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Winemaking and Wine Marketing in a Plague Year
BY STEPHEN TANZER | MAY 06, 2020
In just the past couple of months, the novel coronavirus has profoundly changed the production and sale of wine around the globe. In this roundtable interview, 35 producers get specific about the challenges they are facing.
As you are unlikely to be visiting wineries in the immediate future, I thought I’d bring the producers to you. Specifically, I asked them how they have been affected by the new reality of COVID-19.
What has been the biggest challenge to your winery/wine business posed by the new coronavirus, and what steps have you taken to deal with it?
Obviously, there’s a good bit of repetition in their responses. Phrases like social distancing, non-overlapping shifts, virtual tastings and managing anxiety crop up frequently. And there is much discussion about the staggering effect the new virus has had on restaurants. Not only are thousands of our favorite, most distinctive, wine-friendly restaurants facing an existential threat, but the loss of this sales channel is having a serious ripple effect on wineries that have traditionally relied heavily on sales to restaurants. Many producers have quickly stepped up their use of social media to reach their consumer clients, and it’s already clear that the business of wine is undergoing significant and perhaps permanent change.
On a more personal level, I was happy to hear from so many winemakers, as I’ve been sheltering more or less in place, like most of the rest of you, with limited human contact. I had an action-packed week planned in Napa Valley for the second half of March, featuring a couple of major horizontal Cabernet tastings (2010s and 2001s, two of my favorite Napa Cabernet vintages ever) and some spectacular verticals, which I will hopefully be able to conduct at some point in the future. And since the tasting room in my dining room has not yet been closed down by government officials (nor am I yet required to taste through a mask!), I expect to publish reports on these two vintages in the near future. Tasting these wines in the past few weeks has kept me sane, along with the occasional long walk in Central Park, which is quiet enough these days to allow for sufficient social distancing.
All of the comments in this article are from head winemakers, owners or co-owners, managing directors or veteran international consulting winemakers.
Alberto Antonini, Altos Las Hormigas, Grupo Peñaflor, Bodega Garzón, Poggiotondo and Many Others
I was in South America for the harvest until the middle of March and I was lucky enough to catch a flight back to Italy before Argentina was locked down. As a wine-growing consultant, my life has changed a lot since the worldwide lock-down, mostly for my non-Italian consultancies as at the moment I don’t even know until when I’ll be able to travel to any of the 12 countries where I consult. Because of that, and thanks to the available technology, I’m still doing a lot of work using Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp for business meetings and for tastings where my clients send me the samples (thank God couriers are working efficiently!), and we taste them together. I obviously miss being there in person, but we can still achieve a lot by doing this. In Italy, I can now go and see my clients, obviously keeping the proper distance as the procedures say.
Regarding my clients, situations vary. Those who were only selling in the on-trade are the most affected by the COVID-19 as restaurants, wine bars and wine shops are still closed and their sales have dramatically dropped. They have little income right now but of course they still have to manage their vineyards, which is expensive. But those who have a more balanced situation between on- and off-trade are surviving. The good part is that most governments are helping the growers with subsidies, which are critical to ensuring a minimum cash flow.
As a wine producer in Argentina, I’m happy that we have all been able to pick the grapes and go efficiently through the fermentation and pressing, and we can now continue to manage the winery without major problems. This has happened in all of southern hemisphere wine countries except for South Africa, where I heard they had some major restrictions on working in wineries during and after harvest.
Roberto de la Mota, Mendel Wines (Mendoza)
Certainly, our biggest challenge in Mendoza was to harvest and vinify under quarantine and with social isolation. We harvested early this year and that was an unexpected advantage. In fact, the climate during the summer and especially the fall was warmer than normal and very dry; under those conditions the ripeness came earlier for all varieties and the harvest was between 15 to 30 days earlier than normal.
The harvest started with normal conditions in February, but very quickly the government ordered a complete quarantine due to COVID-19 and only few activities were authorized, like agriculture and food production. For that we prepared special teams for harvest equipped with protection like gloves, masks and glasses. We needed special facilities and toilets, with alcohol and soap. To transport the pickers to vineyards we used buses, and the pickers had to respect the social distancing requirements inside them.
In the winery, we prepared three teams of workers. Each team had a leader for the entire process of vinification, and they worked for periods separated by two hours. One team started early in the morning, another at 3:00 p.m. and the last one at night. Each team, when they finished their shift, cleaned and disinfected the winery, the machines and tools before they left. And everybody has been required to change their clothes before they enter the winery.
Today we finished the maceration process, racking the last Cabernet Sauvignon from Altamira, and we continue with two teams, under the same conditions and taking the same precautions. I go to the winery every morning to taste each tank and decide maceration times, rackings, treatments and pre-blends. Luis, the winemaker who works with me, goes to the winery in the evenings, and we taste together twice a week. Our laboratory also works in two shifts per day, separated by two hours. All of our administration people work at home and via the web.
As in other regions, sales are complicated, especially in on-trade, restaurants, hotels, and so on. Wine shops are not able to receive customers but they can deliver wine to their customers.
In sum, I can say that the hardest or most complicated thing has been to get used to the new rules, limitations and time schedules during the busiest and most important time of year for a winery.
Sebastián Zuccardi, Familia Zuccardi (Uco Valley)
The first challenge was finishing the harvest while dealing with the lockdown that had started on the 20th of March. Luckily, the harvest was earlier than usual, so when the government instituted the lockdown we were nearly finished. But the government also declared agriculture an essential activity, so we can continue with our activities with safety measures. The government established a harvest protocol that we must follow but internally we’ve also created a crisis team. We meet daily in order to take all the necessary measures not to expose our team to the disease and to secure the workplace.
We’ve closed all three of our restaurants and our tourism areas. People over 60 years old are not obligated to work, while those in the so-called high-risk groups either aren’t working or work from home. All people who are not essential to the production areas are working from their homes. Those who are actually working in the winery receive daily training on self-care, since information is one of the most important points to go through in this situation. Everybody’s temperature is taken upon entry. All of us must change clothes when we arrive at work, and then again at the end of the day.
There´s social distancing in every task. The number of people in the same closed space has been restricted, which is why we established different shifts for meals, entry, etc. Vehicles are being used at half-capacity. Disinfectant products such as alcohol are available every 30 meters, as well as soap, paper towels, etc.
The markets are difficult now, with all the restaurants closed and distribution complicated, so the challenge is how to make it easy for consumers to find our wines. But the situation is changing all the time, so we are making minute-to-minute decisions.
