After nearly three months of being closed to the public as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the moment wineries across California have been waiting for has finally arrived. On June 5, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Health have released guidance for counties to reopen a wide-ranging group of businesses, including all winery tasting rooms.
It was welcome news for Napa County wineries, which were left in the lurch after many wineries in other regions were permitted to reopen in recent weeks, so long as the wine tastings were outdoors and included food service. A Napa County winery ordinance prohibits the vast majority of wineries from serving food. Caymus co-founder Chuck Wagner even filed a lawsuit, claiming that the state’s reopening plan has been uneven in regard to wineries. New state guidelines waived the food condition, allowing all wineries to reopen at their discretion.
The announcement from Napa County officials came unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon, but some were ready to jump right into a weekend of sales. “It was a long time coming, with lots of back and forth with our political officials to accomplish reopening,” said Carol Reber, chief marketing and business development officer for the Duckhorn portfolio.
Reber said Duckhorn’s Washington winery, Canvasback in Walla Walla Valley, reopened last week, which gave them a sense of what reopening would be like. She said both of Duckhorn’s Napa properties, Duckhorn and Paraduxx, had a soft reopening over the weekend, welcoming approximately 100 guests. “It was a positive experience, with guests happy to comply with protocols, and they were thrilled to be back.”
The California Department of Health released safety protocols for wineries, restaurants and bars. Among them are standard measures such as physical distancing, face coverings and disinfecting procedures. Additionally, tasting room–specific considerations include discontinuing tours with multiple groups of guests, ensuring that appointments don’t overlap, stopping the use of communal spit buckets and providing a clean glass for each tasting.
Reber said their team had been working on reorganizing tasting areas to include additional space and queuing markers, much like guests have seen at grocery stores. She said they have also asked guests to check-in from their cars to make sure everyone arriving has a reservation and face coverings.
Far Niente opened its doors as well. “We were thrilled to receive the green light to reopen,” said Mary Grace, vice president of marketing and communications. “We had already retrained our team on health and safety protocols so we were ready to go and welcomed our first guests back to both Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel on Saturday. Fortunately, we have ample outdoor space at both wineries, so we have plenty of room to abide social distancing protocols.”
Many wineries are planning to take time to get organized and staffed before reopening. Emma Swain, CEO for St. Supéry, said they’re going to wait until June 12 to open, which was the recommended date offered by Gov. Newsom. “We put a lot of thought into our reopening plans, so decided not to rush and be thoughtful,” she said, noting that the winery will only open Friday through Sunday for the first few weeks.
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Swain said the winery’s expansive outdoor space should allow the winery to host a significant amount of visitors per day, with plenty of space to feel comfortable, and they eventually plan to be open every day. “We’ve had customers calling all weekend to book reservations, but we wanted to make sure they have all systems in place to have a safe and great visit,” she said.
Suzanne Groth, president and CEO of Groth, said they too would wait until June 12 to open. She said she’s been amazed at what they’ve been able to accomplish without hosting visitors, but wants to dip their toe back into allowing visitors, albeit very cautiously. She adds that they have been keenly focusing on their wholesale business, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of sales. “We love hosting people, but were much more worried about restaurants; we need them healthy, open and running to be able to have guests at the winery.”
It was a positive weekend for California wineries in other regions too. In Sonoma, the county health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase, announced that indoor dining and wine tastings could resume as long as distancing protocols are implemented. Reber noted that Duckhorn’s non-Napa properties, including Kosta Browne in Sonoma and Calera in Hollister, should be open starting this coming weekend. Goldeneye in Mendocino is expected to open soon.
Napa County’s coronavirus cases have been among the lowest in the state, with just 141 to date, and three deaths. Reopening its wineries, restaurants and hotels will be crucial to the tourism industry, which generated $2.23 billion in 2018. “It’s an encouraging time for wine country,” said Reber, noting that after three months of sheltering and stocking pantries, the seeds may have been planted for many more new wine drinkers. “The next natural extension is to visit.”