By Paul Vigna
Ernie Bayless said he and the staff at Wise Villa Winery, located about a half-hour northeast of Sacramento, California, got the word last Tuesday that they could reopen.
It was a bit like Christmas in May. “I felt kind of like a kid,” said Bayless, the winery’s chief operating officer. “I started running full speed, I didn’t know what direction to run. It was like, we gotta do this, we gotta do that.”
Wise Villa was, to Bayless’ knowledge, the only winery in Placer County to open this weekend because its bistro met the criteria of being able to serve food with its wines. Not just snacks or a burger; it had to serve a full meal. “If we had any resistance at all it was people not wanting to buy a meal to drink a bottle of wine,” he said.
Wine was served by the bottle, glass, or in a flight of five. Seating was by reservation only.
It became one of the first wineries to reopen nationally, with a few states beginning to remove their stay-at-home orders and allow customers back inside albeit without tastings.
At Stoller Family Estate in Dayton, Oregon, about 40 miles southwest of Portland, customers were allowed in by reservation only and those times were staggered to control the numbers.
Tracy Timmins, the Stoller Wine Group’s VP for consumer affairs, said the public was encouraged but not required to wear masks while entering and leaving. About half did, she said, as they gathered at the outdoor picnic tables or the winery’s famous Adirondack chairs. Meanwhile, staff members all were wearing marks.
“This weekend went very well,” she said. “Our guests were happy to once again enjoy the property. They are greeted at their table with their tasting pours ready, to minimize contact with our team, and we have removed more than half of our table inventory to allow for greater distances between tables and wider traveling lanes as well.”
Tables and chairs are disinfected between each reservation, she said, adding that “we found our guests to be respectful of these changes, and all were just thrilled to be out of their houses.”
Stoller Family and Wise Villa are open daily.
That’s not the case at Keswick Vineyards. Near Charlottesville, Virginia, where outdoor seating for now are Fridays through Sundays. Only 20 people were allowed in at one time and all required a reservation, said Stephen Barnard, the winemaker and vineyard manager. All told, they did four seatings each day, and every customer was required to wear a mask.
“We have our porch marked out with tape, so that social distancing can be adhered to,” he said. ”All cups and containers are recyclable so the customer throws it away once done and that protects our staff. Everything is disinfected after use and we also have hand sanitizer for everyone. Staff have gloves and masks on.
“I think overall this weekend went well considering the challenges we face regarding the health and safety of our staff and obviously our customers,” he said.
Bayless said Wise Villa didn’t require masks, except for staff, but did ask several questions of customers as they arrived regarding any recent symptoms that could indicate COVID-19. “The idea was, if they answered yes, we wouldn’t allow them into the building,” he said. “I’m not sure how effective it was, but we did ask the questions.”
The winery opened 13 years ago and added the bistro three years later. After COVID-19 forced it to close, Bayless said he cut his staff from 56 to 16 and leaned more on an increase of online sales and curbside pickups of wine and food.
Since last week, they’ve been bringing staffers back a few at a time, trying to assess the need. They were “overwhelmed,” he said, by Friday’s soft opening. By then, they had scattered tables and seating throughout the grounds, under canopies and even inside the winery.
“Our servers were just running their legs off,” he said. “They’re not used to that. Instead of walking 30 feet to serve someone, they were walking” a lot farther.
Still, revenue was down around 30 percent compared to a normal weekend in May, largely without the tasting bar operating. “You take 30 seats out of a tasting room that you turn every 40 minutes, your revenue stream really suffers,” he said.
Keswick has used the two months to, as Barnard said, be creative in terms of marketing and sales. Curbside pickup. Virtual, collaborative and private tastings.
Even now, under Virginia’s first phase of its reopening, business is far from normal.
“Folks have been very gracious and supportive, more so than they need to be, and we are extremely grateful for that,” Barnard said. “It shows you how people support their local vendors when things get tough. So, tough times, for sure, but we have been fortunate thus far. Unfortunately, we do not know what the future holds.”
Bayless echoed those sentiments. Still, he said, “We’ll take it. We’re very happy to be open. Let me tell you, that was the worst two months of our business life.”