Michael Twelftree, Two Hands Wines (Barossa Valley)
Our biggest challenge at Two Hands to date was that we were only two-thirds through our vintage when the outbreak happened. We were faced with the immediate problem that if one of our vintage crew came down with COVID-19, we would have to put the whole vintage crew into lockdown, meaning that we had must under ferment and a number of our best parcels still on the vines. Sadly, the Barossa Valley had been a center for COVID as we had had two outbreaks linked to Swiss and U.S. tourist groups. We decided quickly to isolate the winemaking team and to minimize their contact with others. Myself and our viticulturalist Travis focused on the 250-odd tons that we still had on the vine and adopted strong protocols for the delivery of the fruit. Richard, our head winemaker, and his assistant Brooke did a great job of keeping the team focused on producing the best wines possible, and we finished off the vintage without a glitch.
From a business point of view, we have been very well supported by the Australian government, which has established a Job Keeper package that has allowed us to keep every one of our 20 employees on the payroll. As for the sales cycle, we were well ahead of our budget and we traded very well up until the end of March. April through June look to be slower, so we have pushed back a few bottlings and are preparing ourselves to be back at work and fully functioning as the Government’s three-tiered program from isolation prevails over the coming three months.
I feel very lucky, as Wine Australia has announced that 30% of Australian wineries will not make it out of the pandemic, and I rest comfortably that we will make it through just fine. The Global Financial Crisis back in 2008 taught me to re-invest our profits back in our business by buying more land and planting more vineyards, building the strongest national and international distribution possible, and accumulating a war chest of funds for these times, while not allowing inventory to build up in our warehouse. This has positioned us very nicely for these times.
Andy Erickson, Favia, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Mayacamas Vineyards (Napa Valley)
Luckily the vines do not know about the quarantine, so they continue to grow, and farming is an essential activity, so we are out in vineyards, keeping our distance but working in the same way as normal. It’s been cool until recently, but we just got our first wave of warm weather, and things are really taking off. Grass is still green in the hills, but the vines are really waking up. We can already count clusters in some vineyards. It will be fun to taste the 2020 vintage in a few years and talk about something completely different from the coronavirus.
Our Favia winery is super-small. We are doing minimal winery work, and our team is mainly working from home. I’d say that the biggest challenge, aside from the complete unknown, is finding new ways to connect with our customers. Normally, this time of year (between releases) we only have wine available for those people who come to visit the winery. Seeing as this is not a possibility for the foreseeable future, we are looking to get creative to reach out to people. More than half of our wine is sold direct from the winery in one way or another, so this is important. Also, restaurant business is non-existent, so we are pivoting to partnering with some retailers around the country to get the wine to the right people. Our Carbone brand (fairly new, and 100% in distribution) was mostly on-premise, so we’re rethinking this as well.
Dawnine Dyer, Dyer Vineyard, Meteor Vineyard (Napa Valley)
Direct-to-consumer sales have stayed strong during the first months of COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders, maybe even increased some. As we have no tasting room or direct employees at our vineyard on Diamond Mountain, we haven’t had to cancel events or lay off employees so it has yet to disrupt our lives beyond what everyone else is experiencing: no social events, fundraisers, wine tastings, or visits to San Francisco for the Opera or a play and a dinner out. Instead we are becoming aficionados of Zoom meetings and online solo performances in empty halls. We dine in every night, and, yes, it’s taking a toll on our cellar as well! The Napa Valley as a whole has embraced virtual tastings and promotions. We’ve participated in several Napa Valley Vintners promotions but have been slow to adapt to the virtual world—perhaps at our peril. To be honest, we’d rather make wine.
In the last month our daily concerns for Dyer Vineyard have been pretty mundane: keeping up in the vineyard, and making sure that supplies like barrels and bottles coming from Europe are still going to arrive on time and that bottling schedules can be counted on and accomplished with the appropriate social distancing. We’re spending more time on our community interests in policy: dealing with temporary eviction freezes, food insecurity and how we respond to the overall plight of those who have lost jobs in hospitality and restaurants.
There is no question that this is a disruptive event of monumental proportions and could affect how people socialize and where wine fits in their lives for a long time. Wine is a social beverage and, in our almost 50 years in the wine business, restaurants have played an important role in our business by creating the space for people to learn about and to enjoy wine. You only have to look at the increased role of the professional sommelier to get an idea of how seriously restaurants take educating customers about wine. It is currently unclear what the restaurants of 2021 will look like, and our strategy for adapting is equally uncertain. Our hearts break for those who have been forced to close their doors—the chefs and line cooks, waiters and sommeliers who are out of work—and we look forward to being a part of whatever comes next. In the meantime, thank God for FedEx!
Michael Silacci, Opus One Winery (Napa Valley)
Our most important priority has been to preserve and protect our three biggest assets—people, vineyards and wine. All but three members of my team come to the winery every day. My administrative assistant, packaging manager and enologist work from home. Tonia, our packaging manager, is due to give birth in May, and Alaina, our enologist, gave birth to Victor on April 3. I learned that I am not good at performing administrative tasks. Just trying to arrange lunch for everyone is stressful. Although I usually over-order to ensure that all are well-fed, I was three meals short last Thursday. The Catholic guilt hit me like a John Deere. When you add in laminating documents and coding invoices, I am a complete disaster.
Keeping an upbeat, fun atmosphere and managing anxiety takes constant effort. All vineyard, maintenance and custodial team members are relaxed about being at work. Vineyard and maintenance are comfortable because they have three to four times the social distancing than any other group. They also move around a lot. Honestly, the custodians are probably upbeat just because they have jobs. The cellar crew is a bit anxious due to the enclosed space. We have breakfast on Tuesday mornings and a hot lunch on Thursdays. Each week a different group chooses what we will eat. Last week the custodians asked for donuts, and this week it was scones. We work from home every other Friday to flatten the anxiety curve. Employees read books, look at work-related videos, or study a language. Whatever they choose, each person must submit a brief written report. I have received reports two paragraphs long, and I have received some with just one or two sentences. Next week I will have a couple of piñatas hanging in the mezzanine. We will divvy the spilled treats.
No one is allowed to enter the winery or vineyard shop without having their temperature taken and sharing any news of colds or difficulty breathing. The cut-off for entry is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degrees Celsius. Wearing masks, washing hands for 20 seconds, and spraying doorknobs, keyboards, phones, tabletops, desks, etc. with 70% ethanol is required. We have weekly meetings on Microsoft Teams with managers. All hospitality, sales and accounting staff work from home. They are offered classes in yoga four times a week. We stretch each morning in the cellar and vineyard.
We contact our friends and customers in different ways. We write them, we Zoom with them, we phone them. David (CEO), Chris (VP, Domestic Sales), Christopher (VP, Communications), and Laurent (VP, International Marketing) and I invited anyone who wished to join us to a “wine tasting” on Zoom last week. We had 75 guests. Each one of us chose two wines to share virtually with our guests. We will rinse and repeat this Friday at 9 a.m. PST to catch our friends on the East Coast and in Europe. Asia will follow next week.
