COVID-19 took everyone by surprise this year. From unclarity about how the virus is caught, what it does, or how it can be treated, to the sudden restrictions of movement, job uncertainty, and cabin fever that came with stay-at-home orders… Needless to say, it’s been a hard year.
We wanted to know how the pandemic has affected the wine business, from the perspective of winemakers, the wine shops and restaurants that sell it, and the general consumers. Looking into these three viewpoints, we asked some experts how they’ve dealt with the topsy-turvy journey of this past year.
We sat down with Vincent Eymann to learn a little more about how winemakers are doing in the pandemic. “The biggest problem was certainly the closure of the borders and the consequent halt of export business”, Vincent tells us. Most international importers deliver directly to their local gastronomy industry. But as restaurants and other establishments had to close their doors, there was an absolute standstill of exports. Eymann’s exports had risen healthily in recent years, from two to ten target countries, and 45% of sales were generated from these. Unfortunately, the increase in domestic demand during lockdown times couldn’t make up for the losses from a non-existing export. But all was not lost, and solidarity came to the rescue. Old friends and local people started buying wine directly from Eymann, either online or by phone, with increasing frequency.
Alongside wine production, many winegrowers still run small restaurants or taverns directly at their wineries. The closing of doors with the lockdown made yet another blow on this source of revenue.
Another major problem has been the cancellation of events, most notably what is probably the largest wine fair in the German-speaking world, ProWein. This is where the entire market meets and usually shapes the assortment planning for the coming year. In general, Eymann saw all his planned events cancelled, including trips to Scandinavia, Israel, and Holland as sales countries. On the other hand, it wasn’t so bad to have the spring off for a change, so he could concentrate on the in-house aspects of the business and spend an extra hour or two in the vineyard.
And not even farm work escaped the effects of the pandemic. Many wineries employ temporary workers, usually coming from other countries for seasonal work. As the borders closed, so did the influx of people working in the fields, and winemakers had to look elsewhere for help. Eymann was lucky in this aspect and escaped with only minor scratches, as his winery employed permanent workers that could still cross the border due to their commuter status.
From the wine sales perspective, things also haven’t looked as good as expected. According to the German Wine Institute, consumers bought around 12.5% more wine in the second quarter of 2020 than in the previous year. This is also in line with the statements by Mr Ott of Weinhaus Ott and Mr Voisiat of Wein Refugium in Heidelberg. Both suggest that the closure of restaurants and pubs has led to many people cooking at home and consequently consuming more wine. Despite initial uncertainties about how to organise consumers’ purchases during the lockdown, demand was brisk, and sellers saw the number of sales double, even after the shops reopened. Usually, this only occurs before Christmas. But not all is sunshine. For Mr Ott, the cancellation of many wine fairs is a big problem, as many of his wines are only ordered after tasting them.
Lino Heller, the owner of the restaurant Florinstube, describes the situation in the hospitality industry as dramatic. With an already tiny restaurant and a forced closure, which lasted for almost five months due to indoor distance regulations, the situation here looks quite bitter. They’ve kept their heads above water with merchandise and online wine packages, but this is not enough to make up for the usual revenue. A little help came at the end of July when they received permission from the city of Heidelberg for outdoor seating, which allowed them to open again. They are aware this will not last long, with the rain and approaching winter.
Many shops and restaurants have shifted to online sales, and you would think that this would compensate for the lack of open doors. But that’s far from the reality. In general, the online wine trade cannot replace the advice and personal touch that a seller brings in his shop. Many wine merchants and restaurants still rely on customers coming to them for their expertise.
Looking back at consumers, we quickly arrived at a common picture during the lockdown. More wine was definitely drunk. Being stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic, threatened by job loss and general life insecurity, led many people to take refuge in a bottle of wine. Sometimes, drinking wine came as a response to being overwhelmed by the daily routines of home-office and family duties in the same space. The daily burden of work, along with round-the-clock childcare, and the inability to escape the family home have certainly lead to one or three glasses of wine in the evening for many.
In the long run, we all know this isn’t good. The Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim asked around 3,200 people about their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. The survey showed that 37% of participants drank more alcohol during the lockdown. They suspect that the stress of contact restrictions, the invisible threat of the virus, work-insecurity, and a general feeling of cabin-fever are responsible for this increase.
Vincent Eymann was surprised by old school friends who placed a group order in the high three-digit range with him during the lockdown. This brings a smile to your face even in difficult times.
All in all, the situation isn’t great. The loss of revenue for wine producers and sellers, the mental health effects of prolonged isolation for consumers who take refuge in alcohol, along with general future insecurity for all, have made this an incredibly challenging year. But there are also signs we are adapting to a new reality. Solidarity with local businesses has sky-rocketed, sales have found alternative channels online, shops and restaurants have started to reclaim the streets for outdoor seating (a favourite of ours), and wine starts to seem less an escape from reality, and more something to be enjoyed with family and friends.