Harvest in the Time of Covid 19

Up until now, most of my blogs have been personal, about my life’s journey in food and wine. I’ve been writing about my experiences and hoping you’d find them enlightening and at times entertaining. What I’d like to write about now is more serious than many of my other posts, more timely and more business oriented. We are all living through a very strange and serious time in our lives and it’s affecting us all very differently. For the past 15 years I’ve been working with the Argentine wine world and today I’d like to enlighten you on how Covid 19 has had a direct effect on the harvest.

When most of us think of harvest time we think fall; however it is fall in South American and harvest is well underway, if not almost done in Argentina. Again I’ll mention that I was there only a month ago and harvest was just gearing up. The Mendoza Harvest Festival took place and all seemed normal. The tanks were getting ready, the pickers were starting to pick, the trucks were being loaded with grapes ready to go into the crusher and all seemed well just fine, on track, if not even a bit early. Most wineries luckily finished picking by the end of March, but it was not before the country went into lockdown on March 13 just like we did.

On April 3rd, my colleague, friend and amazing winemaker, Karim Mussi Saffie of Altocedro in La Consulta, Mendoza wrote about how challenging things were. And in his words, ” These last days have been very stressful for us at the winery, dealing with many open fronts at the same time, but moving the fastest possible, keeping calm and managing everything by priorities. We are all healthy, both at home and at the company.” He immediately upon hearing what was going to happen, activated a crisis management committee and decided to manage the situation using the following strategy: Take care of the team in order to keep the operation active and ready for — “the day after.” Most Argentine business owners are pretty well versed in mitigating financial crisis, as you probably know it’s a country that has them often.

Karim Mussi Saffi

So what did he have to do and how did he do it with government mandated self isolation? Since wine is considered food, it was allowed to continue operating. Permission was needed for everything . Everyone who needed to go back and forth from the winery to home needed a permit. Without a permit you could not work outside of the home. They closed their offices and tasting room, however, they were able to keep the bottling line open and fill pending orders. In Karim’s words, “All of the staff at KMW are working under safe conditions in order to reduce the risk of infection and guarantee the quality of our wines. The preventative measures not only comply with the official protocols, but also reduce the risk of infection and have since been adopted as our official practices going forward.” Social distancing was mandatory, 1.5 meters apart for everyone. All of the necessary supplies or what we now call PPE’s are continuously being delivered to protect all staff and everyone receives daily instruction on how to use them. Masks, gloves and protective glasses are mandatory. Everybody was given alcohol based sanitizing sprays to clean the equipment, surfaces, tools, plugs, valves, pumps — basically anything touched. Additional measures include staggering the shifts so that a minimum amount of people are working at any given time again to mitigate the risk of infection.

As of April 3rd, they had harvested about 90% of their grapes from La Consulta. It was a very warm growing season, one of the warmest March months in a long time. Sugar ripeness came early which helped speed up the phenolic ripeness. Harvest was therefore about 2 weeks earlier than normal, for all varietals, including Cabernet, and this is a very good thing all things considered. In fact it is shaping up to be a great vintage, and the quality is amazing; a memorable one in more ways than one. All of Altocedro’s fruit is hand-harvest and getting cash was not easy to pay the workers so that posed another great challenge. Banks were not open, and they don’t “deliver cash” but as I said, Karim found the way to make sure all his workers got paid every Friday.

Harvest time is always a challenge even under perfect conditions, but this year as with everyone and everything, this has been a monumentally challenging time. This harvest will prove to be memorable and , according to Karim, “a beautiful and important activity, one that generates jobs, strong-minded people who persevere, and cannot be stopped no matter what crisis is in front of them.” Karim and his team took the task at hand and did what they do best, as a team, and as a family, so that at the end of the day we can enjoy his amazing wines. I’d like to end with two quotes from Karim, “Imagination is half the disease, tranquility is half of the remedy, and patience is the beginning of the cure” and “Wine is sacred and necessary for a human’s happiness and progress.” From me and Karim and his entire team, we wish you all well, stay home, stay safe and if you can enjoy a glass of wine with each other.

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