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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Frozen Baseball Insurance and January in August...

If a frozen baseball were to come crashing down from the sky and hit you on the head... what would you anticipate the damage to be? Maybe a big lump at best, stitches, concussion, or of course... worse case scenario; death by frozen baseball. Would you take out insurance if you knew that frozen baseballs only came flying down from the sky once every ten years?  This is the biggest risk for vignerons every year - hail storms (or for vines, the equivalent of frozen baseballs falling from the sky), and an assessment to make... to take or not to take hail insurance!

(this photo from local newspaper)

On August 3rd I woke up at 6AM, the weather was cool, and it was a perfect sunny day... I went for a run and on my way back extended my normal 'running route' to visit Fabrizio in the vineyard.  He was cleaning between the vines on the tractor, and had a huge smile on his face.  The vineyard was beautiful, the fruit as well... and he said, 'Ta-da, this is it for the season... I hope (no need to tantalize fate), no more treatments or vineyard work, this should do it... now we can just wait and watch the fruit ripen."  He had finished up all the work he wanted to in order for us to take a few days to go visit Martin Arndorfer in Austria, and Primoz in Slovenia.  We left beautiful vineyards, and what was shaping up to be a really nice vintage behind.

On Sunday August 5th, we were in the stunning vineyards of the Wachau, over looking the majestical Danube.  A sea of green, healthy beautiful vines, gorgeous fruit... and we were all commenting on what looked like to be an incredible vintage for this region of Austria (together with the Kamptal where Martin and Anna are).  Suddenly Fabrizio's phone started ringing off the hook... 

At around 6:30pm that day, Monferrato saw one of the worst hail storms anyone (still alive) in the region can remember.  The hail in our little village of Montaldo (pop:100 people, on a good day) lasted only 6 minutes, but it was enough to bring down parts of walls, put dents in cars, take out antennas, roof tiles, and scare the living sh** out of everyone.  Fabrizio on the phone was almost like watching someone get that horrible news that you are always afraid of when you see someones face fall from the words on the other end of the line. 

(Montaldo, our town)


We were with our good friends, and his Italian distributor and his wife, as well as Martin and Anna; so they all knew the gravity of the situation... and what 6 minutes of hail could mean.  We went from being tourists on vacation, to a quickly somber and respectfully quite mood, spending the rest of the evening rather solemnly.  There was however nothing we could do until we got home, assessed, and waited 10 days or so for the vines to 'dry out,' and heal a bit.   

Among all the phone calls coming in, we got a call from a friend that was staying at the house where the Nebbiolo vineyard is, and he told us he was stranded... the hail broke the windshield of his car, completely smashed, pieces of glass had fallen INTO his car, and there were even holes in the roof of the car... there was clearly no electricity, and needless to say... no words were even necessary for the vineyard situation, it was understood.  It looks like it does in January before the pruning... not only in the vineyard, but in the surrounding hills as well.  From green to brown in 6 minutes.

In a few towns over, hit equally as hard, people were sent to the hospital with wounds requiring up to 7 stitches... a few animals were lost, and lots and lots and lots of work for roofers!!

(Nebbiolo vineyard 4 days after the hail storm... not a leaf spared - not to mention a grape)
(Same vineyard last year at the same time)


Fortunately our Barbera and Pinot vineyards were spared in comparison.  We think we lost about 20%-30% of the fruit, but we were lucky none the less that even only a few kilometers away, the hail was slightly less severe.  

I don't need to wax poetic about the work that goes into a growing season, the nurturing, and constant attention needed for not just vines, but all crops.  You all know.  However, the sadness that only 6 minutes can ruin a years worth of work is just devastating.

Insurance?  Ha.  I am not sure how insurance works for the farmers of corn, wheat, alfalfa, sunflowers, poplars, and all the other crops grown in our area, but a large chunk of them lost 100% of their production, and unlike in wine, they do not have 'other vintages' to sell.  They can not spread out the loss over the next few years selling, 'back vintage corn'.  These guys have lost an entire years income, and I just hope that the insurance they have for weather damage is different then ours.  I know one town delcared a state of emergency, so hopefully that will help release some governmental funds (again, ha ha, that is summer being incredibly optimistic and/or naive :).

For vines, the 'hail insurance' pays the producer a PERCENTAGE of the market value of the fruit... not  the wine, and certainly not the finished product in bottle.  So what does this mean?  You pay a ridiculous amount each year for hail insurance.  Normal hail happens once every ten years or so, and serious hail like this... we hope only once every 50 years or so.  Pretty easy to do the math, regardless of insurance, we end up loosing not only our crops, but also more money.  Yes folks, another racket.

On a final note, Fabrizio always recounts the fact that in the 1960's, Monferrato saw three years of consecutive hail right before harvest, and the farmers couldn't afford to go on after loosing three years income, and so almost all of the vineyards were abandoned as folks moved to Torino to work for Fiat.  Leaving the land to work in a factory.  We hence feel very lucky to have the Barabba vineyard from 1935, as vineyards of that age are almost inexistent due to abandonment of the country side.  When he tells the story, we are usually in the vineyard itself, and without fail, everytime I think, "how could you leave this, regardless, I would never give this up... no silly hail could force me to abandon this!"

I still feel that way... but I must say, I feel closer to those that worked this land before us, and feel their sadness.   

What can we/you do?  Open a bottle of Iuli, or any Indie wine, and enjoy it... and appreciate even more what goes into it all - and the risks involved with being a producer and farmer.  Each bottle is a labor of love, art and passion - otherwise it would take only one frozen baseball storm to scare us away!

So there... a little lesson and story about hail for those of you that didn't know!