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Sonoma County wine, brewery and distillery tasting rooms can resume pouring beverages Friday

At Copain Wines, a boutique winery on Eastside Road west of Windsor, everything is ready for Friday’s resumption of wine tasting in Sonoma County.

The outdoor patio tables are at least 6 feet apart, a check-in station outside the tasting room is stocked with hand sanitizer and workers have thoroughly reviewed necessary virus-related protocols.

The only thing Copain hasn’t changed for the first day of standard wine tasting in Wine Country in three months is the dramatic view of nearby Riverfront Regional Park and numerous Russian River Valley vineyards and hillsides.

The wine tasting room, one of about 300 of them countywide, now is allowed to operate under a modified county public health order that just took effect. The new directive allows wineries, breweries and distilleries to sell drinks without offering food, which represents a return to what their business focus was before the new coronavirus arrived in the county in early March. There’s still public health requirements in place, including face coverings, social distancing and extra cleaning, but there’s no need for these establishments to park a food truck on the property in order to serve snacks and meals with wine, beer or spirits, or only serve customers outdoors.

For Chris Paul, Copain’s tasting room manager, resurrecting the winery’s appointment-only tasting room is key to the winery’s success. Copain, which is known for its pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah wines, was acquired by Jackson Family Wines in 2016.

“Our tasting room typically is the way that we connect with our members and guests,” Paul said. “Yeah, we’ve been very excited. The response from our guests and our members when we told them we were going to be open was great. I think people are just really sort of looking to feel a little bit of normalcy and we’re just really happy that we’re able to provide that.”

The news Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, announced Wednesday that the alcoholic beverage tastings could resume Friday took many in the local wine, craft beer and spirits sector by surprise. Paul did not expect the green light to come for another week or more. “Yeah, it was just like, OK, here we go - zero to 60,” he said Thursday, prepping for reopening day.

Since May 23, county wineries and breweries, along with restaurants, were allowed to serve food and wine outdoors. On June 5, they were permitted to seat guests indoors but still had to serve food with the alcoholic beverages. And Mase had repeatedly said there would be no more business reopenings until June 22, so she could assess potential spikes in local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since allowing a big wave of commercial resumption last weekend.

“This is definitely good news; most of our wineries will be opening up” their tasting rooms, said Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, an industry trade group. “There’s excitement out there to open the doors and bring consumers back to our wineries.”

The prolonged shutdown of tasting rooms knocked the county’s premier wine industry off center because all but the largest wineries depend on them to generate a significant portion of annual revenue and serve as a marketing draw. Haney acknowledged wineries took “a big hit” from tasting rooms being dark for so long.

Pat Delves, marketing director of Seismic Brewing Co., said the same goes for local breweries, some of which were just getting used to the county’s recent food addition requirement by partnering with nearby restaurants and mobile food trucks to let the taps flow again.

“We’re just really excited to pour beer for our community and see people smiling.” Delves said. “But we’re being cautious, making sure safety is a priority.”

Delves said Seismic’s taproom in The Barlow in Sebastopol has been serving its beers with food for the past two weeks, since the county allowed the Memorial Day weekend restart as long as meals were available with craft brews.

“Overall, just having the ability to pour people a beer in conjunction with a meal has been helpful for the business,” he said. “But being a brewery, we want to do what we do best and that’s making and serving beer.”

With the short notice and long list of public health rules, not all wine tasting and brewery taprooms are ready for customers Friday. And area bars and taverns still must serve drinks with a meal.

At Spirit Works, an artisan microdistillery also in The Barlow, the tasting room on Thursday was filled with boxes and other shipping materials. It was not quite ready for vodka, gin, bourbon whiskey tastings and cocktails.

Co-owner Ashby Marshall said a recent change in California law allowed Spirit Works to ship directly to customers. So when county health officials closed all but essential businesses March 18 to keep people largely home to avoid COVID-19 infections, the tasting room became the shipping room. Now the popular distillery is in no hurry to reopen its tasting room.

“We’re taking our time and want to remain cautious,” Marshall said. “We’ll probably reopen the tasting room sometime later this month, depending on how safe things feel.”

The tasting area allows visitors to view the company’s shiny copper and stainless steel distillation equipment through a large glass window. The smell of organic whiskey, a wheat hybrid, wafted into the tasting room from the production section Thursday afternoon. “We’re very much about education and transparency,” Marshall said. “Our visitors can see the production as they’re having a cocktail or ... tasting.”

Josh Opatz, co-founder of Young & Yonder Spirits in Healdsburg, also said his tasting room was not quite ready again for patrons. Opatz wasn’t expecting the county to allow tasting rooms like his to resume operations until July and he is in the middle of reconfiguring the bar and doing other minor construction. He hopes to be set to reopen for tastings next weekend.

“We want to make sure we and staff are adequately prepared from a health and safety perspective to service the public,” Opatz said.

Curbside pickup of spirits and sales via the company’s website only have recouped about 30% of on-site revenue.

The distiller’s sales to restaurants and bars also have suffered during the pandemic, as many consumers scale back purchases of expensive premium spirits, he said.

Most importantly, the pandemic forces Young & Yonder to reclaim the company’s “mind share,” the measure of consumer awareness of a brand, when the tasting room doors do swing open, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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