What can we do better? 

In a very personal piece, drawing on her experiences in France, Wink Lorch considers our role in the mental health of wine producers.

I know that we’re supposed to begin the year in an upbeat mood, but for many this is difficult when reflecting on the last 12 months, although what follows has little to do with the pandemic. Before I start, I’m going to be very English and apologise: I’m sorry if this upsets or offends anyone; I’m sorry if you think I’m completely ignorant and barking up the wrong tree; and I’m sorry if you know all this already and think my suggestions at the end of this article are simply normal for any decent person. If anyone wants to contact me personally to discuss anything that follows, please do. Phew…

Many of you will be aware that in the space of less than two months in mid-2021, four prominent French vignerons from different regions, all known particularly in the organic/natural wine world, ended their lives by suicide: Laurent Vaillé of La Grange des Pères in the Languedoc, Pascal Clairet of Domaine de la Tournelle in the Jura, Olivier Lemasson of Les Vins Contés in the Loire and Dominique Belluard in Savoie. I knew Dominque and Pascal well, not as friends in the true sense, but I had been a regular visitor to their domaines, met them at wine fairs and tasted with them for over 15 years. I had also interviewed them at some length for my books. For me, of course, both deaths were a big shock, yet in hindsight (a mainly useless vision, no more so than in this case) I could see that both were often troubled. Most especially in the case of Belluard, re-reading the profile of him in my book, I obviously had concerns, although I ended the profile positively.

I have no personal experience of the severe mental illness that may lead someone to this most serious act, however I am aware that it is usually a combination of a multitude of factors that may become overwhelming to the most extreme degree for anyone who is mentally fragile. I also know that close family and friends may be entirely unaware of the person’s fragility. However, what nagged at me from day one after hearing about the deaths of Dominique and Pascal, and still does, was whether my actions and words over the years were, even in some small and subconscious way, a contributory factor to these tragically premature deaths. And, if this was the case, then surely: a) I am not alone and b) I/we must do better. 

Apart from occasional visits in the vineyard regions to educate myself, my first regular direct dealings with wine producers were when I worked for wine book publishers, supporting the editors to turn out good and accurate illustrated books. Often my job involved contacting producers to send us labels, photographs or other illustrations; to find out their exact location to place them on a map (this was in the pre-Google map days); or to check various facts and figures. In the early days these communications were by letter, fax or when all else failed, phone – email communications emerged slowly, especially for the French. I often had the sense that I was endlessly nagging these producers, and I was frustrated that they did not simply reply quickly and send what we needed. After all, this was free publicity for them, and surely they could see that?

Later, when I moved into writing more myself, contributing to other authors’ books, giving updates on the tiny regions of Jura and Savoie, I had to set up visits personally. My itinerary planning would take endless time, particularly as few producers returned calls or replied to emails – worse, sometimes they (or a spouse/assistant) just said they had no time to see me. Yet again, I got frustrated – these producers seemed just not to want to feature in books in the English language. I remember once, probably in 2013, when I was writing my own first book, sharing this frustration on social media. Well, wrote several well-meaning commentators, if they don’t bother to reply, then just drop them from the book. That, I explained, would not wash when these were important exporting producers from the region and had to be written about to make the book credible.

The more I got to know producers in my small regions, the more I could see how they were pulled in every direction. In recent years, wine writing colleagues from around the world have sought my help in setting up appointments in Jura and Savoie, when they have found it difficult. I have sometimes been able to help a little, sometimes not. One writer (not a CWW member) expressed surprise and frustration that when he turned up for his appointment with several producers, he was not the only visitor – he had to ask his questions and taste together with other visitors, usually professionals too, but not something he had experienced in other regions. I had to attempt lamely to defend these producers: they are busy, they just can’t cope with separate visitors while also keeping up with managing their biodynamic vineyards, the paperwork, the constant request for stocks (and/or dealing with allocations), the cellar work, essential regional meetings (the bank manager?) and so much more, even when they might have a handful of permanent staff.

A call for consideration

I think we need to reflect. How important is what we are doing, really, in the wider scheme of things? At what cost to producers is our need for information to fill our books and magazine articles? How can we make life easier for producers? A large part of me wishes small producers would help themselves more, somehow finding the time and resources to keep a website updated with information so that we would not have to ask them so many clarifications. But to observe that they are their own worst enemies doesn’t help the situation.

