After the flood

The Ahr Valley is hardly recognizable after the flood. Residents and winegrowers are cleaning up with the support of many volunteers and looking ahead. Solidarity and support also come from the trade. Simon Werner was on site.

The water is now gone, and the extent of the destruction is beginning to become clear / Credit: Simon Werner
The water is now gone, and the extent of the destruction is beginning to become clear / Credit: Simon Werner

Helicopters make their circles like gigantic dragonflies, rotors humming, and the continuous roar of the generators is ringing in our ears. The electricity generated in this way is at least enough for flickering light. Everywhere there is dried mud, which is whirled up by heavy vehicles to form large clouds of dust.

No, we're not talking about a post-apocalyptic movie here, but about the flood disaster on the Ahr River. As soon as you drive into the valley, or more precisely into Heimersheim – a district of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler – you realize that suddenly everything is different. The idyll is gone. A meadow is littered with what looks like millions of bottles, beer kegs and garbage, and a VW Golf lies wedged in a hedge opposite. A boat is also lying amidst the bottles – wherever it may have come from. What remains are damaged buildings, unusable furniture and, of course, the brownish-yellow mud coating. What has also remained for the residents and winegrowers is the Rhenish cheerfulness. And so, among the dismay after the disaster, there is also the confidence and courage to face life.

Luck in misfortune

In Heimersheim, people were lucky, at least that was the opinion at the Nelles winery during the visit on 24 July. "You can only drive through Dernau with a tank," said Ali Akbari, a long-time employee. Still, there are muddy barriques in the courtyard in which wine was vinified before the flood. Next to them lie barrel staves, piled up into a mountain that needs to be cleaned. Previously, they stood in the form of ancient barrels in the barrique cellar under the building of the former winegrowers' cooperative, even if only for decorative purposes. In front of the entrance to the winery, there are palettes of bottles, once empty and clean and waiting to be, but this has to be coordinated differently filled after the storm.

A lot has been invested in the winery. A new wine press, gastronomy extension, new cellar access, new vinotheque. "We really stepped on the gas, and then this," says Thomas Nelles. The barrique cellar was under water up to the ceiling; in the bottle store and the hall the water was about 50 centimeters high, just below the sensitive electronics of the new press. As the water poured into the cellar, "the barrels fell from each other like dominoes. We have to see which ones can be saved. No idea how to do that... No idea, but plenty of them," said Thomas Nelles as he searched for his wines to process an order. About 25 barrels are lost, Philip Nelles later specifies.

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The clean-up work is in full swing, and there is a great willingness to help / Credit: Simon Werner

That the brown floods wreaked havoc is widely known. Shortly after the flood, social networks were already full of pictures and videos that could give an idea of the extent of the catastrophe. Wine merchant Michael Lang from the Ahrweindepot in Ahrweiler stood in the vineyards, below him the raging stream, which is otherwise an idyllic little river. The day after, he showed the flooded street where his store is located – or, rather, the remains of it. 

Even further up the Ahr, the flood wave swept away parts of the Sermann winery. The Mayschoss-Altenahr cooperative, which accounts for about a quarter of Ahr wine production, was also badly damaged. "The situation in Mayschoss and on the whole Ahr is terrible," the cooperative posted on Facebook. Back in the direction of the Rhine, Dominik Hübinger, managing director of the Ahr Winzer eG Dagernova, explained to WEINWIRTSCHAFT that they had been lucky at the Bad Neuenahr site; in Dernau, the vinotheque had been destroyed, while the slightly higher-lying barrel cellar had been largely spared. 

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Mud hangs everywhere on the ceilings and walls of the cellar and must be removed / Credit: Simon Werner

On the lower Ahr, people were overall lucky, at least in the higher parts anyway. Most vineyards in the steep slope region remained unscathed. The crisis management of the authorities was also a topic of conversation at the Nelles winery. In Bad Bodendorf (about 5 km west of Heimersheim), which belongs to the city of Sinzig, there were early calls to bring cars and, of course, people to safety, says Philip Nelles. In the urban area of the district town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, on the other hand, this warning was issued much later, if at all.

Huge solidarity movement

After the water came the helpers, bus after bus. Some were allowed to help, filing out of the buses with shovels in hand, heading out to rebuild. But there were so many who were sent away – on one hand because there were already enough helpers, and on the other hand because nobody had the time to coordinate them. Nevertheless, there is still enough to do.