I stay put at home. I order delivery or pick-up four or five times a week to help local restaurants. I rotate restaurants at home and at work to spread the support. I encourage every member of my team to support the local restaurants as best they can. After all, we are still working and collecting paychecks. We also provide volunteer opportunities for people working at home. Every employee has up to 40 hours paid for volunteer work at non-profits annually.
Tod Mostero, Dominus Estate (Napa Valley)
The challenge is one that comes back day after day: not knowing. The greater challenge is to not know, yet to keep a clear vision of what is important: Taking care of our corner of the earth and caring for the people around us. And accepting that we will not always know exactly how.
In practical terms, we stay informed and strive to make decisions that make sense in the moment, adapt as things change constantly, and stay flexible. We communicate and check in continuously with each person on our team regarding their concerns, needs and individual health. We also continually question what work is essential and stay creative in finding safe ways of doing it. It has allowed us to remain open to new ways of working and has shifted our perspective on what is possible.
In the vineyard this means separating field workers by a minimum of 16 feet, eliminating ride-sharing, designating farming tools to one person (no tool sharing) and sanitizing all equipment daily.
In the cellar, we have been inventive to keep distance between workers. While racking our 2019 vintage, in order to maintain a healthy distance we resurrected the “racking goat” (la chèvre de soutirage in French), a traditional but long-forgotten French tool which allows one person, instead of two, to tilt and empty each barrel, slowly separating the clear wine from the lees.
This unusual time has been a rare opportunity to stop and reassess all that we do. Our hope is that these important lessons continue to inform us as we open as a community, into the greater unknown.
The "racking goat" used by Dominus Estate to enable a single worker to rack a barrel.
Jason Haas, Tablas Creek Vineyard (Paso Robles)
There have been a number of challenges, from a business standpoint, brought on by COVID-19. Of the two main ones, we don’t yet have a solution to one of them, but we’ve had some success in addressing the other. The so-far solution-less issue is the widespread closure of restaurants and the disappearance of that piece of our wholesale sales. We’re doing what we can locally to support our restaurants who are offering take-out, but nationally, the 60% of our wholesale sales that historically have gone to restaurant accounts has just disappeared. We’ve made up a little of that from higher volumes in retail accounts, but we don’t have much distribution through the retail chain and grocery stores that have been seeing most of the increased traffic. We had a number of programs I was excited about this year for restaurants, including new seasonal-pour keg wines, an expanded offering of some of our limited-release varietal bottlings, and some special wines we’d blended for a few high-profile accounts. All of these are on hold until the restaurant world gets back to business, and we’re expecting to finish the year with extra inventory of the items we typically sell wholesale.
The issue for which I feel like we’ve found some exciting solutions is the disappearance of the traditional avenues and venues where we’d meet our customers: our tasting room, festivals and tastings, and restaurant and retailer events. All of these have been closed, canceled, or pushed back into the second half of the year. But these challenges have forced us to fast-track some new sorts of experiences that we’d been discussing before but never seemed to find the time to get up and running. I’ve been hosting weekly Instagram Live broadcasts with guests here from the winery every Wednesday. Our Winemaker Neil Collins has begun hosting Facebook Live tastings, also with a guest, each Friday evening. We’ve launched virtual tastings where people can order wine or just let us know that they have wines they’d like to taste, and we set up Zoom calls and walk them through an interactive tasting from their homes. These have all been extremely well received.
We’ve also redoubled our efforts to share what we’re doing via video (we now have our own YouTube channel to collect these), over e-mail, and on our blog. And the response that we’ve gotten from our customers has been amazing. We’re seeing Internet and phone sales three and four times what we were seeing pre-COVID. We’re seeing online wine club signups five times our pre-COVID averages. It’s not quite enough to make up for getting zero revenue or wine club signups from our (closed) tasting room, but it’s far closer than I would ever have expected. All of these efforts have in common that instead of asking customers to come to us, we’re reaching them where they are. It’s all valuable enough that I’m sure we’re going to continue to do much of it even after we can reopen, and I’m so convinced we’ll be a better business for these changes that I made them the subject of my blog this week.
David Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars (Sonoma County)
Our sales are substantially to restaurants via our distributors across the U.S. and our importers overseas. With those outlets closed internationally, our sales to distributors and importers have of course dropped considerably. Proactively we’ve asked our sales team to take accrued vacation time, then to go to half-time working from home. As it is now, they can’t travel, work in person with distributors, or visit accounts. Until this passes, they’ll keep in touch with their accounts via phone and e-mail. Still, when 60% to 70% of your business is on-premise (restaurants), the sales figures drop dramatically.
On the production side, agriculture and agricultural processing are exempt industries in California. People may not think of wine as an essential business (though many of our direct customers stuck at home would disagree), but crops don’t stop growing and needing care, and the processing of fresh produce (including wine grapes) is time-sensitive. We just finished adding SO2 to our last lots four weeks ago—until then they were vulnerable to oxidation and microbial spoilage. We did close the winery the first two weeks of April to let folks adjust to the new situation with their families, but we’re now back open, preparing for our June bottling run.
And of course, this is not a year to try out any new vineyards. With sales slowing due to restaurant closures, cash flow will become an issue for wineries. They will want to buy fewer grapes to conserve cash, and make less wine to try to sell in a challenging market. That translates to decreased demand for grapes, which of course hits growers in the pocket book. They may sell their grapes at a lower price, or not at all.
Still—cheers! Raid those old bottles in your cellars! Then buy new ones…
Jeff Mangahas, Williams & Selyem Winery (Sonoma County)
The biggest challenge initially was trying to understand and then adapt to a very dynamic situation. With the shelter-in-place order and mandatory social distancing, obviously all of our in-person interactions have stopped. Like all other wineries, our appointment-only Tasting Salon was closed once the guidelines were announced. We’ve had to cancel our customer appreciation events, both in California as well as at our sister winery in New York. We also do many events around the country, from winemaker dinners to charity auctions, and these have all been either cancelled or postponed. While connecting with our customers in all of these ways is vitally important to us, thankfully our business model is centered around our allocation list. Throughout the history of the winery almost all of our wine has been sold directly to consumers, so we are extremely fortunate that we can continue to maintain our business as we always have.
All of our full-time staff, besides the winemaking and warehouse teams, are working from home. Over the last few weeks, they’ve all learned how to be effective while working remotely. In addition to our usual customer service, Zoom meetings, virtual tastings, and FaceTime calls with customers are the new norm. We are extremely grateful that our business model was well suited for making these minor shifts. We hope that when this ends, our industry, along with the restaurant industry with which we are so closely aligned, will quickly get back on solid footing. But the longer this goes on, the harder that will be.
