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‘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.

“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.”

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.”

Three Sticks Wines in downtown Sonoma closed its tasting venue, The Adobe, on March 1, 2020, upon Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide order.

“We knew we needed to be in constant contact with people, those we already knew and those looking for something new. We were lucky to have been around a long time and visible,” said Prema Behan, chief operating officer.

Behan, winemakers Ryan Prichard and Bob Cabral and other Three Sticks staff began producing virtual tastings with members of their wine club and those on their allocation list. Through social media, Three Sticks reached out to potential customers with an array of options, from tastings with the winemakers to an online concert with Kix Brooks of country-western duo Brooks & Dunn.

Tasting kits were sold, some with a Coravin, a wine serving tool that uses inert gas to preserve the remaining wine in the bottle. Drones were flown over vineyards to capture their beauty and the videos became part of virtual visits.

“The virtual world expanded for us,” Behan said. “We discovered that our virtual guests wanted a rich experience.”

When the state allowed wineries to open if they had a food component, Three Sticks worked with its neighbor, El Dorado Kitchen, to offer wine and food pairings. Before tasting rooms were allowed to pour for guests indoors, the winery converted the employee parking lot into an outdoor tasting venue.

“We stayed within our budget for the year (2020),” Behan said. “Virtual channels earned money back, and we had a lack of travel and other expenses (airfare, lodging, meals and other costs of doing business).”

Supportive wine club

Two blocks away, Lloyd Davis operates his Corner 103 tasting room on a much smaller scale. Located on the Sonoma square, Corner 103 has no outdoor space, so with permission from the city, the sidewalk became his temporary tasting area.

Davis founded Corner 103 with the intention of serving his wines with small bites; when the food component became mandatory for tasting rooms to open, he was already on board, ordering dishes from the Girl & the Fig restaurant.

“It’s been OK for me during the pandemic, because my wine club and mailing list database have been very supportive,” said Davis, who produces approximately 2,500 cases of wine a year.

“The community has been very supportive, too. We closed in March (2020), made local deliveries until we reopened outside in July (2020), and moved inside in (June), with staff wearing masks, and customers wearing them until they’re seated.

“Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are completely booked, although Monday through Thursday can be iffy. But we’ve kept all our employees, the team has stayed intact, and I’m about to hire another person. We’ve always been direct-to-consumer, with no sales to restaurants, so there’s been no loss of business there.”

Despite having no formal tasting rooms, three Russian River Valley producers have found sales salvation in other ways.

Focus on direct-to-consumer sales

The J. Bucher Wines brand emerged from John and Diane Bucher’s reputation for growing fine grapes in their Westside Road vineyard, southwest of Healdsburg.

With the likes of Williams Selyem and Merry Edwards Wines purchasing their fruit and putting Bucher Vineyard on the label, John and Diane hired Siduri Wines founder Adam Lee to make their wines.

“We’ve had a challenging few years, going back to 2017,” John Bucher said, pointing out the effects of the 2017 Tubbs fire, smoke from the Walbridge fire in 2020 (which burned to within a mile of the Bucher Vineyard) and now the drought, which also affects how he cares for the 700 milking cows on his property, their milk sold to Clover Organic.

As a small brand (1,200 cases), J Bucher’s wines are made by Lee at Grand Cru, a custom-crush winery in Windsor. The couple focuses on direct-to-consumer sales, either at Grand Cru or Region, a Sebastopol tasting venue that opened in the early months of the pandemic, equipped for outdoor seating and with push-button, self-serve, nearly Covid-proof wine pours.

The Buchers said three major strategies have allowed their wine business to thrive: An improved website, which made purchasing their wines easier online; strong relationships with partner wineries, who participated in Zoom-like tastings and conversations hosted by Lee; and Region, which allowed them to increase their brand presence, introducing their wines to a broader range of visitors than could be accommodated at Grand Cru.

Russian River Valley neighbors J. Cage Cellars and Domaine de la Riviere, both based in Windsor, have gone the corporate route and to great success. Their small, family-run businesses have eager audiences, and wine buyers, with big companies.

Marla Bedrosian, founder, with husband Geoffrey, of Domaine de la Riviere, has hosted more than 200 virtual corporate and social wine experiences since the Covid-related shutdowns and reconstructions.

Virtual corporate wine experiences

“Having our large customer reach with the meeting and event planners around the country, as a result of my … relationships from 25-plus years at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, has not only helped us weather the Covid storm, but has put our little winery in demand we had only dreamed of,” Marla Bedrosian said.

“We are meeting numerous folks that first learned about us by participating in their own companies’ virtual experiences. One of the experiences we did last spring for a financial company out of Chicago has just invited us to pour our wine at an event they are doing next week.”

Roger Beery, who moved with his family to Sonoma after living in Colorado and Texas, came here expressly for the purpose of producing wine, under the J. Cage Cellars label. He and his wife, Donna, winemaker son Conch and hospitality-oriented daughter, Whitney, have participated in some 400 virtual corporate and private tastings during the pandemic, which keep cash flowing at a time when they had considered having a tasting room.

“When the pandemic hit, it was a bit of a blessing for us, as we didn’t have to deal with a landlord and a space we couldn’t open,” Roger Beery explained. “We had no employees to lay off. So we got into virtual sales, with lots of corporate tastings on Zoom and Google Team. Many of the participants become customers with whom we’ve built relationships.”

“Some of the corporations referred us to others, which expanded our sales,” added Donna, who, unlike Marla Bedrosian, was not an event planner until she was drawn into the job at J. Cage.

The myriad details, including legal ones, of selling and shipping wines to other states, designing online programs to meet company needs and providing wine and vineyard information for audiences are a large part of what she does, all virtually.

Although it would be understandable, even expected, that some producers would be forced or encouraged to fold under the weight of wildfires, power outages, lack of rainfall and the pandemic, word of such closures have not publicly emerged. Some may eventually shutter or sell — the latter a common practice these days in the wine industry, where large corporations snap up little ones, Covid or not — and the degree of difficulty remains high for the industry.

As Karen Maley, general manager of Robert Young Estate Winery in Alexander Valley, pointed out, “Tasting room staff are now in great demand. In the luxury travel industry, high-end experiences are expected; for a winery, the experience differentiates it from all the other great wineries. Need has outpaced supply (of labor).”

PPP loans

PPP loans early in the pandemic helped some vintners keep employees, and others found different tasks for their staffs, such as pruning vines, telephone and email outreach to customers, delivering wine to homes, hosting curbside pickups, setting up Zoom channels and enhancing websites to sell wine online rather than in person.

As Press Democrat reporter Bill Swindell recently wrote, medium-sized wineries also felt the pandemic pressure and needed to adapt. Dry Creek Vineyard owner Kim Stare Wallace told Swindell that pre-pandemic, about 50% of the visitors during the workweek would be walk-in customers, growing to as much as 70% during busy weekends.

Her tasting experiences now are now largely by appointment, on the shaded lawn, and with very few walk-ins, Wallace said.

“What we are finding is that people really like the kind of more personalized experience. They are grateful to have a safe, slower … and more educationally focused tasting experience. This new business model is one we will probably stick with for a long time … we are getting such good customer feedback.”

Another silver lining to this challenging time: There are plenty of winery jobs available, in hospitality, production, sales and marketing, and communications. Many previous employees left the area during the pandemic, found jobs in higher-paying fields, were laid off or furloughed and filed for unemployment benefits, and other reasons. The labor demand is huge, and there likely won’t be a better time to get into the wine industry.

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