture and society depend on visiting people and places – and for those of us living in most of Europe that’s been effectively barred until very recently. The second reason is that over the last few months I’ve been engaged in a major project also related to wine, culture and society. I’m the co-ordinating editor (along with six other leading academics in the field) of a new book to be published by Routledge later this year – their ‘Handbook of Wine and Culture’. It has 57 contributors, 45 chapters and will weigh in at around 240,000 words; a major undertaking which has been very time consuming. More of this later in the year.
The third reason for my silence is that, early on in all of this, I caught Covid (in class – from a student). It wasn’t life-threatening, but it was rather unpleasant at the time, and took me out for about three weeks – which resulted in a rush to catch up on the day job and even less time on writing here.
I didn’t lose my sense of taste when I was sick (unlike a couple of other members of the family, such as my eldest daughter, who wrote more about her experience here) but it started to become rather worrying for someone who earns their living partly by their nose. (The man I buy cheese from at the market in the French town where I live had Covid in January, lost his sense of smell and hasn’t regained it; that must be very depressing, though he always as a very jovial air when I come to buy from his stall).
However, what did happen to me for a couple of weeks was that my sense of taste changed dramatically. I could still smell, but tastes were fundamentally altered, and for the worse. Coffee suddenly tasted disgusting; think roasted earth, ground and then doused in water. Many other foods tasted in that direction. I didn’t even feel like wine – so at least I was spared that repugnance which may have destroyed my love for it for ever. Unlikely, actually – three weeks later I got back to drinking coffee and everything else fitted in to place. That, though, was my brush with gustatory despair. Given what many have suffered living or dying I have nothing to complain of.
Anyway, normal service is now being restored. Coming up over the next few weeks a bit more about Retsina in Greece, some reflections on a German wine cooperative and a bit on an out-of-the-way village in Champagne. Plus a few more ‘interesting’ wines and – later, I hope – some posts on Sicily.
When I began planning how I might reflect on the impact of Covid-19 on the wine industry a few months ago, I aimed to finish by looking at how it might change the world of wine consumers – especially the cultures of consumption and the way that society has an impact on how people drink. Optimistically – you might say naively – I was hoping that this might be the time when things were getting better, and we would have shown that the disease was at least contained, if not beaten.
So, I got that wrong. However, I still plan to make this the last post on wine in the time of pestilence (at least for some time) so that I can return to considering a wider world of wine and culture and its social context. What, then, might result from the upheaval of the last eight months for wine drinkers around the world? Here, then, is a review of what has happened and are a few ideas for the future – and remember that I’d love to have feedback on this. It’s a fairly extended essay, so you may want to give yourself a little time to engage with it. The first point is that different places responded to the disease in different ways and with often widely fluctuating consumption levels over the first months of the crisis. In the very early stages of lockdown in the UK people said they were drinking more (though not ‘too much’), although it seemed that this was less beer and cider. By May this trend to drink more was noticeable with lunchtime and online drinking becoming more common but that people were spending less per bottle. So, the apparent trend of recent years of ‘less but better’ went into reverse for a while! Young people were least likely to drink more but those aged 25-54 were most likely to increase consumption. By June and July, however, drinking levels seemed to be declining but this was confused by other reports of record sales (e.g. for Naked Wines, during July). The easing of restrictions on eating out also stimulated an increase in drinking. The other key change was the decline in consumption early on, but with a rebound once lockdown ended and there was something to celebrate (and no longer the stigma of drinking a celebratory wine during a time of death, depression and decline).
Nevertheless, the trends in the UK weren’t repeated everywhere. I’ve already noted the success of champagne in the USA for much of the period of struggle against the disease; high-involvement drinkers there were generally spending more, unlike their British equivalents. Australians drank rather more wine but Canadians less in the early stages. In Germany wine consumption was increasing before the onset of the crisis, and stayed higher, whereas it the Netherlands an early increase was not sustained, with Generation Z drinkers reducing their intake. Sweden, which pursued a much less controlled response to the virus, allowing bars and restaurants to stay open, saw much less change in drinking behaviour – although the Swedes did start to drink less frequently.
My own research amongst members of the Institute of Masters of Wine, which I’ve commented on before suggests that women were drinking more (which I think, for a time at least was reflected in the wider population), no Australians were drinking less, and some were drinking better by raiding their cellar. Ritual and the need for little celebrations became important – and wine does offer the chance for a link to a wider world.
