California Winery Tastings Forced Outside as COVID-19 Cases Spike

A surge in new cases closes indoor dining and tasting rooms, but wineries continue to adapt

California Winery Tastings Forced Outside as COVID-19 Cases Spike
The team at Paso Robles' TH Estate moved tastings to outdoor seating even before the new restrictions. (Courtesy TH Estate)
Jul 16, 2020

"Someone recently said to me, 'Adversity doesn't build character, it defines it,'" said Angela Osborne, owner and winemaker for A Tribute to Grace, in California’s Santa Barbara County. More adversity arrived earlier this week when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced statewide rollbacks of reopening, forcing indoor operations for restaurants, wineries and other businesses to cease immediately.

Since the initial shutdown in March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, wineries have faced an overwhelming struggle to sustain their businesses. A recent Sonoma State University Wine Business Institute analysis projected the California wine industry will lose $4.22 billion in revenue this year and 42,376 jobs.

Despite wineries' ability to adapt and introduce home tasting kits, curbside pickup and virtual tastings, it's been one step forward and two steps back in a lot of ways. And outdoor-only restrictions limit some wineries more than others—while some have gardens and terraces where guests are welcome to enjoy their personal space, others don't. Yet many continue to resourcefully keep the lights on.

Tasting al fresco

Osborne said her husband fashioned a big slab of wood from a tree into a makeshift tasting table, and her landlord graciously extended the tasting room footprint to include the side of the building. Her quaint 600-square foot tasting room in Los Alamos could only accommodate a handful of guests under occupancy restrictions. Now she’s still in business, despite the outdoor-only restrictions.

"It takes an hour to set up and break down all the tables and chairs, but I have a lot of gratitude for this part of my business, which is something I originally wasn't concerned about," she said, noting that her brand was almost solely reliant upon wholesale, but that sales have now flipped. Osborne said she has been conducting most of the tastings herself, and while not booked solid, people are still visiting and are very engaged and buying. "It makes for a lovely curated experience."

Another Santa Barbara winery, Alma Rosa, repurposed their parking lot into what they call a "weingarten," with tables and umbrellas for seated tastings. General manager Debra Eagle said the business was booming before the restrictions and hopes the addition can bring visitors back. "We actually ended June 2020 slightly ahead of June 2019, and I was just feeling like I could forecast July with some certainty," she said. "We're not sure how people will respond to heightened threat, but our larger challenge is now getting the message out that we're still open."

In Northern California, Napa County officials curbed indoor tastings a few days ahead of the state mandate. But that didn't stop guests from coming out over the weekend. Ryan MacDonnell Bracher, owner of Round Pond, said they moved all tastings outside after reopening. "We felt it was safer, and while capacity is maybe 80 percent of normal, we're pivoting to provide different experiences," she explained. MacDonnell Bracher said the tasting room is open fewer days, just Thursday through Sunday, but they're still seeing 300 guests in those four days. "I've been wondering if we'd see a drop in interest, but we haven't seen it yet."

Curtis Strohl, general manager for B Cellars, said they too were ahead of the curve. "Before reopening, we began by asking ourselves what facts we knew," he said. "Outdoor was safer, so let's add to our definition of hospitality." Strohl said they spent a lot of time reimagining what an experience should be like and prioritizing the guest experience from the minute they arrive. His team improvised a concierge stand in the parking lot to greet guests checking in, and immediately put a glass of wine into their hands. "We're going to learn something that we're going to want to keep when we go back to normal," he said.

In neighboring Sonoma County, vintners Jeff and Alexandra Cohn of Jeff Cohn Cellars were granted access to the breezeway leading to their tasting room just off the Sonoma Plaza. For the Cohns, a small operation, the tasting room is their lifeline. "Out-of-state sales to distributors have fallen off the face of the earth, and we have to be nimble and keep selling wine," Alexandra said. "We have been proactive, and people have responded. We need this tasting room business."

Wait and see

Not every winery has had that flexibility. Vintner Doug Shafer doesn't believe that they can live up to their hospitality standards with all the imposed restrictions, so their tasting room in Napa's Stags Leap District will remain closed. Yet Shafer is trying to stay connected to their fan base by launching additional virtual tasting offerings.

Opus One recently completed a lengthy renovation of their hospitality center, including an extension with a glass wall that overlooks the estate vineyards. Vice president of communications and guest relations Christopher Barefoot said they had planned to open on Tuesday, but are now back on hold. "We never got a chance to reopen as we were not ready during the few weeks that wineries were permitted to taste indoors," he said, adding that inviting guests to taste red wine outside now, in 100° heat, has its challenges. "We will not open until we can do so safely for our guests and employees."


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In Lodi, Stuart Spencer, executive director for the Lodi Winegrape Commission, said many of the wineries in the region have not fully opened, and some have remained completely closed, waiting until things settle down. "Before restrictions, there was good traffic flow, and wineries were reporting fewer people (compared to pre-COVID), but higher dollars per transaction," he said. Spencer said that moving tastings outdoors has posed challenges in a region that can be extremely hot during the summer months, but said many had installed shade structures and water misters to help mitigate the heat.

Despite the challenges, many vintners are seeing the glass half-full as they move forward. Jennifer Hoage, proprietor of TH Estate in Paso Robles said it's been enlightening and challenging and scary and unknown. "All the things everyone feels," she said. "I was worried if we'd make it without spending our retirement savings."

Hoage's tasting room previously only conducted tastings inside. Still, she said the initial shutdown in March forced their hand to do things they've been talking about for years, repurposing their event space, which overlooks a pond and vineyards, to include high top tables and umbrella stands for shade. And she is already thinking about the fall and winter. "It's not going to be over soon, and we have to be prepared," she said, noting that, initially, it was all about trying to sell things. "Then it became more about who we are, and who are you—a deeper connection to the customer."

Every winery is keeping its fingers crossed that no further restrictions are coming. COVID-19 cases have been steadily rising in California, reaching 359,000 cases and 7,386 deaths as of today. But tasting rooms aside, vintners are just a month or so away from starting harvest, and the financial burden has already taken its toll.

"A lot of us smaller producers are just trying to hold on," said Osborne, noting that she's already canceled two of her grape contracts because she can't afford them this year. But she remains grateful to have customers visiting, enjoying and purchasing her wines. "The world feels a bit smaller in some ways, and having these one-on-one interactions now feels sacred and special."

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