"I do think eventually things will go back to normal," said Julie Kuhlken, co-founder of Texas winery Pedernales Cellars. "But it is really difficult to read into that crystal ball." After weeks of pandemic-triggered closures, several U.S. states are beginning to enter reopening phases. Wineries are starting to see restrictions lift on their tasting room operations.
But while winemakers in some states are gearing up to receive guests in the coming weeks, they face new uncertainties and dilemmas. Every state's rules are different on what can reopen and how. Texas has allowed many businesses to reopen, including winery tasting rooms, but at just 25 percent occupancy. While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has started easing restrictions in the Finger Lakes region, wineries are still limited to curbside pickup only. Virginia wineries are permitted to have outdoor seating only.
How wineries tackle these challenges could offer a lesson for vintners in other states that open in coming weeks and months.
Reopening is crucial for smaller regional wineries without wide distribution. The loss of tasting room sales, winery events and wine festivals has been particularly damaging. The boom in retail sales has not helped them as much since most of their wine is not sold in grocery stores or wine shops. "We did 70 wine festivals last year. We will do one this year," said Sean Sheehan of Sheehan Winery in New Mexico, where restrictions are set to be eased on May 15. "That is probably 60 to 70 percent of our sales [gone]."
But now that reopening dates are in sight, vintners are quickly learning that their businesses will look much different than before. Reopening will be gradual. Big events many wineries depend on are not restarting soon. And in every state, policies to protect winery employees and guests are now critical, and logistical decisions may carry over from the shutdown into the next year or beyond.
Since March, wineries had been forced to act quickly with creative sales and outreach methods. Some took a particularly intimate approach. "I chose to send a personal letter," explained winemaker Luca Paschina of Virginia's Barboursville Vineyards. "Old-fashioned, hand-signed, handwritten too—I mean the envelope—to over 4,000 clients that have been buying wine from us."
The shutdown led many wineries to innovate and rethink their business models. And that's had its advantages. Like their West Coast counterparts, they have enjoyed strong online sales, often joined with wine club and curbside sales. "Online [sales have] been incredible," said Sam Landis of Pennsylvania winery Vynecrest. The state began a phased reopening on May 1, with the process scaled for each county. "I think we're up about 300 percent online."
Chris Brundrett, co-owner of William Chris Vineyards in Texas, noted that while new online strategies had been discussed at the winery, the crisis demanded their use well in advance of their original rollout dates. "We've been able to pivot in many ways, and we have been able to connect with new fans," said Brundrett.
And some wineries are seeing additional growth beyond those direct orders. "Our distribution has actually been about as brisk as it's ever been," explained Matthew Brown, the wine director of Virginia's King Family Vineyards. Wineries with established sales through liquor store and supermarket chains have benefited. Considering the loss of tasting room sales, the added revenue has been a boon. "Most of the business we've lost has been made up by places like Whole Foods and Wegmans," Brown said.
Because it will take awhile for customers—especially out-of-towners—to return, many of these new programs will carry on after the shutdown. "For sure I see our online component, and our pickup component, being something that will continue to get more focus than it used to," said Brown. Across the board, as both a comfort to guests and an accessible sales method, curbside pickup is largely staying in place.
Perhaps the most lasting and noticeable programs will be the virtual tastings that many wineries have started. "Our weekly virtual happy hours have been a tremendous success," said Brad Meyer of Gruet Winery, the New Mexican sparkling wine house. "We definitely will continue to do more and more virtual events long after this is over."
And with concerns that guests may be hesitant to return even after states reopen, wineries have been glad to see continued support from a loyal clientele during their online outreach. "Every post that we put out there, [people] are like 'We can't wait to come back, this is my favorite winery, I can't wait to put my feet up'. So yeah, they're excited," said Sue Lauber, general manager of Montelle Winery in Missouri. "They're going to want to come out and have a great time, and party and drink some wine."
What the future might look like
There is no clear indication, yet, of what it will necessarily mean for wineries when states reopen. Vineyard work and winemaking have continued with few changes, but producers are anticipating major shifts in how their wineries otherwise look and function.
States are mandating that businesses keep occupancy lower than normal, often 25 percent. "It's definitely going to look different," said Carley Razzi Mack of Pennsylvania's Penns Woods Winery. "We're taking out almost half of our tables in our tasting room."
Like other wineries, Penns Woods is planning to open their outdoor spaces first. Rules are less rigid there. "What we're going to have to do is switch this to a model where [people] are seated outside, and you essentially get table service," explained Michele Padberg of Vivác Winery in New Mexico. "I think that will be a wonderful experience for our customers."
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Other vintners agreed. "We're kind of changing our business model from your traditional tasting room to more of a business plan of a restaurant," said Cindy Schornberg, co-owner of Virginia's Keswick Vineyards. And staff members at many venues will be wearing masks. "It's very important for us to show [our guests] that we're taking this virus very seriously. We're doing everything in our power to ensure their safety and my employees' safety," Schornberg emphasized.
Discussions of guest numbers, staffing and safety are not fun. Neither are decisions on whether to seek further government assistance. But most vintners say they're excited, if somewhat cautious.
"[We have] a saying for the winery," Brundrett laughed. "'I hope we're open by Christmas, but hope is not a plan.'" As the past months have proven, conditions can change quickly and unexpectedly. But as some winemakers come closer to reopening, they are optimistic for their place within that unpredictable future.
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