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Of wine, hand gel and heartbreak

Hit by the Covid-19 crisis and US tax on wines, winemakers across France are hurting as they send unsold wine to be turned into sanitisers.

Jérôme Mader watches as a tanker filled with his unsold stock of Alsace white wine heads for a distillery.

"It's like you are saying goodbye to somebody who is very dear to you. This is not exactly the destination we had in mind when we made this wine." Marion Borès, a 27-year-old winemaker

Hunawihr, France

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 sanitising 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.

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The economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus, combined with the Trump administration's 25 per cent tax on French wines in the trade war dispute with Europe, has collapsed the wine market.

Mr 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 sanitiser.

Like other winemakers, Mr 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.

Left with no choice

"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 per cent of its production - 19,000 litres. "It's like you are saying goodbye to somebody who is very dear to you," the 27-year-old winemaker said. "This is not exactly the destination we had in mind when we made this wine."

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 six million litres of wine, or about 1.5 million gallons, will end up like this. Mr Mader is sending 15 per cent of his production, wine he calls "Edelzwicker," or "noble blend" in Alsatian dialect.

Usually sold wholesale, "it's still pretty good", he said.

At the distillery, the odour 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 subsidising the operation, compensating the some 5,000 winemakers who have signed up so far at a fraction of the wine's value, less than US$1 per litre, 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 per cent, 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," Mr Backert said. "They just don't want to talk about it. Obviously, this is breaking their heart."

Personal relationship

Some winemakers in the region refused to be interviewed on the subject.

The relationship to their vines, and what is produced from them, is personal as much as financial. Many live in modest houses, carrying on a family trade that often goes back centuries. The date carved above the original Borès cellar is 1723.

On the sun-battered schist and sandstone slopes above Reichsfeld, Ms Borès patrolled vines she has worked in since the age of 10, plucking out dead leaves and pulling shrivelled grapes. Her touch was light.

"These are vines that we fuss over the whole year round," said her mother, Marie-Claire. "We do everything by hand. And now, this. Terrible." Climbing the steep slope, Ms Borès said, "We played in these vines," adding that she takes part in the harvest herself.

"The schist is magical," she said. "It is what makes the wine dynamic. There are moments when you are really glad to be alone in these vines."

In his career, Mr 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. NYTIMES

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