As COVID-19 cases spike throughout the country, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has issued new regulations for the state's hospitality industry, including winery tasting rooms. Late last week, the governor's office announced that licensed venues will only be allowed to serve guests alcohol if they also order and eat food. Guests at the bar must now be seated and socially distanced or separated by barriers.
Although winery tasting rooms are not explicitly mentioned in the governor's rules, a state official in Gov. Cuomo's office confirmed to Wine Spectator that wineries were expected to follow the new regulations. Most vintners say they were aware. "We have a very close relationship with the governor's office," said Sam Filler, executive director of New York Wine & Grape Foundation (NYWGF), a nonprofit that represents hundreds of New York wineries. "It was clear as to what the expectation was. [It] could be as simple as making crackers available for purchase." The foundation sent an industry-wide newsletter on the regulations last week.
This is not the first time that New York's wineries have been forced to adapt in the ongoing crisis. Shutdowns in March led many to focus on e-commerce, curbside sales and virtual tastings. For now, it seems that milder pivoting is needed to meet the governor's latest rules. Serving guests snacks and meals had already been customary for many wine estates. And there is no specific instruction on what food must be served to comply with the rule, or at what cost, so selling small, inexpensive snacks would still qualify.
"For my business, it isn't a change at all," said Shannon Brock, co-owner of Silver Thread Vineyard in the Finger Lakes. "And from what I know about how other wineries in our area are doing things, it won't be that difficult to comply." Wineries may also lower the price of their wine tastings to offset guests' mandatory purchase of food that had once been complimentary. Erica Paolicelli, a partner at Three Brothers, said her team has done so at her Geneva winery.
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As for the rule on bar seating, Melissa Rockwell of Long Island's Sparkling Pointe noted that similar seating rules had been put in place by the State Liquor Authority. In order to keep guests socially distanced, wineries were also requiring guests to sit at tables, even before Cuomo's announcement. "At this point in the phased opening of welcoming guests to be seated on our patio and deck again, it does not change anything for us," said Pindar Damianos of Long Island's Pindar Vineyards. The team at nearby Wölffer Estate eliminated standing bar service when they reopened the winery's tasting room, winemaker Roman Roth says.
While most vintners were supportive of Cuomo's efforts to protect public health, some worries remain. Filler of the NYWGF said that there is some concern that the unique logistics of winery tasting rooms weren't recognized in the governor's order. And some winemakers reported that it may be difficult for certain wineries to easily offer food or distanced seating, especially when weather limits outdoor service.
Implementing the governor's rules may also bring substantial costs for already-damaged bottom lines. "We have made a significant investment in furniture," said Paolicelli. "It was very costly for us to add [it] but we appreciate the opportunity to be open."
Even with these latest changes and the enduring crisis, wineries say their guests are offering continued support. "Our visitors are sitting and sipping, enjoying their wine with food," said Brittany Gibson, executive director of Seneca Lake Wine, a Finger Lakes winery association. Some suggest the new regulations may even have led to a better experience for visitors. In Gibson's opinion, recent mandates have led to a more casual environment for visitors, removing some formality from tastings and "proving to be a much more relaxed, enjoyable experience. It's been quite lovely and it has been fantastic to see!"