How the wine industry went from ‘preparing for the worst’ to recording record-high earnings

James Fyfe | 28/11/2020

Related video: Many winemakers say 2020 was the best vintage in decades. Credits: Video – Newshub; Image – Getty

When the nationwide lockdown was announced at very the same time as the wine harvest earlier this year, panic rippled across the viticulture sector.

And though it was later deemed an essential service and allowed to continue operating during alert level 4, the industry faced a number of challenges in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strict conditions meant wineries and vineyards had to change their way of working, adapting to tough new health and safety regulations all the while maintaining productivity.

But not only did the industry survive those trying times, it’s also now been revealed that it actually flourished, with the latest figures showing exports for the 12 months to October hit a record high of $2 billion.

Clive Jones, chair of New Zealand Winegrowers, says reaching the milestone this year came as a surprise for the industry.

“We made a bold prediction 10 years ago that we thought we could double sales from $1 billion to $2 billion by the year 2020,” Jones told Newshub.

“I guess we always thought we’d get there but at the beginning of the year we really didn’t think it would be this year.”

He said although sales had been gradually improving over the past year, there was a “big surge” in the last four or five months.

Rabobank’s latest Wine Quarterly report, published last month, noted an increase in export sales was related to more people drinking at home during lockdowns around the world, leading to an uptick in retail trade.

Jones said that was good news for New Zealand wine producers, although he acknowledged wine businesses that sell predominantly through on-premise and tourism have been harder hit.

According to the Rabobank report, sauvignon blanc makes up the lion’s share of Kiwi wine exports, with year-on-year sales to August up 131 per cent. But Jones says there is an increasing appetite for pinot noir, the second most popular export, as well as rosé and pinot gris.

The US, the UK and Australia continue to be our largest markets, and  Jones says he believes New Zealand’s reputation as being largely virus-free has helped push our brand.

“I’m also sure that New Zealand has internationally been seen in a pretty good light in recent times, so there’s a positive feeling about New Zealand.

Photo: Getty“Perhaps when people pick a bottle of New Zealand wine off the shelf and they take it home to drink they’re thinking ‘I wish I was there’.”

Jones said the industry was “preparing for the worse” when the level 4 lockdown was announced but said the sector had really rallied together to face the challenges thrown at it.

“Everyone responded positively and took the issue seriously and the safety of our people and communities was paramount,” he said.

“We were determined as an industry not to be the source of a community outbreak so thankfully we got through that ok.”

The sector is not out of the woods yet, however, with the country’s closed borders meaning there remains a labour shortage for the upcoming harvest.

Border exemptions announced on Friday allowing 2000 recognised seasonal employers (RSE) workers from Pacific countries to come to New Zealand early next year will go some way to relieving that pressure, says Jones, but it won’t be a magic fix.

He said although workers were needed for the harvest – which, depending on where in the country a vineyard is, usually takes place around March and April and lasts for six weeks – a more critical time was winter when vines need to be pruned.

The other concern is the weather.

“There’s a bit of risk of ex-tropical cyclones, which is something we want to avoid, so hopefully that doesn’t happen – we don’t want rain during harvest.”

“It was a very kind harvest in terms of weather,” Jones said.

“It was one of the best seasons we’ve had so that was the one thing we didn’t have to worry about.”

When the savvy bubble bursts: Ending NZ’s love affair with sauvignon blanc

Jules van Costello, The Spinoff | November 26, 2020

New Zealand’s wine industry built its name on sav, but we’ve been putting all our eggs in one basket for too long, writes Jules van Costello.

Savvy represents 63% of New Zealand’s area under vine, 74% of our wine production and a whopping 88% of our exports by volume, meaning for every dozen bottles of wine we export, over 10 of those are sauvignon blanc. Photo: Getty Images
Savvy represents 63% of New Zealand’s area under vine, 74% of our wine production and a whopping 88% of our exports by volume, meaning for every dozen bottles of wine we export, over 10 of those are sauvignon blanc. Photo: Getty Images

I like to think of sauvignon blanc as the IPA of wine. It’s brash, bombastic and a little bit basic (in a good way). Like IPA, its tropical aromas of guava, passionfruit, lemongrass and a little bit of sweat jump forth from the glass. In the words of wine educator Oz Clark: “There had never before been a wine that crackled and spat its flavours at you from the glass”. It should not be surprising that some of the flavours in savvies and IPAs are the same – New Zealand’s most acclaimed hop variety, Nelson Sauvin, is named for its olfactory similarity to Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Savvy is easy to understand and even easier to like. In the world of wine, which has a tendency to disempower consumers by letting so-called “experts” hoard knowledge, this is unequivocally a good thing.