Thankfully, winery production and farming are considered essential functions. The production staff are coming to work and caring for the wine on a daily basis. With protocols in place to ensure cleanliness and distancing, wine production has been as efficient as ever. It seems like harvest is around the corner, with flowering close to happening in the Russian River Valley, and we need to keep moving forward as there is much blending and topping to accomplish. I rely on a lot of seasonal help, especially foreign interns from winemaking programs around the world, and it is not clear how many will be able or willing to come as a result of all the uncertainty. I am hopeful that I will be able to get the workforce that we need to make these handcrafted wines.
Ted Lemon, Littorai (Sonoma County)
Our business is quite rhythmic, or cyclical. Not cyclical in the sense economists use the term, but in the sense that we have two offerings a year with an occasional offer of a small lot of a special bottling outside of the main ones. We also only welcome visitors for private visits, so we are not dependent on large numbers of visitors to the winery to pay our bills. On the other hand, restaurant clients are very important to us. That business has completely evaporated.
Of course the challenges are enormous. We are that much abused term, “a small family winery.” There is no family fortune behind Littorai, no outside income, and we have no investors. So either we sell wine or we close up shop. We have taken the usual business steps of reducing expenses and making sure that our production crew is concentrating only on essential work. On the other hand, every crisis is an opportunity, so on the administrative side we are busy working on changes to our systems so that when we do come out of this, we will hopefully be in a stronger position.
Like all businesses, we have far more questions than answers: What will happen to the restaurant business? How long will it take to recover? When will people begin traveling again? How “permanent” are the changes we see today? With so many questions and so little clarity, we can only concentrate on what we know. We are in the fine wine business. Quality means everything. All of our efforts are directed towards maintaining quality at all costs.
We are fortunate to be part of a winemaking tradition that goes back to the dawn of civilization. There have been times far more difficult than this and winemaking has survived and prospered. The ants may be the last around at the apocalypse, but we will be the second-last to go…
Frédéric Barnier, Maison Louis Jadot (Burgundy)
The first days were, as everywhere, stressful and a huge surprise. No one was prepared for the outbreak of the coronavirus. So after a few days, and to relieve some of the pressure on our people, we decided to close the winery for a period. In the vineyard, a lot of work had been going on because the weather over the previous six weeks had been great, and, as you may know, 2020 started off as a very early year.
After one week we reopened the winery and adapted the way to bottle our wines from the 2018 vintage and to rack the 2019 wines to prevent any contamination from COVID (e.g., two meters between each worker, masks, washing hands, etc.). Our team was really happy to be back and to belong to the group of workers who are active (still only 50% of active people in France are working, and only 30% at their office or usual place). Finally, to be honest, our daily life here in the cellar is not so different than usual.
Our biggest challenge has been to bring serenity and to trust our capacity to organize the work with the lowest risk. In fact, it’s life outside the winery that’s different. We consume less, we eat local, we take care of our families, friends and neighbors. We cook more by ourselves and are rediscovering that time is precious. Of course life at home with four children, schoolwork to do and nowhere to go can sometimes be difficult, but I’m lucky to be able to come back to the winery in the morning to breathe some aromas from our cellars. What is new is that there are now no visits at our winery, and no tastings except for our own “technical” tastings. So we have time to work well and to do a great job!
For business, it’s too early to know exactly what will happen. We still have some orders from everywhere in the world, U.S.A. included. The biggest challenge will probably be the next six months, but I’m confident about our resilience. Of course, we are very worried about our friends working in restaurants and hotels. People at home are drinking and when shops are able to reopen, maybe they will need to buy some bottles...
Frédéric Engerer, Château Latour, Domaine d’Eugénie, Clos de Tart, Château Grillet, Eisele Vineyard and others
Here are the steps we have taken, in order of importance. First is the safety of our employees (vineyard workers and, especially, cellar workers): making sure that they understand and respect the protection measures, and letting them know that they can come to work without any stress. We have also canceled all tastings at Latour until at least mid-May, and we have canceled our international events until at least October. And, finally, we have postponed commercial wine releases.
But I’m afraid the biggest challenge is still ahead of us, when we have to manage the return to work of all our employees. This is still a page to be written. We’re getting prepared for this, but there are many new legal issues to deal with.
Jean-Marie Fourrier, Domaine Fourrier (Burgundy)
We had the earliest bud break ever seen in Burgundy--the beginning of April, just after the beginning of the lockdown—while bud break in the last few years has been in the middle of April and more like the beginning of May 15 years ago! So our priority has been the vineyards for the last month and we’ve been lucky to work with our staff outside in the vineyards (keeping social distance is not a problem). But all the local suppliers (garages for tractors, labeling company, etc.) have closed their businesses, and the supply of things needed to work the vineyards or fix our tractor quickly became a nightmare. Still, we have been really lucky not to be as affected as people living in cities.
François Labet, Château de la Tour, Domaine Pierre Labet (Burgundy)
Although we expected it, this crisis has surprised us with its violence. The confinement officially started on March 17th, but from the beginning of that month we had taken our precautions by buying hydro-alcoholic gel and masks, because although nature does not wait, we could imagine a ban being placed on working in the vineyards, all this while asking our employees to respect the barrier gestures and safety distances. Fortunately our profession was one of those authorized to continue to operate. To date we have no cases of viruses at Château de la Tour or in our families. Certainly, being in the country is preferable to being in Paris or New York City right now, but we are shaken by all the announcements of deaths in these cities that we love so much, as well as in the rest of the world.
Concerning our commercial activities, of course they have slowed down considerably on the domestic market following the closure of the restaurant business. Our government has put considerable sums of money on the table to help all companies, but without consumption business cannot be done. Fortunately, our international clientele in more than 80 countries is still present and follows us, of course in Asia but also in the U.S.A. where, despite the tariffs, sales in stores are still very active. In Europe, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries are doing well, but it must be said that our future is nevertheless suspended until restaurants and hotels reopen, and this is the case all over the world.
Dominique Lafon, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon (Burgundy)
We have adapted quite fast and easily regarding social distancing and work: the office works from home and we practice distancing in the vineyard and in the cellar. This is now working really well and assures the production side, taking care of the vineyard, following the new vintage and bottling the 2018s.
The office is really quiet as most of our markets are affected. We still ship wine but at a smaller ratio. Last week, our challenge was to find transportation to deliver to retail shops in Paris as they are still active, but no carrier was available!
We do not know exactly where we are going in terms of sales. All of our production is booked (so in theory there’s nothing to sell), but it is hard to get answers on when the wines will move.
A big part of our clients are restaurants, and we do not know when they will be able to reopen. I just hope they will be able to stand strong through this crisis. Most of them are good friends and I know it is really hard on them!
