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French winemakers want priority on Covid vaccination list

Vintners trade body says the virus can have a life-changing effect on those in the industry as work depends on their senses

25 March 2021
By Brian McCulloch

French wine makers have written to Prime Minister Jean Castex asking for Covid vaccination priority status because their jobs depend on their sense of taste and smell.

“It is important for everyone to be vaccinated as quickly as possible – many people still think Covid is not too bad but for people in jobs like ours it can be life-changing,” managing director of the Oenologues de France trade body, Sophie Pallas told Connexion.

The union has about 1,600 members across France.

Winemaking is an important part of the French economy. According to Business France, in 2018, French wine export sales alone amounted to €8.9billion - a global market share of 15% in unit sales and 30% in revenue terms.

Ms Pallas said “several dozen” of the union's members were facing difficulty doing their jobs because they had trouble with the loss of smell and taste. “Most did not have a bad form of the disease and treated it themselves, but have just not been able to regain the sense of smell they had before. It is dramatic, they are not able to do their work of consulting, of winemaking and giving advice.”

She said the union was conscious that people with fragile health and other risk factors had to be prioritised but hoped that as the vaccination campaign continued, they would be prioritised.

Ms Pallas said she caught Covid-19 in January and still has not got back her full sense of smell, after losing it completely for two weeks.

 

“I can distinguish the basic flavours but realised during tasting contests that I still do not have the ability to distinguish the complexities of wines to the level I had before. I work in a union and so it does not matter if it takes time to come back, but for others they just cannot work.”

She said that chemical analysis can help with wine making, but the human nose of skilled oenologists was still vital. “It is what has made France a leading wine producer and exporter.”

But a French health ministry spokeswoman said there was little chance oenologists would move up the priority list. “We have published a list, based on criteria of age, health factors which put people at risk, and on professions on the frontline such as health professionals and care workers, of people who will be given the vaccination first,” she told Connexion.

Read more: Covid France: 35 mass vaccine centres to open with army help

“Oenologists are not on this list and so will have to wait their turn like everyone else. It is frustrating for them but it is also frustrating for everyone.”

Around 66% of people suffering from Covid-19 lose their sense of taste and smell, usually for between three days and a week. This loss can happen at any stage of the illness.

Medical researchers have shown this is because the virus often gathers in the part of the brain behind the nose called the olfactory bulb, where nerves for smell and taste are concentrated, causing inflammation.

Read more: Explained: France's updated Covid vaccine calendar

While most people regain their senses quickly, an estimated 5% lose them for longer than a week, and there are some cases where people who were infected early are still unable to smell up to a year later.

In a few cases people are hit with false smells, often of petrol or of hot iron.

“It was very scary when I lost my sense of smell and taste because I knew that my job depended on it,” one award-winning winemaker said. “Luckily it came back after a week and I am confident now that I am back where I was before – with more appreciation for something which I sometimes took for granted before.”

In February, France TV featured a series of reports of people’s experiences of losing their senses of taste and smell, with cooks, winemakers, perfume makers, wine waiters and nurses telling of their worries for the future if they do not regain their facilities.

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