Sauvignon blanc put New Zealand on the map. It is the foundation on which the entire export side of our wine industry has been built. But sadly, there can be too much of a good thing. While writing my new book, Beyond the Vines: The Changing Landscape of New Zealand Wine, I’ve had to wrestle with the fact that while sauvignon blanc is amazing, the New Zealand wine industry has too many eggs in one basket. It represents 63% of New Zealand’s area under vine, 74% of our wine production and a whopping 88% of our exports by volume, meaning for every dozen bottles of wine we export, over 10 of those are sauvignon blanc.

In August 2020, New Zealand Winegrowers released their annual report which stated that, despite six months of Covid-19 affecting sales, we’d actually exported more wine than ever before. Big grocery brands have done incredibly well but many smaller producers are feeling the pinch. The smaller the producer, the more likely they are to be selling wine in restaurants, which is hard when restaurants are shut or diners are too scared to go out. Secondary lockdowns in Melbourne, London and even in Auckland,  as well as the huge mishandling of Covid in our biggest markets – the USA and UK – have had profoundly negative effects for many Kiwi producers.

New Zealand, the forward-thinking upstart that it is, committed to free trade in the mid-1980s. We are an export economy and from my position, this has generally helped us do business. However, one of the consequences of this is that no industry is too big to fail. Our producers, unlike those in Europe, for instance, cannot rely on government intervention to keep them afloat if the arse drops out of the market.

Ripening white grapes at a vineyard in Marlborough Region, country's largest winegrowing region with distinctive soils and climatic conditions, South Island of New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
Ripening white grapes at a vineyard in Marlborough Region, country’s largest winegrowing region with distinctive soils and climatic conditions, South Island of New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

Sauvignon blanc is popular now across the globe, but what happens when the bubble bursts? We could face a quick trend shift à la Sideways that saw merlot’s demise, or even a sudden global event change how the wine world works overnight. Most of the players who are making big bucks on industrial sauvignon blanc will not care. They will move onto something else. The growers and the wineries will be hurting. The wine world is a slow-moving beast, but it is also a fickle one. At this stage, New Zealand does not have an exit strategy.

Savvy is important – we can make relatively high-quality juice relatively cheaply. This is what got us into this problem in the first place. But we can also make world-class wine all over New Zealand. We need to champion more serious styles of sauvignon blanc, which we excel at.

We also need to diversify, and quickly. Despite having over 55 commercial varieties being grown, land devoted to most varieties has been dwindling (all but sauvignon blanc, of course, pinot noir, pinot gris and syrah).

I myself am heavily invested in the natural and lo-fi wine game with my businesses Cult Wine and Te Aro Wine but, strangely enough, I do not think this is the saviour of the industry, nor is making more and more serious wine. We need to find something we can make relatively cheaply, well, and for which there is an international demand.

I believe light red wines are part of the answer to the problem of the sav bubble – Montepulciano from Italy, St Lauren from Austria and Gamay are all contenders. In Australia, these light reds have taken off domestically and are making waves internationally. Like sav, we can make affordable pinot relatively well so there is no reason why we cannot apply these skills to grape varieties that are a little easier to grow. I happen to like drinking light reds but this is one solution that should also suit consumers in Australia, USA and the growing Chinese market.

We also need to experiment, throw grapes at the wall to see what sticks. The bubble will pop. We need to be ready.

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Wairarapa here we come!!

We have good news for our many members who’d booked to spend a day wining and dining in the Wairarapa back in March before COVID19 scuttled our plans.

