Coronavirus is changing the way Italian winemakers operate

The global coronavirus outbreak is changing every aspect of Italy’s wine sector, from production to sales to consumption, even the way vintners promote the wine they make.

Most restaurants in Italy have been closed for weeks, since the national coronavirus lockdown was first put into place on March 10. The worldwide economic slowdown and restrictions on international transport have limited foreign markets.

Data does show that direct wine sales to individuals have increased during the lockdown, but not nearly enough to balance out reduced restaurant sales and exports.

“During the first three months of the year, I’ve seen indications that sales of Italian wine were around 20 percent lower than over the same period in 2019,” Lorenzo Tersi, a veteran wine sector consultant, told Xinhua.

“Keep in mind that the national lockdown didn’t start until early March, near the end of that period,” he said. “My estimate is that sales will be down by at least 40 percent in April, and May will probably be just as bad.”

Though Tersi’s estimates are dramatic, they are still better than some international estimates.

In its latest report, the International Organization of Vine and Wine, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization that focuses on viticulture and winemaking, estimated that wine sales and revenue for winemakers and distributors could be half normal levels for the year as a whole.

That report, published Thursday, came out a day after wine industry groups in Italy, France, and Spain — Europe’s three largest wine-producing countries — formally asked the European Union for 350 million euros (380 million U.S. dollars) in aid to prevent small producers from going out of business during the outbreak.

Armando Spina, the owner of two wine shops in Rome, predicted the domestic wine market could be slow to recover even after the lockdown concludes. Spina’s shops are closed to visitors, though he offers delivery services and he has discounted lower- and mid-tier wines to attract buyers.

“Many people are out of work and worried about money, and you can see it in their wine choices,” Spina told Xinhua.

“A customer who under normal circumstances would pay for a Brunello di Montalcino will now choose the Rosso di Montalcino from the same producer,” he said. “That will not change just because the lockdown is over.”

Brunello di Montalcino is made from a winemaker’s best grapes and the wine is aged in a winemakers cellar for more time in order to develop more complexity.

Spina, who predicted wine delivery will remain popular even after the lockdown, said he worries less about the high-end wine in his shops, as they will still find a market even if they spend an extra year or more aging in storage.

The last point was confirmed by Lene Bucelli from Biondi-Santi, one of Italy’s most storied winemakers. Biondi-Santi created the Brunello di Montalcino designation in the 19th century.

“We monitor sale prices for our wines all over the world and so far haven’t seen changes,” Bucelli said in an interview.

She said the lack of promotional trade fairs and the impossibility of winery visits for distributors — both important ways for winemakers to promote their products — is forcing a change of strategy for Biondi-Santi and others.

“For our part, we are sharing information to show that work goes on as normal in our cellars,” she said, noting workers in the cellar keep a safe distance from each other as they work. “We’re also conducting online tastings with wine critics and importers in different parts of the world.”

Bucelli went on: “It’s working well,” she said. “I predict we’ll keep doing it this way even after the crisis is over.”