“I told myself we couldn’t just throw it all away,” recalls Linda Kleber, the founder of the “Flutwein” (“Flood wine”) initiative.
Kleber came up with the idea as she was retrieving bottle after bottle from the store of her flood-ravaged restaurant.
The vintages that could be saved are now being offered for delivery in the condition they were found: covered in silt, a singular reminder of the devastation the floods wreaked.
The money raised, more than two million euros to date, is “a source of hope for all the winegrowers and also for the hospitality sector,” says Peter Kriechel, 38, himself a wine producer and president of the local professional growers’ association.
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In his cellar, about 200,000 bottles of wine were submerged on the night of June 14th.
“I think we’re at the start of a long marathon,” he says. “An initiative like ‘Flutwein’ could give us a kickstart.”
In the Ahr valley, known for the pinot noir that grows on its steep slopes, the economy relies significantly on viniculture and the tourism it generates.
“Without wine, the Ahr valley wouldn’t exist — to say nothing of its gastronomy,” says Joerg Kleber, husband of Linda.
All in all, last month’s disaster claimed the lives of 225 people across Europe, including 187 in Germany, and destroyed five to 10 percent of the wines in Ahr.
But the damage to machines and cellars has been much greater, with many holdings severely impacted or almost entirely destroyed.
Paul Schumacher, 63, is one of those whose losses were great.
“It wasn’t just a flood but a tsunami,” says the grower.
Just before the waters arrived at his door, Schumacher went down to make sure his barrels of wine were well sealed.
He and his wife then took shelter upstairs, but “the water very quickly rose a metre above the first floor,” he says, still visibly affected by what happened. In the end, the couple ended up spending part of the night on the roof.
A tenth of his five hectares of land was devastated. The ground floor of his house, where he also had a restaurant, is still completely coated in mud.
The veteran grower still hopes to harvest his grapes and produce this year’s vintage, however. The production of wine in the Ahrweiler region remains very uncertain, but neighbouring producers have offered to step in to help bring in this year’s crop.
‘Many will leave’
Facing one of the biggest natural disasters Germany has seen in the last few decades, Angela Merkel’s government has already signed off on emergency aid numbering in the hundreds of millions of euros to go to those most in need.
The aid will be supplemented by a reconstruction project, costing further billions.
Locals nonetheless think the valley will never be the same again. “Many will leave and won’t rebuild their homes,” says wine producer Schumacher.
It is an option the Kleber family have not thought about for an instant, even if their restaurant in the centre of Ahrweiler will not open again on the same spot.
The kitchen, the bar, the dining room and garden of ‘Kleber’s’ have more or less disappeared after a two-week clean up operation. What remains of it are the walls, painted in mud up to the high-water mark.
“Things were starting to get going again” after months of enforced stoppage due to the pandemic, laments Joerg Kleber, a chef by profession.
But the coronavirus was “nothing” compared to the forces which battered down on Ahrweiler in the space of a few hours on the night of the floods, he says.
There will be a new ‘Kleber’s’ nearby, the cook promises.
“Our friends and our life is here,” he says. “After this catastrophe, our roots here might even be stronger than they were before.”
By Yann SCHREIBER