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Masters of Wine facing up to COVID-19 webinar

Masters of Wine facing up to COVID-19 webinar

The first in our new webinar series focused on the huge challenges immediately in front of us, and allowed us to hear a range of perspectives from fellow members of the Institute on how the wine production world was coping in the face of a pandemic and the shutdown of life as we had formerly known it.

All spoke about the challenges faced as well as the (sometimes unexpected) positives to have come out of the situation. It was fascinating to hear about the range in response to the pandemic depending on location and winery size. A summary of each winemaker’s experience is below.

The four MWs who joined moderator Richard Bampfield MW on the panel were:

Alastair Maling MW – Chief Winemaker at Foley Wines, New Zealand

Key challenges faced – during New Zealand’s strict lockdown, many adaptations were required for Alastair’s working procedures, including a complete halt on his normal travel between regions. Strict social distancing and hygiene procedures in the winery and vineyard were made even more challenging by a staff member testing positive for Covid with the accompanying quarantine for other staff, as well as a drop in the number of the usual harvest workers from abroad.

Positives? Exports were allowed to continue and harvest allowed to take place. Weather conditions remained excellent and fruit quality was high. The move to Alastair’s digital overseeing of procedures led to more delegation and hence increased sense of trust in colleagues and the chance for them to take on more responsibility. A vintage that will be remembered for a very long time!

Amy Christine MW – Co-owner, Holus Bolus Winery, Santa Barbara, California

Key challenges faced – dramatic fall in sales revenue from two of key channels (on-trade and FOB), no movement in off-trade and some uplift in direct to consumer but still not enough to replace usual revenues. Due to the inability to recoup costs, bottling for a key restaurant own-label wine representing 12% of sales revenue had to be postponed. Government support did not prove adequate; for example only full-time employees and not contract workers could receive support. Due to lockdown, all vineyard work had to be done by Amy and her husband – very time and labour-intensive for them.

Positives? They were offered some excellent Syrah fruit at a 15% discount and Amy sees this trend continuing as supply of fruit will exceed demand going forward. She also spent a lot more time with her husband and business partner, and a lot of this in the vineyard, which as well as giving time to re-evaluate processes and their business model, also saved on labour costs. Additionally, she had time to develop a long-term ambition of communicating with customers via her YouTube channel – check it out!

Norrel Robertson MW – El Escocés Volante, Spain

Key challenges faced – Managing vineyard staff with new social distancing rules. Norrel himself lost his sense of smell for two weeks, most likely Covid-related, meaning the lack of ability to do his job – very concerning.  Overall in Spain, as elsewhere, the on-trade has been crippled with the subsequent knock-on effect on sales; many businesses may never re-open their doors.

Positives? They were permitted to bottle for export markets throughout. There was a low incidence overall of Covid in winemaking villages due to rural locations. 85% of wineries remained active with skeleton staff, and the government furlough scheme supported staff not working. Likely decrease in grape prices could be beneficial for purchasers. Online wine sales were already up 58%, echoing a trend seen by many. Norrel hopes that EU grants will in due course help many business keep their heads above water. A personal positive for him has been more time with family than in the last 25 years!

Richard Kershaw MW – Richard Kershaw Wines, Elgin Valley, South Africa

Key challenges faced – a complete ban on alcohol sales and transportation and also export at various times; hugely challenging for the industry. This sparked a huge increase in black market sales at the same time as talk by government officials of a permanent alcohol ban in the country, which Richard views as a political agenda to stifle the wine industry, seen by many as being controlled by wealthy white individuals and a remnant of apartheid. It looked at one point like harvest might not be able to continue but thankfully this was overturned. Richard’s company operates as a virtual winery, relying on external custom crush, bottling and laboratory facilities, meaning a great deal of extra red tape with all the required permits to visit these. Due to public transport restrictions, vineyard workers were picking for a shorter time than usual. Overall the financial implications of this period could be very bad for business long-term.

Positives? Luckily only 2% of sales are to the domestic market, so export, when permitted, was a godsend. His affiliation with Naked Wines was very helpful. On a personal level, positives included less travel, more time in the cellar and more time to read and study wine.

Thank you to you all for sharing your perspectives – really fascinating. And as Alastair said, 2020 will certainly be a vintage to be remembered.

Anne McHale MW