Post-COVID reflections

Masked vineyard worker

The pandemic has arguably made vintners more thoughtful and more conscious of their special place in society. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. During August my perch there will be ably filled by Dan Keeling of Noble Rot and our very own Tam Currin.

As I am about to take my usual four-week break from this Saturday slot, now seems a good time to reflect on what vintners have learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic that overturned our lives and on how the world of wine is changing as a result.

The most obvious change of course has been in how we buy wine now, with a far greater proportion of it ordered online – as with so many other commodities. (Remember how we sprang into action in March 2020 with this long, long list of Wine retailers who'll deliver to self-isolators?) This may have resulted in a temporary shortage of cardboard but has certainly benefited web designers, and the most digitally adept employees of (wine) companies everywhere.

Master of Wine Fiona Morrison is best known for the Pomerol estate Le Pin, owned by her husband’s Thienpont family, but much of her time is spent running their Belgian wine merchant, Thienpont Wine, and she reports that, for example, although they have had an online operation since 2017, their e-commerce sales doubled during lockdown and are still increasing.

Long-standing English wine producer Ridgeview sold almost three times as much wine online in 2020 as in the previous record year 2019. And last year’s sales continued to grow, by 81%, even though pandemic-related restrictions in the UK were much less stringent. This is reflected throughout the global wine business. It would seem that we are all pretty happy to have our wine delivered to us, substituting written sales pitches online for a chat with a wine merchant. Gaia Gaja, of Barbaresco’s most famous family, points out that the internet does not discriminate by size of production, so these increased online sales have given small and medium-sized wine producers more of a look-in.

The US retail landscape in particular has become less dominated by a handful of large distributors. From the Napa Valley, Janet Trefethen reports that ‘distributors want fewer vintners in their markets working with salespeople’ and because of hospitality staff shortages, demand for winemaker dinners, once the mainstay of any sales campaign, has shrivelled.

The digital world in general has taken over from the real world to an amazing extent even for this complex commodity of which you’d think an actual taste in advance would be worth a thousand words. But perhaps the laptop and the camera are increasingly substituted for physical sensation. As Trefethen points out, ‘a winery’s online presence is more important than ever. We are putting together more videos to bring the family, our wines and the vineyard to the consumer.’ More work for web designers.

But for quite a number of vintners, pandemic restrictions meant that, being unable to travel, they rediscovered the pleasures of vineyard work. Klaus Peter Keller of Rheinhessen in Germany reports, ‘we have always loved to be in the vineyards but in COVID times you appreciate even more having them. Our job is our biggest passion. And it is great to work in nature. Furthermore, we have enlarged our winery garden a lot, growing vegetables and fruit that we use for lunch with our team.’

As Michael Hill Smith of Shaw + Smith in South Australia points out, ‘life in the vineyard goes on regardless of any virus: vineyards still need to be pruned, grapes harvested and wine made’.

But for some thoughtful vintners, the message from nature is far from benign. Nigel Greening owns the much-admired New Zealand wine producer Felton Road and has been taking the long view from his base in Devon, south-west England: ‘COVID is nature telling us to go to our room and think about what we have done. After a year [of lockdown] I couldn’t wait to go travelling again. My life had been significantly driven by meeting our distributors and customers all over the world. By year two, I had accepted that I would never do it again. The price we pay to fly is just too much for the world to bear. Holidays? Never long haul again. I have used more JET-A1 in my lifetime than any future generation is likely to be privileged to do. I’m ashamed of that, but not of the vision it gave me.’

Germany’s best-travelled vintner is Erni Loosen of Dr Loosen in the Mosel. He makes wine in Washington State too and has projects in Australia and Spain, as well as being likely to turn up at any Riesling conference held anywhere. But according to him, ‘I went from travelling all the time all over the world to almost not travelling at all which was a big change for me. And we have come to realise that most of the meetings work just fine through Zoom and even virtual wine tastings were a success. So it made business life easier because you do not have to travel at all.

