Californians hankering for a taste of normality during the pandemic can again venture out to wineries in many parts of the state, much to the relief of vintners and the farmers who grow grapes for them. But the tasting rooms won't resemble the ones from pre-pandemic times.
"The days of clamoring at a tasting bar for your next taste are over," said Jack Gorman, executive director of the Amador Vintners Association. "We're going to go to appointments and seated tastings, and different kinds of experiences."
Winery production continued as an essential business in the pandemic, and wineries that already had a robust e-commerce operation were successful, but smaller wineries have struggled to stay afloat, Gorman said.
"They may have smaller wine clubs, so they're really relying on that foot traffic that comes through their door," he said.
The new normal will include smaller groups, observing social distancing, and masks for staff and visitors, said Karen Maley, general manager of Robert Young Estate Winery outside Geyserville, noting that so far, reopening results have been mixed.
"What we're finding is that there are still some people who are hesitant to go out in community spaces," Maley said. "However, what we're finding is that there's a whole other group of people that have been hunkered down without a lot of joy in in their lives. There are a lot of people who were just really, really hungry to experience some sense of normalcy again, and to treat themselves."
Chris Hyde, whose family has grown grapes in Carneros for nearly four decades, said he got the green light to reopen his tasting room late last week. It had been closed since mid-March under shelter-in-place orders prompted by the pandemic.
"We're glad that we're able to be open again and that all the restrictions didn't last any longer," Hyde said.
He produces about 2,000 cases of wine per year, using less than 5% of his grapes. The rest are sold to some 40 different wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.
"Having a diversity in customers has definitely been advantageous, given the business market," Hyde said. "I'd say that a lot of wineries have struggled with sales due to loss of on-premises accounts, restaurants. Some relied more heavily on that and direct sales out of tasting rooms."
Fellow Napa County grape grower and vintner Tom Gamble said his tasting room should reopen this week. Direct-to-consumer sales represent a key part of his business.
"We have a very loyal cadre of members and a strong mailing list built up over the years," Gamble said, "so we also instituted virtual tastings, and that's how we kept that DTC business going.
"But what really saved our bacon was, we had been changing our wholesale strategy to focus more on retail and less on restaurants over the last three years," especially small-chain retail, Gamble added. "I don't think it's news anymore, but retail sales of wine have been very strong."
San Joaquin County, home to the Lodi grape-growing region, had not allowed wineries without food service to reopen as of last weekend.
"We are navigating uncharted territory," said Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. "The rules and regulations seem to change day by day, if not hour by hour, and keeping up with what we can and can't do has been a real challenge."
Wineries with established customer bases have seen good online and mail-order sales, he added, but this has trailed off somewhat.
"They are anxious for their tasting rooms to get back open, because in many cases that's how they acquire new customers," Spencer said.
With tasting rooms closed, many wineries turned to virtual tastings, using video-conferencing software to connect with club members.
Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, said the virtual tastings allow people to ask detailed questions of the hosts, and the technology eliminates geographical impediments.
"What's fun about that is that they're getting to do these tastings with people from all over the country, if not world, which they normally wouldn't interact with if you were just at the winery," she said.
Indeed, Maley said some East Coast customers of her winery have asked that virtual tastings continue.
On the viticulture side, winegrape growers say they anticipate an average year.
"We are seeing it be a little lighter than the past two years, which is fairly typical after bigger vintages," Kruse said. "There was some frost damage in the cooler regions, which is also contributing to the lighter vintage."
Most Sonoma County grape growers have multiyear contracts with vintners, she noted.
"With all of the uncertainty in the marketplace and reopening just starting, some of wineries have asked their growers to support a small decrease in grape pricing for this year or have lowered tonnage requests," Kruse said.
Hyde compared the situation with the recession of 2008-09, saying price-reduction requests can be challenging for farmers because their production costs keep rising.
"The glut on the market's been a challenge, because going into this season, you already had wineries looking to scale back production after two back-to-back large vintages and what was starting to be a more challenging sales market," he said.
Jim Young, who grows grapes and makes wine at Robert Young Estate Winery, said the grape glut of the past couple of years is also on his mind.
"Most growers that I know have some grapes for sale," Young said. "I've got 12 varieties that we grow, and probably seven of those varieties, I still have grapes to sell."
Some growers are pulling out vines, he added.
"Hopefully, that will eventually make a difference and get us out of the oversupply situation that we have," Young said.
In Lodi, Spencer reported "significant vineyard acreage removal" during the past year.
"Many growers have taken this downturn to remove less productive vineyards from production," he said.
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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