When California issued its first lockdown orders on March 19, 2020, all tasting rooms — stand-alone sites and those located on vineyards — were forced to close. Wineries, considered essential agriculture, remained open strictly for production purposes.
In order to save sales, winemakers hosted virtual tastings, and some wine club members were enticed with discounted — or free — shipping because in-person pickup parties were prohibited. Loyal consumers continued to buy wine, often by the case.
But the rules imposed on those who pour wine were, at best, vague: Wineries were required to serve food in order to pour wine, operate on a reservation-only schedule, and limit guests’ stays to 90 minutes. Many of the region’s smallest winemakers were extremely frustrated by the restrictions despite knowing they were for the best, safety wise.
Many of the five winemakers I spoke with for this story eliminated or cut their staff and ran their tasting rooms themselves, often with spouses or partners at their side, when they were allowed to reopen for outdoor-only tastings last summer.
Back in September 2019, Brooke and Ernst Storm signed a lease on a space on San Marcos Avenue in Los Olivos for Storm Wines’ first tasting room, Brooke Storm told me when we spoke on April 16.
The couple, parents of two young children, were employed as an attorney (Brooke) and winemaker (Ernst). In addition to the 2,200-case Storm Wines, Ernst makes wine or handles custom crush for several other labels, among them Notary Public Wine, Habit Wine and Grimms’ Bluff Wines.
By the time the Storms opened their doors in June 2020, it was clear to Brooke and Ernst that she would need to put her law practice on hold in order to focus on managing the tasting room. Her sister, Amanda Sorensen, assists her.
“We shut down again in December (for another lockdown), but otherwise, we’ve been open from June to the present,” Storm said. The site has a wrap-around patio that offers multiple tables for guests, because until this week, tasting rooms were limited to outdoor seating. “We totally lucked out with all the patio space.”
Since the county entered the orange tier of the state reopening system this week, Storm anticipates opening some seats at the bar and around a big indoor table, but will encourage guests to remain outdoors.
Under the orange tier, according to the Santa Barbara Vintners, tasting rooms can seat at 25% of indoor capacity, or 100 people, whichever is fewer, and no longer are reservations or a 90-minute cap on tastings required.
“Most people like being outside,” Storm said. And for the most part, guests comply with the mask rule: Masks on until one is seated to wine taste. “People have been great, overall.”
A few hundred feet down San Marcos Avenue is Story of Soil Wine, owned by winemaker Jessica Gasca and her husband, Brady Fiechter.
“We got the keys here in May and opened in mid-June,” Gasca told me. On April 16, she, Fiechter and one employee were busy pouring wine and engaging with guests on the winery’s outdoor patio area.
Story of Soil was previously located in the 2300 block of Alamo Pintado Avenue, but an issue with the owner and lease forced Gasca and Fiechter to relocate to their current location — during the pandemic. Because the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control agency was closed early last year, moving the winery’s premise license was delayed, Gasca said.
She makes 2,000 cases annually for the label and, like other small producers in these strange times, continues to sell through wine at a steady pace.
Echoing Storm, Gasca praised guests for their diligence following the state mandates: “People are absolutely compliant with wearing masks.”
She urged tasting guests to “stay vigilant even though vaccines are more prevalent, and to follow the rules so that we can get through this together.”
Tasting with Gasca at Story of Soil during my interview were Katie Grassini and her husband, Dean McKillen. Grassini is the CEO of Grassini Family Vineyards, and McKillen is the national sales manager. The label produces between 3,500 and 4,000 cases annually.
Grassini has two sites for tasting: One at 24 El Paseo in Santa Barbara’s historic Presidio neighborhood, and the second at the estate vineyard in the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County appellation.
At the latter, guests are seated on the portico outside the winery and can overlook the vines.
In Santa Barbara, “we have lots of outdoor courtyard space with a view of State Street. There are orange trees and it’s very bucolic,” Grassini said. As a board member of Visit Santa Barbara, she voiced gratitude for her employees who continue to follow protocols and disinfect between guests.
“We’ll continue to enforce the 6-feet-apart spacing and mask mandates” until we know it’s safe to do otherwise, she said.
McKillen emphasized that Grassini Family Vineyards held back on opening, even for outdoor seating, and weighed the risks. “We did not want to be the first to open,” he said.
In Lompoc, Joey and Sara Gummere produce approximately 2,500 cases annually for their label, Transcendence Wines. “We started the label in 2006, moved to Lompoc in 2010 and opened the tasting room on 12th Street (in the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Center) five years ago,” Sara Gummere said in an email.
She’s found people “to be very respectful” of the COVID rules regarding masks. “I’ve never found it necessary to remind people.”
Transcendence and its adjacent Wine Center tasting rooms are licensed to utilize the deck outside their respective indoor spaces.
“We have always had the option to sit outdoors and we will continue seating on the deck,” Gummere said. “When the county moves to the orange tier we will allow some seating back inside.”
She voiced frustration with the restrictions imposed by the state during the height of the pandemic. “When Governor Newsom changed California from counties to regions, and we got lumped in with Southern California, that was pretty unfair and quite devastating to our region.
“It was very hard to cut my employees’ hours and because (guests) were just picking up wines, (employees) lost out on a lot of tips that make up a large part of their income.
“I feel like our responsibility as business owners is to do whatever we can to keep our patrons and employees safe and to stop the spread of COVID,” she noted. That said, earlier rules requiring guests to buy food while they taste or have a glass of wine “were idiotic … forcing them to have a ‘bonafide’ meal was ridiculous,” she said, as were the rules for reservations and 90-minute time limits.
In Buellton, Andres Ibarra and Caren Rideau produce about 1,000 cases annually for their label, Tierra Y Vino.
During the first shutdown last March, the couple laid off three tasting room employees “since we were (then) closed for six months.” After the restrictions lifted, all three returned to work, Ibarra said.
He echoed the others regarding guests being “more comfortable” sitting outdoors, but plans to open limited seating indoors per the orange tier. He encourages guests to continue to make reservations for parties of six or more.