This trip is now rescheduled for Saturday, 13 February 2021 so lock that into your calendars!. Read more about the trip.

Some of you were unable to come on the March trip because you’d booked overseas holidays (remember when we used to do that?!) Of course we still welcome any members who weren’t on the original list – please email Wayne to have your name added and organise payment of the $75 per head.

Palliser Estate

Grave Wines

alana wines

We plan to follow the same schedule as we’d planned for last March. We’ll update it closer to the date when the train times for that period have been loaded onto the Metlink website.

Instead of launching the club’s 40th birthday celebrations, this event will wrap them up so come along and make it a great day to mark this special milestone.

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F.A.W.C. [Food and Wine Classic] Night In – August 15th 2020

An exclusive evening of excellent wines, delicious canapés and fantastic banter beaming right into your living room
An exclusive evening of excellent wines, delicious canapés and fantastic banter beaming right into your living room

As COVID-19 has altered the way both businesses and functions operate NZ-wide this year and next, the Hawkes Bay’s Winter FAWC celebrations were altered too.

FAWC notified all their regular attendees of a new event which was ‘FAWC Night In’. This was to be for an hour, 5-6 pm, on Saturday 15th August.

‘Gather up to 10 of our friends for an exclusive evening of excellent wine, delicious canapes and fantastic banter beaming right into your living room.’

The cost for people joining in for the virtual wine tasting was $250.00 for the hamper that held the contents for the tasting – this included five bottles of wine and the ingredients for the carefully matched canapes from the iconic Hawkes’s Bay Farmers’ Market and suppliers.

‘To discover the flavours of each of the wines, why different varietals have excelled in the varied terrain of Hawke’s Bay and to enjoy the witty tete-a-tete from the industry insiders.’

Our hamper arrived the Thursday before the event, and we refrigerated what contents needed to be in anticipation of Saturday! Along with the zoom meeting invite for the event.

So, we had:

  • 5 x 75ml pours of wine
  • 5 x bite-sized canapes

We had a lot of fun with this new format being tried out by region’s leading wineries and winemakers, the getting together with friends and the sharing:

  • Richard Painter – Te Awa Estate 2020 Cabernet Franc Rose’ – matching canape Origin Earth Takenga Gold Cheese with Berry Bees Manuka Comb Honey
    Tasting: strawberries, almost sweet but not too much Visually: blush in colour Canape brought out the saltiness in the wine – a really interesting match
  • Amy Hopkinson-Styles – Halcyon Days Wines 2019 Kotare Sauvignon Blanc/Gewurztraminer – matching canape Nieuwenhuis Goats Cheese on crackers
    Tasting: smooth on the palate, not the usual green apple taste, but pleasantly gooseberry-ish; had a small measure of pinot noir and gertz combined in it! Was quite a savoury taste Visually: pale yellow Canape was a well-matched selection.
  • Matt Kirby – Clearview Estate 2019 Chardonnay – matching canape Pig & Salt Pork Rillettes, Preserve & Co. Peach Chutney on Hapi Paelo Bread
    Tasting: highly anticipated as the last time we had this one at the Club is was from the first batch in new American Oak and tasted strongly of coffee! This brew was completely different and most enjoyable. It smelled and tasted like a buttery chardonnay – vegan friendly! Hand-harvested from their own block and naturally fermented Canape was a nice compliment to the wine.
  • Michael Henley – Smith and Sheth 2017 CRU Heretaunga Syrah – matching canape Pig & Salt Lamb Terrine with Hapi Paleo Bread
    Tasting: dark berries came through with a smooth-dry-ish after taste on the tongue – this had been a difficult vintage in the Bay to work with, but this could successfully be cellared for 7 years Visually: lovely dark red Canape was a nice compliment.
  • Julianne Brogden – Collaboration Wines 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon – matching canape Hapi Harore Cheese with OMG Cracker
    Tasting: blackberries on the tongue, most pleasant, this wine is 100% Cab Sauv from two sites Bridge Pa and Gravels and the grape variety is the last to ripen in the Bay. It has had two years in oak barrels and was very pleasant while being more sophisticated than the old Cab Sauv’s we remembered! This can be cellared for 10-12 years Visually: dark red Canape didn’t really enhance the wine any but was pleasant.

