Violent hail in the vineyards – a report from Volnay…

Yesterday afternoon at 5:15pm, the Côte de Beaune was hit with a violent hailstorm, destroying 50-90% of the potentially beautiful crop that was hanging in the vineyards in Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, and Beaune. This was the third year in a row that these villages were hit with a devastating storm. As if that were not bad enough, this will now be the fifth year in a row with a very tiny crop, as 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 all produced a fraction of what a “normal” year would bring. Over those four years, they produced about two years worth of wine. As you can well imagine, the effects of this will be beyond devastating for many of Burgundy’s producers of all sizes.

I was taking a nap when the storm hit. It was so loud I thought the house was being bombed or was exploding. I stumbled to the window to see ping-pong ball sized hail stones covering the courtyard and inch or two thick. I walked to the bathroom, where the storm had blown open the window and a layer of hail stones was on the floor surrounding the toilet.

Hailstones on the courtyard outside my front door in Volnay...

The storm passed in about 2 minutes. I went outside and saw neighbors’ windows literally smashed out by the hail. It was so violent I was in shock – semi paralyzed and dazed by the destruction and the noise and the suddenness of the attack.

I stood in the doorway, just looking out at the carpet of hail, and then saw my friend Thiébault Huber walking toward the house. I was choking back tears thinking about what must have happened in the vineyards. I hugged my friend, who could barely speak, so distraught, crushed once again by the damage and the loss.

I’ve been Thiébault’s importer for 10 years now. He has become one of my dearest friends over those years, and he’s one of the finest people I’ve ever known. I don’t know anyone who works harder or does more for his neighbors and his industry. He is an inspiration, a leader, a person who works tirelessly to try to make things better for all concerned. He’s the president of the Volnay vignerons. He’s a leader in biodynamic viticulture. He created the eco-service station for vineyard tractors on the Côte de Beaune. He put together the lab that dozens of Volnay producers share during harvest to analyze their grapes and juice. He spearheaded the organization and deployment of a Côte-wide network of anti-hail cannons. And then to have everything destroyed yet again in a two-minute eruption of nature. It was simply too much to bear.

They launched the anti-hail cannons yesterday morning (they shoot silver nitrate into the air, which gets picked up by the wind and carried into the clouds, and mitigates the amount of hail and the size of the hailstones that fall – it cannot, however, stop the storm. Amazingly, it could have been even worse!)

Weapons of mass destruction - a close-up of the hailstones in Pommard...

The cruel icing on this cake was the fact that yesterday was the 10th annual celebration of the “Élegance des Volnay” – a special event that draws wine lovers from all over Europe and the world for a day of immersion in the special wonders of the wines from this magical little village. As the storm hit, Thiébault was under a small tent in the vineyards pouring wine for a group of American tourists who had come for the celebration. The tent saved them from potential serious injury (some people caught out in the open reported head wounds and massive bruising from the hail), but the vines were of course left defenseless.

Some 40 minutes later another violent hailstorm hit, this one closer to Beaune. I was in my car on the way in to Beaune when it hit. I thought the roof of my rented Toyota was coming in. There are permanent dents there now. Reports came in that it hailed so hard in Beaune it smashed birds to death. I am sad to confirm that, having seen a number of carcasses on the streets in the aftermath.

After all this, I knew it was going to be a difficult night at the Grand Dinner of the Élegance des Volnay – a gala affair held annually on the terrace of Domaine de la Pousse d’Or for all of the Volnay vintners and their guests – 260 of us all together. The mood was somber, to say the least, as everyone filed in with their heads hung low. Frédéric Lafarge, the Marquis d’Angerville, Nicolas Rossignol, Dominique Lafon, Pacal Bouley, all my friends were there. But what do you say? Sorry and sad do not begin to convey the depths of sorrow and sadness we all felt. After getting whipsawed for five years in a row, it just felt like cruel and unusual punishment to all in attendance.

Then Thiébault, as head of the Volnay vintners, was called to the stage to say a few words. We were all choking back tears as he took the podium, and as he began to speak it was clear he was fighting back his tears as well. His speech was short, simple, and moving. He reminded us all why Volnay was so special. A unique mosaic of over 200 different terroirs in one tiny village of just 200 hecatres, more than half of which is 1er Cru. The diversity is unparalleled, perhaps anywhere. And he reminded us that Volnay had been destroyed by hail three years in a row once before – in 1902, 1903 & 1904 – and that Volnay was still here, would always be here, and would always be Volnay. Long live Volnay!

Thiébault Huber at the podium

The applause was thunderous, and the lifting of spirits in the room was palpable. It was by no means a happy night, but everyone seemed to manage to find some flicker of spirit, and the evening moved on with at least a touch of a festive note or two. The hail did not prevent the vintners from bringing some fabulous wines to share. I counted some 32 different wines, mostly in Magnum or Jeroboam, that crossed our table, including especially nice bottles of ’93 Clos du Chateau des Ducs from Lafarge, ’93 Caillerets from Voillot, ’00 Bonnes Mares from Roumier (I was seated next to Christophe Roumier’s sister Anne, who was formerly married to Dominique Lafon), and a ’76 Pommard Rugiens from Thiébault’s grandfather, Raoul Verdereau.

This morning all of the winegrowers were out in the vineyards surveying the damage. It is very ugly indeed. Parts of Beaune and Pommard are a 90% loss. Beaune Clos des Mouches, which was a 100% loss last year, looks to have been destroyed once again. The southern half of Pommard and most of Volnay is at least a 50% loss. Pretty much the same for parts of Meursault.

Hail-damaged clusters in Volnay

It felt like walking around in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, or after a war had just pushed through. Sundays are always very quiet in France, but this one here especially so – a lot of heads hung low and muted voices, lots of TV trucks and crews on the vineyard roads filming and reporting the damages. The roads are carpeted in green in the center of the villages, layers of leaves stripped from the trees by the hail covering the streets.

Hail stripped leaves from the vines, and sent clusters crashing to the ground as well...

I am worried that this one will be the one that breaks people’s hearts, or their spirits, or both. Certainly some will be broken financially as well. After the last four years there were already major problems, and this will certainly spell the end of the line for a number of small family domaines. The damage of these five years will change much for many generations to come.

I am writing this now in the house that Thiébault’s mother was born in, and her mother before her. It was occupied by the German army during WWII. The stone walls here are three feet thick – this house isn’t going anywhere. Neither is Volnay.