Winemaking and Wine Marketing in a
BY STEPHEN TANZER | MAY 06, 2020
In just the past couple of months, the novel
coronavirus has profoundly changed the production and sale of wine around the
globe. In this roundtable interview, 35 producers get specific about the
challenges they are facing.
As you are unlikely to be visiting
wineries in the immediate future, I thought I’d bring the producers to you.
Specifically, I asked them how they have been affected by the new reality of COVID-19.
What has been the biggest challenge to
your winery/wine business posed by the new coronavirus, and what steps have you
taken to deal with it?
Obviously, there’s a good bit
of repetition in their responses. Phrases like social distancing,
non-overlapping shifts, virtual tastings and managing anxiety crop up
frequently. And there is much discussion about the staggering effect the new
virus has had on restaurants. Not only are thousands of our favorite, most distinctive,
wine-friendly restaurants facing an existential threat, but the loss of this
sales channel is having a serious ripple effect on wineries that have
traditionally relied heavily on sales to restaurants. Many producers have quickly
stepped up their use of social media to reach their consumer clients, and it’s
already clear that the business of wine
is undergoing significant and perhaps permanent change.
On a more personal level, I
was happy to hear from so many winemakers, as I’ve been sheltering more or less
in place, like most of the rest of you, with limited human contact. I had an
action-packed week planned in Napa Valley for the second half of March,
featuring a couple of major horizontal Cabernet tastings (2010s and 2001s, two
of my favorite Napa Cabernet vintages ever) and some spectacular verticals,
which I will hopefully be able to conduct at some point in the future. And
since the tasting room in my dining room has not yet been closed down by government
officials (nor am I yet required to taste through a mask!), I expect to publish
reports on these two vintages in the near future. Tasting these wines in the
past few weeks has kept me sane, along with the occasional long walk in Central
Park, which is quiet enough these days to allow for sufficient social
All of the comments in this
article are from head winemakers, owners or co-owners, managing directors or
veteran international consulting winemakers.
Alberto Antonini, Altos Las Hormigas, Grupo Peñaflor, Bodega
Garzón, Poggiotondo and Many Others
I was in South America for the harvest
until the middle of March and I was lucky enough to catch a flight back to
Italy before Argentina was locked down. As a wine-growing consultant, my life
has changed a lot since the worldwide lock-down, mostly for my non-Italian
consultancies as at the moment I don’t even know until when I’ll be able to
travel to any of the 12 countries where I consult. Because of that, and thanks
to the available technology, I’m still doing a lot of work using Zoom, Skype,
WhatsApp for business meetings and for tastings where my clients send me the
samples (thank God couriers are working efficiently!), and we taste them
together. I obviously miss being there in person, but we can still achieve a lot
by doing this. In Italy, I can now go and see my clients, obviously keeping the
proper distance as the procedures say.
Regarding my clients, situations vary.
Those who were only selling in the on-trade are the most affected by the
COVID-19 as restaurants, wine bars and wine shops are still closed and their
sales have dramatically dropped. They have little income right now but of
course they still have to manage their vineyards, which is expensive. But those
who have a more balanced situation between on- and off-trade are surviving. The
good part is that most governments are helping the growers with subsidies, which
are critical to ensuring a minimum cash flow.
As a wine producer in Argentina, I’m
happy that we have all been able to pick the grapes and go efficiently through
the fermentation and pressing, and we can now continue to manage the winery
without major problems. This has happened in all of southern hemisphere wine
countries except for South Africa, where I heard they had some major
restrictions on working in wineries during and after harvest.
Roberto de la Mota, Mendel Wines (Mendoza)
Certainly, our biggest
challenge in Mendoza was to harvest and vinify under quarantine and with social
isolation. We harvested early this year and that was an unexpected advantage.
In fact, the climate during the summer and especially the fall was warmer than
normal and very dry; under those conditions the ripeness came earlier for all
varieties and the harvest was between 15 to 30 days earlier than normal.