This was a strictly limited ticket numbers event, but I think we all felt it could have been a bit longer, as we enjoyed it so much! Would definitely recommend any upcoming events to members.

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Project to explore turning waste into hand sanitiser

Maia Hart, May 26 2020 |

The stems and seeds leftover after pressing left grape marc, which in Marlborough was around 46,000 tonnes of waste a year. | STUFF
The stems and seeds leftover after pressing left grape marc, which in Marlborough was around 46,000 tonnes of waste a year. | STUFF

Turning waste into hand sanitiser is the next project for a research winery based in Marlborough.

The Ministry of Business and Innovation (MBIE) has awarded $84,700 in funding to Bragato Research Institute (BRI) for a pilot study exploring turning grape marc into hand sanitiser.

Grape marc is the stems and seeds leftover after pressing – which in Marlborough can total as much as 46,000 tonnes of waste per year.

The study would look to turn winery waste into ethanol. Any sanitiser made in the initial eight-month study would be bottled and donated to Marlborough health workers and first responders.

Bragato Research Institute chief executive MJ Loza said the industry was continuously looking at alternative uses for grape marc, and Covid-19 presented BRI with “an opportunity to learn more about its properties while exploring a potential business case for a new product”.

Bragato Research Institute chief executive MJ Loza said the industry was continuously looking at alternative uses for grape marc. | SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF
Bragato Research Institute chief executive MJ Loza said the industry was continuously looking at alternative uses for grape marc. | SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

“Using winery waste to produce ethanol for hand sanitiser is untested in the New Zealand context with our varietals. We haven’t had the capability to conduct a study like this in New Zealand until now,” Loza said.

“Managing grape marc has probably been viewed as a disposal issue. However, the marc itself is increasingly being studied for other properties.

“Transforming the wine industry’s waste into a value stream is a research priority. Every time we study grape marc, we learn a little more about its potential for a new commercial product.”

In the long term, the project would explore the business opportunity for the industry to turn waste into sanitiser, which would include “more information on costs, the infrastructure needed and technical findings specific to grape marc produced in New Zealand”.

“We know that grape marc is rich in valuable compounds. The challenges lie in finding a new economy for grape marc without creating a bigger environmental footprint, as well as finding a financially viable market for a new product,” Loza said.

Bragato Research Institute trials winemaking equipment, technologies and processes. | SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF
Bragato Research Institute trials winemaking equipment, technologies and processes. | SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Funding for the project was secured through MBIE’s Covid-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund, which was created to support research and projects in covid responses, and provide support to develop and deploy products, processes and services.

The project would be led by winery research manager Dr Tanya Rutan and research programme manager Dr Matias Kinzurik.

Bragato officially opened their research winery in February, based at the Blenheim campus of Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.

The new facility will trial winemaking equipment, technologies and processes as well as sustainable winery operations.

It will also provide commercial research winemaking services to suppliers and the industry.

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Latest updates, dinner, Wairarapa trip, new editor & retiring editor

Latest updates

We hope all members are coming out of the hibernation that was COVID19 lockdown levels 4-3 and are looking forward to some normality re-energising their lives.  We are now allowed to meet and lots happening so let me set things out for you.  Firstly a major change is planned with Evelyn Dawson taking over the Editorship of your Newsletter.  Evelyn has other commitments and will not be joining the committee, we are however, very keen to seek a new member or two into the committee with both Steve and Robin withdrawing.  Think about it, please.

Evelyn Dawson (New editor)

The Minister of Wine and Cheese
Fletcher, David, 1952: I’ve been told to stop trivialising the work of politicians…

As everyone will realise we have been through strange and challenging times in recent weeks with the Cellar Club being in suspension.  As people have sat in isolation and reviewed the meaning of life I have had an epiphany.  I want to be the Editor of the Club’s Newsletter.  The following are a couple of Club issues we need to deal with.

No mid-year dinner

There will be no July Dinner but instead, the AGM has been deferred until July. See “Looking Forward” for detail.  Organising a dinner in the current somewhat fluid “Level” system is just too difficult.  We do have planning well in hand for our celebration dinner in November which will be special and should compensate.  More later on that.

