How lockdown didn’t stop Argentina’s wine harvest

Health and safety measures, picker location tracing, and on-site living quarters: Argentina’s bodegas have worked hard to protect their 2020 harvests during Covid-19. Sorrel Moseley-Williams reports

When Argentina’s government implemented national lockdown from 20 March – with just three hours’ notice – many wineries in Mendoza had already reached the final stages of picking, thanks to the unusually hot weather between December and February that brought forward harvest by an average of three weeks.

With grape must and wine production designated as essential foodstuff by the government’s Labour and Production Assistance Programme (ATP), wineries were allowed to continue picking and undertake the first steps in the winemaking process. Ensuring staff health and safety however, required an array of measures and logistics that needed to be quickly implemented.

Managing the workforce

‘A fortnight before official quarantine was enforced, we started educating our 100-member staff about hygiene and safety protocols,’ CEO of San Rafael-based Bodegas Bianchi, Rafael Calderón told Imbibe. ‘From 20 March, the first measures included taking temperatures and disinfecting at the start and end of shifts and adapting schedules so there would be no overlap between personnel, and setting up home offices for the administrative team. In the vineyards, shifts were also managed accordingly, and every picker was allocated a single row, using sterilised pruning scissors and [their] own gloves.’ Like many, Bianchi finished picking on 2 April, nature’s hot spell proving to be a blessing in disguise in this case.

The first measures included taking temperatures and disinfecting at the start and end of shifts and adapting schedules so there would be no overlap between personnel, and setting up home offices for the administrative team

Rafael Calderón

For an uninterrupted flow between vineyards and their Agrelo-based estate, Susana Balbo winery converted offices into temporary living quarters for a reduced team. ‘We adapted offices in order to accommodate a 12-member team led by first enologist Gustavo Bertagna, comprising technicians as well as a cook from our bodega to continue grape reception and crushing operations,’ said head of marketing Ana Lovaglio. ‘They lived on site for three weeks so we could assure their wellbeing as well as that of the 2020 wines.’

Meanwhile, Bodega Casarena implemented a location tracing system to ensure that all its temporary pickers were sourced as locally as possible. ‘Before contracting pickers, we checked their place of residence, making sure they didn’t have far to travel to reach the vineyard,’ explained head winemaker Leandro Azin. ‘If they didn’t have their own vehicle, we arranged for pickups and drop-offs in order to avoid public transport; the same protocol applied to bodega staff.’

Cellar staff at Casarena estate
Cellar staff at Casarena estate

At one of Catena Zapata’s East Zone vineyards, picking took three times as long but the slower pace didn’t dampen the usual high expectations, according to head winemaker Alejandro Vigil: ‘By adhering to official protocols as well as our own, such as shortened shifts and the number of people transported to and from vineyards, fewer pickers worked at our Bonarda trellises, which require plenty of manual labour – instead of the usual fortnight, it took almost six weeks.’

Border challenges

While Mendoza operations transported grapes relatively easily, others had provincial border hurdles to overcome. Alejandro Papa, head of enology at Cafayate-based Bodega El Esteco (which has winemaking facilities as well as 260ha of vines planted in Catamarca), found daily tank and barrel tastings taking on a new dimension when the neighbouring province shut its borders.

Alejandro Papa, head of enology at Cafayate-based Bodega El Esteco, found daily tank and barrel tastings taking on a new dimension when the neighbouring province shut its borders

‘It’s around 80km between the wineries in Cafayate and Catamarca,’ he says, ‘so instead of going to Santa María in person, I drive to the provincial border every day to receive between 12 and 24 samples, then taste them at online meetings.’

As for national borders, exporting has continued, although safety measures remain in place for lorry drivers. Bianchi’s Calderón said that, since exports for North America leave from Chile, they’ve isolated spaces such as bathrooms and dining rooms for drivers to make sure they don’t come into contact with winery staff.

Giving back to the community

A handful of Argentine wineries count distilleries among their facilities, such as Familia Zuccardi. Sebastián Zuccardi says that they turned its hand to making ethanol – from Torrontés grapes – which they then donate to staff and to 13 medical centres located near Piedra Infinita winery in Uco Valley and Bodega Santa Julia in Maipú.

Vistalba's Paula Pulenta
Vistalba's Paula Pulenta

Given that Argentina has extended lockdown several times – most recently until 28 June – many companies have taken the opportunity to revamp their e-commerce stores. At Bodega Vistalba, winery head Paula Pulenta saw it as an opportunity to create a movement for solidarity, changing their Tomero line’s labels to names such as Generosity and Optimism. Conscientious consumers can also take comfort in the fact that the winery is donating some proceeds to local NGO Fundación Infant.

‘By developing a community campaign,’ she said, ‘we created a box of six Tomero Cuarentena (Quarantine) wines whose labels are inspired by positive sentiments and aim to generate a better frame of mind.’

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