What is also interesting is what and when people were drinking. Local wines were sought out (see below for more on this); large brands (which offer security in a time of threat) did quite well – at least initially – in Australia but smaller producers suffered. Wines available from online stores did well even when overall consumption was declining in the UK. Consumers also seemed to be stocking up rather than buying for single occasions and buying in anticipation of running out, rather than waiting until they had drunk everything.
Meanwhile, the pandemic reinvigorated the lobby which opposes alcohol consumption on health grounds, and there is some evidence that certain consumers took the need to improve their health seriously and decided to drink less. However, the (serious) arguments against the abuse of alcohol founder on the need people have during a crisis for treats and easy pleasures, and things which provide a reminder of a former, more secure and wider world; one of the things that clearly offers those links is wine. Having said that, sales of low-alcohol beers increased substantially in the USA and the UK in the early months of the crisis.
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One of the most interesting graphics that I saw during the earlier phase of Covid-19 was from the excellent industry research organisation, Wine Intelligence. This was shown in an online presentation, in early June, focused on the United States (primarily concerned with sustainability). The graphic reflects how people refocused their drinking choices more towards domestic wines in the early stages of the pandemic. Interestingly it also shows the regions from which people are buying less wine.
As one would expect, consumers tended to shift towards drinking US wine. This was the key take-out from the presentation. There are a probably couple of reasons for this. First, Covid-19 was an alien, invasive entity (‘the Chinese disease’ as President Trump insisted on calling it). This sense of being surrounded by a dangerous and unknown alien world tends to make people focus on what is local, communitarian and perceived as safe (and remember in this regard the Americans are particularly resistant to travelling overseas, which would help them to see how a wider world works.) The second reason for this shift is undoubtedly because their economy was taking a hit and Americans would, quite reasonably, have wanted to do their bit to help it back to normal levels by buying more domestic goods. So far, so logical.
However, I feel the graphic has some other interesting implications. (These are highly speculative and I only have a hunch to support them, not hard data – so if you want to dismiss this as the ramblings of an ignoramus that’s fine). The first implication is specifically about the performance of Californian wine. Those buying more of it are much more than the overall increase in American wine purchasing – but the state also registers a higher percentage of consumers who chose to buy less wine from the state. Why the two extremes? Think back to the early stages of the crisis in the USA – a federal government that appears to play down the scale of the pandemic and takes no active role in combating it – rather leaving that to the states. Some of those states, notably New York and California, take the threat seriously, work hard to contain the disease, and are vociferous in their opposition to the laissez faire attitude of the national leaders. Meanwhile Trump and his allies aggressively attack those state governments suggesting that they have been hard-hit due to their own public health or organisational deficiencies. The USA is now, notoriously, a very divided, tribal society, with about one third of the population taking fairly hard-line and non-compromising positions on the left and on the right. My interpretation of the data is that those who broadly oppose the national government will be happy to identify with (and buy from) a state which challenges it. Yet, when we look at those buying less from California, the percentage has also increased – which suggests that those with sympathy for the President and dislike for the critical stance of the state leadership show their distaste in their unwillingness to drink Californian wine.
What follows is even more speculative – and statisticians will complain that there is no significance level in the data. We might, however, draw from this that the higher number of those more likely to drink Californian wine compared with those drinking less (19% more and 11% less) means that wine drinkers are more likely to be opponents of the President than his supporters. Given the demographics of core Trump support, this would seem quite possible.
There is another aspect to this, moreover, which I find interesting. If you look at those who have changed buying behaviour to purchase more foreign wine there are variable but low numbers for each country. However, if you look at the negative figures – those turning against wines for other countries, three stand out as being poor performers: France, Spain and Italy, all registering 20% of drinkers who are buying less of their wine. One other country, New Zealand, stands out for losing less of its market share than anywhere else. Now, at this time European countries (especially Italy and Spain and to a lesser extent France) appeared to be coping badly in response to the pandemic. New Zealand famously was (and has consistently) managed to contain it with minimum damage to health and disruption to the country. There is a suggestion here that people’s willingness to buy wine has a link to an apparent (possibly subconscious) ‘cleanliness’ or ‘uncleanliness’ of a place. Perhaps, by association with the origin, we may become infected by drinking the wine from that place – so it becomes taboo. Note that politics does not seem to be so much of an issue in this response. The government in France is centre-right, Italy populist and left, and Spain and New Zealand socialist. Perhaps this suggests we need to broaden our view of what makes a country a suitable source of imported wine beyond the obviously political and diplomatic and include factors of perceived healthiness or factors which may provoke distaste, danger or a fear of contamination.
