Three hundred winegrowers packed into the Grezillac town hall 30 minutes east of downtown Bordeaux on Aug. 5 in an area that is quickly becoming southwest France's storm alley. Outside was a tableau that drew the eye like a car wreck—three days earlier, almost 30,000 acres of vines in the Entre-Deux-Mers, St.-Emilion and Castillon regions were damaged, half almost completely, in a hail storm that lasted just minutes. Vines were stripped bare of leaves and grapes, the wood shredded.
“It was a 15-minute disaster,” said Patrick Vasseur, president of the FDSEA, the local agriculture syndicate. “Just 15 minutes to destroy [14,800 acres]. There’s never been anything like it in our lifetime.”
The vines at André Lurton’s Château Bonnet, a leading winery in the area, have been stripped bare. Next door at Château La Freynelle, owner Véronique Barthe lost 29 acres that will not produce wine for two years—not only the grapes and leaves are gone, but so are the stems for next year’s crop. “Luckily I have vineyards in four communes, and the others weren’t so badly hit,” said Barthe. "Here there’s nothing left. I saw the sky turn yellow and then the hail came."
An early tally shows 14,800 acres with more than 80 percent crop loss, and another 14,800 with fairly significant damage. Total loss is estimated to be more than $133 million.
The winegrowers in the town hall were hoping for government help, but there’s little hope. “Hail is an insurable risk, so the government can’t step in,” said Bernard Farges, president of the Bordeaux trade group, CIVB, as well as the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur syndicate. “There are a lot of disappointed people.”
There are also 5,000 jobs directly on the line, said Vasseur. Many of these growers were already walking a financial tightrope. It’s not news that growers of generic Bordeaux can barely make ends meet. Many are in debt, and without a crop they will not be able to pay salaries, health coverage, interest payments and vine treatments.
“They won’t stand up again. The vines won’t be cultivated. You can put a cross on them. But the entire economic chain is affected. This means there will be less wine for the négociants,” said Vasseur, himself a grower in Entre-Deux-Mers. “We’re going to push for disaster relief, even if it is insurable.”
This is not the first time hail has ravaged the area. Last week some of the same growers hit by this storm lost grapes to hail in nearby Genissac, Vayres and Arveyres. And in years past, hail has often pummeled the same estates. Château Féret-Lambert in Grezillac was hit in 2003, 2009, 2011 and again last weekend. The entire crop is gone, and owner Henri Féret estimated the loss this year at $266,180. Yet, like many, he does not have hail insurance.
“We discussed it during the meeting. It’s a business-operating decision,” said Barthes. Her vineyards were hit in 2003, and she wasn’t insured. Today she is. The coverage will help her get by. Lurton has already put out the word that he’s looking for grapes to buy. But that’s not an option for the majority of the growers. “They can’t buy grapes,” said Barthes. "They can’t even afford insurance.”