Last night (26 March) the South African government announced that the country was entering a strict 21-day Lockdown from midnight.
The Bruwer family of Springfield Estate in Cape’s Robertson region (pictured above) posted on Facebook that it had been announced that wine was deemed ‘non-essential’ – so it looked like harvesting and winemaking was going to have to be put on hold at a very crucial time with 30,000 tons of grapes still on the vine.
Luckily by this morning (27 March), Vinpro (the non-profit company representing 2,500 South African wine producers & cellars) announced that after negotiations with the government, the growers were going to be allowed to continue to pick and make the vintage in the cellar (“to prevent the wastage of primary agricultural goods”), obviously under very strict social distancing and sanitising restrictions. Deliberations with government regarding the exports ban continue.
With many growers in the midst of harvest or just completing vintage in cellars in the Cape, we asked wineries how Covid-19 restrictions and the new lockdown was affecting them. Strangely this crisis seems to have coincided with one of the best vintages quality wise being reported in some countries, in particular South Africa & also New Zealand.
Carolyn Finlayson & her Swiss-born winemaking husband Jean Claude Martin run Creation Wines in a beautiful remote location (pictured right) in upper Hemel-en-Aarde valley in Walker Bay area – this is what they told us about their thoughts on Covid-19 disruptions:
“This is unprecedented and unexpected. People are in shock and have mixed feelings and emotion – and in South Africa this could be devastating for so many – but we think the government took decisive action soon enough. That said everyone forgets what exquisite grapes we have harvested this year – one of the best years in the vineyards we have ever seen”.
“Jean-Claude (pictured below) stayed at the cellar tonight not knowing about the government’s decision. There was no way this vintage could be wasted, it would have put us and everyone else under enormous pressure to get back on track and many jobs would have been at risk for years to come if the government did not make the decision to complete the harvest and winemaking process. We are nearly finished harvest, apart from a small picking for our Cape Vintage, and just need to complete the winemaking process”.
“One of our current problems has been sorting out our interns who work with us during vintage. One of them, Kirsten Myburgh is still stuck in New Zealand working at Foley vineyards for longer than expected so will fly back when it is safe to do so – whilst other interns like Nic Weber had to fly back to Germany to make sure he could keep his parent’s vineyard going in the absence of workers at home. We are short-staffed and the whole family will have to get involved”.
“Whilst we have seen tourist and on-trade (restaurants) with virtually no business at all, the retail and online trade has gone through a massive revival. We had already set up an online sales to Europe including UK, so we are lucky in that respect as we have 40,000 clients we can keep in touch with – but in South Africa we will not be able to continue during the total lockdown to sell and deliver online (alcohol has been deemed non-essential)”.
Darling Cellars, a large dynamic winery on Cape’s west coast, told us how they were coping:
“We closed the tasting room and banned all meetings and outside visitors to the Cellar two weeks ago to avoid any contamination from the outside.
“This will have an impact on our sales at the cellar door, but restaurants also closed and we will see exports orders cancelled or postponed from Europe, this will have a big financial impact on us, the wine industry and SA economy”.
“Although we are in lockdown from midnight last night, we still don’t have clarity if wine will be seen as a necessary food and if we can still continue with the manufacturing, delivering and exporting. We wait for the Government to publish the rules.
We finished harvesting 2 weeks ago, so we finished all the major winemaking processes before the virus really had an impact in SA, we have skeleton staff operating in the winery to look after and maintain the wines in the tanks.
Our normal health and safety procedures require that we have all the necessary measures in place anyway, but during harvesting we did have extra hand sanitizers and tested all the staff’s temperature each morning before work started. Up to now we had no incidents of Covid 19 at the Cellar”.
Cathy Brewer who works for the Grier family, owners of Villiera Estate in Stellenbosch comments: “The biggest thing is that no wine is allowed to be transported or sold for the next three weeks, as alcohol is seen as non-essential goods. It’s going to be tough on all”.
Dr Rijk Melck, who runs his own family’s farm, Muratie Wine Estate in Stellenbosch remarked on the current Covid crisis: “This is really having a devastating effect on our wine industry. As a GP who worked with the previously disadvantaged for 20 years, I think we are in for a difficult time".
"Our people in the townships have no idea - what is needed is education, which is lacking - I hope I am proved wrong but with 20% immune-compromised I am not so sure. I really hope that this virus will not do what it did to Spain if it gets into the townships. We have had two people succumb to the virus this morning – both in the Western Cape”, says Melck.