Why Italy’s best winemakers are being hit hardest by the coronavirus shutdown

Cheaper Italian wines are set to be turned into disinfectant, now a more valuable commodity. But the best bottles are gathering dust in cellars up and down the country as sales plunge.

Why Italy's best winemakers are being hit hardest by the coronavirus shutdown
Bottles in the cellar at Cagliero's Winery in the Langhe Region of Piedmont. All photos: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Italy's winemakers are reporting a drop of up to 90 percent in sales, with restaurants and bars closed across the country and global trade snuffed out by the coronavirus crisis.

Some producers are now considering distilling their lowest quality wines in order to transform it into ethanol, used for the manufacture of hydroalcoholic gel – currently much in demand.

Coldiretti, the Italian agricultural association, said it has presented the government with a plan to turn at least three million hectolitres of cheaper wine into disinfectant.

However, this is not an option for top-of-the-range reds, such as Barolo, which can be kept for decades.

In fact, some of Italy's most prestigious winemakers are suffering the most from the worldwide lockdown.

For decades, Barolo has focused on “maximum quality,” earning a place on the wine lists of some of the world's best restaurants, said Paolo Boffa, president of the Terre del Barolo cooperative.

Long considered a strength, that focus on the high end is now hurting Barolo makers, he said.
The situation “is very critical,” he said, given that 90 percent of Barolo is sold within the shuttered distribution channel of restaurants.

Making nearly a fifth of all the world's wine and selling more than half of it at home, Italy's inegrowers are hit especially hard by the lockdown.

Italy's 47.5 million hectolitres edged out France's 42.1 million for last year's global wine production title, although France's 9.8 billion euros ($10.7 billion) in exports beat out Italy's 6.4 billion euros.

READ ALSO: Italian wine production drops sharply after year of extreme weather

Lodovico Giustiniani, president of the Confagricoltura agricultural lobby in the vineyards filled region of Veneto, said the domestic market imploded when the restaurants and bars closed in early March.

But the situation has not been much better for exports. Sales to the world's restaurants and wine bars were “now close to zero,” Giustiniani said.

“The other channel, that of supermarkets, is still working, but it can't compensate for the sales of a channel that is completely at a standstill,” he told AFP.

Giustiniani's own winery, Borgoluce, whose Prosecco does not sell in supermarkets but is exported to the United States and Asia, saw its sales fall by 90 percent last month, he said.

Producers have not only sales to worry about, but logistics too. Since wine in cellars has not been sold, there will be no more room for the new wine usually taking its place that will be made after harvest this autumn.

The producers of Barolo are hoping to be allowed to store it outside the traditional production area, a practice normally not allowed under strict classification rules.

Another big question to ponder is whether to cut production, in light of current lower demand.

The Chianti Wine Consortium has already made such a decision to reduce production by 20 percent. The step, called “drastic” by its president, Giovanni Busi, would likely cause “serious economic damage to companies,” he said.

On Sunday, Italy's government announced that restaurants, bars and cafes would be allowed to open on June 1 – with restrictions in place, and as long as coronavirus cases don't start to increase again.

Italy's wine industry, said Barolo producer Boffa, says this is “great and beautiful news”, although he expressed scepticism that restaurants and bars would be soon filled again.

“We all understand the seriousness of this epidemic and the crisis it will cause for our families. But we farmers are used to sacrifice and once again we will not give up.”

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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”