How Sonoma County wineries are navigating a post-pandemic tourism world
Something happened during the pandemic that proved critical to the long-term recovery of Sonoma County’s wine-centric tourism industry.
Because wine enthusiasts weren’t allowed to travel, the region’s wineries went to them — virtually. That decision not only helped keep Sonoma County’s wines at the forefront of consumers’ minds, but also was an avenue for boosting online sales and wine club memberships.
“The pivot to virtual tastings during COVID-19 will forever change the way wineries move forward with storytelling and consumer-relationship building,” said Maggie Curry, vice president of brand marketing at Kendall-Jackson. “(We) still offer some virtual tastings and events, as we’ve seen our customers view that as an added benefit.”
Most of Sonoma County’s 425-plus wineries made the shift to hosting virtual events during the pandemic, according to Sonoma County Vintners.
For example, according to the vintners association, Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor offered a virtual cooking show series called "Quarantine Kitchen,“ where recipes were posted on its website ahead of the event so participants could purchase Bricoleur’s wines and then prepare a meal along with the chef.
Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Vineyard offered a chocolate- and wine-pairing virtual experience, while Inman Wines in the Russian River Valley hosted a "Meet the Maker" virtual happy hour featuring its wines.
Another result from the pandemic was a shift in how tourists approach their in-person visits to wineries, said Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director Michael Haney.
The days of tourists visiting a handful of wineries and then going back to their hotel rooms are dwindling, he said.
“We see people making appointments, first of all, and then going to fewer wineries but staying longer and having that sit-down or curated experience and really learning about the history and education of making wine and so forth,” Haney said.
Kendall-Jackson has resumed those personal experiences at its Santa Rosa estate, as has Francis Ford Coppola Winery, which also pivoted to virtual events during lockdown.
More than a winery
For the Geyserville-based Coppola winery, pandemic recovery has been more complicated because it is also a family-friendly tourist destination that makes a big splash during the summer season, according to Rick Toyota, vice president, direct-to-consumer, Francis Ford Coppola Winery.
The property also includes two on-site eating establishments: the seasonal Pool Cafe and the year-round Rustic.
That means the Coppola winery is also in the restaurant business. And despite the numerous restaurant closures during the pandemic, there are now more restaurants popping up in the county post-COVID-19, he said.
“Because of this, we’re competing for both employees and customers in this new environment,” Toyota said, adding that has led to some operational changes.
“For example, we’re modifying our Rustic menu to more seasonal options, giving our culinary team greater opportunities to display their talents with brand new menu items, while keeping many of ‘Francis’s Favorites’ in rotation,” he said.
Wine on the menu
Before the pandemic, John Ash & Co., one of Sonoma County’s longtime farm-to-table restaurants, occasionally hosted winemaker dinner programs, said Robin Ameral, director of food and beverage at Vintners Resort, where the restaurant is located.
This year, John Ash is taking those one-off events to a new level with a five-event winemaker dinner series, she said. The first event will be held Thursday and feature Iron Horse Vineyards.
“It’s definitely something we’ve wanted to do, and the goal this year was to get that started,” Ameral said, adding next week’s winemaker dinner program is sold out.