‘Super resilient and super creative’: How local wineries survived the pandemic
Pre-pandemic, most Sonoma County wineries with tasting rooms welcomed visitors to walk in, sit right down, or belly up to the bar to sample wines among a host of other guests.
Those days are likely gone.
Now and perhaps forever, wine tastings are outdoors, not indoors, and offered predominantly by appointment. Tasting bars are largely obsolete, replaced by physically distanced tables and chairs. Servers wear masks and encourage guests to do the same until they’re seated — all in the name of preventing the spread of Covid.
Cheese and charcuterie plates, once special offerings, are de riguer, after the state mandated that food service accompany wine tastings in order for wineries to remain open to visitors.
As an extension, wine and food pairings that resemble meals have grown in popularity — served outdoors. And price tags for tastings — now called “experiences” — have soared to cover the costs of more personalized service, enhanced food components and such add-ons as estate hikes and airplane flights over vineyards.
The $20, wine-only tasting might be $35 per person today; $100-$150 are not unusual costs for multicourse wine and food pairings.
Did not come overnight
Yet, the newfound extravagance offered by Sonoma wineries did not come overnight during the pandemic. In the early days of Covid, wineries were forced to shut down, and immediately lost revenue traditionally generated by their tasting rooms.
Large, multi-brand wine companies — among them Jackson Family Wines, Foley Wine Estates and Vintage Wine Estates — had the luxury of wide distribution in chain stores, which remained open as essential businesses, as well as firm financial foundations to weather the pandemic storm. It was the smaller wine companies, the mom-and-pops without wholesale distribution, which had to adapt the most, and quickly, to stay afloat.
Virtual tastings via Zoom, Instagram and FaceTime captured the interest (and dollars) of those stuck at home who couldn’t eat in restaurants and who couldn’t vacation.
Winemakers sold and shipped their wines to consumers in advance of a Zoom session, tasted along with them in real time. They threw bingo parties, held trivia nights, paired wines with cheese and chocolate, gave cooking demonstrations online and offered deeply discounted shipping rates. Some connected with corporations, providing employees with online tastings, happy hours, holiday parties and team-building exercises.
Reservations, once required only by the most elite Sonoma County wineries, are now routine everywhere. Pandemic protocols mandated appointments, in order to limit the number of tasters in a space at one time and achieve safe physical distancing.
Vintners came to embrace the reservations model because it allowed them to nail daily staffing needs and spend more personal time with customers. And winemakers say guests have come to expect that one-on-one treatment and attention, and are visiting fewer wineries in a day, seeking quality over quantity.
The financial life blood for Sonoma County
While wine consumption is seen by some as a frivolous activity, only for the wealthy, bad for the health and/or against religious beliefs, there is no argument that wine growing and winemaking are financial life bloods of Sonoma County. The industry and associated businesses (restaurants, hotels, wedding sites, tourism) contribute 60,000 jobs to the local economy, and sales and hotel occupancy taxes help maintain roads, and provide police, firefighting and essential services.
The pandemic imperiled all of that.
Near the start of pandemic shutdowns and restrictions, Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners trade group, said he was optimistic member wineries would find ways to sell wine and sustain their businesses during what turned out to be a painfully longer period than anyone had imagined.
“Our members are super-resilient and super-creative,” Haney said then. “They aren’t panicking. They’re analyzing, they’re being innovative and they’re sharing what they know.”
Today, his positivity level remains high.
Haney said that while has the organization not yet formally surveyed its members on how their businesses have been impacted by Covid, his collective sense is that “phone sales, virtual (tastings and) sales, and engaging with customers were critical to so many wineries’ resiliency. The cumulative effects of Covid, wildfires and drought mean wineries will need to continue to think outside the box for survival. If we have a nice (2021) harvest and no smoke from fires, and see some diminished Covid issues … if our industry can survive as well as we have the last four years, it will be a great thing.”