Frost, hail, heat waves and fires. Winemakers are used to challenging vintages, but a viral pandemic may end up taking the biggest toll. Just as buds on the vine were breaking, signaling the start of the growing season, tasting rooms from California, Oregon and Washington are closing their doors in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"Wineries are defined by what they achieve in the most challenging vintages, and the mark of strong communities is how they come together during difficult times," Duckhorn Wine Company CEO Alex Ryan told Wine Spectator. "This virus may be unprecedented, but we have weathered a few tough times as an industry and have come through them all stronger and more resilient."
On March 15, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued recommendations for winery tasting rooms to close immediately. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order with the same directive. Oregon has now followed suit. Large entities, including Jackson Family Wines, E. & J. Gallo, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Foley Family Wines have all closed their tasting rooms.
A spokesperson for E. & J. Gallo said their primary focus is the health and wellbeing of their employees, customers, business partners and communities. "We continue to monitor the situation closely and are working through solutions in an effort to continue providing products to our consumers around the globe during these challenging times."
"We had our first ever emergency meeting in 18 years," said Chris Gorman of Gorman winery, who has two tasting rooms in the city of Woodinville, Wash., about 30 minutes east of Seattle. The city has become a destination for wine lovers in recent years, boasting more than 100 tasting rooms. But the executive order means none of them will be able to serve wine to guests.
Tasting with distance
In some instances, visitors can still access wineries to buy and pick up wine; just no tasting. While the tasting rooms are closed, the production side is mostly operational. Some have opted for limited crews to manage any winemaking and viticulture duties. "Even without social distancing standards in place, our viticulture and enology team members enjoy a spacious work environment and plenty of room to move without coming in close proximity to one another," said Plumpjack general manager John Conover.
Gorman says some wineries in Woodinville are now advertising drive-through services so customers can order a wine and pick it up outside the tasting room. "A handful of us are going to man our tasting rooms as retail but not do pours," he said. "Right now we are just happy to see any kind of cash flow."
Unsure of how long the tasting rooms will be closed, wineries are trying to encourage sales by offering free or discounted shipping. And some are hoping to interact with their customers virtually. In Napa, Clos du Val, Plumpjack and St. Supéry are preparing virtual wine tastings for the coming weeks as wine lovers across the U.S. spend more time at home.
"With today's improved technology we are now able to use video conferencing to connect," said Emma Swain, CEO for St. Supéry, noting the winery started doing tweet-ups and Twitter tastes live with tasting kits about 10 years ago as an effective way to share the winemaker's knowledge and build a sense of community around the wines.
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St. Supéry already sent out 2,000 bottles of its Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc 2018 to wine club members and created a six-pack home tasting kit that will include the wines to be discussed for the next six weeks as part of their virtual wine tasting every Thursday afternoon, March 19 through April 23. "Our goal is really to connect our wine lovers with the winemaker for a fun and interactive session during these unprecedented, unsettling times," said Swain.
On a smaller scale, Dave McGee, who owns Monochrome Wines in Paso Robles, is also planning virtual wine tastings. McGee said he's still working on the logistics and hopes to begin taking reservations shortly. He says no purchase of wine is needed to participate, just a bottle or two of Monochrome to get the most out of the experiment. McGee's tastings will be more open-ended, rather than focused on a single wine like with St. Supéry. "While the current coronavirus situation was the primary motivation for this program, I think if we can do it well there may be broader and more lasting opportunities and benefits," said McGee.
The overall impacts on wineries and the communities are still unknown. Stuart Spencer, executive director for the Lodi Winegrape Commission, observed that many of the region's wineries are small, family operations that rely heavily on tasting room traffic and direct-to-consumer sales. "On-premise is going to suffer, but our hope is that people continue to enjoy our wines at home," said Spencer. "Each winery's situation is different, some are able to absorb that cost, and others can't without risk of going out of business. We are all very concerned about the impact on our employees and our customers."
"I'm not sure what this means for my winery," said Andrew Latta. His tasting room in the SoDo district of Seattle has already taken a 95 percent hit compared to the previous month. "I think we can weather it, but I also don't know when we'll be able to start digging out."
While Latta thinks that Gov. Inslee made the right decision, he believes more needs to be done to help support local businesses. "We need our government to stem the economic bleeding with all means available as we all take our personal responsibility to flatten the curve," he said.
Besides the financial losses, wineries are also concerned about how the closures may impact their staff. Gorman is trying to find work for some of his tasting room employees at his winery and has placed some on salary. "We're paying all of our employees whether they work or not," he said.
In an effort to support winery staff, many wineries are finding opportunities to operate remotely. "All tasting room staff will continue to work their normal schedules, from home, using their telephone to contact customers to offer special 'Relief Wine' offerings," said Andre Crisp, CEO for Luna Vineyards, noting that he will be providing cell phone and Wi-Fi reimbursements during this period. "Winemaking and vineyard activities will remain at normal schedule and all winemaking, cellar and vineyard staff will observe the CDC recommendations for social distancing while at work."
"We're working around the clock to provide any assistance needed to our team," said Duckhorn's Ryan. "All who can work remotely are doing so, and those who can't are on call to assist others as needed. We are encouraging our staff to reach out to customers and partners to offer support."
Conover said they are offering guidance to help ensure employees stay financially stable. "We're providing internal information about any unused sick or vacation time that is available to them as well as external information about disability insurance through the state of California should they become sick, paid family leave through the state of California should they need to stay home to take care of a sick family member, and unemployment insurance, which provides partial wage replacement benefit payments to workers who lose their job or have their hours reduced, through no fault of their own."
If there is a silver lining, it's that customers in states that allow direct shipping can still order and enjoy their favorite wines during this time. "People will be spending more time at home in the coming weeks, cooking, dining and spending time with their immediate families, and they may be adding special bottles from their cellars to their dinner tables," said Conover. "What better way to celebrate what continues to be the most meaningful part of life, staying healthy and sharing time with the people we love."