The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has brought countless American industries to a grinding halt, but life in the vineyard and in the cellar continues along its usual cycle. This is both a blessing and a burden.
With crucial vineyard and bottling work on the horizon, grape growers and winemakers must juggle seasonal winery operations while also navigating “shelter in place” orders, staffing decisions, and sales disruptions throughout the supply chain. The confluence of these events could result in one of the most challenging vintages in recent memory.
VinePair reached out to producers across the country to find out how the pandemic is currently affecting America’s wine business, and to ask what consumers can do to support the wineries they love. The wineries we spoke with urge wine drinkers to keep buying and enjoying wine, both directly from the winery, and at retail, bars, and restaurants (some of which are temporarily allowed to offer off-premise sales).
Over the past week, California Governor Gavin Newsom has imposed “shelter in place” orders in counties across this Golden State. Operations in wineries and vineyards can continue under these restrictions, as they’re considered essential business, but tasting rooms across the state are shut for the foreseeable future.
In Rutherford, at Honig Vineyard & Winery, the closures have forced a reshuffling of staff. “We are moving employees to various tasks to keep people in jobs, and have therefore reassigned tasting room employees to our bottling line,” says Stephanie Honig, director of sales and communications.
“Starting [Thursday], we decided to utilize our tasting room that is currently not in use as our children’s classroom,” Honig says. “The high school students we’ve hired to teach will be giving lessons and interacting with the children via Zoom. We have also opened this ‘class’ up to the children of our employees.”
At Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, half of the hospitality team have also taken temporary roles in the winery, labeling bottles, and helping to package and ship orders. “They’re actually jacked up about learning more about the production side of the business,” says Judd Wallenbrock, CEO of the winery’s parent company, C. Mondavi & Family.
While the company’s nationwide team of 30 wholesale staff can no longer meet distributors for in-person meetings and tastings, Wallenbrock says they’re making the most of the down time to reach out to their top trade customers and strengthen those relationships.
With off-premise sales surging across the country, and retail representing up to 80 percent of Charles Krug’s business, the company is fighting to keep bottles on shelves. “Our biggest challenge is having enough trucks to restock grocery stores,” Wallenbrock says.
“Surreal” is how Arista Winery co-owner Mark McWilliams describes life in Sonoma County right now. In nearby Healdsburg, shops are closed, and there are no cars parked in the normally busy for Sonoma streets.
Almost all of Arista’s annual revenue comes from direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales via its tasting room and mailing list. “It’s a huge blow to us right now that we can’t sell retail,” McWilliams says.
The winery remains operational, but is staffed by a skeleton crew. Vineyard workers are busy protecting vines from frost, while the cellar team carries out the small remaining tasks in the winery (late-winter and early spring bottling is thankfully over).
When it became apparent that the “shelter in place” order would be imposed, McWilliams and his brother Ben (Arista’s co-owner) vowed to keep workers employed for as long as possible. To make that happen, Arista’s hourly staff is working 30 percent fewer hours, and hospitality employees have changed roles to help with other parts of the business.
While telephone outreach is not McWilliams’ usual — or preferred — sales technique, he is adapting. “We have to,” he says. “If I’m not selling a box of wine with the phone right now, I have no revenue. There’s literally no money coming in.”
Nevertheless, McWilliams is confident that, just like other catastrophes that have hit the area in recent times, this too shall pass. “Look at the last three years: We’ve had two fires and a major flood,” he says. “We are a resilient industry; we are not foreign to wild, unpredictable swings.”
SANTA CLARA COUNTY
Ridge Vineyards president David Amadia is navigating shelter in place orders in both Sonoma County, where Ridge’s Lytton Springs winery is located, and Santa Clara County, the home of its Monte Bello facilities.
At the latter, Ridge is currently operating with 50 percent of its normal staff because of the implications of the shelter-in-place order on some employees. “We just got through the largest harvest in our history, so our wineries are absolutely full to the brim,” Amadia says. “To deal with all of that now with a skeleton crew is very challenging.”
Amadia anticipates a spike in DTC sales, so many of the tasting room staff are now packing orders in the warehouse. “Everyone is dealing with it with a smile,” he says.
To provide a “positive social outlet,” the winery plans to host weekly virtual tastings so customers can communicate with Ridge’s winemakers while tasting through their wines. Communications with distributors, meanwhile, have been “constant and regular,” he says, to make sure retailers remain stocked now that America’s bar and restaurant sector has largely shut down.
While times are tough, Amadia takes inspiration from the vineyard. “We work with a lot of vines that were planted in 1885,” he says. “Those vines have survived world wars, the Spanish flu, and Prohibition. They’re still there.”
On Long Island, Wölffer Estate Vineyard has shut its tasting room in accordance with state orders. Wine is being sold for off-premise consumption only and all nonessential employees, such as administrative staff, are working from home.
For now, Wölffer is prioritizing essential vineyard work. The viticultural team has been advised to maintain safe distances and to work independently from one another.
“If restrictions tighten, we can have each worker stay very clear from one another, working in entirely different blocks of grapes and never cross paths,” says Max Rohn, Wölffer’s general manager. “As long as they can be in the vineyard, we can ensure the quality grapes required for great wines.”
While it’s taken a hit on the tasting room business, Wölffer’s team is hopeful that wholesale orders will stay strong. The winery has also found a creative solution to minimize health concerns retail customers may have in picking up orders.