Wairarapa trip & alternatives

We were all a bit sad that Covid19 meant that the planned Wairarapa trip in March could not proceed. We have been looking at alternatives and we are currently working on a deferment until February 2021.  We will continue to work on this alternative and will keep you all informed.

Robin (retiring editor)

Robin, Pat and grandkids. 2015
Robin, Pat and grandkids. 2015

You will note that I am relinquishing my role as your Newsletter Editor.  I am also looking to stand down as a committee member and would love it if someone else would put up their hand for a turn.  I have always believed that a little “churn” in committee membership allows for the introduction of variety and new ideas. I have been on the committee for 20 years and Editor for 9.  Time for a change.  I will continue to be a member of the club.  Far too much good wine yet to be tasted to give up that privilege.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on the committee and very much appreciate the support I have received over the years.  Best wishes for the continued success of the Club.

Related news

Distilleries pause alcohol production to make hand sanitizer

Michael Rubikam and Lisa Rathke | Mar 17 2020 |

​A US distillery owner who grew increasingly angry as he saw the skyrocketing price of hand sanitiser has decided to do something about it: He’s temporarily converting his operation into a production line for the suddenly hard-to-find, gooey, alcohol-based disinfectant.

Eight Oaks Farm Distillery is temporarily converting its operation into a production line for hand sanitister. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
Eight Oaks Farm Distillery is temporarily converting its operation into a production line for hand sanitister. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
Eight Oaks Farm Distillery filled its first 20 bottles this week, a batch destined for charitable groups that need hand sanitiser but haven’t been able to get it due to the coronavirus pandemic. The family-owned distillery plans to dramatically boost production this week and distribute the bottles to charities as well as offer them at farmers’ markets where it sells its spirits and through its website.

The price: whatever people decide to donate.

“We are in a national emergency,” said brewery founder Chad Butters. “What’s the right thing to do? The right thing to do is support this community by providing something that is in desperate need. We’ll flood the valley with hand sanitiser and drive that price right down.”

Chad Butters, founder of Eight Oaks Farm Distillery, at his facility in Pennsylvania. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
Chad Butters, founder of Eight Oaks Farm Distillery, at his facility in Pennsylvania. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
Other distilleries are also putting their spirits to work to help fill the shortage of hand sanitisers. Green Mountain Distillers in Morrisville, Vermont, is giving away a hand sanitising solution and Durham Distillery in Durham, North Carolina, is donating one to hospitality colleagues, using high-proof alcohol and other ingredients. Patrons must bring their own containers.

“We wanted to do something that would be as positive as possible,” said Harold Faircloth, an owner of Green Mountain Distillers.

Smugglers’ Notch Distillery, also in Vermont, plans to launch a hand sanitiser later this week at its Waterbury and Jeffersonville sites. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Vermont’s efforts to respond to the virus outbreak.

“I know I have a unique opportunity to help out a little bit and keep my staff employed,” said co-owner Jeremy Elliott, who said 40 per cent of his business comes from bars and restaurants, which are closing in some other parts of the country.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, has been in touch with federal regulatory agencies as well as the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force to clear red tape and “make sure we can be quick and nimble and fill a need in the marketplace”, said chief executive Chris Swonger. “We all want to do our part.”

Swonger said government agencies have been very receptive.

Customers can decide how much to donate for a bottle of hand sanitiser. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
Customers can decide how much to donate for a bottle of hand sanitiser. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
At Eight Oaks Farm Distillery, about 115 kilometres north of Philadelphia, workers experimented with high-proof alcohol, aloe and glycerine to get just the right consistency. The recipe is based on one published by the World Health Organization.

As word got out about what Eight Oaks was up to, the distillery began hearing from people and groups in need, including a pediatric cancer organisation and a woman whose 12-year-old son has heart disease and was desperate for hand sanitiser to help keep him safe.

“I cannot find it anywhere and this virus is especially dangerous to him,” she wrote to the distillery.

