Sonoma Coast wineries find creative ways to connect with customers

It was a happy scene one Saturday this month for the 65 employees at Redwood Coast Medical Services.

Daniel and Marion Schoenfeld, husband-wife owners of Wild Hog Vineyard, a small mom-and-pop operation in Cazadero, approached the Gualala clinic with cases of their wine to distribute to the healthcare workers, free of charge. Seventy-two bottles total.

“It was just wonderful; their wines are absolutely delicious,” said Tom Bertollini, medical director and family physician who snagged a 2014 pinot noir from the mixed case. “Everybody drowned their sorrows a bit in wine.”

Wild Hog Winery is one of several Sonoma Coast wineries that has gotten creative to connect with wine lovers as sales to restaurants have plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to donations to frontline workers, Sonoma Coast wineries - indisputably an important producer of pinot noir in the U.S. - now offer virtual tastings, curbside pickup, delivery and Instagram photo updates about their gorgeous coastal vineyards.

Daniel Schoenfeld said day-to-day life at Wild Hog Vineyard isn’t too much different; there’s still plenty of work to do when making pinot noir, zinfandel and syrah in rural Sonoma County.

“Everything out here is extreme - the air, altitude, terrain. We’re really off the beaten path,” said Schoenfeld, a founder of the Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area.

It’s the bottom line that’s changed. Restaurant distributors are no longer buying wine, and Wild Hog now relies more on sales at local stores like The Wine Shop in Sea Ranch, Surf Market in Gualala, Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, Duncans Mills General Store and Cazadero General Store.

It’s easy enough for Schoenfeld to maintain social distancing on a vineyard, but over the past few months he thought about frontline workers risking their lives.

“Most of us are sitting on a fair amount of wine right now, and there are a lot of people in the health profession who are having a really rough time,” Schoenfeld said. “So we’ve been making a point to give them wine.” He also donated bottles to Adventist Health Ukiah Valley.

Bertollini, medical director at Redwood Coast Medical Services, where the first coronavirus case in Mendocino County was seen, said the wine donations cheered up the stressed-out, heroic staff. It was reminiscent of other stories he had heard in the community, like people donating $100 bills to grocery store workers.

“People in the community realize how hard the frontline people are working - whether they’re in an ambulance or a grocery store - and they appreciate it,” said Bertolli, a former winemaker.

Nearby Flowers Vineyards & Winery is donating 15% of its bottle sales this month to Every Mother Counts, a nonprofit dedicated to making childbirth safer for mothers everywhere.

“It supports frontline workers particularly as we’re going through COVID,” said Leslie Sullivan, Flowers marketing director.

Flowers has a $55 bottle of 2018 estate pinot noir that has “dark berry, cranberry, rhubarb flavors with black tea and forest floor notes,” Sullivan said.

Flowers Winery has estate vineyards along the ridge tops of the Sonoma Coast just north of Jenner. Virtual tastings are available on its website and curbside pickup is at its House of Flowers, a luxurious indoor and outdoor food and wine tasting room that opened last June in Healdsburg.

There’s a variety of flavors in wine from the Sonoma Coast - and with microclimates up and down the coast, no two pinots are the same.

Schoenfeld at Wild Hog said his pinot noir tends to be full-bodied. For west Sonoma Coast wines at Flowers, there’s a minerality imparted by proximity to the ocean, cool winds and a longer growing season.

“Our wines tend to be lighter with more pronounced but nuanced floral aromatics and supple tannins,” Sullivan said.

Another Sonoma Coast winery that offers virtual tastings is Peay Vineyards, which doesn’t have a public tasting room but did tastings by appointment before the stay-at-home order was issued. Tastings are now offered over Zoom.

“This is not just necessary right now, but actually a great way for us to interact with existing customers,” said Andy Peay, sales and marketing. “On Zoom I’m seeing the faces for these names that I’ve emailed or written letters to over decades, frankly. I love it.”

About half Peay’s wines sales were direct-to-consumer through its mailing list. The spring line was released this year and has done well, Peay said.

But about 40% of the business used to be restaurant distributors around the country.

“We’ve sent a little bit of wine out, but for the most part, those sales are not going to happen this spring,” he said of restaurant distributors. “That’s been tough.”

When the coronavirus shutdown began, Peay said his winery told restaurants and distributors accounts that payments could be put on hold until the fall in hopes that there will be some reopening by then.

“We’re going to put off our fall release of our wines and distribution to the next spring and give people time to breathe and catch up,” he said.

Peay recommends first-time customers try Sonoma Coast pinot noir and chardonnay, starting at $44 a bottle. The pinots are all made from estate grapes from its coastal vineyard in Annapolis. There’s also a second label they make, Cep Vineyards, using grapes from the Russian River Valley for bottles in the $20 to $30 range.

Pickup is at their winery in Cloverdale, but they also deliver in Sonoma County within an hour’s drive.

He anticipates an influx of local tourism from the Bay area this summer as people are unable to travel nationally or internationally during this pandemic.

“I am hopeful that things will be able to rebound, but it’s hard to say. I don’t think that anybody’s really been through anything like this before,” Sullivan said. “The more that we can support each other and adapt and hopefully be Innovative, I think that the wine industry will find a way.”

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