“We opened the first ‘Handsfree Wine Drive-Thru,’” Rohn writes. “Customers can pull up in their cars, select wines, and swipe their cards as we load trunks, without having to even get out of the car.”
Like Wölffer, Hermann J. Wiemer’s tasting room is also closed, but a handful of the winery’s staff is continuing to sell wine to customers via “curbside pickups,” says co-owner Oskar Bynke.
Some of the tasting room staff have also been trained to prune the property’s 130 acres of vines. Others are assisting by babysitting their colleagues’ children, since all the schools in the tri-state area are now closed.
While the winery continues to sell wine online and at the property, Bynke urges those in the tri-state area to consider buying from bars and restaurants, which are now able to sell alcohol for off-premise consumption. That way, he explains, restaurants, distributors, and producers all get paid. “You may even find some aged gems!” he says.
While Virginia’s hospitality industry remains technically open for business, there’s currently a 10-person limit inside restaurants, gyms, and theaters. All the state’s wineries, which rely heavily on tourism, have ceased in-house tastings, according to Kirk Wiles, chair of the Virginia Wine Board.
But wineries continue to host guests in other, more novel ways. With a 475-acre sprawling property, Tarara Winery has opened its grounds for locals to walk, bike, and hike, while practicing safe social distancing. Others plan to follow suit.
“If [guests] get a bottle of wine and a plastic cup, and head off to the edge of the woods where they’re not in contact with anyone, that can be a happy medium,” Wiles says.
As most local producers employ crews of five or fewer in the winery, they do not fall foul of the 10-person gathering limit. This is a good thing, Wiles says, because 2019 was one of the “best vintages on record,” and wines still need to be bottled and sent out to distributors and consumers.
The biggest challenges remain in the vineyard. If wineries can’t bring in any significant revenue from tourism, they may not be able to pay vineyard workers. And with pruning to be done, and plants just weeks away from bud break, these are “stressful times,” Wiles says.
In Washington State, the early epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., all wineries and tasting rooms are closed for in-person tastings and events.
With four tasting rooms across the state, Goose Ridge Estate Winery has been hit hard. “Our Richland and Woodinville tasting rooms are currently open for to-go sales and pickup, including curbside delivery for guests who prefer not to leave their cars,” says Tiffany Stetson, general manager of DTC sales. While the company has temporarily closed its Leavenworth and Walla Walla tasting rooms, Goose Ridge’s winery operations and vineyard management are so far continuing as normal.
To connect with consumers, the winery is ramping up its social media activities, and is further supporting the local community by offering its Woodinville tasting room as a drop off location for an industry food bank. (The food bank provides assistance to wine and restaurant employees around the Woodinville, Bothell, and Maltby area, Stetson explains.)
Goose Ridge continues to sell wine via its online store and even offers overnight shipping within the state. “This is the perfect time to have a few bottles on hand for a night at home,” Stetson writes.
Oregon governor Kate Brown has canceled all events of more than 25 persons and restricted bars and restaurants to carry-out and delivery only for the next four weeks, minimum. But for Willamette Valley-based Antica Terra, which has temporarily closed its tasting room and canceled events as a result, some of the biggest challenges remain on the horizon.
“We must bottle our wine next month, but we are small, and rely on mobile bottling trucks and temporary staff,” winemaker Maggie Harrison explains. “We aren’t sure what will be available, and if we can get the truck. It will likely cost us four times as much [as normal], as we will have to slow the speed down to a quarter to accomplish with responsible social distancing.”
But the team remains resilient and optimistic. In the coming weeks, Harrison says Antica Terra will hold interactive tastings and virtual panels; produce “wellness kits” that include bone broth and house-made sanitizer; and invest in long term projects such as planting gardens and building chicken coops.
“We are throwing out everything we thought we knew and getting creative,” Harrison says.
Some 50 miles west of Austin, and less than a 10-minute drive from the LBJ Ranch (otherwise known as the Texas White House), William Chris Vineyards co-founder Chris Brundrett is doing everything he can to maintain his staff of 63 workers.
That task became more difficult on Wednesday after Brundrett voluntarily closed the winery’s tasting room amid the growing health risk from coronavirus. “Ninety percent of our sales are direct to consumers,” he says. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”
The team is focusing on innovation to keep everyone in a job. Local customers can still purchase directly from the winery in person, but via “drive-ups” rather than at the property’s hospitality suite.
Like many other wineries, Brundrett and team are planning to connect with their customers virtually. They plan on streaming wine tastings across social media channels, and hosting “ask me anything” sessions and happy hours, where the winery’s director of education will suggest food and wine pairings.
The winery also plans a cooking show for its on-site chef, who is otherwise busy cooking staff lunches and preparing cheese plates that customers can purchase along with their pickup wines. “We want to support our local cheesemongers too,” Brundrett says.
William Chris’s executive team has taken a pay cut, and they’re also considering minor pay cuts for those on salary so that all the hourly staff can stay on the payroll. “We’ve worked for over a decade to build the team we have now,” Brundrett says. “Making sure they’re supported so we can get back on our feet as soon as we open our doors again is important to us.”
Amid the uncertainty and trying times, Brundrett sees a silver lining in his unusually quiet schedule. “My calendar was absolutely full a month ago; now it’s empty,” he says. “I’ve never sat for dinner with my kids more times than I have in the last two weeks.”