Shaken and stirred: Chile

(Author: Peter)

Since we arrived back from New Zealand a week ago, I’ve finally managed to get in touch with many of my friends and colleagues in the Chilean wine industry.

The responses that have flooded in are very telling, mainly as a result of their striking similarities.

There’s not a trace of self-pity. Just sadness for those who perished. And a profound sense of gratitude for having survived, along with loved ones. (As far as I can make out, very few connected with the wine industry have died or been seriously injured – though this is not to detract from the hundreds, mainly from coastal communities in the south, who did. Many in the industry have lost their homes, however.)

Most admirably, whomever you speak to seems filled with the same, grittily resolute desire: to move on, rebuild and help others rebuild.

Solidaridad: fuerza Chile.

Of course, part of this stems from the very Chilean mindset of keeping the business running smoothly at all times no matter what. (There are reassurances constantly being issued to the effect that transport and wine stocks were not materially affected – and the latter point is indeed true for many, the reality being that a large 2009 vintage together with the financial crisis had led to uncomfortably high stock levels for many prior to the quake. “Providential crisis,” commented one high profile winemaker to me, wryly.)

It is also the product of a wonderfully fatalist, stoical character trait so typical of the Chileans. As one Chilean friend of mine once commented: you can’t live on a major geological fault line and not live for the day.

Of course, there are very serious consequences for the country as a result of the quake.

The estimated losses to the country’s wine industry have been put at some 125 million litres of wine (a figure that represents around 13% of national annual production, and may well be revised in due course), and around US$430m in the cost of lost wine, damaged infrastructure and reconstruction.

But, even if correct, these figures will represent only the tip of the iceberg.

If consumer confidence is damaged by unfulfilled orders and delays, then lost earnings and dented confidence may have a significant impact. (Though, happily, there is little sign of this as yet.)

Infrastructure has been severely damaged – and not just the roads, ports and other transport links. Fuel is short in many areas, and power cuts have been occurring. The damage to the vital irrigation network has also been significant, with the Chilean Agriculture Ministry estimating the initial patch-up costs to be in the order of US$31 million.

Much of the lost wine in the quake was from falling bottles, as well as barrels, tanks and other receptacles. Some of this is irreplaceable.

And the aftershocks continue: soil expert and renowned consultant Pedro Parra twittered about a “scary night” in the wake of an aftershock measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale in Concepción on March 15th. It was, and is, just one of many.

As for the vintage currently underway, apparently there’s a shortage of workers to help harvest in some of the southern regions, with many either rebuilding homes or looking after children whose schools have been put out of action. Damage to the irrigation network may also adversely impact quality in those areas and varieties where the ripening process was affected by loss of water supply.

Ultimately, the government estimates that the total cost to the country of the quake will be in the order of US$30 billion. (Independent Chilean experts put the figure closer to US$12 billion.)

Either way, this is a staggering sum to come to terms with.

And yet it’s easy to forget that this was one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded (the seventh strongest ever, by official records), unleashing far more force than the devastating Haitian earthquake. It’s quite remarkable that the destruction and loss of life wasn’t far worse.

One small mercy, I suppose.

There’s also a theory that Chile might emerge from this natural disaster in a stronger position, its image strengthened by being seen to pull together, and consumer good-will behind it.

Let’s hope this is indeed the case.

In the meantime, for anyone who wants to help in the reconstruction effort specifically from a wine angle, Wines of Chile have set up an earthquake appeal fund, in partnership with Levantando Chile. The details are:

Wines of Chile Earthquake Appeal

  • Barclays Bank
  • Sorting code 20-74-09
  • Account no 63514986

For anyone in Chile, I’d also mention the tasting and auction being put on tomorrow (23rd March) by the newly formed Carignan Club, to benefit wine growers in Maule, one of the wine regions most affected by the quake. To find out more, click here.

The 2010 vintage will go down in history as the year Chile trembled, and stood firm. Let’s hope the wines are just as memorable.

(The vivid images reproduced here were kindly provided by Jorge Balduzzi (Balduzzi) and Andrés Sánchez (Gillmore).)