As The Local reported recently, sales of Italian wine, along with many other things, have taken anything from a little descent to a nose-dive.
With the nationwide lockdown came the closure of restaurants, as well as travel bans within Italy and to and from the country. Had this been in the fallow months – December to February – it would have hurt Italian wine producers substantially. Now that spring has been in full swing for almost two months here, that impact is even greater.
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As well as being a huge employer, wine is integral to Italians’ lifestyles: more so than perhaps in any other country, since every region in Italy produces wine, and the country makes more than any other.
In Piedmont, wine is both plentiful and, in some cases, among the best in the world, a source of justifiable pride for the Piemontese.
A Barolo winemaker in his cellar in Piedmont. Photo: AFP
Wine probably plays an even more prominent role here in terms of tourism, too, than in other parts of Italy – how many people visit Venice or Rome for the vineyards? In Piedmont, a disproportionately large share of visitors from March to November come for the cuisine.
Well, now no-one is visiting, for the cuisine or anything else. The restaurants that would be selling bottle after bottle to locals and international visitors alike have not been doing so for months. Hospitality facilities that producers have been increasingly investing in over the past few years are empty.
Even if these local sales were the only market that was suffering, it could be crippling for some: overwhelmingly, the producers here are family-owned and -run.
The largest producer of Barbaresco, for example, is a co-operative, as is the largest producer of Barolo.
In Barbaresco, the production each year is around 4.5 million bottles. The largest two producers – the Produttori del Barbaresco co-operative and their near-neighbour Gaja (owned and run by the family) – make about 800,000 between them.
This leaves around 3.7 million bottles produced by 180-200 other producers. This is an average of about 18,500-20,500 bottles each per year. That’s more than you or I could drink in a year, but to supply the whole world for 12 months, it’s nothing.
If they possibly can, these winery-owning families have found things for their employees to do rather than laying them off. More than one Barbaresco producer told me that they had their vineyard workers repaint the entire cellar. But there are only so many new coats of paint required. Likewise, when on the phone with winery staff, many have told me that they are doing their office work remotely.
All over Piedmont it is a similar story: small producers making labour-intensive, hand-crafted wines seeing their year’s, or even years’, work not selling.
Even if their loss is a couple of cases at a restaurant here, a couple there, it can easily add up to a significant proportion of their income, especially since they are losing those direct on-site sales, too.
So, while the cheapest plonk is being distilled for industrial alcohol to be used in hand-sanitising products, for example, more expensive, ‘premium’ wines, of which Piemonte has a plethora, are sitting in the producers’ cellars.
Commanding higher prices under normal circumstances, the wines are often produced lovingly by two or three generations of the same family, from grapes grown on their own land. Understandably the producers are loath to send these wines for distillation.
On the other hand, sooner or later simple logistics will start to come into play, as well as economics: even if a particular winery is not financially crippled, within the next three months they’ll need the space in their warehouse and/or tanks and barrels, for another year’s harvest will be upon them.
The result is that over the past two months producers have started to offer wines for sale directly, often with a discount and free delivery within Italy.
Individually, each purchase may be a small gesture, but it is appreciated very much: each case bought means food on the producer’s table, rather than larger shareholders’ dividends.
Readers of The Local anxious to help reduce the amount of Italian wine turned into industrial alcohol can now also take advantage of these offers. All you need is the starting price, a corkscrew (we’re still overwhelmingly wedded to the cork here) and a glass – or two if you are isolating with someone else and feeling generous. Then sit back and wait for your wine to arrive.
If you are located outside Italy, do not despair, for while shipping costs vary, European and intercontinental shipping are both also possible.
And when, finally, Italy is reachable again, the producers will welcome you to their cellars like long-lost friends: all you need to do is get here!
Evan Byrne is a British wine expert with over 20 years’ experience. He first visited Piemonte in 2001 to work a harvest season, stayed three years and has been Piemonte-based full-time since 2008. In addition to making and selling wine during his career, he also has a blog, PiemonteMio, and will launch his own wine as soon as coronavirus allows. You can email him here.