New Zealand wine harvest, winemakers

How winemakers around the world are coping with COVID-19

March 31, 2020
By Alana House

Viticulture during COVID-19 is proving challenging for winemakers around the globe, with the industry fighting to save harvests and keep workers safe.

As Wine-Searcher notes, it’s particularly tough for the Southern Hemisphere: “In Europe and the United States, it’s not a bad time on the calendar for winemakers to be locked down. There are some tasks that usually happen in March, like bottling, but many can be postponed.

“In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s different. This is harvest season, the most important time on the wine calendar. Grapes need to be picked and processed when they’re ripe or the whole year’s work is lost.”

In Australia, winemaking has been officially classified as an essential service during the pandemic.

The Federal Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, confirmed last week that winery operations, along with all agricultural industries, will continue regardless of what lock down restrictions are enacted in Australia.

It followed Pernod Ricard noting that it could lose its entire 2019 vintage if the government closed down operations at vineyards during COVID-19.

Bryan Fry, chairman and chief executive of Pernod Ricard Winemakers, warned that enforced shutdowns of vineyards would be hugely damaging to the wine industry.

Jacob's Creek; Pernod Ricard vineyards

“We are in the midst of vintage at our Barossa Valley winery and have put in place unprecedented measures to protect the health of our staff, suppliers and customers,” Fry told The Australian.

“Winemakers get one opportunity a year to produce wine. That time is now.

“Any decisions that result in our winery operations having to cease will result in the loss of an entire year’s worth of production.

New Zealand made a similar assessment before beginning a month-long lock down last week.

Horticulture New Zealand released a statement explaining that “all food and beverage producers and processors, and their supply chains, are deemed to be essential services”.

“We’re obviously pleased, but there’s a very serious side to this and we have to live up to the expectations of the Government,” Philip Gregan, chief executive of New Zealand Winegrowers, told Stuff NZ. “We have to protect our people and we do not, through our actions, transmit the virus.”

Kaikōura MP Stuart Smith said he was confident wineries were taking the right measures to protect themselves against COVID-19.

He said there were strict rules wineries and vineyards must follow. Workers were expected to keep a two metre distance from each other and employers needed to be sure they were social distancing at home too.

“If we can do that, we can proceed,” he said.

“The wineries I have talked to have all had plans in place. It’s good duty of care but it’s also self interest, because if everybody gets sick then they can’t harvest, which would be a disaster.”

In Chile, the winemakers are still hoping to be declared an essential industry.

“We are leaning on the ministry of agriculture to declare that the harvest of vines is essential,” Julio Alonso, executive director of Wines of Chile USA, told Wine-Searcher.

Fortunately, Chile had a very warm summer and the harvest was early, so Alonso said the harvest is nearly 75% done.

Northern Hemisphere battens down the hatches

In Italy – one of the hardest-hit countries by the virus – winemakers are continuing to work where possible.

Wine Spectator reports: “More than a dozen wine producers from across Italy described wineries in which skeletal staffs performed bottling and other essential tasks wearing protective masks and gloves and disinfect the cellars nightly.

“At the same time, vineyard crews worked at full speed outdoors, where there is a smaller chance of viral spread – finishing pruning, debudding and tying up vines while careful to practice ample distancing, vineyards have been pruning, debudding, and tying up vines – work made even more important as the country has been hit by early warm weather.”

Tedeschi Wine

“It is impossible to stop the work in the winery and the vineyards because nature is working anyway,” Sabrina Tedeschi from Tedeschi Wine said.

“Spring is one month early,” added Chiara Boschis of Barolo’s E. Pira e Figli. “Luckily we have the vineyards, because staying home like in a prison is depressing.”

However, wine distribution remains a challenge for smaller winemakers, as wine stores throughout the country are closed. Supermarkets are the only real wine retailers and they tend to only stock mass market brands.

“Small producers that are not in mass distribution have to fight to survive,” said Montefalco Sagrantino producer Giampaolo Tabarrini.

In France, Jean-Guillaume Prats, CEO of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) told Wine Spectator: “Our estates in Bordeaux and in the Languedoc (Domaine d’Aussières) are closed.

“We have stopped all operations except the vineyard work and some minor work on the current vintage. We have reorganised our vineyard team so they do not interact among each other. Our priority is to keep the châteaus protected in order not to put the 2020 harvest at risk.”

In Spain, wineries are also trying to continue the essential work of tending vines and processing wine.

Miguel Torres, of Familia Torres in Catalunya, reported to Wine Spectator that his company was operating, “but not at 100 percent. Only the vital staff comes in. Most of the people are working from home. The bottling lines and the expedition warehouse are operative but under strict measures of security and control.”

But winemakers say their projections are bleak, with many orders cancelled and domestic sales almost nonexistent.

In California, many vineyards have continued to operate as essential businesses, preparing for the upcoming harvest season with tasks such as pruning.

“The vines are growing, and they’re not gonna stop growing,” Chuy Ordaz Jr. of Palo Alto Vineyard Management said, “so if we don’t take care of them, we’d come back to some big issues like powdery mildew and mould.”

Wine production has also been allowed to continue despite a stay-at-home order in America’s second-largest wine production state, Washington, according to JD Supra.

Pictured main: Windrush Organic Vineyard, New Zealand.

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