Wine tasting tourism tanks
Tasting rooms shut until pandemic passes
Sonoma Valley’s principal business, serving wine to tourists, has come to a dead stop with the COVID-19 quarantine in effect. Highway 12 was eerily empty on a Sunday afternoon, with not a tasting room open from St. Francis to Deerfield and on to Glen Ellen. Most of Sonoma County’s hundreds of small wineries depend on direct-to-consumer sales for their livelihood, and now the intimate tasting rooms designed for happy people to enjoy – and buy – wine are shuttered for the duration.
A quick survey of local wine tasting rooms and vineyards shows cautious optimism and a real effort being made to keep employees. Every tasting room in Kenwood and Glen Ellen is closed, no matter what size the corporate parent.
“We don’t know what’s up, how bad it will be, whether it’s a short-term blip or long-term depression,” Jeffrey Mayo said. “The tasting room is closed.” Mayo has told tasting room and wine and food tasting employees not to come in until they can open. “There’s nothing to do.” Meanwhile, winery managers and employees are continuing to work, answering phones and taking and packing orders.
“A huge part of our business has gone on hold until the governor tells us we can gather again,” Mayo said. He ventures that sales are down at least 80 percent, but has no firm figures yet.
Mayo is president of the Mayo Family Winery, with tasting rooms in Glen Ellen and Kenwood. The family has two vineyards in Sonoma Valley and a third near Healdsburg. Crews are working all of them.
“It’s easy to maintain a six-foot distance in the fields,” he said. The racking and blending work coming up for cellar workers may require some juggling to keep people safe. “We are trying to formulate a plan,” Mayo said.
Many wine club and online orders are shipped to places of business that are now closed. A lot of time has been spent redirecting booked shipments.
“We spend up to six hours a day redirecting these shipments,” he said. “We get 40 calls a day.”
“Although we’ve had twice as many wine club cancellations as normal, a lot of people have said ‘send us more.’ I understand it. There’s a lot of panic out there.”
Scott and Marta Rich have closed Glen Ellen’s Talisman Wine Tasting Room for now, but are making local deliveries themselves. “If someone contacts the tasting room, we make sure someone is there to make the delivery.”
So far, no one has been laid off, and Scott is thankful to have a handful of markets and some foreign sales still working.
“I don’t see a rapid recovery from this,” Scott said. “ People are going to have to make up for lost time and that will take time.”
Scott emphasized the connection between wineries and restaurants, each of whose fortunes affect the other. “Restaurants will have to go through a long recovery period. I feel worse for them.”
On the positive side, Scott said, “This is forcing us to be more creative in how we do business and how we communicate.”
Peter Spann finds the current situation a continuation of a string of disasters that has impacted business in Sonoma Valley. His tasting room is in the Kenwood Shopping Center
“We were forced to close during the 2017 fires, the 2019 PG&E power outages, and now this, which will be the longest and perhaps the most financially destructive of these forced closures,” Spann said.
While Peter and his wife Betsy are the only two full-time employees, they have cut the two part-time tasting room employees hours to zero. “Fortunately, neither is the primary bread-winner in their family and their spouses are still fully employed and insured.”
As for what has been lost so far, “We haven’t tabulated this yet and don’t really want to think about it,” Spann responded. “We’re just very thankful that our employees and their families are safe, as we are. Lives are more valuable than money.”
The Spanns are spending more time communicating with their wine club members and are planning interactive video conferencing. “If these work well, we’ll open these up to our full mailing list,” Peter said. “For those who normally pick up club wines at our tasting room, we’re offering the choice of curbside pick-up or $5 flat rate shipping via UPS.”
Bettina Sichel says business has pretty much ground to a halt at Laurel Glen Vineyards, whose downtown Glen Ellen tasting room is shuttered. While no one has been laid off, hours for the two tasting room hosts have been cut to practically zero. Sichel is a partner and general manager of Laurel Glen Vineyards with estate vineyards on Sonoma Mountain Road.
A wine club release in March will make for a positive month, financially, but it’s too early to tell about April, Sichel said.
“We will be starting a telemarketing campaign on April 1,” Sichel said. “We have been reaching out via email to our list and club with deeper shipping deals than ever before. We plan to explore virtual happy hour-type events. We have started using our staff to make home deliveries within an hour’s drive of our winery.”
At Kenwood Vineyards the picture is much the same.
“Nobody has been laid off,” Jo-Anna Partridge said. “Anyone who can work at home does, the tasting room is shut, and the winery and line essential work continues to protect wine quality. Work is going on in the vineyards.” Partridge is vice president of operations for Pernod Ricard, an international company that owns Kenwood Vineyards.
An otherwise cheerful Kiwi who has made Santa Rosa her home for the past four years, Partridge is cautious about the long term.
“There are a number of controls we put in place to ensure social distancing and ensure health and well being,” she said. “But it very much changes the way we work. We’re just trying to keep spirits up while going through tough times.
“We’ll get through it like the other incidents in the last three years: wildfires, PSPS (electricity) shutdowns. We know what we need to do – buckle down and get on with it for the next few months.”