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The newly built basement entrance shows how much was really under water / Credit: Simon Werner

The winemakers provide valuable support to each other. As Thomas Nelles reported, teams of helpers from the Mosel, Nahe, or from Württemberg reach the Ahr Valley every day to do the vineyard work. Experienced caterpillar drivers also come from the Mosel, along with tractor drivers from other growing areas. On site was also a young winemaker from the Rheingau, who drove six hours with his tractor from Hochheim am Main to the Ahr. True to the offer "let me know if you need help," the viticulture technicians started an appeal in a Whatsapp group. The help came, and it will probably be needed for a while.

Solidarity also comes from the trade. Many retailers are supporting the Ahr vintners by ordering what they can. "Just deliver – it doesn't matter when, we'll pay the bill right away," is how Thomas Nelles sums up the reaction of retailers to the flood disaster. 

Marcel Weber from the Cologne-based trading agency Mohr & Schlax is also supporting the winegrowers on site and in his work as a sales representative. The agency's portfolio includes the Ahr wineries Deutzerhof and Nelles. "It's a personal obligation to help when you work so closely with your partners. And secondly, which is even more important, I am committed to giving Ahr wines a firm place in the restaurant industry." As far as can be said so soon after the flood, Weber's venture is off to a good start. He tells of "much larger quantities than before."

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Mountains of dirty winery inventory pile up in the courtyard / Credit: Simon Werner

Also the distributor Schlumberger, which sells the wines of the association "Die Güter," among others, through Mohr & Schlax, proved to be helpful as reported by Marcel Weber: Sixty bottles of Louis Roederer champagne were donated to Dirk Würtz’s the "SolidAHRität" campaign  and furthermore started its own call for donations. The company itself donated €25,000 to winemakers and affected residents working for Schlumberger in nearby Meckenheim.

Looking ahead

Battered houses, collapsed bridges, no electricity, no telephone, makeshift water supply, destroyed railroad tracks – the infrastructure on the Ahr has come to a complete standstill. It will probably take months, if not years, until the traces of the catastrophe are removed. Hubert Pauly, president of the Ahr Winegrowers' Association, estimated the wine losses alone at €50 million. One and a half harvests are lost, Pauly told WirtschaftsWoche.

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A coating of dried mud clings to the bottles / Credit: Simon Werner

Until normalcy returns, life goes on for those affected. And for the winegrowers, that means doing their best to save the 2021 vintage. Now that helicopter use for plant protection has been approved throughout the Ahr region, one worry has been lifted from the vintners. But where will the grapes go? Machines, equipment, barrels – if they are still available and working, good. If not, then what? Even though a small warehouse of equipment and machinery on an embankment at Nelles was swept away as if from the face of the earth, Philip Nelles is still confident that he will be able to cope with the harvest. After all, the cleanup work is already in full swing. 

Large parts of the cellar have now been cleared of mud, and the wine press and tanks are dirty but intact. And even though barrels are missing, pumps were destroyed, and the conveyor system was under water and is still unable to be checked, there will probably be an autumn for the Heimersheim winery – despite the danger of peronospora, which hangs like a sword of Damocles not only over the Ahr. Other winegrowers have a harder time of it. But even in this case, colleagues, mostly from the Mosel, have already offered their help. 

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Before the flood, Nelles began to prepare the next filling / Credit: Simon Werner

"Others are doing much, much worse," says Philip Nelles. That is the reason why the winery itself has become active, helping other Ahr vintners. For €250, the winery offers the "flood box." Six muddy bottles are packed, some so muddy that you will not know what's in them. Of the €250, €100 will go to the VDP fundraising campaign (see box), which then benefits other vintners. "People are ordering a lot," says employee Manuela Strothmann, commenting on the incoming orders, which are somehow being processed on top of the cleanup work. This is a good sign that things are moving forward. 

And so, after a day on the Ahr, one conclusion above all can be drawn: Despite the destruction, the suffering and the discussions about flood protection and climate change, behind the gloomy headlines there is also a confidence that everything is turning out for the better and that better days are dawning. Whether it's dark humor or Rhenish cheerfulness is completely irrelevant: the most lasting impression after a day in the disaster region is that people haven't lost their laughter.    SIMON WERNER

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