Italian winemakers grapple with the coronavirus lockdown

This is normally a busy period for most winegrowers, but sales have slowed and production is at a stand-still.

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This should have been Marta Poli’s busiest time of year—a “time for excellence” as she describes it.

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This should have been Marta Poli’s busiest time of year—a “time for excellence” as she describes it.

As export manager for Mirabella, a producer of Franciacorta sparkling wines a few hours northeast of Milan, Poli had been on a sales trip to the United States in late February, meeting with American distributors, journalists, and other tastemakers and clients to introduce them to the northern Italian winery’s latest vintages.

But when she returned home to Italy on March 6, the country was on the brink of lockdown.

“I found here a different situation, a different Italy,” she says. “Our life was changing, definitively.”

March is normally a busy period for most winegrowers, involving a lot of preparation, plowing, and binding of new baby vines for the spring planting season. It’s also when new vintages are often released, many of which had been bottled the previous fall. And as the temperatures warm up, wineries increasingly welcome visitors—tourists and clients alike—in the coming months.

Mirabella is a family-run winery, established in 1979.
Courtesy of Mirabella Franciacorta

It’s also the opening of the sales season, which as for Poli, involves extensive traveling, tastings, events, and visits to importers and distributors both within Europe and worldwide. Many of them would have been preparing for a number of big trade fairs, including ProWein in Düsseldorf (which would have been this weekend), and Vinitaly in Verona this June.

“Basically, around this time of the year we are usually fighting for commercial success. Now we are fighting against coronavirus,” says Andrea di Fabio, the sales and marketing director for Cantina Tollo, a winery in Italy’s Abruzzo region along the Adriatic Sea.

COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, a large family of viruses causing illnesses in humans ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Not previously identified in humans but believed to have been an animal-to-human transmission, it was first was discovered in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. Although most major airlines cut off flights from China at the end of January, the highly contagious disease continued to spread, and Italy has since become the worst-hit region outside of China in the last three weeks. The country has incurred approximately 47,021 confirmed cases and 4,032 deaths as of March 22, according to WHO.

Annalisa Zorzettig, who runs the family-owned Zorzettig winery in northern Italy near the Austrian and Slovenian borders, says she saw the first signals in January that 2020 would be anything but normal when the business saw a halt on shipments to China, Korea, and Taiwan, followed by a decline in Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong. By March 10, shipments declined worldwide—notably across Europe and both North and South America. So far, she notes, markets that have been less impacted by uncertainty are Scandinavia and Russia.

Annalisa Zorzettig runs her family’s winery in the heart of the Italian winemaking region Colli Orientali del Friuli.
Courtesy of Zorzettig

“Hospitality activities have stopped completely, both those regarding winery visits and stays at our [Relais La Collina hotel], which was already 100% booked for the season,” she adds. “This is the time of the year when tourists and wine lovers from Austria and Germany arrive.”

Di Fabio admits when the news about coronavirus started to become more prevalent in January to early February, he thought it would be limited to a specific area. “But quickly we understood that it was becoming a worldwide issue,” Di Fabio continues. “So at the beginning of January, we had to stop all our commercial trips to Asia, and later, at the end of February, we decided to stop immediately all trips of our sales team.”

Northern Italy, more industrial and the economic powerhouse for the country, was particularly hard hit first, prompting authorities to set up roadblocks and to quarantine specific regions, including Lombardy and Veneto first. By the beginning of March, the Italian government closed the borders altogether and implemented the most dramatic nationwide restrictions since World War II.

Supply chains, however, are not cut off, and shipments can still make their way in and out of the country. But winemakers are still going to suffer a major blow this year, and many of them are at a loss as to what adjustments they can make to generate enough income to bounce back.

Andrea di Fabio is sales and marketing director for Cantina Tollo in Abruzzo, Italy.
Courtesy of Cantina Tollo

“I think there isn’t a really effective adjustment we can adopt to generate income in this period,” di Fabio says, instead focusing on the bigger picture for the country. “What we are trying to do is to prevent future further stops [to work], possibly deriving from the diffusion of the virus in other countries.”

