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COVID-19 Pandemic Deals Blow To French Winemakers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The pandemic may have inspired more at-home drinking, but it has dealt a huge blow to French winemakers. With hotels and restaurants closed for months, wine sales have plummeted. Growers have a glut of unsold product and lack cash for the upcoming grape harvest. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

OLIVIER: (Speaking French).

SANDRINE DOVERGNE: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Sandrine Dovergne and her husband, Olivier, quit their jobs in the north of France and moved to Burgundy four years ago to realize their dream of making organic wine.

DOVERGNE: We do it with sincerity and a lot of work. (Speaking French). We do our best. And the wine are recognized.

BEARDSLEY: They make six reds and four whites from the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes that run along the Cote de Chalonnaise hillsides. She says the wines of their Domaine de la Luolle were starting to make a name for themselves when the coronavirus hit.

DOVERGNE: The border was closed. The cafe, hotel, restaurants were closed. People were not allowed to come and buy our wine. So during two months, we sold nothing.

BEARDSLEY: But the pandemic wasn't the only blow to French winemakers in the last year. They, along with other European winemakers, became collateral victims in a transatlantic trade war between Airbus and Boeing and were slapped with a 25% tariff.

SACHA LICHINE: Well, it's a catastrophe.

BEARDSLEY: That's Sacha Lichine, who makes rose wine amid chirping cicadas on his vineyard in Provence.

LICHINE: We had obviously the Trump tax, the tariff. And afterwards, we had the COVID. And believe it or not, we got frosted here, also. So it's really sort of a complicated moment in time.

BEARDSLEY: The French government has unblocked 250 million euros for its distressed winemakers, aid that includes paying a minimum price for surplus wine to distill into industrial alcohol, something that's never been done in Burgundy, say local vintners. But those hardest hit by the pandemic could be the Champagne makers, their beverage so closely linked with good times and festivity.

The Lallement family, makers of Lallement-Pelletier, is enjoying a few days of vacation on the coast before heading back to Champagne to begin the harvest. Sophie Lallement admits things have been difficult.

SOPHIE LALLEMENT: (Through interpreter) COVID put an abrupt stop to the sale of our Champagne. We couldn't export or travel. And people weren't hanging out with family and friends. So they weren't drinking it either.

BEARDSLEY: The Champagne Wine Board says sales may have dropped 25% from last year. That's some 75 million bottles.

There has been an unexpected effect of the crisis, says winemaker Lichine, whose Whispering Angel brand is among the world's top selling roses. What he lost in restaurant and hotel sales he made up for in retail, especially online. Lichine says, more than ever, people want brands they know and trust.

LICHINE: So we really had a brand out there, I think, at a particular price point, which was COVID-proof somehow.

DOVERGNE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Back in Burgundy, Dovergne shows me the rich biodiversity of plant and animal life surrounding her vineyards. She says people realize more than ever that nature is in charge.

DOVERGNE: A good effect of this pandemic is to connect us with nature and to know that everything is linked. And we have to promote and to taste product who are safe.

BEARDSLEY: Dovergne says people have been making wine for 8,000 years. And in the grand scheme of things the pandemic is just another challenge. Wine is perennial, she says, and I have confidence in the future. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Burgundy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.