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Wine in Crisis

Wine in the Lockdown – Why Is the Wine Industry Suffering?

Wooden wine cases in the Keller cellar.
Lots of wine to be found…but where can you get it?

Here’s the situation in a nutshell: quarantines and lockdowns have put immense pressure on the wine industry, with most of it landing on smaller producers and specialist retailers. Travel restrictions are preventing people from travelling to wine areas for tourism and for work (harvest, winemaking, etc), but also having the effect that cellar-door wine sales are suffering – which compounds the problems for smaller wineries who otherwise generally sell to specialty shops, which are also generally shuttered.

Many countries in Europe are currently under lockdowns of greater or lesser severity. I live in southern Germany – in Freiburg, which is the heart of the region of Baden and, in fact, very much in the geographical heart of central Europe. As a wine writer, it is a great place to be, with France just a half hour away, Switzerland a scant ten minutes farther, and even northern Italy just over four hours by car.

Germany has a partial lockdown; many German regions are handling things slightly differently from one another – and we can be thankful that the federal government under Angela Merkel has taken a very reasoned, disciplined approach to the pandemic. Germany is not one of the countries suffering most, for which I am very grateful.

Nevertheless, my part of Baden is one of the areas in Germany that has a lockdown in place, partly due to its proximity to hotspots like Alsace.  Everything but essential businesses is shuttered, and gatherings of more than two people are forbidden. Fortunately, we can still go out for a walk with members of our household, and we do not need a note to get essentials like food, prescriptions or the like, as they do in Italy. So, there are many parts of the world that have it far harder than we do. And, I live in a wine region.

Industry Suffering

It’s no secret that the world economy is suffering due to the pandemic, and there are several industries that are suffering far, far more than others; tourism, travel, hospitality, culture, and wine are among the most-affected. The combination of “no gatherings” and “no travelling” essentially wipes out all of them except for wine.

As an agricultural product – and, particularly, as an agricultural product that is deemed, by many countries, to be one of the “essentials” like food – wine is in a slightly different position than all the others on that brief list. But wine is more than just food. Wine is a social product as much as it is a foodstuff. Wine regions are often exceedingly beautiful, drawing in tourists (and not just wine tourists) and bringing in much-needed revenue to all the tourism-related industries. Wine, itself, is also an important export, as well as being a comfort, an enjoyment and, yes, a social pleasure. Wine profits from and, in turn, promotes people getting together, sharing and socialising.

If Wine can be sold, surely the industry cannot be suffering too much

Well, yes and no.

It is true that the wine industry will come out of this crisis and there will still be wine. What is going to be affected are the smaller producers and, in particular, the specialist retailers who have had to shutter their businesses.

Wine is deemed essential in many countries, so working the vineyards and producing wine is permitted even during strict quarantine – in those countries. Not every country has made the same decision; South Africa, for example, took a very different approach to begin with. After significant outcry, however, they have dialled back their position and work in the vineyards and winery, at least, can continue. But alcohol may not be sold, due to a desire to minimise this additional risk factor for the increase of domestic violence. But since wine in Europe can still be made and sold, it shouldn’t be such a hit for European producers, should it?

In many cases, yes, it is.

Who Is Open and Can Sell Wine?

Grocery stores (including discounters like Aldi) are essential businesses, so they remain open. In countries where it is permitted to be sold in such stores (countries without a monopoly, generally speaking), wine can still be found. But, in a country like Germany, particularly, grocery stores generally carry only larger producers capable of big production of relatively inexpensive wines. Large production and low prices are factors which are important to ensure enough product on the shelves of what are, possibly, many store locations.

A notable exception are grocery store chains that have a franchise structure like Edeka, where local products are not only permitted, but encouraged – including regional wines. The wine and spirits sections of each Edeka location are different, and some of them are fantastic sources of local wines (and some of them are…less than fantastic, to be honest). This is obviously not possible everywhere, as not everywhere is a wine region, unfortunately.

Sounds Good. What’s the Problem?

It is great that these stores can sell wine, and that there is a selection of labels available for consumers. This is already far better than not being able to buy wine at all during the lockdown. But large producers with a very international reach are the kind of businesses that generally have the financial means to weather this crisis in any case. Alcohol sales around the world have gone up, sometimes dramatically, and the sales of these large producers are going to skyrocket because of the situation; the losers will be the smaller producers.

Compounding the problem is the fact that specialist wine retailers are not generally considered essential business, and it is at precisely the specialist shops where you will find the smaller, harder-to get producers. The ones who need the money more than the big producers to begin with. Likewise, grocery stores are far less likely to feel the financial pinch – but specialist wine shops certainly will.

So what we have is the double difficulty of smaller wine producers and specialty wine shops that are being put in danger. In most of Europe small producers are the norm, so this danger is worth thinking about.

What Works and What to Do to Help the Industry

  1. Buy directly from a small shop, if possible, or
  2. Buy directly from the producer

Fortunately, the Post is still working. One can order directly from producers, where this is permitted. Not every place in the world permits alcohol to be moved to consumers by mail, and some make the process more difficult than others (looking at you, Canada and the USA), but most places are civilised enough to make this a viable alternative, provided you can afford to wait for the shipment (particularly important if ordering from abroad).

Furthermore (and, in many cases, even better), many small shops also have mail-order possibilities – and some have dedicated webshops.

I highly recommend ordering your wine from these shops or directly from the producers. Grocery stores will survive, but these producers and specialist retailers are in danger – and how tragic would it be if they disappeared? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

But how are you going to know who to buy from if you’ve never tried their wines before?

Lockdown Wine Project

Thus, the Lockdown Wine Project was born.

Wine writing has become more difficult than ever, and it is arguably more important than it has ever been.

As a freelance wine writer, all of my trips have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, as have all wine events. This is tough, obviously. But perhaps there is a silver lining, of sorts.

I live in a wine-producing country – and even in a wine region. There are plenty of wonderful independent producers here that I really enjoy. All of them are still able to send wine by post, so, even if the wine shops are closed, one can still get more than enough wine to get one through these times.

And! What better opportunity to finally start writing up some of these wonderful local producers? No time like the present; “why not,” I said to myself, “finally start publishing short articles about some of these great, small producers that I always talk about?”

As of today, I will be publishing a short profile (with wines and tasting notes) of a different producer every day or two. I don’t know how long I will be able to keep it up, since one of the side effects of the lockdown is that my toddler is home 24/7, leaving about two hours available for me to work each day, but I will do my best. Stay tuned!

First stop? Weinhaus Mößner, a tiny enterprise located in Wasenweiler, on the southern tip of the Kaiserstuhl in Baden, Germany!

1 thought on “Wine in Crisis”

  1. Great article Kevin- easy reading and many interesting points! I will join on the small producer bandwagon- but with Gin and thank goodness we can also send by post in Switzerland. Unfortunately though I have many people in Germany who have written for me to send a bottle, but because the borders are closed I can’t cross over to Germany to send anything! Oh well, at least the Swissies are nice and thirsty as long as the weather is warm!
    Cheers to you and looking forward to future posts!

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