Of Wine, hand gel and heartbreak
By Adam Nossiter
The tanker-truck pulled up, and it was time to let it go. The decision to send the wine to the distillery had been made weeks ago. It still hurt. Soon the wine would be sanitizing hand gel.
“We’ve got to load it up now,” said Jérôme Mader, a 38-year-old winemaker, muttering to himself. “OK, I am not even going to think about it anymore,” he said quietly. “It’s over.”
Head down, he dragged the hoses out through his shed, affixed them to the truck’s valves with the help of the driver, walked up to his cool cellar and turned on the pumps. The wine — good Alsace white wine, drinkable wine — coursed through the hoses and into the truck’s belly. Its fate didn’t bear thinking about.
Across the emerald Alsace wine country, now carpeted in deep-green vines — and across France’s other wine regions as well — thousands of winemakers, famous and obscure, are facing similar moments of heartbreak.
The economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus, combined with the Trump administration’s 25% tax on French wines in the trade war dispute with Europe, has collapsed the wine market.
Mader, whose high-quality rieslings and Gewürztraminers are sent to fancy restaurants and shops on both sides of the Atlantic, has lost half his sales since December.
“COVID is a catastrophe for us,” he said.
And so some of the succulent and subtle white wine for which this region is famous, nurtured on the stony, sunbathed Alsace slopes, will wind up as hand sanitizer.
Like other winemakers, Mader has no room in his cellar to stock unsold wine.
“We can’t keep stocking what we haven’t sold,” he said.
The precocious 2020 harvest, blessed by abundant sunshine, is barely a month away. The wine vats must be emptied for the new production. The distillery, for modest compensation, is the only option.
The driver from the distillery had been making the rounds of winemakers all morning.
“Some of them are taking this quite badly, because this wine has commercial value,” the driver, Lucas Neret, noted dryly.
“We’re producing more than we can sell,” said Thibaut Specht, a winemaker in nearby Mittelwihr. “We have no choice.”
Marion Borès’ family business, Domaine Borès, in Reichsfeld, is sending 30% of its production — 19,000 liters.
“It’s like you are saying goodbye to somebody who is very dear to you,” she said.
“This is not exactly the destination we had in mind when we made this wine,” the 27-year-old winemaker added.
The old wine is ending up in the towering steel silos of the nearby Romann distillery, where it will be boiled down to alcohol.
In Alsace alone, over 6 million liters of wine, or about 1.5 million gallons, will end up like this. Mader is sending 15% of his production, wine he calls “Edelzwicker,” or “noble blend” in Alsatian dialect. Usually sold wholesale, “it’s still pretty good,” Mader said.
At the distillery, the odor of boiled-down wine, like the essence of a rich beef burgundy sauce, hung heavy over the establishment on a warm morning this week.
“We’re continuously distilling,” said Erwin Brouard, the company’s director. “It’s something that’s very sad for the winemakers. Their stocks are too big. They’ve got to make space. And the harvest is early this year.”
The French government, anxious to protect its precious wine heritage, is subsidizing the operation, compensating the some 5,000 winemakers who have signed up so far at a fraction of the wine’s value, less than $1 per liter, in what the government calls Crisis Distillation.
“My cellar is bursting, ”said Guillaume Klauss, who owns a nearby winery. “If I don’t send it off, I don’t eat. Clearly this is tearing me up. It’s three years of work, and we’re not even paid properly.”
Alsace is having to resort to Crisis Distillation for the first time in its history, although it is not unknown in other wine regions. The last time this happened was in 2009, after the financial collapse.
“A very big majority have been battered by this crisis,” said Francis Backert, head of the Independent Winemakers Association of Alsace. “These people are really hurting.”
“All the outlets are blocked,” he added. “Export is blocked. Trump, COVID. There’s very little going on outside France. The American market, blocked.”
Wholesale wine traders are facing losses of 70%, he said.
But the monetary losses are one thing. There is also the psychological blow.
“Look, these people have a great deal of circumspection and shame,” Backert said. “They just don’t want to talk about it. Obviously, this is breaking their heart.”
In his career, Mader has won prizes and has faced the opposite problem he has today — not having enough wine to satisfy demand.
“To have imagined, a few years ago, that a truck would be passing by one day … it’s unimaginable,” he said, his voice trailing off.
For days he put off making a decision about the distillery.
“I hesitated,” he said. “I thought we would get over it. I waited until the last day to decide. I always think the next day will be better.”
But the decision couldn’t be postponed; the government was pressing with its sign-up deadline.
Afterward, to console himself and colleagues, he said, “I called up a friend, and we drank a couple of bottles.”
“As long as the wine is good, there is always hope,” he added.
Orders have recently picked up, a little. Besides, “the grapes this year are truly magnificent,” he said.