As eager as Santa Barbara County winemakers are to reopen for public wine tasting, the industry must wait until the county drafts a “reopening framework” detailing how the employee and guest safety standards required by the state will be met.
While some of California’s more rural counties already have allowed certain businesses to reopen their doors, most remain in the research stage, meeting with consultants and forming committees to gather ideas and solve issues addressing safety in the wake of the coronavirus/COVID-19.
Alison Laslett, the CEO of Santa Barbara Vintners, leads one such subcommittee, the Beverage Industry Team. She said it is comprised of representatives from five wineries, five breweries, two bars and one distillery.
In an email Wednesday to SBV members, Laslett noted that her team is following the framework contained in San Luis Obispo County’s START plan — that county’s outline to reopen various businesses, among them tasting rooms. San Diego-based REACH Consulting is working with San Luis Obispo County, and Santa Barbara County also may enlist that firm, she wrote.
Once Santa Barbara County has a draft, approval by the Board of Supervisors will be the next step. With that in hand, the county then must attest to the state that, should its language differ from the state’s guidelines, it can still implement safety measures, Laslett noted.
“The Holy Grail will be the 6-foot social distancing, and that’s likely to dim business’ capacity. If that means a tasting room needs to extend its days or hours of operation in order to do more volume,” that’s a step wineries could consider, she said.
During the same week that county committees began their research, California’s Wine Institute, a nonprofit organization, released a six-page report outlining protocols for tasting rooms. Some in the wine industry found the report’s language prohibitive — including appointment-only tastings, masks for employees and guests until the latter are seated for tasting, and 5 p.m. closures across the board.
“We will take the Wine Institute’s suggestions and modify them for us,” Laslett said, emphasizing that the conservative guidelines were written for the state as a whole and were not “fine-tuned” region by region.
However, she reminded wineries to continue to adhere to mandated state guidelines: “The Alcoholic Beverage Control is aligned with the state, and you do not want to run afoul of the ABC!”
“Our goal here is to craft guidelines to keep people safe and allow businesses to begin to reopen,” she wrote.
Before speaking with Laslett, I had emailed a handful of winemakers to inquire how each was handling sales under the lockdown. When Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his stay-at-home mandate on March 19, every tasting room in California had to close its doors and pivot to online sales. Gone were restaurant sales and longtime contracts honed by distributors.
In WineAmerica on April 30, Tara Good wrote: “American wineries nationwide have suffered economic hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, but have also met the challenges with determination and innovation, according to a new online survey conducted by WineAmerica, the national association of American wineries.
“The survey was returned by 727 wineries in 45 states, and focused on one month (March 15 to April 15) in terms of impacts on production, employment, tourism, sales, total financial impact and government actions.
“In a clearly challenging time, the most uplifting finding is how wineries have used creativity and innovation to fill the chasm of sales caused by shuttered tasting rooms and restaurants. Among the most popular strategies were curbside winery pickup (84 percent of wineries used it), reduced shipping costs (63 percent), special Direct-to-Consumer promotions (60 percent), home delivery by winery personnel (54 percent), wine club specials (53 percent) and virtual wine tastings (28 percent) — with only 5 percent of respondents answering ‘none of the above.’”
Most of the winemakers I queried said they have employed all of the above via social media (mainly Facebook and Instagram). Virtual tastings now are routine; wines have been discounted and fees to ship bottles via ground are minimal or nonexistent.
Karen Steinwachs, general manager and winemaker at Buttonwood Winery & Vineyard, said the winery offers weekly specials “and something beautiful from the farm” to both wine club members and people on the mailing list. “Obviously, people have more screen time being at home, so the ‘open’ rates are good for emails.”
Buttonwood and the majority have employed curbside, no-touch bottle pickup via pre-order. Are customers ordering more bottles since the shutdown started? In general, yes.
“People are definitely ordering more,” Steinwachs said. “And we are seeing our club members send wine to their families and friends as ‘hang in there’ gifts, which is heartwarming to see. The math speaks for itself for shipping — why pay $10 for two bottles ($5 per bottle) when you can get 12 bottles for 83 cents each?”
Winemaker Chad Melville also noted how his Melville Winery’s “loyal following” has honed in on library wines via online sales.
“We have a lot of options, as we’ve kept a fairly deep library from the beginning, partly for us to study the decisions we’ve made along the way, partly because we enjoy aged wine and want to see how well our wines age, but partly to re-release at some points in our future to our loyal followers. We feel we are lucky to be able to use this as a source of income.”
Melville has stepped up the winery’s presence on social media via Instagram Live, a move that is “creating some great engagement,” he said.
He and others wonder if consumers’ buying behavior will permanently change or end up somewhere between the “old days” (in-person tasting) and where it now lives: mostly online.
Jill Klein Matthiasson, owner with her husband, Steve, of Matthiasson Wines in Napa, said, “We had to pivot to almost 100 percent online DTC (Direct to Consumer) sales, so yes, our business looks very different right now. Since we are small and nimble, we have been able to adapt quickly and see some great results.
“We continue to enjoy support by our wine club members, and also offered a ‘tasting pack’ of the six wines that we would be serving in our tasting room to our mailing list, including free shipping and discounts. Wine club members and tasting pack buyers can sign up for a virtual tasting of the wines they receive.”
She’s also utilized Instagram for virtual tasting sessions.
Sara Gummere, owner with her husband, Kenneth “Joey,” of Transcendence Wines in Lompoc, said she is leaning hard into social media and weekly emails to reach customers.
“We offer curbside and drive-thru pickup, and free local delivery and shipping,” she said.
Anna Ferguson-Sparks and her husband, James Sparks, said their small Lompoc label, Kings Carey Wines, is focusing more on promoting various “events” across social media platforms, such as a recent “happy hour” event that featured winemaker Sparks pairing wines with food from Tom’s Burgers in Lompoc during a live tasting hosted by “Good Morning Lompoc” on Facebook.
“I think that people are simply looking for more ‘engaging’ ways to interact on social media, rather than simple posts about wine discounts, free shipping and the like,” Ferguson-Sparks said.
With an established presence on social media, Kim Busch, co-owner of Folded Hills Winery west of Buellton, was able to direct staff to use platforms to “drive sales both online and via phone and email. We are still having fun on social media — people need a little lift right now, including us! People have always loved the stories and animals of Folded Hills. Now we are bringing all that to people’s homes via Zoom virtual tastings and social media,” she said.
The winery is offering curbside pickup at both its estate and Montecito tasting rooms, but the “farmstead” animals living at the Nojoqui Falls Road (estate) site are an additional lure, as are the farm boxes with produce grown on the working farm, she said.
Vineyards and farming are essential, and Busch and Steinwachs told me that crews continue to work the crops and grapevines while practicing social distancing.
When it comes to vineyards that contract grapes to other producers, however, there’s a big rub: The 2020 vintage follows on the heels of a “large 2018 vintage, and then a relatively good-sized 2019 crop,” Steinwachs said.
“Now that we have lost so much demand traction with restaurants being closed, I can only imagine everyone’s inventory is building,” she said. “I haven’t even had the heart to go ask about grape contracts for those who purchase Buttonwood fruit. We will definitely be farming for low yield.”