Stories like that are why Butters was so disgusted with price gougers who were selling sanitiser online for more than US$300 an ounce – and why he decided to shift his company’s focus.

“We’re trying to make sure we continue to provide a paycheck for our employees and support our community however way we can do that,” he said.

The family-owned distillery plans to dramatically boost production of hand sanitiser this week and distribute the bottles to charities. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
The family-owned distillery plans to dramatically boost production of hand sanitiser this week and distribute the bottles to charities. [MATT ROURKE/AP]
For most people, the new virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.

Beyond the humanitarian impulses of individual distillers, the liquor industry also has a vested interest in seeing the virus threat dissipate quickly, given its economic reliance on bars, restaurants and other hospitality and entertainment venues that have been shuttered by the outbreak.

Brad Plummer, spokesman for the American Distilling Institute and editor of Distiller Magazine, said he’s been seeing a lot of talk among distillers interested in converting part of their operations to hand sanitiser.

“The hospitality industry is going to be decimated by this and they are our primary clients. We’re looking for ways to help in the response to this, but also to find other ways to look for revenue streams,” he said.

Related news

March & future events

Clearly, as we had no Club activity during March looking back has little value. As it happens it is equally difficult to look forward in our current environment. Suffice it to say that your committee will keep abreast of developments and will make appropriate plans when things become clearer. The Wairarapa trip and The Crater Rim will be foremost in our future arrangements.

Palliser Estate Wines
grava Martinborough
Alana Wines
Coney Wines

The Crater Rim

Clearly COVID-19 has forgotten to consider our club’s 40th-anniversary celebrations.  Your committee is still focused on holding these events as we can and planning is well underway for a dinner at a pretty special venue in November.  So let’s hope the lockdown is a distant memory by then and we can all make up for lost time with a great night out.  In the meantime, we trust all of us are doing our bit to help wineries stay financially afloat.

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From your Committee

As you might expect, in the current Level 4 Emergency status, your club has effectively gone into adjournment, albeit your committee continues to communicate and make plans for the year ahead.

Our April tasting with The Crater Rim has been deferred and we are considering the Level 4 impact on the whole AGM process. Our club rules require us to give 3 weeks’ notice of our AGM which we will do as soon as it is practical to do so. However, if this means we will be holding the meeting after May [a possibility] then that will breach the time requirements set out in our constitution/club rules. Whilst we don’t do that lightly, there is no way we can comply with those rules in the L4 environment. We can’t even conduct a Special AGM to change the club rules so we are between a rock and a hard place and just need to be practical.”

We are considering if there is some way we could have a remote AGM.  Your committee has held a meeting on Zoom but there would be too many for that approach.  We continue to think through options and will keep you in touch.

Related news


Social Distancing in the Cellar: German and Austrian Vintners Grapple with Coronavirus Shutdown

Aleks Zecevic | Mar 31, 2020 | Wine Spectator

With tasting rooms closed for the COVID-19 crisis, wineries are dealing with slumping sales; meanwhile, spring is arriving in the vineyards.

Germany and Austria have not been immune to the ravaging effects of the coronavirus pandemic. As of March 31, Germany reported 68,180 confirmed cases, fifth highest in the world, while Austria had confirmed 10,038 cases. Neither country has imposed a complete lockdown, instead opting for strict social distancing measures for now.

For vintners, the shutdowns have added new challenges as they ready the vineyards for the growing season and tend their young wines, all while following strict social guidelines. Meanwhile, they confront a devastating business situation, as many of their sales channels close.


On March 22, the German government banned public gatherings of more than two people except for families and people who live together. Exercising outside is still allowed if there are 5 feet between participants. Schools and “nonessential” businesses are also closed. Restaurants can only offer food-to-go.

“Everything is closed, and group events are not allowed. Only grocery stores and pharmacies are open,” said Gernot Kollmann, winemaker and proprietor at Immich-Batterieberg in Mosel.

Although agriculture is considered essential, the current rules, in place until at least April 6, are affecting the normal workflow for most wineries. “The rules affect two areas in particular: sales and work in the vineyards,” said Sophie Christmann of A. Christmann in Pfalz. “The fact that the gastronomy is closed everywhere will certainly hit us hard,” she warned.

