By Lenn Thompson
With tasting rooms and most wholesale accounts closed, wineries up and down the East Coast limped along early the COVID-19 pandemic, surviving on some combination of wine clubs, online sales, and curbside pickup through the slower spring months.
As spring became summer, tasting rooms have reopened under a variety of different rules depending on state and local regulations. Just like before the pandemic, there isn’t a single business model. But, many are using mandatory (or “strongly suggested”) reservations to manage crowds, right-size staffing, and keep everyone as safe as possible.
Wineries taking reservations isn’t new; they’ve been the norm for larger groups for many years. Some even suggest them for smaller groups, particularly on busy weekends. Today, they are commonplace.
At New Jersey’s Unionville Vineyards, general manager John Cifelli never required reservations pre-COVID, but he has long considered it.
“As one of the premium brands in the state in a market that lends itself to premiumization, I’ve thought this was a possible business path for a while,” Cifelli says.
Unionville used to offer daily tastings for walk-in customers. Now, the winery only offers tastings Friday through Sunday by appointment. It’s a big shift in how they pour and sell wine.
“We offer only four appointments at a time, with a half-hour in between to sanitize and reset the space,” he says, adding “Since outdoor dining is not allowed per the state restrictions, we are tasting on the tented patio.”
Space and seating options are often a limiting factor. Paumanok Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island has a small indoor tasting room with a tasting bar and a couple of tables. So while co-owner/winemaker Kareem Massoud has considered going reservation-only in the past too, he hasn’t moved forward until now.
“One big reason we did not, has to do with the weather since most of our seating is outdoors. We were concerned with how to handle reservations when the weather turns inclement. Ironically, our situation [as an agricultural business] is even more weather dependent now,” he says.
That risk aside, it’s a great benefit when a winery knows how many customers it’s going to welcome on a given day, how much staff it needs to serve those people, how much wine it will need to pour and – over time – how much wine it can expect to sell.
The advantages aren’t reserved for the winery and its staff, however.
Even before the current pandemic, hospitality had become an increasingly important differentiator for wineries. Moving to a reservation-driven business model has helped many wineries improve the experience they offer customers.
“Tastings by appointment, besides the obvious COVID-era crowd control advantage, allows us to greet guests by name, and connect with them on a more personal, direct level,” says Cifelli. “When you make an appointment somewhere, you know you are expected. We welcome and meet that expectation. We enjoy making people feel special. It’s a more pleasant experience for everyone.”
Still, if you’re seeing fewer customers, you’re going to sell less wine overall. And, the move to reservations isn’t an easy one. Reservation systems can be expensive and difficult to learn quickly. And the by-appointment-only business plan doesn’t work for every winery.
“We started out with reservations when we were originally allowed to open back up,” says Aubrey Rose from Rosemont of Virginia. “We only had a very few [outside] seats, and we were worried about people coming and staying all day and occupying their space while drinking one bottle of $14 wine.”
When Rosemont was allowed to open up their indoor tasting room to 50% capacity they kept the reservations in place hoping to anticipate when people would arrive, how many there would be, and to help staff appropriately.
“That turned out to be a disaster,” Rose says pointing to customers who would show up with more or fewer people than they indicated, or would want to change tables. “And, most of the time they were late.”
Because Rosemont found it more trouble trying to manage people through a reservation system, they went back to a first-come, first-served model.
“It has worked out well, and people are fine with it,” she says. “I think when they can see what tables are open they have an easier time making a decision on where to sit, and we aren’t having to move them around from table to table. It’s just been easier for our staff and our customers at this point to manage it on an as-needed basis.”
In the constantly changing COVID world, it’s impossible to know whether by-appointment-only wine tasting will be the new normal. It sounds like it will be for some, while others are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Once the pandemic is over, we will likely keep reservations in place on weekends during our busy season – May through November. As before, reservations will be required year-round for large groups,” says Massoud.
For some, it will largely be a financial decision.
“[Current] sales per person are better than pre-COVID, but not good enough to sustain this indefinitely. We might be able to continue this beyond this summer if it can be moved indoors. This decision will depend on the strength of other revenue channels such as events and off-site sales,” says Cifelli. “Also, the broader economy will dictate how exclusive an operation we can run when it’s voluntary and not mandated.”