Wineries cope with uncertainties of COVID-19, rely on shipping
SUTTON’S BAY, MICH. (April. 23, 2020) – Spring at a northern Michigan winery can be a crucial time. By April, farming and pruning tends to be in full swing in the vineyard, filtering and bottling begins and retail and restaurant sales march on.
At Shady Lane Cellars, it’s time to staff up the tasting room, time to connect with wholesalers to lock in wine sales and time to plan for events and an influx of visitors. Once the COVID-19 health crisis hit the state of Michigan in mid-March, though, the scene in tasting rooms like this one began to look quite different.
“Often, this time of year, we have a lot of the teams working on projects, spring cleaning, landscaping, prep work for the season,” said General Manager Rick DeBlasio. “Almost none of that can be done. In addition, we can’t serve guests in our tasting room – which is a large piece of our business.”
To address these changes, the staff at Shady Lane Cellars moved quickly to put extra precautions in place, limit the staff on site at any given time, and – perhaps most notably – to offer a penny shipping incentive that has driven online sales higher than they’ve seen before.
“The tasting room has basically become a fulfillment center,” DeBlasio added. “It has really worked so far – and hopefully can become a solid bridge for us.”
But challenges are mounting, according to Winemaker Kasey Wierzba at Shady Lane Cellars. “All of our bottling has been pushed back,” she explained. ”Our label supplier is backlogged with work after dealing with measures to keep their employees safe. We have slowed down in the winery because everything is time sensitive. We can’t finish our filtering because it needs to be done closer to bottling. But we are holding off on bottling because we don’t have labels.
The flow of the year is so important in winemaking. When tasks get pushed and the schedule is delayed it is like a domino effect. Come fall, the grapes won’t wait. We have to make room for them.” Other Northern Michigan wineries are feeling the same pressure and time constraints.
Winemaking still goes on at Mari Vineyards – just within the state’s stay-at-home directives. “My cellar master drops off wine samples for me (while I am in self-quarantine) and we’re planning to bottle some wines soon so that they’re ready for summer and fall,” said Mari Vineyards Winemaker Sean O’Keefe. “Vineyard work is proceeding along at a good clip even with the COVID-19 protocols. Our tasting room managers are still coming in to pack orders for wine shipments; that side of the business is going well.”
Charles Edson, a founder of Bel Lago Vineyard, Winery & Cidery, said the staff there is fulfilling both shipping orders and pre-paid curbside pick-up orders. “We were fortunate enough to have launched a new website with expanded shipping into 41 states in the fall,” said Edson. “While we were already driving traffic to the online space, the closure of the tasting room and cancellation of Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association events amplified its importance.”
Marie-Chantal Dalese is certified sommelier, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal in Traverse City, Mich. She said in April online sales actually doubled, thanks to a solid online store.
The same is true at Shady Lane Cellars. “We have seen a major spike,” said DeBlasio. “It’s great to have the support of our customers, capture new customers and have a business outlet during these times.”
But those sales don’t reveal the whole story. Northern Michigan wineries are working with reduced staffing and are limited to online sales and shipping for the time being.
“Most of Mari’s wines are primarily sold to restaurants, so that has slowed orders to a standstill,” said O’Keefe. “I’m very concerned for my restaurant colleagues, and hope that we – as an industry – can do something to benefit them when things begin to open up again.”
Dalese said nearly every staff member at Chateau Chantal is on a different program. Some are laid-off, others are experimenting with workshare. Some are keeping the winery and cellar running while others are working full time from home.
“It’s a massive challenge,” she said. “Adding youngsters to the home environment for most of us adds to it.”
Andy Fles at Shady Lane Cellars, said he hopes this uncertain time becomes one of reflection on the importance of supporting local and regional farmers.
“We cannot walk away from our crops,” said Fles. “Nature marches on regardless of our goals or rules. If we miss out on crucial tasks at any point in the game – spring, summer or fall or even winter (in warmer climates) – that can affect the food and beverage supply in the future.”
Through it all, wineries like these in Northern Michigan are doing everything possible to stay connected to their community, their visitors and customers.
The staff at Shady Lane Cellars set out to purchase gift cards from local restaurants and establishments in the Traverse City area, in a show of support, spending hundreds of dollars each in the community.
Dalese said that Chateau Chantal has made stay-at-home packs available and staff are offering virtual tastings, virtual cooking classes and discounts. They’re also thinking of others.
“Each week in April, we are donating 15 percent of our sales to a local non-profit that is helping the community,” Dalese said. A few organizations that stand to benefit from the generosity of Chateau Chantal include The Grand Traverse Area Hospitality Relief Fund, the NWMI Health Service, which is offering COVID-19 testing; Meals on Wheels and a local musician’s fund.
Edson noted that, at Bel Lago, they are continuing a longtime partnership with Kingsley, Michigan-based Boss Mouse Cheese. The winery is offering a half-pound or pound of this local favorite with orders of 6 or 12 bottles of wine, respectively.
“We’ve carried Sue’s fabulous artisan cheeses in our tasting room for years so it made perfect sense to team up again,” said Edson. “It makes us so happy to be able to help support another small business and we’ve heard it makes our customers happy too.”
Still, winery owners and staff agree that the outlook feels uncertain.“We can’t wait to see our guests return and look forward to creating a safe environment for them to return to,” added Dalese.
ABOUT SHADY LANE CELLARS
Located at 9580 E. Shady Lane in Suttons Bay, Mich., Shady Lane Cellars produces one of the largest percentages of estate-grown wine in its region. Offering hilltop views of the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan, the winery and its staff create a comfortable approach to wine. The winery was founded in 1999. Since 2017 all Shady Lane Cellars wines are 100 percent estate-grown. Tours, tasting experiences, private events and a wine club membership are all available. Visit www.shadylanecellars.com. Connect on Facebook or Instagram.