“Around 50 per cent of our sales are exported in more than 40 countries, and of course, it’s getting calm in the last two weeks,” said winery owner Philipp Wittmann in Rheinhessen.

Indeed, most wineries are reporting little to no sales. Tasting rooms are closed to the public, but they can still make sales—either in person or online. “Wineries who have a good online concept and a decent number of private customers can still do business,” said Andrea Wirsching of Hans Wirsching in Franken.

Johannes Hasselbach stands in the Gunderloch cellars. Few people can work in the small space right now with social distancing rules. (Chris Janik)
Johannes Hasselbach stands in the Gunderloch cellars. Few people can work in the small space right now with social distancing rules. (Chris Janik)

Johannes Hasselbach of Gunderloch in Rheinhessen has started online tastings. “We send out a box of wine to private customers, and then we taste them together in a video conference,” he said. “It is quite funny to have 25 people who don’t know each other in a virtual tasting room.”

However, for most wineries, private client sales account for a small percentage of income. “We only have 3-percent private customer business,” said Kollmann.

The hardship of not having enough cash flow is already manifesting. “I have no idea what happens next, said vintner Eva Fricke in Rheingau. She sat down with two of her employees and they collectively decided that they are better off filing for unemployment. “The German social system is strong and safe, so while it is shitty, in the end it, seems better for them—less salary, but safe.”

“Some wineries are filing for Kurzarbeit, which means short work,” explained Andreas Spreitzer, referring to a government-funded program where companies keep employees, who agree to temporarily work for less pay and lower hours but stay in their jobs. The government helps make up for some lost income. First employed in 2009, the program saved more than 300,000 jobs during that recession, according to the German Federal Employment Agency. Spreitzer is fortunate to have 30 percent of income coming from private sales, so he will continue to pay his workers for now.

Restaurant closures affect outstanding bills, too. Many wineries are still awaiting payments. “We see the big customers struggle,” said Wirsching. “We have given all our restaurant clients time until the end of the year to pay their bills. They need support now since we still have business, and they don’t.” But not all wineries can afford that without government aid.

Sebastian Fürst plows one of his steep vineyards in Franken. Vineyard work continues, with workers staying two meters apart. (Photo courtesy of Rudolf Fürst)
Sebastian Fürst plows one of his steep vineyards in Franken. Vineyard work continues, with workers staying two meters apart. (Photo courtesy of Rudolf Fürst)

Worsening the situation is the fact that nature doesn’t stop. Work in cellars and the vineyards must continue. Social distancing only complicates things. “We work in five teams in the vineyard and the cellar, and the teams don’t meet,” reported Sebastian Fürst of Rudolf Fürst in Franken. “In the vineyard, it is no big problem to keep 2 meters distance. In the cellar, sometimes it is more complicated.”


Work in the vineyards will only get more hectic as the temperatures rise and days get longer. And most wineries rely on the help of foreign seasonal workers, who are now not allowed to cross the border. “We hope that foreign workers will be available again from May, at the latest June,” said Hansjörg Rebholz of Ökonomierat Rebholz in Pfalz.

There might be some solutions. Sophie Christmann shared that some restaurant workers who would like to help have contacted her. Since the restaurants are closed, sommeliers and other food industry staff are looking for work.

As the torture of an unknown future continues, the fear rises. “The situation is quite scary, especially because there is no end in sight, and we might not even have reached the peak yet,” said Franziska Schmitt of Koehler-Ruprecht in Pfalz.


The situation in Austria is not much better. Since March 16, Austrians are not permitted to enter public spaces except for pharmacies, grocery stores and places with ATMs. Only supermarkets and food delivery services are open for those looking for food. Groups of more than five people cannot gather in public. Those who do not comply face fines of up to €3,600.

The borders with Italy and Switzerland have been shut, with train and air travel significantly cut back. Some cities are completely closed. “The situation in Austria is getting worse. There are more and more positively tested people in our immediate surroundings. Many places, such as Tyrol, are completely closed,” said Theresa Pichler, daughter of Rudi Pichler, renowned Wachau winemaker.

