Wine tasting rooms throughout Santa Barbara County, the Central Coast and soon, California, have heeded Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 15 mandate to shutter in the wake of the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic.
The decision to close both on- and off-site tasting rooms leaves hundreds of part- or full-time wine industry employees out of work. (Disclaimer: As a part-time tasting room employee, I am one of them.) Some wineries have diverted tasting room staff to help pack and ship online wine orders, but most of the smaller operations have simply hung up “Closed Until Further Notice” signs on tasting room doors.
Wineries, on the other hand, can continue to operate as businesses, in part because most are not open to the public.
While the county’s grapevines are beginning to show “bud break” — new, green growth for the 2020 vintage — the majority of vineyard work (winter pruning) took place in December and earlier this year. As the months pass, however, vineyard tasks will increase as new vine shoots grow and are positioned into trellises and thinned, and the vines are sprayed for pests and fungus.
Many of the county’s tasting room managers spent the past week contacting wine club members or email list members with special offers such as discounts on three, six or more bottles of wine, and deeply discounted (or free, in some cases) ground shipping.
Others, such as Pali Wine Co. in Lompoc, have reached out via email with offers of wines “to go” from all five of its tasting rooms (in Lompoc, the Funk Zone and others in San Diego, Los Angeles and Anaheim). No tasting; just purchases.
Because I write about and work in the Central Coast wine industry, belong to wine clubs and have winemaker friends, I’ve been on the receiving end of similar emails from at least 10 other wineries. Other tasting rooms are offering curbside service, similar to what restaurants have employed.
An email from Timbre Winery in Arroyo Grande noted that its tasting room staff would be available for “to-go purchases,” including growler refills and wine-club pickups. “The team will be focused on making sure surfaces are clean and disinfected, and will be wearing gloves” for customers’ safety, the email stated.
While Gov. Newsom’s “close now” mandate was clear, the news was unexpected by many in the industry, and managers and owners struggled to balance the need to sell wine with concerns for their employees’ health and safety. Most shut their doors last Sunday or Monday.
One or two tasting rooms defied the mandate, with an employee of one noting on Facebook that Newsom’s mandate had been “just a suggestion,” and that its doors would remain open for wine tasting. That provoked a social media outcry from those who had heeded Newsom, and later, the post had been removed.
Similarly, the county’s restaurants, which first faced an order by Newsom to halve their seating capacity, and then, a day later, a call to cease all but take-out order businesses, have idled workers, with owners and managers urging employees to file for unemployment.
Sherry Villanueva, managing partner of Acme Hospitality, owner of several Santa Barbara restaurants — among them The Lark and Paradise Café — announced that all of the company’s restaurants would temporarily close their doors.
In the North County, popular eateries such as Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos, and the Hitching Post II and Industrial Eats, both in Buellton, have limited (or halted) their hours and used social media to promote box dinners or take-out menus.
Enterprising individuals, many of whom rely on Facebook and Instagram for business marketing, quickly shared lists of eateries that are closed or remain open for take-out orders.
Kady Fleckenstein is one such person, and by Tuesday evening she had a working list posted on her website, Kadydid Consulting. Her database thus far is primarily the Santa Ynez Valley, but she plans to add Santa Barbara and Santa Maria details as soon as she gets the information.
Fleckenstein also handles publicity for Santa Barbara Vintners, which on March 13 postponed its annual Vintners Festival from May 2 to Oct. 10. The event is scheduled to take place from 1 to 4 p.m. at Rancho Sisquoc Winery in the Santa Maria Valley.
“It is our social responsibility to reschedule the festival due to the uncertainty of the next few months,” Santa Barbara Vintners CEO Alison Laslett said. “Fortunately, harvest is a gorgeous time of year in the Santa Maria Valley and a terrific time for visitors and locals to immerse themselves in the winemaking season.”
For those who already have purchased tickets of Vintners Visas for the May date but are unable to attend in October, refunds are available via email@example.com.
Another large event also scheduled for May 2, the annual Buellton Beer Festival, had yet to be canceled or postponed at press time.
SBV Foundation Raises Money for Farmworkers
The Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation raised funds to bolster health-care services for local farmworkers and their families.
The event took place Feb. 15 at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Goleta, and was attended by leaders of the Santa Barbara wine community, celebrities and philanthropists who gathered for a gala of food, wine, music and two fundraising auctions.
While a final amount raised was not available, prior events have garnered more than $1 million.
“We could not be more proud of our vintners and friends, who reached deep into their pocketbooks to help our community,” said Jessica Gasca, president of the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation. “Our mission is Grounded in Giving, and our aim is to bring together and support the vital work of Direct Relief and Community Health Centers, which work tirelessly to serve this historically underserved segment of our Santa Barbara wine family.”
For 20 years, the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation has been active in sustaining and expanding Direct Relief’s health assistance for people in need, both locally and globally. This year, the foundation additionally partnered with Community Health Centers, which is dedicated to providing health care on the Central Coast — with a special emphasis on agricultural workers.
The numerous auction lots included select and rare wines from Santa Barbara’s top producers, as well as once-in-a-lifetime wine and travel experiences.
The top-earning travel lot was a luxury wine-and-safari trip for two in South Africa, donated by the Enthoven family. The lot saw some the fiercest bidding of the evening, and was ultimately won for $30,000.
The largest single wine lot went for an exclusive Foxen Winery dinner for 60 people at Industrial Eats featuring rare and exclusive wines from the winery. The lot went for $28,000.