Social Distancing in the Cellar: German and Austrian Vintners Grapple with Coronavirus Shutdown

With tasting rooms closed for the COVID-19 crisis, wineries are dealing with slumping sales; meanwhile spring is arriving in the vineyards

Social Distancing in the Cellar: German and Austrian Vintners Grapple with Coronavirus Shutdown
Johannes Hasselbach stands in the Gunderloch cellars. Few people can work in the small space right now with social distancing rules. (Chris Janik)
Mar 31, 2020

Germany and Austria have not been immune to the ravaging effects of the coronavirus pandemic. As of March 31, Germany reported 68,180 confirmed cases, fifth highest in the world, while Austria had a confirmed 10,038 cases. Neither country has imposed a complete lockdown, instead opting for strict social distancing measures for now.

For vintners, the shutdowns have added new challenges as they ready the vineyards for the growing season and tend their young wines, all while following strict social guidelines. Meanwhile, they confront a devastating business situation, as many of their sales channels close.

Germany

On March 22, the German government banned public gatherings of more than two people except for families and people who live together. Exercising outside is still allowed if there is 5 feet between participants. Schools and "nonessential" businesses are also closed. Restaurants can only offer food to-go.

"Everything is closed, and group events are not allowed. Only grocery stores and pharmacies are open," said Gernot Kollmann, winemaker and proprietor at Immich-Batterieberg in Mosel.

Although agriculture is considered essential, the current rules, in place until at least April 6, are affecting the normal workflow for most wineries. "The rules affect two areas in particular: sales and work in the vineyards," said Sophie Christmann of A. Christmann in Pfalz. "The fact that the gastronomy is closed everywhere will certainly hit us hard," she warned.

"Around 50 percent of our sales are exported in more than 40 countries, and of course, it's getting calm in the last two weeks," said winery owner Philipp Wittmann in Rheinhessen.

Indeed, most wineries are reporting little to no sales. Tasting rooms are closed to the public, but they can still make sales—either in person or online. "Wineries who have a good online concept and a decent number of private customers can still do business," said Andrea Wirsching of Hans Wirsching in Franken.

Johannes Hasselbach of Gunderloch in Rheinhessen has started online tastings. "We send out a box of wine to private customers, and then we taste them together in a video conference," he said. "It is quite funny to have 25 people who don't know each other in a virtual tasting room."

However, for most wineries, private client sales account for a small percentage of income. "We only have 3 percent private customer business," said Kollmann.

The hardship of not having enough cash flow is already manifesting. "I have no idea what happens next, said vintner Eva Fricke in Rheingau. She sat down with two of her employees and they collectively decided that they are better off filing for unemployment. "The German social system is strong and safe, so while it is shitty, in the end it, seems better for them—less salary, but safe."

"Some wineries are filing for Kurzarbeit, which means short work," explained Andreas Spreitzer, referring to a government-funded program where companies keep employees, who agree to temporarily work for less pay and lower hours but stay in their jobs. The government helps make up for some lost income. First employed in 2009, the program saved more than 300,000 jobs during that recession, according to the German Federal Employment Agency. Spreitzer is fortunate to have 30 percent of income coming from private sales, so he will continue to pay his workers for now.

Restaurant closures affect outstanding bills, too. Many wineries are still awaiting payments. "We see the big customers struggle," said Wirsching. "We have given all our restaurant clients time until the end of the year to pay their bills. They need support now since we still have business, and they don't." But not all wineries can afford that without government aid.

Worsening the situation is the fact that nature doesn't stop. Work in cellars and the vineyards must continue. Social distancing only complicates things. "We work in five teams in the vineyard and the cellar, and the teams don't meet," reported Sebastian Fürst of Rudolf Fürst in Franken. "In the vineyard, it is no big problem to keep 2 meters distance. In the cellar, sometimes it is more complicated."

Work in the vineyards will only get more hectic as the temperatures rise and days get longer. And most wineries rely on the help of foreign seasonal workers, who are now not allowed to cross the border. "We hope that foreign workers will be available again from May, at the latest June," said Hansjörg Rebholz of Ökonomierat Rebholz in Pfalz.

Work in German vineyards
Sebastian Fürst plows one of his steep vineyards in Franken. Vineyard work continues, with workers staying two meters apart. (Photo courtesy of Rudolf Fürst)

There might be some solutions. Sophie Christmann shared that some restaurant workers who would like to help have contacted her. Since the restaurants are closed, sommeliers and other food industry staff are looking for work.

As the torture of an unknown future continues, the fear rises. "The situation is quite scary, especially because there is no end in sight, and we might not even have reached the peak yet," said Franziska Schmitt of Koehler-Ruprecht in Pfalz.

Austria

The situation in Austria is not much better. Since March 16, Austrians are not permitted to enter public spaces except for pharmacies, grocery stores and places with ATMs. Only supermarkets and food delivery services are open for those looking for food. Groups of more than five people cannot gather in public. Those who do not comply face fines of up to €3,600.

The borders with Italy and Switzerland have been shut, with train and air travel significantly cut back. Some cities are completely closed. "The situation in Austria is getting worse. There are more and more positively tested people in our immediate surroundings. Many places, such as Tyrol, are completely closed," said Theresa Pichler, daughter of Rudi Pichler, renowned Wachau winemaker.

"Last weekend, there was the apricot blossom in the Wachau valley," said Josef Fischer of his eponymous estate in Wachau. "It is usually the busiest time here. People from all over Austria, especially Vienna, come here to see that, take pictures and visit restaurants and wineries. This year, there were barely any tourists."

Vintners are facing the same difficulties as those in Germany. "Sales have come to almost a complete halt," said Dr. Bertold Salomon of Salomon-Undhof in Kremstal. "But we intend to hold on to all our employees."

"Many people are applying for government benefits or Kurzarbeit," said winemaker Martin Nittnaus. "I think the Austrian government is doing a fairly OK job." He added that most wineries are selling their wine online, but that the retailers complain. "We also have been sending out orders, but it's just a drop in the bucket, because most of our sales are to ski resorts and high-quality restaurants," he concluded.

Sattlerhof and Tement started doing online tasting series from their tasting rooms, where they allow customers to virtually taste together.

One fortunate thing is that some foreign workers are still allowed entry. "Our Hungarian workers are still allowed to cross the border for the vineyard work," said winery owner Judith Beck in Burgenland. Pichler added that their Slovakian employees stayed with the family so that the vineyard work can go on. "Nature knows no COVID-19," she said.

Winemakers are trying to remain optimistic. "For the wines, some more time in the cellar or in the bottle before sale is for sure very positive," said Ewald Tscheppe of Werlitsch in Styria. "Personally, I hope people can stay positive in these times and use the time to realize what really matters."

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