It has now been a month since the French authorities decided to impose severe restrictions on the activity of businesses and families to curb the development of the coronavirus epidemic. It was originally scheduled to last until April 15th, but a 4 week extension was decided just three days ago, until May 11th.
When not totally halted, businesses of all sizes have greatly reduced their activities. Businesses working in the field of tourism, hotels and restaurants, culture (museums, taxis, etc.), are all at a standstill or closed. Companies whose continuation in activity does not constitute a vital necessity for the functioning of the country try to maintain normality, but at a slower pace and with reduced staff. Schools and universities have ceased all activity and are working to set up digital education systems. Although the epidemic seems to be plateauing, hospitals are still under pressure in the most affected areas of the country (the Northeast in the Paris region). Bordeaux and the Southwest in general have been relatively spared, up to now… Under difficult conditions, we see medical personnel everywhere display exceptional dedication and courage.
Families are confined to their homes, outings are very limited and only allowed for essential activities. My wife Thereza and I feel absolutely privileged to have to shelter-in-place at LynchBages, where we benefit of our spacious home (and its well-stocked cellar surrounded by a beautiful garden where the early spring flowers abound.
After a few days of hesitation (it is well known the French are naturally unruly!) which forced the government to take severe measures, a certain discipline was established, and the instructions are now rather rigorously respected almost everywhere.
We follow closely the situation in the United States (my daughter Kinou, her husband and three of my granddaughters live near New York). We are also worried about Africa (my wife Thereza’s country of origin is Mozambique). The population is unprepared and lacks of the basic support. What we are hearing from our family and friends is frightening..
At our properties, everyone is on deck. Jean-Charles, my son, is in charge and benefits from the help of our very experienced and competent team, led by Daniel LLose, Malou Le Sommer and Pierre Doumenjou.
We are grateful to all members of our staff, at every level, for their very positive attitude and dedication. Our offices are practically empty, with most of the people working from home, benefiting from our robust information system. We are getting used to it and find it surprisingly efficient.
In the vineyard, the vines do not wait and work is not hampered by present restrictions. The “vignerons” (workers in the vines) work separately and respect social distancing, each in the specific plot which is assigned to him (her).
We could secure enough masks for all staff members for the next two weeks. Thanks to Chinese friends’ help, more should be delivered soon. The shipment has arrived in Toulouse and will be delivered as soon as the French Custom Office does the clearing… which may take a few days.
Everyone is aware that the next harvest is at stake. Fortunately, the timing of the events has been relatively favorable and gives us some respite. The pruning of the vine is finished. We now need to nurture the vines and the soils for almost six months to reach the harvest in good conditions. I dare not think of what could have been our situation if this ordeal had happened one week before harvesting !!!
In terms of weather, we are currently experiencing a period of cool, mostly sunny weather. This has favoured a rapid start of vegetation at all our estates : Lynch-Bages and Haut-Batailley in Pauillac, Ormes de Pez in Saint-Estèphe and VINIV’s vineyards in seven Bordeaux appellations. It is pretty much the same picture at our properties in the Languedoc (Domaine de l’Ostal) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Domaine des SÉNÉCHAUX).
In all these regions, the bright skies and cold morning temperatures pose a risk of exposure to spring frosts for about three more weeks. But these are the usual hazards in the life of the winemaker … independent of the coronavirus. In Portugal, the risk is lower for our MECO vineyard in the Douro Valley.
At Lynch-Bages, we are in the final stages of the complete reconstruction of our winery. The construction site, started more than three years ago, has now been stopped forseveral weeks.
A very small number of workers have returned and we plan to restart on a quicker pace after April 15th, with serious safety measures. We are now behind schedule. It remains essential for us to complete the facility before the harvest. We will be ready.
In the village of Bages, the square in front of Café Lavinal is empty. No tourists, no cars, no people in sight… complete silence! On March 15th, we closed all of our tourism activities in the village : our bistro Café Lavinal, the Bages Bazaar shop and our hotel-restaurant Château Cordeillan-Bages, which we had just reopened for the tourist season and the “en primeur” tastings events originally planned for April.
Of course, like every other sector, the economy of the global wine industry is hit hard. The French government have quickly designed an assistance plan for companies whose income is severely threatened, which they are now implementing. The main measures include possible payment deferrals for taxes and utilities, direct financial assistance to small businesses, state guarantees for cash loans up to 25% of the turnover of the previous year and reinforcing existing furlough assistance in order to avoid layoffs. The plan looks good. Who will bear the final cost is an open question for me. I have difficulty apprehending the big picture when considering all of the zeros…
Bordeaux’s three-tier wine distribution organization – the producers (châteaux), the merchants (négociants) who cover the world markets and the brokers (courtiers) has learned the hard way over centuries how to weather the kind of situation we are in at present. The « courtiers » are playing, as usual, an important role in maintaining good communication lines. That being said, the wine trade is practically at a standstill.
The “Union des Grands Crus” (UGC) cancelled the traditional week of early tasting of the last vintage, organized in April for professionals from all over the world. Public tastings of the 2019s – a very good year – will have to wait.
Will there be a “En Primeur” sales campaign this year? I have absolutely no idea. It has been a custom for the past twenty years to launch it in the spring, in April-May-June, following the UGC tastings. This will certainly not be the case this year. That said, in the past, we have seen “En Primeur” campaigns launched as late as September. Others have started as early as December, right after harvest, or were postponed for an entire year, or did not happen at all. The behavior of buyers and sellers is not indexed on the calendar nor the weather. Individual situations and strategies differ. The wine trade is not rocket science.
With regards to the economy and the distribution of wine, it seems obvious that we are currently diving into an exceptional crisis. In my professional career, I have experienced several critical episodes that have violently affected the wine market. I’m trying to compare the difficult time we’re going through right now to the periods I’ve known in the past, every now and again. There are similarities and differences. I will try to clarify my memories in the next few days of reclusion… Perhaps for a future message.
In the meantime, I wish all of my English-speaking friends to go through the ordeal we all face as best as possible. Take great care of yourself and your families.