By Barbara Barrielle
It is the middle of the summer and what is usually an incredibly busy and profitable tourist season has been nipped in the bud, so to speak, by what is being called the novel coronavirus. We are going on month six of the pandemic and the wine industry has been whipped back and forth by changing state and federal legislation and, frankly, just hanging on in many cases and trying to figure out how to sell wine.
After the craziness of being forced to sell a meal with a tasting then opening with restrictions like pre-pours, distancing and by-appointment tastings, visitors are starting to put a toe back in the water and heading to tasting rooms. But, what is the challenge of getting them over the fear of being in public places and enjoying wine? Tasting rooms opened then guidelines changed again closing other services like hair and nail salons because any activity must be outdoors now.
It seems to boil down to communication. Wineries are under pressure to let their club members, visitors and other stakeholders know that they are a safe place to visit. With more people opting to drive and avoiding airplanes, the market is just that, drive distance for either day trips or an overnight or two in a highly sterilized hotel environment. Instagram, facebook, twitter, tiktok and other social media are effective in showing images of people enjoying wine tasting under new protocols and direct outreach has worked best.
At Lambert Bridge Winery in the Dry Creek Valley, they have reached out to members and potential visitors with both a list of what is expected of the guest, e.g. not having a fever or symptoms of the coronavirus, keeping a safe distance from others and wearing a mask unless seated and tasting. The winery is also very clear on their internal safety protocols like the fact that staff will be wearing masks and gloves and that tasting appointments will only be scheduled at 11 AM and 2 PM so that there is adequate time to clean between each tasting and picnic experience. Aside from stemware, all utensils and plates will be disposable.
General Manager Bill Smart points out that “we almost always have a phone conversation with guests wishing to make an appointment. During that conversation, we reassure guests that we are following all safety protocols and outline our expectations for mask wearing while on property.”
Some wineries get creative with their message like boutique producer Dirty and Rowdy Vineyards with the introduction of their new red blend called “Wear a Mask Red.” Can not get much clearer than that label and, at a retail price of $40, half the proceeds go to Farmworker relief from COVID-19.
At Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, they were ahead of the curve in building a series of cabanas on unused land just outside of the tasting room. The winery automatically had five socially-distanced outdoor tasting areas when they were allowed to reopen in May and communicated these via a series of virtual Zoom experiences for media and the public. Charles Krug’s message was clear; you will be separated and safe when visiting the estate.
At J Vineyards and Winery in the Russian River Valley, the Gallo-owned sparkling house released a series of protocols which repeatedly assures guests that their culinary and tasting team sterilizes all work areas every 15 minutes. The only available tasting is the Legacy experience of wine and paired cheese and all wines and pre-poured and plates are prepared and wrapped individually. The tasting experience has been well-received and the winery has stayed busy and sales are consistent.
The fairly new Flowers Winery has remained busy, too, primarily because they opened as an appointment-only winery with distinct and separate tasting areas. Wines are free-poured but the food component has changed into a pre-wrapped, simpler offering. When an appointment is confirmed the COVID-19 protocols are reiterated so there is no misunderstanding on either side.
The problem with pre-pouring and keeping wines at a good temperature on hot days was addressed by tiny 32 Winds Winery in Dry Creek Valley. As a guest sits at an individual table next to the creek, pre-poured tiny glass carafes are carried to the table by threes and sit in ice. In this way, guests pour their own tasting and the wines stay cool without human touch between the preparation room and the tasting area.
Grand Cru Custom Crush provides production and tasting for almost twenty of the most sought-after small wineries in Sonoma County. They constructed tasting areas to be private in roll-up garage bays or at outdoor tables. Both Grand Cru and their member wineries have had the responsibility of communicating safety to potential visitors.
Art Murray, head of Flambeaux Wine and an environmental attorney, reports that Grand Cru has been great at showing people how spacious, safe and welcoming the tasting spaces will be when wine tasters arrive, “Grand Cru has shown on their Instagram feed what it looks like at the new outdoor hospitality space,” he said, “At Flambeaux we are reaching out both via consistent email communications with our fans and club members, as well with our regular Instagram Live events where we talk about the current conditions, feature special guests and keep our community connected.”
At Rodney Strong Winery, while they lost the cherished summer concert events because of the limitation on public gatherings, Chris O’Gorman says, “we feel fortunate to have outdoor spaces at our winery to host guests. The Rodney Strong Terrace and expansive Concert Green typically hosts a thousand guests during our Summer Concert Series, so we can place tables a large distance from one another for maximum safety, comfort, and privacy. Our friendly staff is masked at all times and all surfaces are cleaned consistently.” As with other popular wineries, the tasting business remains healthy and wine sales healthy.
As the summer rolls into harvest, communication and images on social media will remain key marketing points. While many wineries discovered the world of Direct-to-Consumer marketing during the initial shutdown, a winery experience remains the key factor in loyalty building and it must be done safely.