Ah yes, Zoom (and Teams, and Google Meet)… Of course they have transformed so much commercial interaction, and spawned hundreds of online wine tastings. But as Gaja points out, it’s all less emotional, less exciting and adrenalinic’. However much better for the planet an online meeting is than a return transatlantic flight, I’m not sad to see wine-tasting by Zoom fizzle out. Bottles, atmosphere and humour are much more difficult to share online, and time differences are particularly apparent when tasting wine. An Australian presenting wine after their dinner is in a disconcertingly different mood from a stone-cold sober professional taster early on a London morning. 

Ken Forrester of South Africa spent his enforced local captivity undertaking serious winemaking research projects. ‘My life of 120–140 days [a year] of international travel stopped abruptly. I spent a lot more time in the cellar – alone. I did a lot more research specifically on yeasts and sulphur bonds, on using oxygen to “stabilize” wines.’ One material result has been his decision to bottle his wines earlier to retain their freshness and fruit – a trend that seems to be increasing generally. The Ken Forrester winery and office have also been converted to solar power, and he is lobbying to have South Africa officially recognised as the cradle of regenerative viticulture, the approach that currently seems most likely to provide winegrowing with a truly sustainable future.

As Gaja pointed out, ‘COVID has raised awareness of environmental sustainability as we have all seen how vulnerable and interconnected is the entire world. In communications greenwashing is now more and more emphasised. Those who did not pay attention to sustainability will now have to – but my applause goes to the numerous producers who have sustainable practices without advertising them.’

The pandemic seems to have brought into sharp relief all aspects of sustainability, including winegrowers responses to what looks like a rapidly shrinking potential workforce. Mardi Roberts of Ridgeview drew my attention to their new focus on staff wellbeing. (Her winemaker husband Simon was more eager to report the unusual lack of distractions while blending and bottling his 2020s thanks to lockdown.)

Gaja, again, makes in interesting point. The shake-up that COVID has inflicted on so many of our impressions has made wine producers reassess the wine fairs and exhibitions that used to be such an integral part of the commercial landscape. According to her, ‘participation costs have become too high and [events] too frequent for medium to small wineries and the benefit of participating is diminishing. They need to be rethought.’

One high-profile vintner, Peter Sisseck, whose most famous wine is Pingus, one of Spain’s most lauded, had what one might call a good COVID. ‘I did not get the bug and business-wise we were affected only in a positive way as sales are stronger than ever.’

And both Trefethen and Hill Smith stressed what a comfort wine was to many people as they sealed themselves away from human contact for so long. Trefethen added, ‘we could also see and enjoyed how wine seemed to give consumers emotional comfort and joy during the lockdown’.

The lesson for Hill Smith was, ‘what an amazing, uplifting, cerebral, creative and above all life-affirming drink wine can be!’ Affirmative action? Wise words, and ones I intend to take to heart, and not just over the next four weeks. Pass me the corkscrew.

Recommendations from the reporters

A current outstanding wine made from each of those cited in the article above.

Felton Road, Bannockburn Chardonnay 2020 Central Otago 14%
£41 James Nicholson

Ken Forrester, The Misfits Cinsault 2021 Western Cape 12.5%
£9 Tesco

Gaja, Ca'Marcanda 2019 Bolgheri 14.5%
£665–£695 per case of 6 ib Ideal Wine Company, Cru World Wine, Wineye

Keller, von der Fels Riesling trocken 2020 Rheinhessen
£49.99 Marlo Wine, £420 per case of 12 ib Farr Vintners

Dr Loosen, Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2020 Mosel 8.5%
£16.99 Rannoch Scott Wines, £20 Roberson Wine

Ridgeview, Bloomsbury Brut NV England 12%
£30 producer's website

Shaw + Smith Shiraz 2019 Adelaide Hills 13.5%
£29.90 Shelved Wine, £31.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

Peter Sisseck: Bodegas San Francisco Javier, Viña Corrales Fino NV Sherry 15%
£33.95 Corney & Barrow (2021 release; this year’s release expected in a month or two)

Thienpont family: La Raison d’Hêtre 2016 Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 14.5%
£90 per case of 12 ib Grand Vin Wine Merchants, also Justerini & Brooks and Seckford Wines

Trefethen Chardonnay 2020 Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley 13.2%
£32.50 Secret Cellar, Wales

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