The interesting outlier in this is Chinese wine. Only 15% are ‘actively buying less wine from’ China, so despite its stigmatisation as the ‘source’ (even creator) of Covid-19 it is apparently less actively targeted than the European nations. However, at this point the wording of the question that is posed is important. Wine drinkers would have been much more likely to buy French or Italian wine (with imports from both countries worth over $2 billion) than wines from China (under $15 million) so most people would not need to ‘actively buy less’ to drink no Chinese wine.
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So how might all of this change the future of wine consumption? Here are a few ideas – but it is important to remember that national differences, even between apparently similar cultures, can substantially alter how behaviour evolves. Furthermore, as I said right at the onset of the crisis, epidemics like this don’t usually introduce revolutionary change – rather they tend to accelerate changes which are already in motion. First, this may be the point where the millennial generation (now aged about 24-40, although the precise ages vary substantially) finally moves to drinking wine rather than beer and spirits. This move, much anticipated (including by Millennials themselves) sees a shift away from alcohol volume (beer, spirits and especially premixed drinks) to lower quantity but aesthetic value. One American commentator has suggested that this will be the ‘awakening’ and the point at which this cohort wine consumption for the next few decades. Certainly, while young people are careful to get value for money, they don’t equate value with paying less, and they will buy more expensive things if they consider them worth it. There are a couple of caveats here, however: the first is that almost all research on Millennials is based on those in the USA, rather than worldwide and previous academic research has reinforced that national differences have an impact. The second limit to this is that the successors to the Millennials, Generation Z is showing a marked reluctance to drink alcohol compared with previous age groups which may skew the longer term wine consumption trend.
Next, will women drink more wine from now on? Confinement freed many from the thought of the next morning and the need to be up bright and early to get the children to school (still, until now, regularly a gender-defined role). In the wake of #MeToo confinement, with fathers forced to be at home as well, may accelerate a move towards consumption equality which was already in train for those who were not mothers. Perhaps even more important will women be equally involved in wine selection – hitherto generally regarded as a male domain, even where women have been drinking as much as their male counterparts.
Third, perhaps we will see the ‘new occasions’ for drinking become more embedded in our lives. Online aperitifs are, anecdotally, less satisfying than the real thing when everyone is present – but now we have experienced it (especially with those who are far from us) it is unlikely to go away, and for the more wine interested at least it is likely to increase in popularity. Again, the use of the internet for exploring wine has been growing for a number of years now, with some forays into drinking during webinars, but now it has moved away from mere education and into the social sphere, and will probably continue even if it is only second best.
Does this all mean boom time for wine producers? Perhaps. There is also talk that we will mirror what happened after the First World War and Spanish ‘flu a century ago, and report the exuberance, dynamism and excess of the roaring 20s.
This would be a reaction to the constraints, austerity and state control of our pleasure during the current situation; we’ll want to party every night, it has been argued. However, if wine factors into partying, what kind of wine will it be? Serious and expensive wines (top-flight burgundy, Napa Valley Cabernet or Penfold’s Grange) don’t really fit into nightclubs. So are we going to see an acceleration of the popularity of undemanding pinot grigio which doesn’t need much thought while we’re dancing, or of fizz (everything from prosecco to champagne), and pink wine for the summer pool parties? Sparkling wine especially (the one wine consumers consider is ‘dynamic’ – in comparison to most wine which is static or quiet) may continue its upward growth patterns if our world finally becomes more active and frenetic.
The way we buy wine will continue to change rapidly also. Purchasing was already going online (especially in the most wired-up countries such as China). That is going to accelerate further. However, it may be that people will be in the habit of buying more less often. One of my friends who makes wine in France noted early on in the pandemic that ‘instead of going to a caviste and buying one bottle people are buying six bottles; it’s a big change’ and as I recorded above there is evidence that consumers are stocking up for a period and not buying just when they need a drink.
Meanwhile, the environmental movement which was advancing rapidly and energetically in the two years before Covid-19 hit is also benefiting from some aspects of the crisis. The threat from the sudden onset of the disease has probably made many of us more responsive to the looming threat from climate change and unsustainable lifestyles – and the fact that this threat could crystallise at any minute. Wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters while the sickness has dominated will have seemed more intensive harbingers of how our world is deteriorating. Zoom means we need to travel less for meetings and quarantine makes it less attractive to travel for pleasure. Many of us noted the reduction in pollution when we had to work form home and the decreased costs associated with journeys to and for work. So, do we buy wine that is more environmentally acceptable? That means wine which travels less distance, comes in lighter bottles or even – as is increasingly common – isn’t in bottles at all?
