Monday, 06 April 2020 12:39

COVID-19: NZ's wine industry reacts to the pandemic

Written by  Sophie Preece

On a fine March morning, Nick Mills walks down a row at Rippon, tasting grapes a safe distance from his team, armed with sanitiser and a walkie-talkie...

He’s a week into self-isolation following a US sales trip, and keeping well away from his staff. It’s one of hundreds of precautions being taken by wine companies around the country as Covid-19 threatens health, harvest, jobs and businesses. 

On March 16, Neudorf closed its Nelson cellar door, after hosting 15 international tourists in an hour. “We made the decision at 12 o’clock on Monday because it was too high risk,” says Judy Finn, noting that cellar door staff are “loving” their time picking grapes in the sunshine. She’s seen an increase in mail order and retail sales as a result of Covid-19. “I think people are still drinking wine, but not in restaurants.”

Wine companies countrywide followed suit, including Craggy Range, which launched virtual tastings, with wine delivered to customers, then explained by cellar door staff over Zoom. General Manager Aaron Drummond says they have made a commitment to safeguarding jobs and hours, “however, we will need our team to be flexible, with all extra capacity heading to pick fruit this harvest, which they are excited about”. 

That’s protection for staff, but will also allow the business to “rebound stronger when things stabilise”. Aaron has noted strong retail sales, but says the bigger economic issue will be the length of time it takes to normalise, and the impact on buying behaviour. “While no one knows, we think it will be a lot longer than many commentators are willing to admit.”

Harvest was well underway when the government stepped up its reaction to Alert Level 2, followed swiftly by Level 3 then 4. Jules Taylor of Marlborough’s Jules Taylor Wines says the weather had been kind and the vintage is “very promising”, but she’s anxious about getting all her fruit in before Covid-19 “changes they way we work”. Life is going to get “really tough”, she says, “and I wish everyone well”. 

New Zealand has closed its borders to foreign nationals, raising concerns about the impact on Pacific Island workers coming in for winter pruning. “The viticulture industry is considering what contingencies they have to ensure that the vines can be pruned and that their human resources can be shared collectively,” says Marlborough Mayor John Leggett. “They may also need to seek local sources of labour.” 

Meanwhile, “employers need to think about their options and their obligations”, says Kirsty Trolove, owner of Only Human - HR Solutions. Most businesses she’s spoken to have done well communicating with their teams about keeping risk at a minimum in the workplace. At a higher level, she’s advising clients to have behind-the-scenes scenario planning. Management teams need to consider plenty of questions, including how to manage sick and annual leave, and what to do if people are able, ready and willing to work, but can’t do so remotely and need to self-isolate. “Companies also need to also assess if they can access the Government’s Covid-19 support package.”

Health and safety consultant Rebecca Condon says wine companies need to act in good faith when dealing with workers who may be affected, and to avoid knee jerk reactions and decisions that could be deemed to be discriminatory. Those who have workers self-isolating should take the time to contact them each day “and check on how they are”, she says. It could be a stressful and isolating time for foreign workers, she adds. “Even small gestures like sending a vintage meal home to workers in isolation will help them feel supported.” 

Stay Informed

New Zealand Winegrowers has a dedicated Covid-19 information page on its members’ website. Go to nzwine.com/members for information on:

• The current situation

• New Zealand government business support package

• Practical advice for vineyards and wineries

• Reliable information sources

• Frequently asked questions

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