It was a mad scramble when Sonoma County wineries learned late Friday night that some of them could reopen over Memorial Day weekend. Sonoma County's health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase, announced an amendment to the county's shelter-in-place orders, allowing certain businesses to operate at a limited capacity, effective May 23. But there was a catch—only wineries, breweries and bars that could offer both outdoor seating and food service could reopen, so long as they comply with local guidance for health and safety protocols.
In several wine regions across California, similar partial reopenings have begun. Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that the state is in Stage 2 of easing public restrictions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. That doesn't automatically include restaurants and wineries, but the state is allowing counties variances on the rules if they meet certain criteria.
Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and El Dorado are all allowing wineries to serve wine as long as it's outdoors and with food, either from the wineries’ kitchen or provided by an outside vendor. (Napa and numerous other counties have not moved to that stage yet.)
The amount of wineries that have been able to reopen thus far is limited. Those that possess the appropriate food-facility permit could resume, as well as those that could partner with local food vendors, such as caterers or food trucks, to offer food in conjunction with wine service.
Rick Toyota, vice president of direct-to-consumer sales for Francis Ford Coppola, said its winery and restaurant in Geyserville is fortunate to have a commercial kitchen. Toyota said his team took an extra day to train staff and opened to the public starting Sunday, May 24.
"It felt a little different, but people were really happy to be outside," he said. The expansive Coppola property was converted to an area for wine tasting. Toyota said they offered a limited food menu along with wine flights, and plan to operate with reduced hours—noon to 5 p.m.—for now. "As guests start to come back out, we'll expand our hours, but we saw very modest traffic over the weekend, and we were never filled to capacity."
The added layer of food service is prohibitive for some, particularly small family wineries that don't have a food license or the resources to contract a food vendor. One winery owner who wished to remain anonymous said he's baffled that alcohol alone was deemed riskier than alcohol with food service. "It would seem to me that this requirement exponentially increases touchpoints by staff that, in general, have less food-safety training than staff in local restaurants," he said.
He also felt it was arbitrary to force wineries to offer food when that indirectly pits them against restaurants. "Why not send all of these guests to local restaurants for lunch and dinner and get a twofold economic impact, especially since we are already so intertwined and dependent on each other?" He noted that it was encouraging to see signs of reopening and reemerging consumers, but wished there wasn't a divide for who could open.
Santa Barbara County entered California's Stage 2B of reopening May 20. Businesses such as tasting rooms are not supposed to reopen until Stage 3, so the county suspended zoning regulations and permit restrictions to allow wineries to reopen now. The rule will be recommended to the county board of supervisors for formal confirmation on June 2.
"It was a cumbersome workaround to make that happen, and we worked all weekend with the county and ABC for wineries to open under dine-in guidelines," said Alison Laslett, CEO of Santa Barbara Vintners. She added that they're not concerned about restaurants and wineries struggling for customers, especially since many wineries are offering food from area eateries. "The restaurants are thrilled to have the extra business," she said, noting that most have reduced seating due to safety guidelines. "The food that they can deliver to wineries provides a great opportunity to augment their sales."
Laslett said the opportunity for wineries to serve food is something they've long wanted, but haven't been able to offer because of licensing restrictions. She believes the temporary adjustment has created a tremendous partnership, and she expects more than half the wineries to reopen soon. Some Santa Barbara wineries that have already opened include Melville and Pence. Opening later this week will be Margerum and Stolpman, among others.
In Sonoma, Jackson Family Wines' Kendall-Jackson property and La Crema at Saralee's Vineyard have reopened, but there are plenty of other wineries where reopening is still in the works. Lisa Mattson, director of marking and communications for Jordan, reported that sit-down service will resume June 11. Buena Vista and DeLoach plan to open May 28.
Other vintners are holding off. Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley estate has a food permit, but management decided to forgo opening. "We began the reopening process with the question of, how can we serve and sell wine safely and protect both our employees and guests?" said Silver Oak president Tony LeBlanc. He said they won't open until they believe they can achieve that. "While we have the permit for food, we are more confident in our ability to serve wine with social-distancing protocols safely." LeBlanc said the food component would be ironed-out later if needed, but he felt like it added unnecessary complexity for wineries.
Many believe that this first phase of winery reopening with food is just a formality and that opening all wineries is just around the corner. But it may not be that simple. On May 26, Sonoma County's health officer announced that the county would wait before allowing additional categories of businesses to reopen because Sonoma had seen 200-plus new cases over a 14-day period, raising fears of a spike. To date, Sonoma County has had 524 positive tests and four confirmed deaths from COVID-19. Santa Barbara has had 1,551 confirmed cases and 11 deaths.
In Sonoma, most rules for opening match state guidelines, such as maintaining a 6-foot distance from other employees and customers and requiring all employees to wear face coverings. Additional controls include limiting visiting parties to six or fewer people, and all members of the party must be present before seating. Alcohol can only be served as part of a meal. Retail sales are allowed following the meal, but only by curbside pick-up, delivery or shipping.
Toyota said additional modifications at Coppola included employees not sharing open bottles for pouring and requiring guests to wear masks while transitioning through the property. The winery also kept access doors open where possible and modified restrooms to block off every other stall and sink.
Laslett said she understood why Gov. Newsom had not included wineries in Stage 2 of reopening. "Wine regions attract travelers, and keeping wineries closed limits travel," she said. "But getting the wine industry back on its feet is crucial, and we're thrilled to put all the pieces back in place."