All of the above suggests that the move to drinking more wines locally and less imported wine may be part of a longer-term trend. Even if the tide of political populism in the world retreats a little in the near future (we’ll see in another week if that is the case!) the resurgence of local identity and commitment seems to have settled in for the mid to long term. Whatever our political outlook many of us are willing to focus on regional or national products to help our immediate community. Good news maybe for English, German and US wine producers; less so maybe for New Zealanders, South Africans and other export-focused wine industries.
Yet even if we wish to support local businesses, how many bars and restaurants will actually remain when we come out of all of this? Despite government support in the small to mid-term a number of food and hospitality businesses have already given up and I suspect that the post-virus economic rebalancing will lead more to follow. Does this therefore mean a continuation of the growing trend to drink at home? Yet wine is a social drink, so how do we involve others in our drinking if we are going out less? Perhaps, however, the return of the ‘roaring 20s’ that many foresee will reverse the trend and reinvigorate an apparently failing service sector.
In this context, what will become of wine tourism? It has been a key factor for many regions in the long-term growth of wine industries and the creation of place attachment and regional brand loyalties. Yet, if we travel less, and overseas tourists become less common, how will that play out in the continued growth of many new wine regions and emerging countries? Again South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (with strict limits on foreign tourists coming in for the time being) and many emerging countries in eastern Europe or the Mediterranean may suffer as a result and another way of profiling their wines and building longer-term loyalty will be lost (as well as many jobs in the tourism sector). The last thing I want to mention is nothing to do with wine: it is the growth of ‘hard seltzers‘. For those, like me, who have been sidetracked by their politics from following the really important developments in American life, these are flavoured, alcoholic mineral waters. They were only invented in 2013, sales in 2018 totalled $210 million p.a., this went up by almost 600% in the year before Covid-19 and by the end of June this year the 2019 figure had already been exceeded. So why is this important in a blog about wine? Well, wine may fulfil many consumer needs. Of course it tastes good, but at some moments wine is about authenticity, at others it is about aesthetic pleasure – the sense of beauty; it has a lot of symbolic meaning and is a great social lubricant. While alcohol and its effect are part of its attraction it is rare that people only drink wine for the impact of the alcohol. Yet with hard seltzers we seem to have reached that end of the spectrum a drink only consumed because it is an easy (the drinks may be sweetened, albeit slightly), unchallenging (they are lightly flavoured) source of alcohol. So what does this say to us? That, for some people, the key issue with drinking in a period of pandemic is just to feel better. There is no story here, no intellectual interest, no authentic sense of link to place. Can that trend last?
This blog theme will not be continued… At least for the time being. Normal service on wine and culture is now being resumed.
[Thanks to Dr. Liz Thach MW for some of the USA information I’ve used here].
Covid-19 seems to have dealt the champagne business a severe blow. Remember when I started blogging on the plague I said that it doesn’t change the world – it will accelerate changes that are already happening. That too is happening I think to champagne – although many will disagree with me and say it has overturned the existing landscape. However, let me explain what I think is happening.
Right at the beginning of the crisis it was noted that champagne sales were plummeting, although the perennially optimistic CIVC was saying that it expected an upturn before the end of the year. Fifty percent of the wine is (still) sold in France – though the amount has been declining for the last decade but much is sold in bars and restaurants. With these closed for around four months volume reductions of up to 70% were seen. Meanwhile, as I’ve noted before, the English speaking world avoids anything which smacks of celebration or success during a recession and it has moved away from champagne. By the end of May the champagne industry was suggesting a possible loss of sales of 1.7 billion euros for the year and the original hopes for a recovery in fortunes passed by. More recently it has been suggested that they will sell 100 million fewer bottles this year than normal. The result of this was a big split within champagne. On the one side were the large houses, already sitting on huge levels of unsold stocks and not wanting to augment them – who thus demanded a big reduction in this year’s harvest. On the other side the growers who have much less need to sell wine but who rely primarily for their income on selling lots of grapes, and in the middle of the current crisis could not afford to lose perhaps 25% of their income or more.
Nevertheless, if you look at the recent history of champagne none of this decline is quite so revolutionary. For seven years, from 2001 to 2008 the business was on a roll – continuing the fairly continuous rapid growth seen for the region’s wines for the previous 50 years – as the table below shows. I remember, in May 2008, hearing a leading member of the CIVC pronouncing publicly that champagne had ‘learnt how to beat the cycle of booms and downturns’. If only! I assume he was eating his words six months later.
