By Laurie Wachter
Essential worker vaccinations were critical to operations during the pandemic
Vineyard and winery production workers across the country labored through the pandemic, pruning and harvesting grapes, crushing and bottling wine. The workers’ dedication while COVID-19 raged elevated winery concerns about unvaccinated worker safety.
With states like California focusing initially on the heavily impacted 65+ population, many wine-producing communities moved ahead with independent plans to deliver vaccines to their teams as early as possible. One example is the cooperative effort by wineries, grape growers and health care providers in Sonoma County to conduct hundreds of COVID-19 vaccinations beginning in January. Within four months, 100% of essential ag and production workers were successfully vaccinated.
“To encourage the community to get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” says Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director Michael Haney, “we increased educational resources and messaging, and produced a series of local radio ads and educational flyers. We also drafted mitigation protocols, developed COVID-19 signage templates and hosted a community food distribution.”
Foley Family Wines also joined with community partners to effectuate vaccinations. According to second-generation vintner Courtney Foley, “We were able to sign up over 90% of our production and farmworker employees for the vaccine through programs we coordinated with Sonoma County Vintners, Sonoma County Medical Association, and many others statewide.”
Willamette Valley’s King Estate Winery made the bold decision to require all employees to be vaccinated. The winery sees its decision as an extension of its ethical approach to business, which begins with the largest certified Biodynamic® vineyard in North America and extends to its sustainable winemaking practices and concern for worker safety.
“As an employer, you want your place of business to be viewed as a safe place,” says Brent Stone, COO and Winemaker at King Estate. “Our approach for many years has been to foster a culture about worker safety and wellbeing. Most employees knew we were being supportive, not punitive, and the response was largely positive.”
Positive enough that 92% of their current 70 employees are now vaccinated, and at least one neighboring winery followed suit. Western Washington County’s local Tuality Healthcare ¡Salud! Services program has helped wineries set up vaccination clinics on site.
“Wineries and vineyards have responded very proactively to the COVID-19 vaccination campaign,” says Leda Garside, ¡Salud! Services Manager & Cultural Liaison. “Many sites have hosted vaccination clinics for workers, and their families members are going to clinics and vaccination sites.”
The decision to require vaccinations wasn’t the first time the King family acted to support workers’ wellbeing. The November before the pandemic struck, they lifted minimum wages to $15 an hour. During the pandemic, they provided food boxes to employees to help them avoid shopping at grocery stores. At the same time, this allowed the winery to support long-time vendors by buying food while their restaurant was closed. They also harvested produce from their organic estate gardens and fruit orchards for an employee CSA.
“That came from the King family,” says Brent Stone, COO and Winemaker. “Ed King, our founder and CEO, is in the office every day and knows everyone’s name. The family felt there was something not right about paying someone a wage they can’t live on. I believe the continuity of the workplace is important, and it provided comfort during all the craziness of the pandemic.”
Worker and guest safety become the focus for reopening
As wine country nears the 100% vaccination threshold and statewide reopenings approach, wineries are refocused on finding workers to fill ranks depleted as the country sheltered in place for over a year.
“The single greatest critical barrier to a smooth reopening is the lack of available labor,” Foley notes. “All of our production employees, hospitality managers and employees of guest experience centers are back to work, and employees in traditional office roles are returning as caretaking responsibilities and other concerns ease. We look forward to having our guest experience centers fully staffed. Much is dependent upon state and county regulations evolving. Luckily, we are all more familiar than ever with virtual meetings and will continue to rely on that until state regulatory agencies sharpen the pencil on their expectations of employers.”
That means wineries will need to make decisions about requiring the use of masks or proof of vaccination.
In Virginia, Potomac Point Winery decided to require proof of vaccination or have visitors mask up before entering the tasting room. When they posted this guidance online, they received immediate social media backlash.
Owner Skip Causey told a local reporter that, “We did not expect the blowback of people not wanting to show their paper, or thinking it was a HIPAA violation, which it is not.” The winery explains on its website that the policy wasn’t a political stand and aligns with CDC and state recommendations, reinforcing that they want to keep staff and guests safe.
In California, businesses do not have to require proof of vaccination. As Haney points out, “Vaccination policies are up to individual businesses. We are not familiar with any wineries in Sonoma County that have mandatory policies regarding vaccinations.“
“We do not require employees to get vaccinated or require proof of vaccination for our employees or guests,” Foley says. “Until state regulatory departments and public officials take a clear stand on masking and other protocols, we will require all employees who are working collaboratively to follow State and County mandated protocols: wear masks, maintain distance, take temperature and health surveys upon entering the facility, and wash hands more frequently.”
Taking the positive learnings forward post-pandemic
The pandemic experience introduced some positives that wineries plan to take into the future. Wine was one of the industries where sales held up well during the pandemic, with online and direct-to-consumer sales growing as wineries worked to replace sales lost to tasting room closures and tourism. Many wineries will continue to take advantage of their access to a broader and younger audience through the booming online marketplaces.
“We have done a lot of virtual wine tastings!” Foley exclaims. “They have been particularly successful in corporate partnerships, where planners are looking for celebratory ways to reach many geographically dispersed people in one event. We plan on continuing our virtual events moving forward.”
Once the logistical details of vaccinations and masks are clarified, staffing issues resolved and the tourist flow increases, wineries will breathe a sigh of relief and move forward with business as usual.