We are working on an online site but this will not be ready until November. This approach might be one of the keys to dealing with this crisis. I truly miss having people visiting the cellar and I hope it is not going to last long. We are doing virtual tastings and they work well.
Both domaines will get through this crisis, but I guess our markets will be strongly affected and changed. We should have a clearer idea by June and will need to continue to adapt to changing conditions.
Paul Amsellem, Domaine Georges Vernay (Rhône Valley)
The entire modern world is experiencing this pandemic—a period it has never experienced before. Everyone is impacted, and in all sectors. Our main concern when we heard about the need for total containment was that we would not be able to continue working in our vineyards, which would have been a disaster because nature does not wait, especially in the spring. But fortunately, the government exempted agriculture from the most rigid restrictions. So we have taken all the necessary measures to ensure that our employees can work in complete safety, because being in organic farming, we need many more people, especially workers from abroad.
As for sales, of course they are very slow because all the restaurants are closed and we are very well represented in the restaurant business. Exports are also slowing down, but fortunately internet sites are now selling much more wine than usual both in France and abroad.
Philippe Guigal, E. Guigal (Rhône Valley)
The French market, which is important for us (55% of our business), has completely stopped because of the closing of restaurants. And if wine consumption at home has grown in France like it has everywhere else in the world, French consumers are not buying much wine at retail. This is largely because the French tend to have cellars, and they are simply emptying their stocks. This situation is very different from the U.S., Canada or northern Europe, where consumers usually buy wine to drink it soon. Therefore, we are expecting a strong move from French consumers to refill their cellars after the pandemic, but right now 95% of our activity is oriented towards export markets with significant growth and excellent figures.
In order to ensure the preparation of the orders and keep enough sanitary distance between our workers, we have adopted many measures at the winery. First of all, we are totally closed to the public and we welcome truck drivers only in specific zones of our buildings. The minimum distance of one meter between people has been easy to maintain as we are fortunate to work in large facilities. One hundred percent of our workers are safe and in good health.
In the vineyards, we are worried about the lack of water and the precocity of the vintage, but our vignerons in the Rhône Valley truly enjoy working outside and feel very “free” during their working hours. Being a vintner in Côte-Rôtie has become a true privilege.
Andrea Felluga, Livio Felluga (Friuli)
Business-wise, Lombardy was one of the first centers of contagion, and we noticed its first effects on sales as early as the end of February. As of March 11, our government shut down all bars and restaurants and the lockdown strategy rapidly spread all over the world. We were quick to adopt the necessary measures to ensure the safety of our employees, as a winery cannot afford to stop its activities in the vineyard and cellar even with markets being on hold (Livio Felluga is on-premises-driven). On a brighter note, we are blessed with wines capable of aging: because their quality increases with time, we can afford to slowly go back to business. As Italians say, we intend to make “di necessità virtù” and after the crisis Livio Felluga will hopefully offer even more complex and intriguing wines.
Luca Currado, Vietti (Piedmont)
What you describe is happening in New York City is exactly what we are living through here since more than a month ago. We can leave our homes only to go to work (but many companies had to suspend their activities), to the supermarket or to the pharmacy. There are long lines in stores as well, and of course wearing a mask is absolutely compulsory. The cities and villages are ghost places. All the shops, bars and restaurants are closed.
As far as our winery is concerned, we have been able to continue our activity. As you know, nature does not stop, so especially in the vineyards the work has been going on without big changes and has not slowed down. As for employees, in order to safeguard their health, some have worked from home, some work at the office but with masks and the necessary safety distance. In the past week, we are gradually trying to have people come back to the office. We wear masks and have put up glass partitions to separate our desks.
Of course we are all waiting for May 4 and the beginning of Phase 2, which will enable us to partially go back to normality.
Pietro Ratti, Renato Ratti (Piedmont)
The winery stopped in March for about a week, in order to figure out how to manage the security and practical operating distances in the daily cellar occupation. Same for the vineyards, which are now starting the busy season of the year and need a lot of manual work. For the employees it has been easier to keep them working from home.
If the wine/vineyard work cannot stop, what’s really challenging is of course the wine “business” in terms of shipments and deliveries. As you probably know, in markets like Italy, restaurants represent almost 80% of the business of fine wine. In the last 20 years our region—Piemonte and, within it, Langhe—has developed into one of the greatest food-and-wine destinations in the world. For the majority of the local wineries this represents a very important market, along with direct sales to private customers who visit the cellar. With the lockdown, which includes restaurants, wine shops and private parties, the consumption of fine wine has stopped. We’ve seen a small increase in on-line business but that cannot compensate for the loss of restaurant business.
This loss of sales will shortly affect those wines that have to be drunk young, like Arneis, Dolcetto, and fresh-made Barbera and Nebbiolo. In a few months, vintage 2020 will arrive in a cellar that’s probably still half full of previous vintages. That’s why we are thinking of reducing the quantity of the upcoming vintage in order to avoid a risk of overproduction. Of course it will all depend on when and how restaurants will reopen and how confident and safe people will feel.
Overall, I think that even if we discovered new ways of virtual socialization, the physical and emotional contact, which is typical of Italians, is difficult and impossible to replace. That’s why we can’t wait to share our wines around a table, preferably in a nice restaurant that we love.
Blair Walter, Felton Road (Central Otago)
Yes, it’s been an interesting season, to say the least! We started picking on March 20 at Cornish Point and finished on April 20, which makes it the longest harvest in many years. We had cool and wet weather during the flowering, which widened the fruit set and, consequently, the ripeness at the different vineyards. In addition, we experienced one of the coolest Marches that we have ever seen, slowing up the ripeness considerably. In some ways, this was welcome, as it gave us time to put the necessary procedures and precautions in place so that we could continue to harvest in a safe manner. It also meant that we didn’t have the pressure to gather the fruit as quickly as we could—a complete contrast to 2019, when the vintage was gathered in just 11 days over a spread of 12.
Agricultural and horticultural businesses were deemed “Essential Services” that were allowed to continue to operate during the national lockdown, which was imposed on March 25. We were determined to do everything we possibly could to ensure the health and safety of our workers as there had been a lot of trust put in us. Our local Winegrowers Association, New Zealand Winegrowers and MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries) issued strict protocols and procedures; we had inspections and phone calls from MPI to make sure that we were complying and happy with the regulations. We split the harvest team into two 20-person groups that were isolated bubbles, and the five of us in the winery created our own distinct bubble with no contact with the vineyard teams—apart from chats from a distance when they dropped off fruit or we had to discuss where to pick next. We have strict protocols on any deliveries and delivery drivers. Three of the winery team are living at the winery: Harry and Jordan sharing a one-bedroom flat and Larissa living in her van in the carpark for the last five weeks. My family and my assistant winemaker’s family are part of our bubble that strictly have no outside contact.