The global financial crisis prompted – naturally – a downturn, with a sales loss of almost 15%. Yet a few years later the business seemed to be bouncing back, so that by 2011 over one half of that loss had been clawed back. However, it wasn’t as good as it seemed – as the graphic below shows. What could be seen as a growing market up to 2011 turns into a stagnant market from 2009 to the present, and despite a good year for the value of sales in 2019, even before Covid-19 arrived this stagnation wasn’t really changing.
What does this mean? The champenois have been concerned from some time about the threat of sparkling wines from other parts of the world; I think that is too simplistic a view. My interpretation is that the reason for this longer term stagnation has complex origins, some of them quite long term. The rise of ‘lifestyle’ rather than social class as one significant marker of identity means that the old obvious signifiers of the community you belonged to, based on a traditional hierarchical symbolism of the things we use, is breaking down; champagne, once the symbol par excellence of the French bourgeoisie and the British aristocracy has less cachet than before and less use as a means of conveying who you feel you are. Add to that the fact that a new generation of consumers is much less likely to swallow marketing hype (and thus the assumption that ‘champagne is naturally the best because we all say it is’) and you have a tendency to move away from the fizz. This was reinforced by the instant response of the champagne industry to the economic crisis of 2008, which was to reduce prices to push up sales. That’s great in the short term, but in the longer term, with some champagne priced a little more than a good crémant from Alsace, or a better Spanish Cava, subliminally it suggested that it wasn’t such a special drink as all that. Finally, over the last five or ten years, a more general move to nationalism and national introversion (think Trump, Putin and Brexit) and consumers are again moving away from the luxury drink from another country.
Yet, as always with wine, there are exceptions to this. Blips for some of the summer in Britain and Norway. Most interesting is the USA. Sales were stagnant there at the beginning of the year – yet astonishingly, whilst they have collapsed elsewhere in the English-speaking world, they have been rising in the United States. At the end of July Nielsen, the data tracking organisation, claimed that champagne sales had risen 65% since May. This is an astonishing turn around – so why has it happened? Nielsen themselves found it hard to explain to us. There was general comment about the warmer weather, people coming out of lockdown, and doing more gardening – as well as the popularity of ‘quarantini’ cocktails! Hardly responsible, I’d say, for such a big growth in an expensive drink. If anyone has any suggestions I’d love to hear them.
Paradoxically, as I’ve also noted previously, outside the USA other forms of sparkling wine have seen sales behave more buoyantly. Maybe this is, partly, due to the success of champagne producers in separating their wine from other forms of fizz. Champagne has been marketed for over a century as the wine for celebration, success and seduction; all other wines with a sparkle – prosecco, cava, Tasmanian, even English – are for having a good time with friends or family. In lockdown, and even more as lockdown eases it’s the latter which benefit – we want to be sociable again; however, we have nothing to celebrate, there is no success yet, so champagne is not appropriate. Perhaps more than any other part of the world of wine champagne must be hanging out for a vaccine, and the wild parties which will inevitably follow. Maybe that, too, will enable them to transcend not just the current crisis but also the longer-term stagnation.
The wine industry is not, of course, alone in the havoc Covid-19 has wreaked on it. All businesses (except maybe those producing face masks and – at least early on – toilet rolls) have suffered, and wine is low down to list of priority industries for the general health of the world. As I’ve noted in previous posts, enterprising producers have been working to find ways to get their wines direct to consumers – but the distribution industry generally has been thrown into turmoil by the crisis. Harpers – a UK wine trade magazine – ran an article suggesting that the wine economy would take five years to rebound from the chaos. Yet, as I’ve said in all my posts, the disease has not created new problems for the wine distributors; rather it has just accelerated the speed of changes already taking place. Further, these changes develop in the context of the specific cultures where wine is sold.
The hospitality sector is clearly going to contract. In some countries bars and restaurants are reopening, but social distancing means that they can accept fewer customers so their income will decline. In France I’ve already noticed a number of restaurants that have just failed to reopen as lockdown is ending. One issue here is the cultural insistence that meals only happen between midday and 2 p.m. and then after 7 p.m. at night. If they could bring themselves to accept that some people at least (if only summer tourists from other countries) would like the chance to eat a bit earlier, have a late lunch, or graze all day they might do more business. In other countries the decline of the town centre in the face of online shopping and rents that go up in the face of that decline has already been putting many restaurants out of business. Meanwhile, as Robert Joseph has noted, if work patterns change (at least in Western countries) so that more people work more often at home that may put further restaurants in the centre of major cities under pressure. Additionally, as the same perceptive critic notes, if there is a decline in restaurants, where consumers get to meet new wines introduced by sommeliers, what does that mean for producers in places such as Georgia, Sicily, or Carnuntum? The key question is – how is the on-trade for wine going to be recreated over the next decade?
