Of wine, hand sanitizer and grief

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HUNAWIHR, France – The tank truck stopped 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 a hand sanitizer.

“We have to charge it now,” said Jérôme Mader, a 38-year-old winemaker, muttering to himself. “OK, I’m not even going to think about it anymore,” he said calmly. ” It’s finish. “

Upside down, he dragged the pipes into his shed, affixed them to the valves of the truck with the help of the driver, walked to his cool cellar and started the pumps. The wine – good white wine from Alsace, wine to drink – flowed through the pipes and in the belly of the truck. His fate did not deserve to be thought about.

Across the emerald wine country of Alsace, now lined with deep green vines – and in the other wine regions of France as well – thousands of winegrowers, famous and obscure, are facing similar moments of grief.

The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, combined with the Trump administration’s 25% tax on French wines in the trade war conflict with Europe, has collapsed the wine market.

Mr. Mader, whose high-quality Rieslings and Gewürztraminers are sent to chic restaurants and shops on both sides of the Atlantic, has lost half of his sales since December.

“Covid is a disaster for us,” he said.

This is how some of the succulent and subtle white wine for which this region is famous, grown on the stony and sunny slopes of Alsace, will eventually turn into a hand sanitizer.

Like other winegrowers, Mr. Mader has no room in his cellar to store unsold items. “We can’t keep stocking what we haven’t sold,” he says.

The early 2020 harvest, blessed with abundant sunshine, is barely a month away. The wine vats must be emptied for the new production. The distillery, for a modest fee, is the only option.

The distillery driver had been touring the winegrowers all morning. “Some of them take it quite badly, because this wine has commercial value,” notes the driver, Lucas Neret, dryly.

“We are producing more than we can sell,” said Thibaut Specht, a winemaker from nearby Mittelwihr. “We have no choice. “

Marion Borès’ family business, Domaine Borès, in Reichsfeld, sends 30% of its production – 19,000 liters. “It’s like saying goodbye to someone who is very dear to you,” she said.

“It’s not exactly the destination we had in mind when we crafted this wine,” added the 27-year-old winemaker.

The old wine ends up in the imposing steel silos of the neighboring Romann distillery, where it will be reduced to alcohol.

In Alsace alone, over six million liters of wine, or about 1.5 million gallons, will end up like this. Mr. Mader sends 15 percent of his production, wine he calls “Edelzwicker”, or “noble blend” in the Alsatian dialect. Usually sold in bulk, “it’s still pretty good,” Mader said.

At the distillery, the smell of boiled wine, like the essence of a rich beef bourguignon sauce, weighed heavily on the establishment on a hot morning this week.

“We continuously distill,” said Erwin Brouard, the company director. “It’s something very sad for the winegrowers. Their stocks are too large. They have to make room. And the harvest is early this year.

The French government, anxious to protect its precious wine heritage, subsidizes the operation, compensating the some 5,000 winegrowers who have so far committed for a fraction of the value of the wine, less than $ 1 per liter, in what the government calls crisis distillation.

“My cellar is exploding,” said Guillaume Klauss, owner of a nearby winery. “If I don’t send it, I don’t eat. Obviously, this tears me apart. It’s three years of work, and we’re not even getting paid properly.

Alsace must 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 large majority have been beaten by this crisis,” said Francis Backert, head of the Association of Independent Winegrowers in Alsace. “These people are really suffering.” he said.

“All points of sale are blocked,” he added. “The export is blocked. Trump, Covid. Very little is happening outside of France. The American market, blocked.

Wholesalers of wine face losses of 70%, he said.

But monetary losses are one thing. There is also the psychological blow.

“Look, these people are very circumspect and ashamed of themselves,” Mr. Backert said. “They just don’t want to talk about it. Obviously, it breaks their hearts.

Some winegrowers in the region refused to be questioned on the subject.

The relationship with their vines and what is produced from them is as personal as it is financial. Many live in modest homes, doing family jobs that often go back centuries. The date carved above the original Borès cellar is 1723.

On the shale and sandstone hillsides beaten by the sun above Reichsfeld, Mrs. Borès has patrolled the vines in which she has worked since the age of 10, pulling up dead leaves and pulling up shriveled grapes. His touch was light.

“These are vines that we take care of all year round,” explains his mother, Marie-Claire. “We do everything by hand. And now this. Terrible. “

Going up the steep slope, Marion said: “We played in these vines,” adding that she participates in the harvest herself.

“Shale is magic,” she says. “This is what makes wine dynamic. There are times when you are really happy to be alone in these vineyards.

Over the course of his career, Mr. Mader has won awards and faced the opposite problem he has today: not having enough wine to meet demand.

“To have imagined, a few years ago, that a truck would pass one day… it’s unimaginable,” he said, his voice fading.

For days, he delayed the decision about the distillery.

“I hesitated,” he says. “I thought we were going to get over it. I waited until the last day to make up my mind. I still think the next day will be better.

But the decision could not be postponed; the government was pressuring her registration deadline.

Then, to console himself and his colleagues, he said, “I called a friend and we drank a few bottles.

“As long as the wine is good, there is always hope,” he added.

Orders have recently picked up a bit. Also, “this year’s grapes are really gorgeous,” he said.

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