By Barbara Barrielle
I was in a tasting room in downtown Healdsburg on Sunday, March 15, when a passerby called in the window and said “enjoy your glass of wine…the Governor just closed winery tasting rooms.” Once again, after surviving fires and economic downturns, the wine industry and wine tourism business is hit hard by the ramifications of the COVID-19 precautions against gathering and social interaction.
Many tasting rooms has been sporting signs asking patrons to stay six feet apart at the tasting bar and some had moved to appointment only if they were not already tasting guests on a pre-programmed system.
But, before the tasting rooms felt the hammer, the events that wineries count on for both marketing and to sell wine, canceled right and left as both the state and federal governments started restricting, first large gatherings then those of 100 people and now all events intended to have 50 people or more in attendance.
The first weekend of The Wine Road’s Barrel Tasting Weekend that stretches over the Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River Valleys but midway through the following week the second weekend of the event was cancelled.
“It was a painful decision to cancel the 2nd Weekend of Barrel Tasting,” said Wine Road Executive Director Beth Costa. “The financial impact to our winery and lodging members will be felt for months or more. We understand how that trickles down to all of their employees and their ability to support others in the community.
“As a small association, we have now refunded two of our major events in the past 5 months, it will be difficult to continue many of the marketing programs we had in place to showcase our members and Sonoma County wines. Most of our winery and lodging members are small producers, they don’t have marketing departments, they depend on Wine Road to help share their stories and get visitors to their wineries and inns.”
I found out about that the popular Passport to Dry Creek Valley was cancelled when my AirBNB guests for that weekend asked for a refund because the event they were coming to Healdsburg for was cancelled. Hospice du Rhone in Paso Robles, Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Taste of Yountville, Taste Washington Wine Festival and The Inaugural Napa Green (a new organization of sustainable winegrowers in the Valley) Rose and Bubbles Festival was rescheduled from April to June 13th. As a new event, they had more flexibility in planning. The Whale Festival and Bloody Mary competition at the Little River Inn was postponed as soon as Mendocino County restricted any events over 50 people. It will be rescheduled but can’t always plan of the cooperation of the whales!
A much-anticipated cruise from Budapest to Germany, originally scheduled for April 6 with representatives of Petaluma Gap wineries including Cline, Trombetta and Thirty-Seven Wines, has been rescheduled for April next year. It was even more painful for Erica Stancliff, president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association and winemaker for Trombetta Wines because, having married in the Fall, this was her intended honeymoon.
“Earlier this week prior to all of the shutdowns, we decided to postpone our cruise due to the safety of our guests, and also due to concerns of possible quarantine on the river vessel. It was a difficult situation which we didn’t take lightly but are glad we made,” said Stancliff. “The week before, our cruise ship center was calling guests and trying to address concerns while reassuring us the cruise would be fine.
“We really reached the decision because international travel and watching what was going on in Europe made all of us concerned. (This was going to be my honeymoon trip too, so it sucked making that decision, but it was the right call). Now the cruise ship company is refunding everyone and helping us find a new date. We are storing the wine in Europe and just trying to move forward while under all of this uncertainty. We are hoping that while people socially distance themselves, they still enjoy wine and take out from our amazing food industry partners.
“This virus is just one more thing we have to combat after years of floods and fires crippling our tourism and industry,” concluded Stancliff.
As Beth Costa summarized for The Wine Road wineries and the futures of their events, “I tend to look forward and not backward. I believe this will force all the various winery association to work more collaboratively and creatively. How can we still reach wine buyers across the country? Once everyone is back to making travel plans, how can we make Sonoma County’s wine country top of mind? These are questions we need to answer with a cohesive plan.
“In the meantime, no matter where you chose to “social distance” yourself, we hope you #SipSonoma.”