“This is beyond anything we have experienced”: winemakers worldwide face coronavirus with resolve

For Paul Symington, the crisis is as grave as that faced by his parents in World War II, and for others it’s a matter of keeping social distance – but for all winemakers, the lockdown is a huge test

Words by Adam Lechmere

Familia Torres

Anyone who spends any time around winemakers knows they are a tough breed, used to pre-dawn starts, late finishes – and crisis management. Nature is unforgiving.

When we asked winemakers around the world how they are coping, there was a remarkable similarity in their answers. Our first question, for example, was “Where are you at the moment?” and the response was uniformly, “In the winery” (with an unspoken, “where else would I be?”).

For each of our respondents, whether northern or southern hemisphere (the latter deep into harvest), the daily work of vineyard and winery management goes on, despite the surreal situation.

Brian and Nicola Bicknell

“The strangest of vintages,” Brian Bicknell of Mahi in Marlborough, New Zealand said. “We’ve isolated the two shifts so they don’t interrelate, and we spend 30 minutes sterilising doors and such before the next team starts.”

Not only doors: every surface is sterilised after use – even the levers of the forklift trucks.

“I am amazed at how much you need to consider to make a winery safe for the team. Jumping on and off a forklift (our most important machine) should be fun, but now it’s how many points are you touching, how can you sterilise it for the next shift?”

Although everything has changed, the impression is that the vineyard is least affected

Cleanliness has always been vital in the winery, and the crisis has served to concentrate winemakers’ minds. Paula Fandiño at Mar de Frades in Galicia, northwest Spain, says this will be one of the lessons of the virus. “We will make sure we have greater control of all phases of production from the vineyard to the winery… cleaning has always been a priority, but now it’s the main one.”

Although everything has changed, the impression is that the vineyard is least affected. Murray McHenry at McHenry Hohnen in Margaret River is “out in the vineyard and in the winery with the team” treating the grapes and wines in progress “like babies”, as every year. Vineyard work can go on as normal because it’s easy to self-isolate in the open air. “ Fortunately,  the virus is not in the vines, so there is no problem getting into the vineyard and taste the grapes, with social distancing and sanitary measures, of course”, said Alejandro Galaz of Viña Ventisquero in Chile. In Spain they have budbreak and they’re beginning to see the first outbreaks of mildew, so it’s essential that the work go on. “The vineyard doesn’t wait,” Fandiño said.

Hazel's Vineyard soils
Murray McHenry
Murray McHenry

Winemaking – especially at the blending stage – is a highly collaborative effort, frequently with eight or ten key members of the team in the tasting room. This is now impossible except remotely. At Mar de Frades, Fandiño runs webinar-based sessions: “We send wines to all the attendees and then we taste together and talk about them.”

What also comes across forcefully is winemakers’ resilience in the face of adversity. Wartime analogies are not uncommon. Paul Symington, a member of the Primum Familiae Vini – the group of 12 long-established winemaking families  – said he was proud of the way his generation was coping.

“[We are] facing a crisis similar in its gravity and extent to that that my parents faced from 1939-45 and my grandparents faced in the great depression of 1929-33 and the 1914-18 war. They fought (some literally) through those times and now so will we. This is a huge surprise to me. I never thought that we would be faced with a similar challenge.”

Miguel Torres Maczassek (pictured, top) of Familia Torres also considered the trials faced by his parents and grandparents, particularly when the winery was bombed in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War. “This situation [Coronavirus] is beyond anything my generation has experienced,” he told Club Oenologique. “But it won’t last indefinitely. We must maintain optimism.”

In Tuscany, Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta of Tenuta San Guido (producers of Sassicaia) reminds us that we have survived wars and pandemics before: “Wine, like agriculture, has existed for thousands of years.  In the aftermath of the coronavirus emergency, we all are looking forward to celebrating with our families and friends for the rebirth from a dark moment in history.”

It won’t last indefinitely. We must maintain optimism

McHenry Hohnen
McHenry Hohnen

While some winemakers look to the grand sweep of history to express their thoughts and feelings, for others it is the details which matter. For Ruth Simpson, who owns two estates with her husband, Simpson’s Wine Estate in Kent, southern England and Domaine Sainte Rose in the Languedoc, the immediate challenge is getting wine into bottles.

In Kent they were due to do a tirage (the addition of yeast and sugar to sparkling wine before bottling and second fermentation) this week, but the mobile bottling line was held up in France. This has knock-on effects – there will be less wine in bottle to be sold in two or three years, the tanks will not be free for the current harvest, and so on.

Again, lessons will be learned. For English producers, so much equipment comes from France: tanks, bottling lines, presses; dry goods like yeast and enzymes – and bottles. “I think one of the things that must change for our industry is we need to make more things here – tanks certainly, but bottles are crucial,” Simpson says.

She is confident that if they hadn’t managed to solve their bottling problem, their neighbours would have helped – the Kent winegrowing community is very supportive. This is another universal message of the crisis: communities are pulling together.

Fandiño again: “I think that the industry will become stronger overall – we will become more humane, more generous and more aware of the society we live in.”

We are living in extraordinary times, but – as many have pointed out – nature takes little notice of human frailties.


Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta
"Wine, like agriculture, has existed for thousands of years": Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta

In the aftermath, people will look for occasions to be together, possibly even more than before

Wine, after all, is for celebration. Back in Marlborough, Brian Bicknell is delighted he has one of the best vintages in years, but he laments his inability to share what should be a joyful occasion.

“It really looks like an amazing vintage, but it’s hard to get into the joy of it all with everything else happening. All bars are closed, and we can’t socialise with the rest of the team. Usually [harvest] is associated with people, laughter, beer, wine and lots of chats, whereas this year we are all keeping our distance.”

Main picture by Tim Hall.