pouring wine wearing mask
Adult sommelier wearing a coronavirus face mask pours red wine into a glass. Photo By giuseppelombardo / Shutterstock

By Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation 

On-again, off-again closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic have kept California winery operators scrambling to adapt.

One Santa Barbara County vintner said he has taken it as a chance to try new things.

“2020 was a challenging year in many ways, but it was also a year to learn how to pivot,” said Larry Schaffer, owner and winemaker at Tercero Wines. He runs a tasting room in Los Olivos and makes his wine in Buellton from grapes grown within the county. “What saved me was pivoting into doing a lot of Zoom tastings. If people couldn’t come to me, I was going to go to them as much as possible.”

He’s been running multiple virtual tastings weekly.

“I always tell people I feel like a comedian when I get on these things, because I don’t know most of the people, and then I need to entertain them,” he said.

Though Schaffer misses his customers, he said he understands why they can’t show up right now.

“We really, in all honesty, should not be seeing people,” Schaffer said. “That’s kind of the Catch-22 of this situation: that we really depend upon tourism, and tourism is not what we should be doing right now, based on state mandates.”

Chris Hyde, a grape grower and vintner in the Carneros region of Napa County, said his tasting room had to close again in mid-December.

“We’re doing virtually zero business, and are only open for pickups and online orders, which have been very slow,” Hyde said. “We’re looking forward to being able to open the doors again, whenever that might be.”

Wineries around the state have fared differently, depending on customer relationships and distribution channels.

“It’s had a huge impact for all of the wineries in Sonoma County,” said Karen Maley, general manager of Robert Young Estate Winery in the Alexander Valley outside Geyserville. “People are not traveling in our area. We’re a tourism-based industry. So if people are not coming to Sonoma County and staying in hotels and going to restaurants, then a huge chunk of our traffic is reduced.”

Her winery’s tasting room has been closed since early December. The only business allowed at the tasting room is curbside pickup, she said.

“Online sales have been a saving grace for the wine industry since March, but that’s limited,” Maley said. Ordering their favorite wine might bring people some joy and a sense of normalcy, but “it’s very competitive,” she added. “It’s very expensive to ship wine.”

Relationships developed in pre-pandemic times have served small wineries well, said Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association.

“If you have great relationships with your clientele and your wine club, they came through and supported these small wineries,” Stemler said. “Locals would come, and they increased the buying so much, and in many ways it was not purely because they’re drinking more—although they might be—but it’s because they want to support those local businesses.”

Smaller wineries derive 85% of their sales from the tasting room, she said, whereas larger wineries had different outcomes, based on their distribution channels.

“If you were only in restaurants, that was your primary way you sold your wine, this was a really hard year for you,” Stemler said. “If you were mostly in retail, it probably wasn’t a hard year.”

The uncertain business climate forced Schaffer to make some changes.

“Last harvest, I had to be very systematic in terms of what grapes I brought in, to understand where my business might be going in the next year to two years,” he said. “I couldn’t do business as usual. I had to really think about the individual items that I think are going to be of most appeal in the short term, and create products that are not competing with stuff that I already have.”

This year, he’s planning a “more prominent online presence,” especially on social media.

One thing that seems certain: The pre-pandemic normal is unlikely to return.

“As businesses, we’ve been able to find out what works and what doesn’t,” Stemler said. “I think some of our businesses have learned that they were spending time on things that actually didn’t have that much of an impact before.”

She said her organization plans to work with local agencies to continue outdoor tasting for wineries that instituted that during the pandemic.

Schaffer’s tasting room has a bar and cocktail tables, but “moving forward,” he said, “I will go more toward table service, both inside and I have a small patio outside as well. I think it’s more personal.”

Maley said she considers her winery “very, very lucky that we have very loyal members who have continued to order wine from us. We couldn’t have made it last year without them, and we’re very thankful for that.”

Through it all, winery owners and winegrape growers said, they have been going out of their way to keep employees, customers and themselves safe as the pandemic continues.

“We are really focusing on workplace safety in regard to the COVID epidemic,” said Aaron Lange, head of viticulture operations at LangeTwins in Acampo.

His operation carries out daily and weekly communications with employees, with an emphasis on education about procedures and protocol.

“Our priority above all is worker safety,” Lange said, “and making sure that we have the proper PPE and hand sanitizer and sanitation equipment available to our supervisors and to our employees, and that we’re giving them the right information so they can maintain the health of themselves and their families.”

In Monterey County, Stemler said meetings began in March to develop safety protocols.

“We were really on top of collectively wanting to have safe practices that were safe for customers and safe for staff and for our community as well,” she said.

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