The Coronavirus Economy: How my job as a winemaker has changed so far

April 1, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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Brad Greatrix, the winemaker behind England’s award-winning Nyetimber sparkling wines, is frequently flying around the world to show his products to distributors, restaurants, wine shops, media, and consumers. At the winery, he’s on-site, pouring himself barrel samples to determine blends, riddling bottles of sparkling wine, and pruning vines with his team.

But with the outbreak of COVID-19, travel has stopped. Social-distancing orders have seriously affected the day-to-day operations of the winery in West Chiltington, England. His team has enacted social distancing in their 10 vineyard sites across the south of England, and office-based staff have gone remote as they work from home. Tastings are now virtual.

Fortune spoke with Greatrix for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to find out what it’s like to work in the wine industry—a business that involves hands in the field for production, manpower in the winery for tasks like bottlings, and tasting the physical product for promotion—amid the public health crisis, as well as his plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he is handling this news, both emotionally and financially. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was it like to watch the story unfold from where you are?

I’m sure that medical specialists have been paying close attention to COVID-19 for quite some time now. But I think for a lot of people in the U.K. and elsewhere, COVID has been like approaching headlights on the highway. At first something far away and barely noticeable, and then a moment later right upon you.

How has it affected your day-to-day job, since so much of winemaking is hands-on? You can’t really harvest grapes from home.

In the vineyard and winery we’ve had to adapt to how we do tasks in order to respect distancing rules, to have people working farther apart. For example, when labeling bottles, a small team normally works closely together. We’ve had to spread out more, and less of our team work on that job at any one time.

At the moment we are preparing for bottling. Although this COVID situation hasn’t knocked us too much off course, we need to keep working hard and pushing ahead. Bottling is always an important task relating to quality for traditional-method sparkling wine like Nyetimber’s. However, this year there is a practical risk that, in the unlikely event of an enforced closure, we won’t get all of our wine bottled before harvest. Then the tanks won’t be empty in time to receive this year’s crop. That is a serious issue for the wine business because we only have one harvest per year.

Certain office-based tasks have been moved to home-working setups. But for the sales team, they rely on a lot of face-to-face communications and relationships, so we’re all adapting to the new, temporary reality. 

Brad Greatrix at Nyetimber’s vineyards in southern England.
Courtesy of Nyetimber Wine

That would be virtual tastings, right?

As with a lot of businesses, we are moving everything that we can to telephone or video calls. It’s amazing how quickly everyone has adapted to this, and it is becoming the new norm.

With me, you hosted a virtual wine tasting via Zoom, which I loved. Have you used the platform before?

Yes, Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime get a reasonable amount of use at Nyetimber because we have staff working in different parts of the country and also a few export managers overseas. Our meeting with you was the first time we had done a wine tasting like that. It certainly won’t be the last.

Has your open mindset—to switching to things like virtual tastings, even though it’s not the same as being there in person—set you up for success during a time of social distancing?

I hope so. It’s important that we all carry on with our work as much as possible, especially in these times of economic uncertainty. When aiming for the highest possible quality, winemaking is still a sensory process, requiring us to be on-site to check on the evolution of flavors and aromas and adapt accordingly. On the production side, I can’t see COVID-related technology adaptations changing how the wines are made in the long term. 

But virtual tastings are a very interesting idea. I expect we’ll see more of those for media interviews, product launches, and sales calls [even beyond COVID-19 restrictions]. For a lot of business, there’s no substitute for face-to-face contact, and video calling provides the best possible means for that in these particular times.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

How to get a refund on your Broadway tickets after the coronavirus shutdown
—The oil sector takes its next hit: The coronavirus on offshore rigs
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating the coronavirus
—How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing the coronavirus
—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks the coronavirus can help business
—The coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider these “stay at home” stocks

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