Quake-hit Chile winemakers yearn to toast recovery

Fri Mar 26, 2010 3:54pm EDT
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By Daniel Trotta

PALMILLA, Chile (Reuters) - Last month's devastating earthquake destroyed 125 million liters (33 million gallons) of Chilean wine -- and with it a little piece of the country's heart.

Wine serves as a proxy for Chile's ambitions. Although high in Latin American terms, the living standard here is not at a European level, just as the best Chilean wines are not yet classified like a Barolo or Bordeaux. But in both cases they are goals Chileans aspire to.

"Wine is Chile's ambassadorial product. It's the only product anybody knows about," said Rene Merino, president of the industry group Wines of Chile.

"When people buy a car, they don't know that a good part of the copper cables inside come from Chile and nobody cares, either. The product that correlates with the country is wine."

The wine industry also provides lessons for the 2-week-old government of conservative billionaire President Sebastian Pinera as it plans reconstruction after the massive 8.8-magnitude quake on February 27.

Earthquake damage in lost wine and battered equipment was estimated at $300 million -- 1 percent of the quake's $30 billion hit to the economy as a whole.

The grapes on the vine held up fine during the earthquake. The damage came largely when wooden barrels and stainless steel vats tipped over, pouring away about 12.5 percent of the 2009 harvest.

If Chile raises too much debt on the foreign markets or taps too much of its nearly $12 billion in copper savings held overseas, it will strengthen peso currency, cutting into profits of winemakers who export 70 percent of the country's output, bringing in $1.4 billion a year.   Continued...

<p>A worker tests a red wine inside the Montgras vineyards at Colchagua valley, south of Santiago March 25, 2010. REUTERS/Marco Fredes</p>