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How the coronavirus crisis has hit Piedmont’s wineries – and how you can help

With Italian wine producers facing an impending crisis, Piedmont-based wine expert Evan Byrne explains how local family-run wineries are now relying more on direct orders from the public.

How the coronavirus crisis has hit Piedmont's wineries - and how you can help
Barolo vineyards in the Langhe region. Photo: AFP

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.

READ ALSO: When will Italy remove restrictions on international travel?

 

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.

Photo: AFP

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.

Member comments

  1. In your list of all the things you need you didn’t mention who to contact to order wines. Got a list of names and email addresses?

  2. Yes, please. There is no link or information as to where to order.

  3. Ciao Katie & Donna!
    I hope that you are both well!
    My apologies for the very late reply – I had not realised that there were replies on the article itself. If you e-mail me on [email protected] I can send you all the necessary details!
    Have a great Sunday and speak soon I hope!
    Evan.

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COVID-19

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].”

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