South Africa and New Zealand recently deemed wine production as essential, as vineyards around the globe forge ahead.

By Mike Pomranz
March 27, 2020
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As one of our readers, you likely believe that wine is worthy of equal billing alongside food. But in times of crisis, is wine “essential?” It’s a question that’s arisen during this COVID-19 pandemic. Many places have opted to keep alcohol retailers open—determining that some consumption is, indeed, essential. But what about wine production? Turns out that, yes, viticulture is continuing—in a reduced capacity—as well.

South Africa has become the latest country to list—as a government publication put it—the “harvesting and storage activities” of winemaking as “essential to prevent the wastage of primary agricultural goods,” according to The Drinks Business. Apparently, viticulture originally wasn’t exempt from the nationwide lockdown that began today, but industry groups pointed out that, since they are in the middle of their Southern Hemisphere harvest season, putting vineyards on lockdown would leave grapes rotting on the vine. “Our interpretation of this amendment is that the wine industry would be allowed to complete the harvest and also the necessary cellar processes to ensure that the crop is not ‘wasted,’” Christo Conrad of the trade group Vinpro was quoted as saying.

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New Zealand made a similar assessment on Monday before the island nation began a month-long lockdown earlier this week. According to Stuff.co.nz, Horticulture New Zealand released a statement explaining that “all food and beverage producers and processors, and their supply chains, are deemed to be essential services,” an especially important decision since—like South Africa—New Zealand vineyards are also in the middle of their harvest. “We're obviously pleased, but there's a very serious side to this and we have to live up to the expectations of the Government,” Philip Gregan, chief executive of New Zealand Winegrowers, told the site. "We have to protect our people and we do not, through our actions, transmit the virus.”

Even in California, where vineyards are only preparing for the upcoming harvest season with tasks like pruning, many have continued operating as “essential” businesses. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, though Napa and Sonoma tasting rooms were forced to close, individual wineries could choose whether to continue production operations or not. Some are, and some aren’t. “The vines are growing, and they’re not gonna stop growing,” Chuy Ordaz Jr. of Palo Alto Vineyard Management told the paper, “so if we don’t take care of them, we’d come back to some big issues like powdery mildew and mold.” Wine production has also been allowed to continue through a stay-at-home order in America’s second-largest wine production state, Washington, according to JD Supra.

In fact, even in Italy—one of the hardest-hit countries—viticulture has forged ahead where possible. According to Wine Spectator, vineyards in the country have been tackling pruning, debudding, and tying up vines—work made even more important as the country has been hit by early warm weather. “It is impossible to stop the work in the winery and the vineyards because nature is working anyway,” Sabrina Tedeschi from Tedeschi Wine, told the publication.

In fact, one producer even suggested that this situation could lead to higher quality wines. “We are working in the vineyards to lower yields to make this the best vintage ever,” Alberto Aiello Graci from the Sicilian winery Graci, was quoted as saying. At the very least, the wine label will reflect a year none of us will ever forget.