If anything positive has come out of Covid, it must be that some producers have finally come kicking and screaming into the 21st century in terms of their grasp on technology, using email better or perhaps embracing social media messaging as a means of communication. And of course, travel restrictions meant fewer demands for visits.

So far, I’ve discussed communications between us and them. But what about our role as a conduit between producers and consumers? Keen wine consumers also make demands on producers, even more so in our social media age. They want personal interaction and personal replies too. Above all, many keen wine geeks want to get their hands on a sought after bottle to drink with their friends, to share the photo on social media and – frankly – to gloat. What made that bottle sought after? Was it an award or high score for the wine that we gave? Was it some fine words about the wine and its producer that we wrote? Was it the tiny production and very lack of availability that made it even more in demand? And what happens if we – the professional communicators – post a photo of us tasting one of these rare bottles? All this piles on yet more pressure on the producer. Do we not exacerbate the situation? Whereas “it’s all good publicity for the producer” used to be my mantra, knowing that the exaggerated prices on second and third markets rarely benefit producers themselves has made me pause. Perhaps my concerns explain why I’ve been posting fewer pictures of the few special/rare wines I’ve enjoyed in recent months.

What answers do I have? The reality is that I have more questions than answers. However, I am more mindful of how any ‘demand’ I make of producers is going to be received. I am more aware that I should, simply put, be nicer; I ought to try to put myself in their shoes and imagine how it feels to be inundated with urgent messages to answer, when you have no more wine to sell, and yet somehow you have ended up with not enough money to pay your tax bill. I am determined to be mindful that I am communicating with someone whose worries, among so many others, might be how to tend the vineyards carefully with few staff despite there being little potential crop due to a severe frost. I do not want to be piling on yet more stress in their challenging lives.

Please feel free to respond with a better approach than the weak answers I have offered. But note also that I have been referring to small producers in small regions, who do not have resources (or even the wish) for big staff or PR companies to handle their problems. For them, big is not beautiful, but as is apparent, the challenges of small turn out sometimes to be overwhelming.

Postscript – Life beyond

In 2021, I visited a small domaine, which will remain nameless, run by a young man (let’s call him Bernard) in his mid-20s, who had taken it over from his father (I’ll call him Pierre), who had died by suicide just two years earlier. I had met Pierre just twice and written a small profile about him, and although I did not know him well at all, he seemed a very pleasant, dedicated vigneron, but not quite reaching his potential in terms of wine quality, selling most his wine at a low price to locals and tourists through his tasting room. When Pierre ended his life, his son Bernard was working for a domaine in a nearby wine region, having been to wine school and had work experience in the New World too. He fully intended to join his father, Pierre at some point, but Pierre had felt that Bernard should get experience elsewhere first and that the domaine could not provide a living for the two of them. After his father’s death, Bernard dropped everything to take over the domaine and was given much-needed support locally and from his previous employers.

Having made an appointment to visit Bernard for a tasting and an update on the domaine, I found him keen to talk openly about his father’s death, about what led him to suicide and how he, Bernard, wanted to do things differently so that he would never feel how his father must have felt. He explained that his father had worked entirely on his own – his mother (Pierre’s wife) having a job nearby, out of the wine sector. Pierre only occasionally took on temporary vineyard staff when vital in the summer. Bernard commented quietly that he imagined his father pruning alone through the cold winter without anyone to discuss his worries with. 

Pierre had been particularly stressed by the increasing amount of official paperwork required to run his wine business, which had to be submitted by computer, something he couldn’t handle. It was obvious that he had felt he was being pulled in every direction. Sales patterns had changed. He would leave a note with his mobile number on the tasting room door when he was in the vineyard, so that casual visitors could summon him. Up he would come to spend an hour giving them a tasting, for them only to buy a few bottles. In the past, visitors would buy a few cases. And then there had been a string of difficult vintages and the worries of climate change. The region was changing rapidly in many ways.

In an incredibly short time after his father’s death and with great fortitude, young Bernard has changed as much as he could on the domaine, updating vinification methods to warrant increasing prices on the wines, redesigning labels, stopping the open-door policy in the tasting room and moving to export for 70% of his sales. He has taken on a full-time employee to share the load and to help him “keep cheerful”. He is borrowing money to expand the cellar and will extend the vineyards too to make a viable business.

My visit left me feeling uplifted and sad all at once. One day, when Bernard is more confident and is selling all his wines easily around the world at a good price, what will his reaction be when an unknown journalist calls him requesting an appointment at one of those many busy moments in the year?