“Last weekend, there was the apricot blossom in the Wachau valley,” said Josef Fischer of his eponymous estate in Wachau. “It is usually the busiest time here. People from all over Austria, especially Vienna, come here to see that, take pictures and visit restaurants and wineries. This year, there were barely any tourists.”

Vintners are facing the same difficulties as those in Germany. “Sales have come to almost a complete halt,” said Dr. Bertold Salomon of Salomon-Undhof in Kremstal. “But we intend to hold on to all our employees.”

“Many people are applying for government benefits or Kurzarbeit,” said winemaker Martin Nittnaus. “I think the Austrian government is doing a fairly OK job.” He added that most wineries are selling their wine online, but that the retailers complain. “We also have been sending out orders, but it’s just a drop in the bucket, because most of our sales are to ski resorts and high-quality restaurants,” he concluded.

Sattlerhof and Tement started doing online tasting series from their tasting rooms, where they allow customers to virtually taste together.

One fortunate thing is that some foreign workers are still allowed entry. “Our Hungarian workers are still allowed to cross the border for the vineyard work,” said winery owner Judith Beck in Burgenland. Pichler added that their Slovakian employees stayed with the family so that the vineyard work can go on. “Nature knows no COVID-19,” she said.

Winemakers are trying to remain optimistic. “For the wines, some more time in the cellar or in the bottle before sale is for sure very positive,” said Ewald Tscheppe of Werlitsch in Styria. “Personally, I hope people can stay positive in these times and use the time to realize what really matters.”

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Coronavirus: New documents show strict wine industry protocols during lockdown

Maia Hart | Mar 29, 2020 |

Strict vintage rules include workers living off-site having to send a photo to their COVID-19 manager of their “daily-routine” to show they are staying socially isolated.

If wineries are in doubt about the best practice during the COVID-19 lockdown, they must “assume everyone has the virus”.

Documents posted to the New Zealand Winegrowers website on March 26, shows the advice given to wineries during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Wineries with more than 20 staff must have a dedicated COVID-19 manager, who had “absolute authority over any procedures involving staff or potential staff interactions”.

Records are to be kept for each person working in the winery, which includes living arrangements and who they are in contact with.

Workers living off-site must send a photo to their COVID-19 manager of their “daily-routine” to show they are staying socially isolated. In some cases, workers had been moved into isolated accommodation, which included caravans on site.

As the production and processing of beverages are considered an essential service, the wine industry has been cleared to work through the lockdown.

Start and finish times in the wineries were to be staggered to ensure different teams did not cross paths.

“Rest breaks” also needed to be staggered to reduce the number of people in one place. Workers were encouraged to take breaks outside, while “observing distancing rules”.

NZ Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan said last week the increased safety protocols had meant harvest was slower than previous years.

“If they are going to continue operating then there will be some slow down. At the end of the day that’s what the industry has to expect if they want to continue to operate,” Gregan said.

National MP for Kaikōura Stuart Smith said he understood why people were concerned at this time, but wineries had to meet the standard set, or they would shut.

Machine harvest in the Awatere Valley, Marlborough on March 24.

He said the message to wineries had been “very clear”.

“This is a privilege. But it comes with responsibility, and that responsibility is to not spread the disease.

“I think people are trying to do the right thing, across all of the essential businesses, they’re doing their best.”

Smith said he understood MPI had already visited wineries and other essential businesses in Marlborough.

A spokesperson from Pernot Ricard Winemakers said the health and wellbeing of team members and the community continued to be “the number one priority” through the evolving COVID-19 situation.

With more safety procedures in place, the harvest is happening slower than normal.

“In addition to the extensive cleaning, hygiene and social distancing measures we already had in place; we have implemented additional health and safety requirements at all of our sites that are currently operating to ensure that we meet the Government’s standard, with immediate effect,” the spokesperson said.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to keep our employees, their families and friends, and our community safe and stop the spread.”

By 5 pm on March 27, businesses should have registered with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on the “Register for Safe-Practice”.

New Zealand Food Safety deputy director-general Bryan Wilson said MPI then verified if safe practices were in place.

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