One funny and slightly sad incident was in the early stages, when we very quickly ran out of hand sanitizer and had to resort to using our uncut Fine (our distilled Pinot Noir lees uncut at 66%). That was expensive hand cleaner, but it sure did smell good!
Brian Bicknell, Mahi Wines (Marlborough)
The main challenge has been the health of our staff, as we were lucky to be considered “essential,” and with that designation came a lot of responsibility. Our team all showed up at the winery every day kind of knowing they would have been safer staying at home, but they came anyway to do what they love doing. To alleviate their concerns, we moved to two distinct shifts and spent 30 minutes between each shift sterilizing everything that we could, such as equipment like forklifts, handles, spanners, the lab, toilets and such. We were using a local gin-based sanitizer which smelled so good! Everyone aimed to keep a two-meter spacing, which for a tactile person like me is very hard. All staff had to go straight home and straight back to the winery, which was quite easy as nothing is open anyway. Then, all reported in the morning on how they were feeling and what they had done the night before (again usually pretty boring stuff like cleaning wine-stained clothing!).
We hand-pick a lot so the crew had to come up with a new method of picking so they could respect the two-meter gaps. This was slower and a bit complicated but we have had about nine days now with no new cases in Marlborough so something has worked. Similarly, it would have been difficult to keep two-meter spacing along our sorting table for the hand-picked fruit, but we were lucky that that fruit this year was clean and didn’t require sorting.
One of the many joys of vintage is that you get to hang out for six weeks with young focused winemakers from all around the world, keeners who have invested in the trip to New Zealand to learn, teach and generally soak up the fun that is vintage. I think there are maybe a thousand of them who descend on Marlborough each harvest and the whole experience is great, with the bars and pubs full of people who love the process, and the product, of wine. The feel was so different this year because we split into two separate shifts and could not interact at all, other than a quick chat from about five meters as we changed over. We usually meet up at a local pub after a shift, and again that couldn’t happen. So basically the fun factor wasn’t there.
As to the business side: I didn’t move fast enough in 2008 and took in too much fruit and lost a lot of money by selling wine in bulk at a loss, so this year I quickly sold on a bit of fruit and there was demand for that, which was positive. We are something like 90% restaurant worldwide and they are closed, so we are focusing a lot more on the independent wine stores, like Mr. Wrights and Vino in New York.
The first thing that happens is that orders from your overseas agents are suspended, so sales stop, and then the payments from distributors slow down as they retain cash to get through the crisis, so cash becomes an issue. Obviously on-line and direct-to-customer becomes more important so there is a renewed focus on that also.
Larry McKenna, Escarpment (Martinborough)
Notwithstanding many challenges, the New Zealand wine industry has been very fortunate to be granted “essential service” status, allowing us to continue harvesting. Escarpment was in the middle of an excellent vintage when given notice of moving from level 2 to level 4 (complete lockdown for at least 4 weeks) over the next 48 hours. It took another 18 hours after that to hear we had been granted special status, allowing the industry to complete its vintage. We are fully committed to hand-harvesting around 250 tons of grapes, so we had few options.
Fortunately many of our contract laborers are Thai, on temporary visas, and they were willing (and very able) to continue working. Without them it would have been a disaster. So grateful!
We had to rejig all of our picking and winery staff into smaller teams which were able to socially isolate (keep at least a two-meter distance). Numerous staff around the district took the opportunity to move home, leaving most wineries with skeleton teams. In Escarpment’s case we were fortunate to have reliable vineyard staff come into the winery to replace a couple of interns who decided that they didn’t want to remain in Martinborough, and we were able to replace them in the vineyard with Thai contractors.
We have never had such clean premises! A requirement of the essential service status is complete sanitization twice daily. Alongside this, logs of all personnel movements, contacts logged daily and no visitors.
On a more down-to-earth level we have experienced the first-ever vintage without all the fun of the event. No drinks after work, no fancy vintage dinners, no vintage party, and virtually no great bottles shared, which is always an integral part of harvest, especially with young enthusiastic interns who are here not only to help with harvest, but to gain the holistic experience.
New Zealand is now at the end of the 4-week Level 4 period but it has been extended another 7 days; then it will be Level 3 for 14 days. We have finished picking a very successful crop. By the end of Level 3 it will be all pressed and in barrel, so life may have a chance of returning to the new normal! Dare I say it, we will be looking forward to a break!
Mat Donaldson, Pegasus Bay Winery (Waipara)
Harvest was a couple of weeks earlier than usual this year and at the very start, COVID had not really been talked about. We don’t really watch the news and the first we heard about the virus was that maybe some of our team wasn’t going to make it from Europe. In the end we had three who couldn’t make it, but we made do. Two of my brothers stepped up and worked the harvest, which was handy.
About three weeks in we were uncertain whether our operation would be closed down, but luckily the prime minister decided that wine is an essential primary industry in New Zealand and we were allowed to keep operating as normal. The weather was kind and, to be honest, it was quite a relaxing harvest. We had to close our restaurant and cellar-door sales which meant that we had our own private chef and we could play music as loud as we wanted. To be honest, COVID didn’t significantly affect us.
I haven’t left the property (except for going to vineyards) for the last six weeks, but that’s normal for me over harvest. I’m only just starting to realize that the world has gone crazy. We still have about 20 vats of red to press and some late-harvest gewürz to pick, which we should have done in the next week or so. And then I guess I will try to integrate back into this new society that I hear is out there. It sounds like I have been lucky enough to miss out on some difficult times, which I am thankful for.
Josh Bergström, Bergström Winery (Willamette Valley)
When this thing started unfolding in early March, I was on the road for sales and people were elbow-bumping but still attending large tastings, like the one I was at. Every day brought a new closure, a new story of famous chefs and wineries closing their doors for the safety of their staff and customers, and a new and staggering sick and body count. My wife Caroline and I asked ourselves daily if we should close as well but felt lost and unsure of the right direction. What was happening?! Then, almost as if out of an apocalyptic movie, all restaurants were closed, millions of people were unemployed, and our state government mandated the closure of all tasting rooms and I had to lay off five of my team members. Caroline and I went to a local grocery store to get groceries for dinner only to hit a wall of hundreds of people in long lines with overflowing grocery carts filled with canned foods, toilet paper, bleach products—and all of their faces were filled with dread. We actually cried that morning out of fear for what was to come.
Now more than five weeks later, we are still here trying to keep a family business “in business.” The feeling of dread has not left but the initial panic has subsided into a daily routine of safety procedures and austerity measures. We have had to gut our regular expenses down to just the basic farming, winemaking and sales initiatives. We were able to trade wine for distillation “heads” from a good friend of ours here in Portland who owns House Spirits and we made large containers of 70% alcohol spray that we spray on everything all of the time because Purell and other hand sanitizers are impossible to find. It smells like a Gin and Tonic, so at least there’s that to look forward to 30 times a day.
