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Sonoma County wine tasting rooms seek path to reopen after coronavirus shutdown

Welcoming visitors with a taste of wine is not only a tradition in Sonoma County, but also critical part of the business model for hundreds of wineries that form Sonoma County’s signature industry.

That hallmark piece of Wine Country culture has been gone for nearly two months, with tasting rooms across the county ordered shuttered for the first time since Prohibition ended in 1933. This time, the state-required closures are meant to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact has been particularly painful for boutique wineries that depend on tasting rooms to sell wine directly to consumers and forge friendly relationships that inspire sales - both during the tastings and in the future, as casual visitors are encouraged to become members and sign up for monthly shipments.

Robert Young Estate Winery, whose owners have farmed the Alexander Valley for six generations, relies on its tasting room for 40% of its business, and that doesn’t count those who visit and become regular, paying members of its wine club.

“Without being open in the tasting room, we do not have a flow of customers buying our wines and of new customers joining our wine club,” said Karen Maley, the winery’s general manager. “It’s devastating for small wineries.”

While Robert Young and the county’s 450 other wineries can continue to operate during the pandemic - growing grapes, bottling wine and selling it in stores, restaurants and online - there is no timetable to reopen tasting rooms. Like restaurants, wine tasting rooms are subject to stricter reopening rules that require lower countywide case numbers and deaths, among other metrics established by the state.

New guidance unveiled by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday show Sonoma County isn’t yet close to hitting state-mandated metrics for regional reopenings.

In response, wineries have laid off employees, halted hiring of seasonal workers and created new business strategies on the fly, all while lobbying, heavily, for the chance to reopen and restore their place in the Sonoma County countryside.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a summer like any summer we’ve ever had before,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent. “This summer’s not going to be the same. We’re still hoping that we can reopen that industry to a certain extent.”

The 10,000 wineries and 8,000 grape growers in the United States are projected to lose $5.94 billion in revenues this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by Jon Moramarco, managing partner of bw166 and editor of the Gomberg-Fredrikson Report. Tasting room sales alone are expected to plunge 80%, costing wineries $3 billion in lost revenue.

Local wineries worked quickly in mid-March to stanch the hemorrhage. They shifted tasting room employees to phones, where they call wine club members and past customers to pitch various deals. They’re doing tastings via Zoom. They’ve offered free wine delivery to local customers, shifted to curbside pickup and offered deep discounts on shipping - which can range from $40 to $65 depending on the destination.

At Robert Young, with year-over-year revenue losses in 7% range, Maley moved to offer free wine deliveries to local buyers from Petaluma to Cloverdale. Robbie Young, a fifth-generation Young family scion and head of hospitality for the tasting room, is behind the wheel making deliveries.

“This model works for a little while, but after a little while, we can only keep going back to our members for email offers so many times,” Maley said. “Because they’re hurting too.”

Although Sonoma County has not yet reached key state benchmarks for reopening, some county leaders are eager to allow wine tasting rooms and other tourism-centric sectors to reopen more quickly.

Supervisor James Gore, who represents the north county, including the Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley viticultural areas, said his conversations with Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase have led him to believe Sonoma County is ahead of other counties, and may be eligible for some kind of exemption to the governor’s metrics for reopening.

Although a fourth county resident died of coronavirus on Sunday, Gore said he thinks the state rules requiring no deaths in the past 14 days are really meant for larger counties.

Wine industry leaders say reopening a key cog in the county’s tourism sector will require protections for employees and customers - and a couple of crossed fingers that visitors will feel safe coming back.

The Wine Institute this month submitted to the governor’s office and to wineries a six-page report on proper protocols for tasting rooms, providing guidance to wineries on everything from social distancing to employee wellness screenings. The governor’s office has not yet responded, said Gladys Horiuchi, Wine Institute spokeswoman.

Jeff Kunde, who owns Kunde Family Winery in Sonoma Valley, said planning is already underway to reopen the winery’s tasting room over summer with proper protective gear, social distancing rules and other precautions that will likely be required for businesses to reopen and stay open.

“We’re going to do as much as we can from our side,” he said. “We have a huge outdoor area - a huge garden - lots of space for social distancing. We’re set up for that. Our big concern is are we going to have people who want to come out? Are they going to feel comfortable doing that?”

Claudia Vecchio, Sonoma County Tourism CEO, said restarting winery tourism - or tourism generally - will be a two-way street, and her agency is already working to draft a pledge for visitors to sign. Citing the likelihood of varying requirements in different areas of the state, Vecchio said she thinks it’s important to have a standard for visitor behavior.

“What we’re asking them to do is what we’re asking ourselves to do,” Vecchio said, envisioning a sort of guidebook with a working title of “10 Things to Travel Safely in Sonoma County.”

Gore is optimistic that the summer in Wine Country will be strong, but mellow compared to past years.

He figures air travel will languish in the coming months, and as shelter-in-place orders lift throughout the state, antsy visitors will come to Sonoma County for its beaches, rivers and wine.

“I think you’re going to have a steady stream of people who come here to get out of the Bay Area to recreate and have fun - and I think that’s good,” Gore said.

From the top of a hill on the Robert Young Estate Winery grounds, where a 2-year-old tasting room beckons visitors with breathtaking views of the Alexander Valley, a visitor - if there were any - could turn to the east ridge of the property and imagine a wall of fire.

Flames reached 100 feet high, fanned by 70 mph winds in late October 2019. Only a few acres of vineyards separated the tasting room and other buildings from the hungry Kincade fire, which would grow to the largest in Sonoma County history.

It took two weeks to reopen the 23-year-old Alexander Valley winery, but the business gained ground ferociously into the new year.

“After the fire, our tasting room really took off,” said Fred Young, son of Robert Young. “Sales went through the roof. Then we get hit with the coronavirus.”

Now, after reimagining the company’s business model, including sending his son all over the county with free delivery orders and charting plans for a safe return to tasting room business, Fred Young said the winery just needs a green light.

“That’s all we’re waiting for now, is to get the go-ahead,” Young said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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