By Barbara Barrielle
As the mandate came down in California and other states to close tasting rooms as part of the prevention of the spread of the Coronavirus through gatherings, wineries were forced to pivot from normal operations to both creative ways of selling wine, but also engaging with their current customer base and figuring how employees would survive.
In yet another hit to wineries and wine tourism after already struggling through wildfires and the resulting lack of visitors – twice in Northern California – and a grape glut, now wineries who rely heavily of personal sales in their facilities have been derailed. Almost without exception, tasting rooms have closed or moved to a strict appointment only policy.
Before Governor Newsom’s strict suggestion to close to tasting visitors, Cartograph Wines in Healdsburg had instituted a 6-foot social distancing between tasting parties. Now they continue to stay open for bottle sales, promising that at least one person will staff the storefront.
Almost immediately the closure and creative sales emails started arriving as well as suggestions on social media that supporting wineries is good for their business as well as the perfect beverage for self-quarantining. Free shipping topped the list and, on a case of 12 bottles saves $50-80.
Three Sticks Winery in Sonoma decided to extend their online release period and offer $1 shipping on as few as four bottles, put off their Spring release events but is keeping someone in their Sonoma Plaza tasting room for “orders, pickups and hellos.”
Highly rated Green Valley Grower and Vintner Chenoweth Wines has put together a “quarantine survival pack” consisting of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Green Valley of Russian River Valley with a note that “no human pathogens can survive in wine.” Free shipping on all orders with the code ‘social distance’.
Courtney Foley of the Foley Family Wineries announced the closure of the tasting room at Chalk Hill Vineyards and Winery but said in her statement that “our valued employees who are affected by this decision (to close) will continue to receive payment and benefits during this difficult time.”
Big Basin Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains announced that they would close the tasting room but offer 10 percent off on purchases, free shipping and even free delivery within 30 miles of the winery with a 3+ bottle order. Given that lack of traffic in the “shelter in place” environment, Big Basin may have found a profitable solution to getting wine out quickly.
Esteemed Gary Farrell Winery decided to bring the wine country to its customers by sending a video of winemaker Theresa Heredia walking them through “a journey of what it means to be a pioneer of the Russian River Valley” and, of course, ‘curated’ a six-pack of wines from these vineyards to enjoy while viewing. $10 shipping.
Napa Valley’s Charles Krug Winery has built up a steady stream of comedy, film, music and art events that they had to postpone for the next six weeks. Fortunately, wines will be shipped free of charge to soften the blow.
Penny shipping and ‘curbside pick-up’ is popular with wineries like Presque’ile Winery in Santa Maria, Balletto in Sebastopol, and others, with some offering discounts, too. Some of the most aggressive discounts came today from Lompoc’s Loring Wine Company when, with tongue-in-cheek, they announced that “during these uncertain times, we unfortunately cannot help you with your toilet paper and hand sanitizer needs, but we can definitely help you stay stocked up on tasty beverages.” Loring is offering 30% off tasting room pricing and free ground shipping.
And, in an attempt to stay close to loyal customers, wineries like Dirty and Rowdy have created a series of interactive tastings of their Rhone wines where, after registering online and either opening a bottle from your cellar or buying new wines, a group drinks wine while interacting with winemaker Hardy Wallace. The schedule and link to order is on their website. Comstock Wines stated in their communication that they are hoping to ramp up virtual tastings of their wines, too. Kathleen Inman is featuring online Happy Hours featuring her wines with a portion of sales proceeds going to the crucial Meals on Wheels organization that gets meals to the elderly and infirm when they can not get out of their own.
The challenge of retaining and paying employees who are unexpectedly without work also weigh heavily on wineries, especially smaller ones. While Chalk Hill is making sure everyone continues to be paid, other creative solutions are assuring these tough times are less difficult. At Oak Farm Vineyards in Lodi is “seizing the opportunity to make improvements to their estate that they often don’t have time for between events and a buzzing tasting room. Oak Farm Vineyards tasting room staff are helping co-owner Heather Panella replant and repair.”
At Hamel Family Wines in Sonoma they are “employing their colleagues from hospitality, admin and even the vineyard to help with bottling this week in the hopes that they can further mitigate the risk of community spread” and continue to get paid. In addition to free shipping, Hamel is offering a future complimentary tasting experience for those whose reservations were canceled because of the closure.
At Napa’s Larkmead, they extended the news that the tasting room had closed but optimistically announced that “nature does not cease; bud break will come, grapes will ripen, and harvest will be here before we know it. Larkmead shall continue to produce world-class wines with great care for health and safety. Ever onward!”