Because our wine warehouses and FedEx and UPS deliveries have been deemed essential, we are still able to ship people wine and that has been our saving grace. Without those key businesses, and the fact that all of our customers are trapped at home and want to cook and eat and drink, we would have suffered the same terrible fate as our brothers and sisters in the restaurant world. The restaurants have had to pivot into take-out but that will not be the silver bullet in getting them to be able to re-hire and re-open. I fear that fine dining and communal dining as we have known and loved them will be irreparably changed, and that also saddens me. When “Go Fund Me” is the largest supplier of American health care and business aid, we have a problem.
Bergström Wines has been in business for more than 20 years and we intend on being here on the other side of this. I don’t know what that will look like but it will be a lot leaner than it is now. My son, who is a senior in high school, was just sent an e-mail that he had graduated. No online classes, no prom, no ceremony, just a good-luck wish. Today he is in our vineyards disbudding and wondering what his future looks like too.
All of this said, we are fortunate. We have a house and a job and our health and we are able to get out into the vineyards daily. We have been able to pivot our business into online sales and our distribution network, though hurting, is finding sales opportunities in the “off-premise” retail sector.
Tony Soter, Soter Vineyards (Willamette Valley)
First let me say that COVID doesn’t care if it’s spring, but our animals do, our vines and gardens do, and we most gratefully have much to keep us busy. If the sun is up, the vines will grow. We have bud break and first leaves to tend. So it begins. In the cellar, wines always reawaken in the spring. Young ones finish their malos or generally de-gas after their first winter and accelerate their evolution. Older and more evolved wines don’t make themselves ready for bottling by themselves but present a work opportunity. It's all what we live for and what we will sacrifice to sustain.
We have laid off our on-site hospitality team while maintaining their full health care coverage. We are grateful that the government programs are assisting in covering lost wages for these folks. Everyone else is more than working, trying to reinvent ways we do commerce as well as interact with each other. Improvisation is the watchword. How about opening a farm store? Selling produce and prepared goods along with wine . . . ready for pick-up or free local delivery. Wine farm will travel. Will prevail!
We are grateful for the substantial subscription patronage we have, which has represented more than half our income in recent years. This was not the case in 2008 when recession brought incoming orders to an end, but then at least channels of business were open. I never thought I would be thankful for the Amazon paradigm, but being able to reach and effectively transact relationships directly with our customers is a lifeline of both hope and purpose.
There is a wall we will hit in the months ahead when dramatically reduced income will inadequately meet the mounting expenses of farming and winemaking. As dismal a prospect as another indebtedness is just to backfill business disruption, we are again fortunate to be in a position supported by banking and government to mortgage our shortfalls when the time comes. And while this will be a burden for our business, and a stress to our people, I am hopeful the financial burden will not bear on our people.
Best of all, the wines are still for sale. We can’t say that about meals in our great restaurants. There is a grief I feel nearly as much as the human losses our restaurant friends are suffering: it is the void of creativity that is exposed.
Again, we can be grateful that the pleasures inherent in our creations of bottled wine remain intact. We hope many people will continue to find comfort in the things they can fully appreciate. Even as you contemplate curtailment and loss, lift a glass of fine wine and thank your good fortune that you can still taste and smell the wonders of life. I know many of us winegrowers will be thanking you!
Abrie Beeslaar, Kanonkop Estate (Stellenbosch)
South Africa, as always, is a complicated place. Our government has the challenge to set rules for very diverse communities, including those that have no jobs, no food, and where people live in very tough conditions (partly due to the current government). So the rules and laws that have been put in place are very strict, and also enforced to that extent.
We are not allowed to leave our homes (luckily we have some space on the farm to jog), and are only allowed to go shopping for essential goods, and visit the doctor and dentist, etc. This is the 4th week of lockdown and a lot of people are getting very frustrated.
Wine and tobacco have been categorized as non-essential, and nobody can buy any alcohol or cigarettes. I think we are one of the few countries in the world that has such strict rules in place. We are also not allowed to export any wine, although the export of other agricultural products is continuing. Nobody can make any sense of this policy, and our industry has been in long discussions with the government trying to understand their reasoning.
At this stage we are not selling any wine, locally or internationally. We have orders that need to be sent. We have local customers that have no wine left, and can’t buy anything anywhere. We will be losing shelf space if we cannot supply in the near future, and you know how tough it is to get listings. The whole industry is waiting to see what the government decides on the reopening of business on the 4th of May.
At the winery we are allowed to carry on with necessary activities, and all of our work is up to date in the winery and the vineyards. Before lockdown we filled the whole supply chain, so our wines will be on shelves and in stock immediately. Two thousand twenty was a fantastic vintage for us, and we are very excited about the quality. One of the challenges that we have overcome is this “dazed and confused” feeling; we’ve done this by continuing to focus on quality no matter what. We also have very strict rules and regulations in place concerning social distancing, face masks and screens, and hygiene. All of our people are also screened every morning before they start work.
Anthony Hamilton-Russell, Hamilton Russell Vineyards (Hemel-en-Aarde Valley)
Our biggest challenge has been maintaining business health in the face of our fairly draconian South African lockdown regulations. We are determined not to cut any salaries or lay off any of our staff. And so far, so good. We are one of very few countries that has banned the sale of any alcohol during lockdown. For a few days the government granted permission to proceed with export shipments of wine that was already bottled, labelled, boxed and ready. This was then revoked when the transport of wine within the country was banned. So we cannot generate any revenue at present, but costs continue. I particularly feel for restaurants and hotels (worldwide). For them a sale lost today is a sale completely lost. For us, we still have our wine and if we don’t sell it today, we can sell it later. Our problem is one of financing the cash flow implications of delayed income in a difficult business climate.
We are working hard to get and use additional bank financing to see us through. This is not a situation we can cost-cut our way out of without hurting our business badly—and the wellbeing of our team and their families. Our inability to sell wine at present doesn’t mean we can’t continue to build demand. Like so many, we have taken to Zoom and Microsoft Teams to communicate and host tastings with our distributors, customers and consumers. Essential work continues in the vineyard and cellar with all the precautions in place. We are currently nursing our beautiful 2020s—our 40th vintage—in the cellar and we look forward to selling these into a world restored to full health in 2021.
Charles Back, Fairview Winery (Paarl)
Our biggest challenge is the moratorium in South Africa on the sale of any alcohol drinks, including wine. This has not only been imposed on the local market, but exports are also prohibited.
