“I Cannot be Angry with Nature”
Christoph Bäcker was the first organic winemaker in the Ahr Valley wine region. Now the flood has almost completely destroyed his winery – what happens next? A conversation about rapidly rising water levels, luck in misfortune, fear for the harvest and the difficult reconstruction. Jounralist Manfred Kriener discusses the situation with Christoph Bäcker.
Mr.Bäcker, you are an organic winemaker in Ahrweiler, in the middle of what is now a disaster zone. As the flood occurred on Friday, when did you feel that a major catastrophe was imminent?
Christoph Bäcker: That took a while. It didn’t rain so badly in our area. The amount of rain would have been enough for a slight flood at best. The problem was the flood wave that came from the upper Ahr, that danger was difficult to gauge.
And when did you realize that the situation was actually going to be catastrophic?
Bäcker: We heard the warnings, of course, but they were very moderate, not in a way that really caused alarm. I followed the statements of the weather service on television, but such a dramatic event could not have been foreseen. It only got really serious in the evening when the high-water levels of 2016 were exceeded. Then I knew it was going to get worse, that was just before dark. The level rose rapidly, you could watch how entire areas of the riverbank disappeared into the water.
To panic in such a situation, what can you do?
Bäcker: No, we weren’t panicked. Although we live in the risk area, we have never had a single drop of water in the cellar at our winery, so initially we stayed calm. We first took our vehicles to safety. When the water continued to rise and flow across the street into our house, we packed up the most important papers: vaccination booklet, important documents, records for bookkeeping. We put all that on the upper floor. However, we did not know whether the windows would hold or whether the whole house would fill up.
According to information so far, there are no deaths in the winegrowing community, although Dörte and Meike Näkel from the Meyer-Näkel winery were swept away by the flood; they were able to save themselves in a tree where they had to then wait for seven hours for help to arrive.
Bäcker: Yes, the petrol station owner told me about it, there were also pictures of it on television. They probably both went to their wine store to save a few things and were surprised by the flood.
Many wine-growing businesses have been completely destroyed. How badly did it affect yours, what is left of your business?
Bäcker: Not a lot. The filled bottles are okay. But primarily the machines are a write-off: forklifts, wine press, destemmer, pumps, and also the barriques and large wooden barrels. All of that has a dimension that I can’t even estimate yet. And we have no gas, no water, no electricity, no internet. Of course, I am also very worried about the vineyards, which I cannot protect from the fungal diseases that are now spreading.
Because of the moisture in the Ahr Valley, downy mildew is spreading. Now, large areas of fungicides are being sprayed from helicopters in order to save the 2021 vintage.
Bäcker: My own organic vines will probably also be sprayed; I can’t do anything against that and it’s probably the only way that we can harvest anything at all in autumn. Colleagues from the Mosel will come on Monday who will hopefully help me to cultivate my vineyards through the rest of the season in an organically sound way.
Perhaps there is no totally organic wine, but at least a harvest?
Baker: I hope to get a special permit for my organic wines. This catastrophe is really an exceptional case of hardship, through no fault of my own.
Could you produce the 2021 vintage with partner winegrowers?
Bäcker: That would be difficult. I would have to take the grapes to the Mosel. I just do not know. We need replacement machines and storage tanks, then we have to hope that there is still something to harvest.
What about the other wineries?
Bäcker: Most of them are located directly on the Ahr River and are extremely affected. There is only one winery on the mountain, everyone else has been hit extremely hard. So far, I have only been able to speak to one colleague. At the moment everyone is worried about their own disastrous situation. You can’t get anywhere, not even in the vineyards.
Mr.Bäcker, you have been an organic vintner since 1990, you were the first on the Ahr. You are committed to environmental and climate protection: no unnecessary capsules on the bottle, no banderoles, no pesticides, no artificial fertilizers. You have allied yourself with nature. Now nature has brutally attacked your livelihood. Was it all in vain?
Bäcker: I cannot be angry with nature. Nature is exactly as mankind has shaped it. Now we have to roll up our sleeves and move on, even if it is difficult. I have familial support and am reasonably secure, even if this was the fatal blow for my business.
Can your winery be repaired without a wrecking ball?
Bäcker: I hope it can, without being demolished, but I don’t know if the business will survive. That depends on a lot of developments. Will the vineyards recover? Is there anything at all to harvest? When can I sell wine again? When will visitors return to the Ahr Valley? It will take many months before the damage is even halfway repaired. Bridging this time is something I can’t imagine at the moment.
How are basic needs currently being met: eating, drinking, sleeping, using the toilet, shower?
We’re lucky. We found accommodation in a school. Maybe later we can stay with friends. Hopefully our own house is not uninhabitable, but that is for the structural engineers to decide if it is still safe. Fortunately, the kitchen and bedroom are on the upper floor and are intact. We need electricity, gas, water again. Then comes a long, difficult renovation until we have a lovely home again. But where do we get tradesmen from? And building materials? Perhaps the winery will be rebuilt around this time next year.
How confident are you about the reconstruction?
Bäcker: Sometimes when I see the help that is coming here, I am very optimistic. There is the German army, the THW (Technical Emergency Services), there are the fire brigades and private helpers from all corners of the republic. My daughter’s friends came with a large group, cleared the mud from the basement, tore down collapsed walls, gave an incredible amount of support. But when I go to the wine cellar, tears come to my eyes.
The solidarity is enormous, and there are also many offers of help from abroad. Do the winemakers stick together in the crisis?
Bäcker: I do believe that this catastrophe unites winemakers together. My concern, however, is that the wave of solidarity will quickly ebb away again. Out of sight out of mind. We need help over a long period of time.
What good can wine lovers do for the wineries affected?
Bäcker: Drink wine from the Ahr! That would be the greatest support. That is even more satisfying than financial aid.
Do you even have any wine left to sell?
Bäcker: The wine bottles that survived in the pallet cages are in terrible condition on the outside and all have to be re-labelled. But the wine itself is not spoiled.
Christoph Bäcker (born 1961) runs a small family winery with only 2.5 hectares of vineyards in Ahrweiler. The annual production is 20,000 bottles. The organic winery is a member of the Federal Association of Organic Viticulture and has made a name for itself above all with excellent Früh- und Spätburgunder (pinot noir). Bäcker is married and has two children. The winery has an outlet in neighbouring Mayschoss.
The interview was conducted by Manfred Kriener – wine journalist from Berlin.
To help Christophe and other winemakers from the Ahr Valley rebuild their lives and livelihoods in the aftermath of the catastrophic flood, a GoFundMe page has been set for support and donations from Canadians at https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-flood-recovery-in-germanys-ahr-region?utm_campaign=p_cf+share-flow-1&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer
in collaboration with Wines of Germany USA.