Wine in the Time of Covid
Jane Masters MW is Opimian’s Master of Wine
Covid-19 has turned lives and livelihoods upside down. Countries have been in varying degrees of lockdown. Shops selling essential items are open with social distancing measures in place, and online shopping cannot keep up with demand. In most cases restaurants and bars, which usually represent a large proportion of wine sales, are shut.
Nature cannot be put on hold. At the start of lockdown, the Southern Hemisphere was in harvest mode with grapes being picked in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa. Although social distancing measures were imposed, the impact on grapes and wine production has been limited. In the Northern Hemisphere, the growing cycle proceeds with vineyards sprouting and the usual concerns about spring frosts. The workforce is reduced as workers stay at home to look after children or to self-isolate. Lockdown has severely restricted transport and wine shipments from regions such as northern Italy.
More wine is being bought for home consumption and online wine sales have grown. For online businesses, the difficulty has been in accommodating the increased numbers without crashing their websites. However, this increase in home consumption in no way compensates for sales lost from closed restaurants and bars. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) estimated that the impact on sales of European wines could lead to a 50% reduction in revenues this year. The average price paid by consumers for a bottle of wine has decreased—probably due to people concerned about their finances and being more careful with their spending. Wine businesses and vineyards will be affected by reductions in turnover, margins and profit.
The financial impact on wineries will vary depending on their customer base. Those heavily dependent on the restaurant trade and/or cellar door sales will suffer most. I heard of one French winery that had not sold a single bottle in over a month. Wineries that have distribution through alternative channels are in a stronger position. That is, unless a government bans all sales of alcohol, as is the case in South Africa. At the time of writing, not only are South African wineries contending with harvest and social distancing, no wine sales are permitted, either at home or abroad. No sales means no revenue and no cash flow, making it difficult to pay overhead and staff, potentially leading to layoffs. This in a country where unemployment and poverty are already high and where there is no welfare security net. Many live in cramped township conditions where social distancing is nigh on impossible. It’s no wonder there have been some incidences of looting in Cape Town.
The lockdown is having a positive impact on the environment, with lower pollution levels leading to cleaner, better quality air and water in many places. This means that for the first time in 30 years the Himalayas can be seen from 100 miles away; in Venice the water is crystal clear and fish are seen swimming around; and birdsong and clear blue skies have been noted in London. This is evidence of the negative impact humanity inflicts on a daily basis on the environment, as well as on human health and well-being. Recent reports show a correlation between air pollution and the regions with the highest incidences of deaths from Covid-19.
There remains a huge amount of uncertainty about when lockdowns will be lifted in various areas and on what terms. When it does, will recent trends in shopping habits become ingrained or will we revert? When restaurants and bars reopen, there is likely to be some measure of social distancing leading to fewer customers. How many venues can make a profit with half the number of customers? Even when “normalcy” returns, we will not drink all the wine that was not consumed during lockdown. This business is lost and there will be a glut of wine. Some consumers will remain cautious about going out once lockdowns are over, while others are planning on living life to the fullest once allowed. If there is a world recession, then customers that do go out are likely to be more careful with their money—all leading to reduced trade.
Wine has brought communities together for millennia. Wine provides valuable jobs and contributes to the culture and economy in regions where it is made. In France alone there are 85,000 vignerons (winemakers). For many of us, wine is an important part of a lifestyle that improves our quality of life. For me, having a cellar of wines to drink has certainly made the lockdown easier! Online interactions, virtual tastings and wine events have mushroomed during Covid-19, so I know I am not the only one.
My wish is that for millennia to come, delicious, high-quality wines will continue to be made and enjoyed around the world, and that these wines will be made sustainably. In the short term, times will be hard, and some wine producers and companies may disappear. But wine producers tend to be a pretty resilient lot, used to dealing with what Mother Nature throws at them. As wine drinkers, we can support them as they grapple with the current situation, apply environmental lessons learnt and address longer-term existential issues due to climate change by enjoying a regular tipple.
To read personal messages from our producers on how they have been dealing with COVID-19, please click here.