A Sicilian Wine Makers Interview During Covid-19

I am happy to say this is my photograph of Marilena Barbera, when I had the privilege and pleasure to be with her during a grape harvest.

This is a translation of an interview with my great friend and wine maker Marilena Barbera from Menfi Sicily

This article was written by Andrea Vini Artigianali. You can check out the original interview here https://vinidisicilia.blog/2020/03/29/una-vignaiola-di-sicilia-ai-tempi-del-covid-19-parte-iv/?fbclid=IwAR2E7xuQ_qOtyhkVIiySddbusEF0dATIay8UjEqZgZdkz0jNT44QqLA49SQ

For years Marilena Barbera has been considered among the top influencers of wine, both for her social activity and for her commitment and attention to the problems surrounding this world, always uncensored, but with a great desire to tell and share.

Our series of interviews continues with her at the time of COVID-19, (here part I, part II and part III) but precisely because of her natural tendency for sharing and writing, we decided to dedicate a post to her in which she can tell us the his about worries (many, in this case) and hopes (few).

1. How is the work in the vineyard going?

This year we started pruning a little later than usual. The trend of the past harvests, in fact, the best suggestion for us to postpone the work as much as possible to avoid an excessive advance in the ripening of the grapes, and therefore to arrive at the end of July with the skins still leathery in order to better fight the heat and excessive insolation. To compensate for this planned delay, we hired a very large team of pruners, so that the work in the vineyard ended as soon as possible and gave us time to dedicate ourselves serenely to the cellar work very quickly. So we finished pruning in mid-February, and by the end of the month we had already completed the first plowing of the land, including burying green manure.

The budding took a long time. Initially, because the extraordinary drought of the winter months slowed down the vegetative awakening of the vineyards. In recent days, due to the drastic drop in temperatures, both day and night. At the moment, only the early varieties have completely sprouted (Chardonnay, Merlot, Alicante), while the second and third epoch varieties are still in the initial stages of budding.

All in all, a series of lucky coincidences, considering that already in early March rumors began to circulate about quarantine and forced slowdown of production activities. A quarantine that started for us three weeks ago.

2. What are the main current and future concerns in this particular period that we are experiencing?

Without sugar coating any words, the situation is dramatic, and it would be better if we all started to realize it, without many rainbows on the windows and #everythingwillbefine in large letters.

The last shipments of 2020 started on March 5th. Already at the beginning of the second week of March we started receiving emails and phone calls for canceling orders, in two cases we returned goods that had already been sent to Italian customers.

Orders from abroad that had been sent to us by our importers between the end of February and the beginning of March were blocked a few days before the expected preparation date, and postponed to a date to be determined.

On the collection front, it is possibly an even worse situation: no one pays, not even for supplies delivered before Christmas. Understandably, our customers are not in a position to honor their debts, and those of them who still had some liquidity surely find themselves having to choose between paying their employees, guaranteeing them their jobs, or their suppliers

From a legal point of view, it is a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, as a farm we could be open, because we are considered by the government to be an “essential activity”; on the other, having NO OPEN CUSTOMER, we cannot afford to accumulate costs, for which coverage is currently not expected.

Therefore, given that we may continue to work by law, we are not granted the concessions provided for the accommodation and catering and administration activities.

All this in the absolute silence of the trade associations and the media.

Evidently, serious and immediate and medium-term concerns for the present and the future arise from this situation.

In the immediate term, the catering and administration activities are not expected to reopen, and even after the reopening, it is not expected that it will be possible to return to normal for several months. It will be a different normal, however, from what we are used to: I think of wine bars, the well-established habit of aperitifs, tastings and wine-related events that had proliferated enormously in recent years. These habits, which kept wine consumption high and varied especially in some very active niches, cannot reasonably be expected to remain unchanged.

In the medium term, I fear that we will suffer a fairly long wave on foreign markets. Countries like the United States, where the epidemic is still in its infancy, and which do not have effective social safety nets like ours, will see a huge contraction in wine consumption, especially of wines defined as “off the beaten path”, whose recent popularity it had allowed us to win much more adventurous and curious customers than in the past.

3.Any positive notes that give some hope for the near future?

Do you have a backup question? It is impossible for me to answer this.

I read from many articles that many have the hope of converting their sales from the traditional channel to the online one, as if it were enough to open an e-commerce to replace their distributors and dozens of hotel, restaurant, catering customers with armies of consumers willing to buy overnight wine platforms on the net.

Instead I fear that precisely on the innovative channels we will find ourselves soon the ruthless competition of the big companies that until now had left out the direct channel.

It will not be a good time for anyone.

I first met Marilena in April 2008 at Cantine Barbera in Menfi Sicily

Marilena and I met in April 2008 so just about twelve years ago. I was featuring her Inzolia & Nero d Avola wines at my restaurant Bella Bistro in Arvada Colorado. We literally became instant friends. We were so much alike in so many ways, it’s like we had been separated at birth.

Over the years we have supported each other in our business’s and personal lives. I have a great deal of respect for this incredibly talented individual. She is a business woman, a wine maker, a farmer, an artist, a writer, a photographer and an amazing human being with a heart bigger than Sicily.

Please pray for Marilena, her family, and her business. Her wines must survive this pandemic Covid-19. She is a very special and loud voice representing the wines , the agriculture, the history, the cooking and the passion of Sicily.