"We sat on the roof all night, in the dark, it smelled of diesel, and every two minutes you could hear the bumps when a car or another heavy object crashed into a wall of a house somewhere in the neighbourhood." This is how Paul Schumacher from Marienthal remembers the night of the flood from Wednesday to Thursday the week before last. On his website, the winemaker put his few rescued bottles up for sale with the stark statement "perhaps this will be the last vintage of the Paul Schumacher winery."
A raging torrent
In the night of 14 July 2021, the small river Ahr burst its banks and the usually peaceful, small waterway turned ito a raging torrent. The final stretch of the river, before it runs into the Rhine at Remagen, is a picturesque, rocky valley with steep slate slopes, dominated by viticulture and famous for its Pinot Noirs.
No insurance cover
Like dozens of other wineries, Schumacher has no insurance cover for flood damage. It is likely that his house just about still stands because an old walnut tree held firm and acted like a buffer against the objects floating in the flood. But the building is uninhabitable, the wine tavern is destroyed, so are barrels, equipment and vehicles. "Of course we want to continue and are fighting to do so," says Schumacher, who has built up a top wine estate with five hectares of vines from nothing over the past 25 years. "But whether our efforst will be enough? No idea."
Slowly, fatigue sets in
Ludwig Kreuzberg from Dernau echoes this: "If my winery were the only one affected I would say, o.k., that's it, now I'll get a job selling wine. But the support from so many people really gives us strength, even if fatigue slowly sets in, after more than ten days."
"If I didn't have insurance I would have to close down," says Marc Adeneuer from the J.J. Adeneuer estate in Ahrweiler. In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the regional board of the VDP growers association created a foundation to help especially those without insurance cover. Calls for donations were spread on media and social media. There now also is a page which makes it easier to donate internationally - not requiring bank transfers to German accounts (see link at the end of this article).
Solidarity among fellow winegrowers
But Adeneuer also reports that the community pulled together: Michelin-starred chef Hans Stefan Steinheuer in Heppingen at the lower end of the valley was less affected by the flood than the people upstream. He launched into action by delivering hundreds of free meals every day to winegrowers and helpers throughout the valley.
Hotel Hohenzollern, situated high above the river above the top vineyard Walporzheimer Kräuterberg, has become "an asylum for the homeless", as Adeneuer puts it. "The children of homeless families play at the reception, and people from near and far drive there to donate clothes." Other hotels that were above the flood level had also immediately freed up all their rooms for people who no longer had a roof over their heads.
"And among us winegrowers, the willingness to help is enormous. Colleagues drive 500 kilometres to lend a hand, for example, to clean mud from the rooms or to rinse bottles," Adeneuer reports. A winery from Portugal had offered to send a press to the Ahr free of charge. "Martin Steinmann from Schloss Sommerhausen in Franconia came to help us at our estate, the Gutzlers and Pfannebeckers from Rheinhessen came too, and tomorrow Sebastian Fürst is coming to help us." All these are top names in German Pinot Noir.
Downy mildew endangers harvest
And if the flood were not enought to deal with, the humid conditions also put huge disease pressure on the vines. Downy mildew spreads easily in these conditions. The winegrowers hope to meet the challenge by aerial spraying via helicopter.
Meanwhile, one of the estates worst affected has launched a relief campaign that could flush a lot of money into a relief fund: the Dagernova cooperative in Bad Neuenahr. Dominik Hübinger, chairman of the board, explains: "Formally, it is not Dagernova that is carrying out this project, but it is being handled through Dagernova and my desk. We will have a charity wine bottled by colleagues in the Moselle, unfortunately there is not enough wine left in the Ahr for such a campaign."
Everyone in the value chain will make a free contribution to the completion of the product. "Retailers will also forego their margins". Practically all the big players from food retail and discount stores have already agreed to put the wine with the name "SolidAHRität" on the shelves. And no one has claimed exclusivity. "Aldi, for example, said straight away that they would have no problem if the wine was also available at Edeka."
A group of illustrious Austrian winemakers have also banded together, each donating wine for a mixed case, with proceeds going to the affected Ahr winemakers.
Every one in the Ahr valley has harrowing stories to tell. Meike and Dörte Näkel of the famous Meyer-Näkel estate were surprised by the flood while filling sandbags. At first they took refuge on the mezzanine floor of their production hall. But things got worse: when the water finally blew the roller shutter doors and the floodwater broke through the building in a torrent, a leaking tank began to flood the hall with gas. When the sisters ran out of air they had no choice but to jump into the water; they stayed afloat by holding on to debris and were lucky to be able to hang onto the top of a tree until help arrived.
"I know twelve people who perished in the water. Now I just want this region to survive as a whole," Marc Adeneuer said.
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