Like all other nonessential businesses in Italy, Mirabella ceased all hospitality activities and closed the wine shop and called off tastings at the beginning of March. That also included shutting down the business office and production line. Poli suggests the best thing to do right now starts with simple planning and brainstorming new sales strategies.

“The world will change after COVID-19,” Poli says. “Trades will change, movements of goods, and people will change. And we’ll be ready to deal with this.” Poli is optimistic, noting that Mirabella is going ahead with some of its new projects, including promoting a new 100% Pinot Blanc wine made in the traditional method, the Anglophone term for méthode champenoise for all sparkling wines made like Champagne but outside of the French region. Until then, the winery is focusing on getting creative with sales and communications as the winery’s 10 employees work remotely for the time being.

“There are so many possibilities to improve our competences thanks to the web,” Poli says. “This is the perfect moment to do this. We can’t waste this opportunity, and we need to take advantage.”

Marta Poli with a bottle of Mirabella Franciacorta sparkling wine in New York City on Feb. 27, 2020.
Rachel King

Zorzettig admits that in such an unprecedented moment in history, it is still difficult to imagine practical adjustments and answers. It’s even more daunting when winemakers are staring down forecasts predicting 20% to 30% in revenue loss for 2020.

“Crises are also a moment for new chances,” Zorzettig says, noting that e-commerce sales have gone up for the business, adding she hopes Italian tourists will be extra willing to support their country this summer, spending their vacation time locally while buying and enjoying Italian products.

Zorzettig also launched a proactive fundraising effort to support local hospitals. While Italy’s national health care system has been lauded as one of the world’s best in recent years, the onslaught of COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed the system to a breaking point. Noting that the winery survived World War II, the Zorzettig family organized a fundraising project aimed at economically supporting the intensive care unit of Hospital Santa Maria della Misericordia in Udine, Italy, which is at the forefront of the COVID-19 emergency.

Starting this week, the winery is selling a limited edition of its Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, made from the eponymous native red wine grape variety. Grown only locally, Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is well-known for being a resilient grape. Proceeds will be used to buy medical equipment. The bottle label will include the sentence “Andrà tutto bene,” which translates to “Everything will be all right,” in eight different languages—specifically eight as it is a lucky number in China, where the emergency started and but is also experiencing the first positive signs of recovery.

“In the future, this will be a reminder of a challenging time we were able to overcome and of a moment which has taught us, once more, how precious are little joys and beloved ones,” Zorzettig says.

Courtesy of Zorzettig

Cantina Tollo, which specializes in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOP red wines, has 70 permanent employees year-round. Given the nationwide self-quarantine mandate, which is being implemented by governments across the European Union and North America this month, di Fabio notes they are experimenting with working from home for some employees, who have been provided laptops and access to a Citrix-based digital workspace. They’re also relying on WhatsApp for direct communications among one another and Skype for video communications with clients.

“I think—but I hope I’m wrong—we’ll have to face a decrease in demand for three to four months,” he predicts.

At the same time, di Fabio says the company’s priority is the health and safety of its employees, followed by keeping in touch with customers in order to fulfill their needs. “Obviously, the better our capacity to recover the business, the more likely the chance that the actual situation will not significantly affect wages,” di Fabio says.

Once the worst of the pandemic does pass, Zorzettig says the priority will be ensuring businesses and entire industries are supported to make as close to a full return to normal as possible. This includes ensuring employees don’t lose their jobs as well as evaluating future costs and expenses as a result of the downtime.

“The government has already adopted some immediate solutions, such as tax relief and help regarding mortgage payments,” Zorzettig says. “The role of the government will be crucial in providing concrete tools as well as a psychological and emotional recovery.”

Still, some winemakers expressed frustration with government officials—not only for their lack of support during the crisis but also suggesting they could have been more proactive in anticipating the crisis and subsequent fallout. Although EU member states have by and large promised to offer financial support for full-time employees, those assurances still leave some discouraged.

“We don’t want money,” di Fabio says. “We want to be able to work.”

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