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Winemakers saved by their fast response

Lockdown cost winemakers all their catering sector orders and the gradual easing of restrictions (under which all festivals are still cancelled) has not prompted a spectacular recovery. For wine estates, damage limitation has been contingent on catching private customers’ attention.

The crisis prompted by the coronavirus pandemic was both sudden and brutal. People had to change their habits overnight and focus on life’s essentials. Did wine fall into that category? This was a recurring question with no clear answer. Although Riesling or Auxerrois are obviously non-essential items, it could be argued that they nevertheless have value. Even so, winemakers had to promote their products and, most importantly, ensure that their logistics met health requirements.

The Schumacher-Knepper estate (Wintrange) was one of the first to revamp its services. Frank and Martine Schumacher made good use of their trump card – a well-established online shop, which has been up and running for over 10 years. “We were due to hold some open days just after the start of lockdown. Although we cancelled these, we gave our customers the option of tasting our wines at home,” explains Martine. Several selection boxes of 6 to 12 wines either spanning the whole range or focusing on a specific year or grape variety (Riesling) or crémants were offered at discounted rates.

And it worked! After a quiet first week in which people were too shocked to order wine, the orders started coming in. “We made more deliveries than in normal times,” says Frank Schumacher with satisfaction. Better still, “after tasting our wines, many customers recommended their favourites,” he adds.

Obviously, all contact was avoided during deliveries. The wine was left on customers’ doorstops within two days of orders being placed, and an invoice was posted through the letterbox.  Frank Schumacher did the rounds himself and even wore a Buff sporting the estate’s colours. “We ordered them at the start of lockdown to hand out to our staff.” They were very quick to cover all their bases!

So, in order to sell wine during the crisis, producers had to be visible and not bury their heads in the sand. After all, everyone was stuck at home with plenty of time on their hands to search for information online and perhaps also order. Based on this principle, the Promotion Committee for Luxembourg Wines and Crémants invited any interested winemakers to publish a short video with completely free rein over the content. Every day at 6 pm, one of these short films was posted on Facebook and Instagram. Twenty estates took up the offer and some produced masterpieces.

The video produced by Pundel Vins Purs (in Wormeldange-Haut), for instance, was a big hit. With over 25,500 views, Pit Pundel and his employee Kristin created by far the most popular clip. Instead of posting a bog-standard, strictly informative video, they added a touch of humour. The young owner, Pit Pundel, sits on a bench and lists everything needed to make a good crémant. Behind him, Kristin pours all the ingredients over his head including soil, water, and … manure. When the winemaker mentions his anxieties concerning hail, a whole load of ice cubes are thrown at him. And to illustrate the crémants’ aromas, he catches an apple, grapefruit and lemon that are tossed to him. The video’s highlight comes at the end, when a cereal bowl, salad bowl and finally bucket-load of cream (actually a mixture of water and flour) is thrown in his face to show just how creamy his Cuvée Spéciale is! 

It’s zany, funny and gets people talking – mission accomplished! “We already had a large following on social media, but it all went a bit crazy after this,” says Pit Pundel with a smile. After the video was posted, we saw a steep rise in orders of this crémant, so we couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.”

Although everyone now agrees that it was a good move, there was some degree of prior hesitation. “Before sending it, I showed it to a few friends for their feedback,” explains Pit Pundel. “It isn’t such an easy decision to act the clown. After all, my image is the estate’s brand image. Fortunately, all the feedback was positive!”

The estate, which has performed exceptionally well during the crisis, has also launched new offers that have proved a success. The first idea, which came in the midst of lockdown, was to offer a case of six different wines and six vacuum-packed Berdorfer cheeses. “We’d already worked together on ‘Wine, Cheese, Enjoy’ (editor’s note: a weekend open-house event on the Moselle where winemakers offered wine/cheese pairings),” says the winemaker. They were keen from the outset.” Pit Pundel streamed tasting videos live on Facebook with commentaries on the various pairings. “It’s no exaggeration to say that this idea has saved us,” he says with obvious relief. “We sold about 150 cases, which was a very nice surprise.”

Riding the wave, he then offered a new combination based on the same principle, this time in partnership with the patissier/chocolatier Schiltz (Grevenmacher and Niederanven). Once again, details of wine/chocolate and wine/biscuit pairings were provided online. This time, a hundred or so parcels were shipped out. A special mothers’ day pack was put together and all 30 were sold, with demand outstripping stocks!

We made more deliveries than in normal times.

It’s striking how hard work has paid off during this difficult period. Virtually all estates with an online shop saw no decline in their sales to private customers. Some even experienced a boom in their order volumes. It’s the same story for both small independent estates and large négociants. Antoine Clasen, CEO of Bernard-Massard confirms: “I can’t complain – the volume of sales to private customers through the wine store has been very high.” Marc Desom (Desom Cellars and Estate) also assures that he has “delivered large volumes during lockdown”.

It seems that putting on a brave face in the hope of a return to better days was almost certainly the worst solution. Estates that have proved able to respond quickly and adapt have managed to limit the damage by selling to private customers. However, although these positive results have taken the pressure off their cash flow, they have not wiped out all the losses. The shortfall from sales to restaurants has not been completely offset.

"That Corona Killer cuvée was a joke!"

As we enter Tom Schumacher’s Wäistuff (Schumacher-Lethal estate in Wormeldange), he tells us how happy he is with his latest purchase – a new label printer. In fairness to the old one, it has been in constant use for the past few months! This is all down to a joke made by the winemaker on 13 March: “At 1.30 pm I posted a photo of my Cuvée Pierre crémant on Facebook with the words “Corona Killer” marked on the label, which I’d printed out quickly without giving it much thought. The virus was already the sole topic of discussion and the idea came to me while disgorging some crémant. I thought I needed to do something to make light of the situation, as the whole thing seemed to be getting quite dark.” 

There was an immediate buzz, with the post quickly doing the rounds on social media. That afternoon, several people came into the wine bar for a drink and to buy a case of that silly crémant. “It was unbelievable – just an hour after posting the photo, I’d already received 25 orders for cases…” he reminisces, almost embarrassed by its success. That day at 5 pm, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel announced on television that lockdown would start two days later. Luxembourg went into lockdown and the Wäistuff was forced to shut up shop until 27 May, when it reopened its outdoor seating areas.

The Corona crémant has since continued to sell like hotcakes. Although reluctant to tell us exactly how many cases have been delivered, Tom Schumacher reveals that a pallet-load sometimes only lasts him three days. “It was originally just a joke and by no means a marketing stunt. I would never have dreamed of profiting from a situation that has been tragic for so many people,” he says in his defence. 

In any case, customers are certainly not being short-changed – behind the label is a crémant that won a gold medal at the 2020 Mundus Vini and silver at last year’s AWC Vienna. Although it may have been a joke, it has proven to be in good taste!

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