We produce all our own grapes for the production of wine and all vineyard workers are currently at home while receiving remuneration. The combination of these two factors is crippling our wine industry. We have contacted many authorities and joined several discussions to try and negotiate the opening of alcohol sales with the government.
Gyles Webb, Thelema Mountain Vineyards (Stellenbosch)
We went into a three-week lockdown on the 26th of March, without too much warning from our government or clear information on what we could and couldn’t do during this period. What was quite clear was that we could not sell any wine. We had a mad scramble to finish our grape picking and to get the wine safely stored in tanks or barrels. After a few days we were informed that we could carry on with certain farming operations but we decided to have a complete shut-down for our business for three weeks. The lockdown was then extended for another two weeks. We had urgent winemaking issues to attend to (checking malolactic fermentations, getting wine into barrels, racking, etc.) so the winery staff have been doing some essential winery work, and the vineyard team is busy with soil preparation for new vineyard establishment, but our office staff and sales personnel are still at home on full pay.
So the challenges to our business are quite simple: we are not permitted to sell wine, locally or for export, so there’s no income, but our salaries and wages bill remains the same. On top of that our debtors are being very slow in paying us and I expect we will have a lot of bad debts, especially from restaurants that have been forced to close. I imagine that many in our industry are in the same boat and we urgently need to get sales moving again in order to stay afloat. More worrying, of course, is the plight of our poorer communities where the unemployment figures are skyrocketing and hunger is becoming a real issue. It’s going to be a bumpy ride for quite a while yet.
Aryn Morrel, Morrel-Peña, Gard Vintners, and Others (Washington)
Ninety-five percent of what we do is for our client wineries, and keeping our staff focused on what's in front of us rather than worry about what harvest could be like, if it will happen, and if we'll make it there has been complicated. We had a staff member quarantined early on, before we had tests readily available in our area, and the stress of needing to keep our operations moving while we waited for him to become "eligible" for testing with the limited amount of tests they had available was interesting, to say the least. Our clients still needed us to keep moving on their behalf but with people trying to be extra careful, any cough, slight fever or perceived symptom was treated with a stay-away attitude. We went for nearly three weeks trying to manage over 100,000 cases of production and the 100+ bottlings we do a year with only three people, including myself.
All hands on deck was the only way to keep moving but it was almost cathartic at the same time as I spent most of those three weeks racking and blending wines by myself in silence. It’s been oddly invigorating to get back out on the floor and away from the paperwork and managerial responsibilities and just go back to what got me to this point. It’s easy to put together a theoretical blend with samples your staff pulls you, but to go on the floor and lay out 200 barrels and taste and blend as you rack, clean and prep the barrels to be refilled by yourself reminds you of the process you know so intimately well but has slowly drifted away as you worked your way up the ranks. Not just telling your staff what we needed to do to get through this but to show them has made our team closer and more appreciative of each other’s commitment to get through this together. We bottled and shipped 13 different wines in April alone and you could see that the progress we were making was taking weight off of everyone and that we were getting more efficient with fewer people as we stopped thinking there was going to be someone else to do the work. It's just us.
The second part of what's happening is that we own several brands and having our tasting room shut down and our art gallery closed has made us appreciate the normalcy and financial stability that used to exist. Communication with your clientele has always been important, but especially now. How can you stay in front of people and not be another one of the countless emails, Facebook/IG posts that every business is sending out? How can you show genuine concern for the people you've come to know over the years while trying to let them know you've got that new Chardonnay, Cabernet, Grenache, etc. ready for them if they need it? How can you support the customers/restaurants/salespeople when they need it while also not pressuring people to buy your commodity? We actually haven't sent a single "purchase"-related email to our customers but have continued to show through social media that we're still operating and have new wines if someone wants us to ship something to them. We're available but we don't want people to feel like we're selling them, as they're getting that from everywhere. Our wines will exist for long enough for people to eventually enjoy them but we're thoughtful of others like our emerging artists who have put together a show only to have that opportunity disappear and not know when it could come again.
Louis Skinner, Betz Family Winery (Washington)
The coronavirus has significantly changed how we do things here at Betz. First of all, trying to figure out how to best proceed with life and business since the COVID-19 outbreak started has been difficult. We were scheduled to host our annual Spring Release weekend event at the winery (March 6-8) just as public health recommendations began to be issued in our area, asking for congregations of 250 or more people to be cancelled. In response, we have offered our customers the ability to pick up their wine at the winery, whenever they are able to come in, which has also presented unique challenges. Like many other small wineries, we had to all of a sudden rearrange our winery, allowing us to pack wine on an as-needed basis in order to accommodate our members’ pick-ups.
As the situation has worsened, leading to shelter in place and the loss of so many jobs, we have grappled with two questions: How can we help the community? And how can we stay connected with our customers? We have been raising money for the Seattle Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund, and are donating 15% of the sale price of each bottle to help those most in need. There are a lot of people out there struggling, and everything counts.
And the whole world is getting creative in finding new ways to stay connected. We have been using this opportunity to increasingly connect with our customer base through Zoom. Bob (Betz), Steve (Griesel), Bridgit (Griesel) and I have all taken part. It’s been an unexpected chance to offer them an experience that might not be available under normal circumstances. In these difficult times, people want to stay connected now more than ever.
The impact that COVID-19 has had on our restaurant and service industries is breathtaking. If there was ever any uncertainty about the importance of protecting our restaurants, there should not be any longer. At the end of the day, wine is a food product. Its home, above anywhere else, is at the table. Without restaurant tables to put our wines on, we will continue to be without one of our most important sources of bottle sales. If not for the 10+-million restaurant and service workers facing unemployment right now, or the loss of one of the most important parts of our culture, then for the fact that our success is tied to theirs. Support restaurants any and all ways you can.
Rick Small, Woodward Canyon Winery (Washington)
The biggest challenge has been that tasting rooms in Washington were required to close to slow the pandemic. Not only did we have to place two full-time tasting room employees on furlough, but we lost face-to-face contact with our customers. Although wine club releases and online purchases continue to ship, we are providing curbside pickup as well as local deliveries; it feels very different.
This time of year is when we usually begin our season for receiving visitors. It’s unsettling to look out onto the patio that is usually full of happy people enjoying a glass of wine and instead see no one. Also, two of the Valley’s largest consumer weekends are in April and May. Not having those hurts financially as well as not being able to connect with our existing customers and meet new ones at those events.
Hopefully wine tourism will come back fairly quickly for us, because people will want to get out of the cities to rural, open areas to have a relaxing diversion. In the meantime, continuing to engage with our customers through increased email correspondence and social media postings, focusing not just on sales but also on maintaining connections, is going to be a priority. We’re also working with our distributors to increase opportunities for off-premise sales and paying close attention to what is happening so that we can make the necessary adjustments.
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