Getting wine to consumers – particularly under the influence of Amazon and similar wine-focused organisations like Naked Wines – was already evolving, and this has now accelerated. In early June Amazon announced an ‘online wine store’ in Australia; meanwhile, according to Reuters Naked Wines has just stated that their June sales saw a 67% increase on the same month in 2019. Low overheads reduce costs (and thus the price of the wine) and rapid delivery increases consumer convenience. They may not squeeze out all the independent retailers but they could put pressure on larger suppliers (especially those who are already going online). Again, there are cultural issues at play. In Australia, as in much of Western Europe, online purchasing of wine is still really in early stages; however, in China, with the rise of behemoths like Alibaba, the population has already accustomed itself to making purchases online. Yet China itself is proving paradoxical here. Even before the disease hit there in January imports of wine in to the country were declining in both volume and value. According to one of my correspondents there, based on the General Administration of Customs of China the value of year on year imports of wine in to the country decreased in five of the last six months of the year. Why is this? No doubt the trade war with the USA has caused some price rises, and beyond that perhaps dissuading Chinese consumers from buy wines made by allies of the States. Perhaps there is a partisan move to drinking more of its home-produced wines (which are steadily improving in quality). However, what then followed –a year-on-year decline in import volume for the first three months of the year of 25.3% and in value of 31.1% just reinforced that. Subsequent political events will be doing nothing to reverse that process. Politics trumps the need for wine here.
I’ve always argued that the problem with selling wine online is that the physical interaction with the product (most obviously the taste and smell) limits how much it can be sold virtually; however, that is to ignore the fact that so many (especially younger) people now make their purchase decisions based not on taste but on recommendation by influencers and the online communities to which they belong. Meanwhile in the US online sales of alcohol doubled in the year to May and the UK showed a 50% growth over the same period. What is more, it seems that over the time since the crisis began consumers have been maintaining their move towards online alcohol shopping so it is probably likely to be continued when (if) the pandemic disappears.
Meanwhile, two countries present particularly interesting case studies about the effect of the crisis on wine distribution – both of them with an element of ‘prohibition’ in their cultural make up. In the wake of the end of prohibition in the USA in 1932 strict rules were introduced to manage how alcohol got to the consumer and (in part) to make it more expensive: this is the notorious three-tier system. In each state there must be one ‘importer’, a separate wholesaler, and a third retailer direct to the consumer. This gives big power to the large-scale distributors (who are reluctant to see the system change as it guarantees them an income but it is not popular with wine producers, who may not be able to sell wine directly interstate, nor with consumers who see three layers of distribution each taking their own cut (and thus pushing up prices) and who are limited in their ability to buy direct from producers. Additionally, those who seek new ways of getting wine to consumers (such as Amazon) may find the system works against them. A debate has developed on how the world of wine may change – but the power of the anti-alcohol lobby remains substantial, and is allied in this case to alcohol distributors with a vested interest in the status quo.
Finally, spare a thought for poor South African drinkers. As I noted before, in the early stages of the pandemic not just sales, but even the movement of alcohol was banned (thus essentially stopping exports). That was eased at the beginning of June – but the restrictions have just been reintroduced. This produced a brilliantly articulate groan of agony from one of the country’s leading wine journalists, Michael Fridjhon. While he acknowledges that wine causes all kinds of problems for some segments of the local population, notably more alienated groups with less access to power or wealth, all this is doing is stymieing that part of the nation’s economic recovery based on wine exports. Further, it is entirely undermining the attempts to rescue the hospitality sector. Fridjhon points out that the majority of the ANC’s leadership is officially in favour of prohibition (which has, of course, never succeeded in any other country). Additionally, I’d suggest, with wine specifically there is also the point that it was traditionally a white economic activity, and remains dominated by whites. Beyond that, as well, it is a business that is almost entirely based in the Western Cape– the one Province in South Africa which has a non-ANC government, and which the ruling party therefore detests as it threatens its monopoly on power. Politics beats wine again…
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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…
(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.’