The harvest started with
normal conditions in February, but very quickly the government ordered a
complete quarantine due to COVID-19 and only few activities were authorized,
like agriculture and food production. For that we prepared special teams for
harvest equipped with protection like gloves, masks and glasses. We needed
special facilities and toilets, with alcohol and soap. To transport the pickers
to vineyards we used buses, and the pickers had to respect the social
distancing requirements inside them.
In the winery, we prepared
three teams of workers. Each team had a leader for the entire process of
vinification, and they worked for periods separated by two hours. One team started
early in the morning, another at 3:00 p.m. and the last one at night. Each
team, when they finished their shift, cleaned and disinfected the winery, the machines
and tools before they left. And everybody has been required to change their
clothes before they enter the winery.
Today we finished the
maceration process, racking the last Cabernet Sauvignon from Altamira, and we
continue with two teams, under the same conditions and taking the same precautions.
I go to the winery every morning to taste each tank and decide maceration
times, rackings, treatments and pre-blends. Luis, the winemaker who works with
me, goes to the winery in the evenings, and we taste together twice a week. Our
laboratory also works in two shifts per day, separated by two hours. All of our
administration people work at home and via the web.
As in other regions, sales
are complicated, especially in on-trade, restaurants, hotels, and so on. Wine
shops are not able to receive customers but they can deliver wine to their
In sum, I can say that the
hardest or most complicated thing has been to get used to the new rules, limitations
and time schedules during the busiest and most important time of year for a
Sebastián Zuccardi, Familia Zuccardi (Uco Valley)
The first challenge was finishing the
harvest while dealing with the lockdown that had started on the 20th of March.
Luckily, the harvest was earlier than usual, so when the government instituted
the lockdown we were nearly finished. But the government also declared
agriculture an essential activity, so we can continue with our activities with
safety measures. The government established a harvest protocol that we must
follow but internally we’ve also created a crisis team. We meet daily in order
to take all the necessary measures not to expose our team to the disease and to
secure the workplace.
We’ve closed all three of our restaurants
and our tourism areas. People over 60 years old are not obligated to work,
while those in the so-called high-risk groups either aren’t working or work
from home. All people who are not essential to the production areas are
working from their homes. Those who are actually working in the winery receive
daily training on self-care, since information is one of the most important
points to go through in this situation. Everybody’s temperature is taken upon
entry. All of us must change clothes when we arrive at work, and then
again at the end of the day.
There´s social distancing in every
task. The number of people in the same closed space has been restricted, which
is why we established different shifts for meals, entry, etc. Vehicles are being
used at half-capacity. Disinfectant products such as alcohol are available
every 30 meters, as well as soap, paper towels, etc.
The markets are difficult now, with all
the restaurants closed and distribution complicated, so the challenge is how to
make it easy for consumers to find our wines. But the situation is changing all
the time, so we are making minute-to-minute decisions.
Michael Twelftree, Two Hands Wines (Barossa Valley)
Our biggest challenge at Two Hands to date was that
we were only two-thirds through our vintage when the outbreak happened. We were
faced with the immediate problem that if one of our vintage crew came down with
COVID-19, we would have to put the whole vintage crew into lockdown, meaning
that we had must under ferment and a number of our best parcels still on the
vines. Sadly, the Barossa Valley had been a center for COVID as we had had two
outbreaks linked to Swiss and U.S. tourist groups. We decided quickly to
isolate the winemaking team and to minimize their contact with others. Myself
and our viticulturalist Travis focused on the 250-odd tons that we still had on
the vine and adopted strong protocols for the delivery of the fruit. Richard,
our head winemaker, and his assistant Brooke did a great job of keeping the
team focused on producing the best wines possible, and we finished off the
vintage without a glitch.
From a business point of view, we have been very
well supported by the Australian government, which has established a Job Keeper
package that has allowed us to keep every one of our 20 employees on the
payroll. As for the sales cycle, we were well ahead of our budget and we traded
very well up until the end of March. April through June look to be slower, so
we have pushed back a few bottlings and are preparing ourselves to be back at
work and fully functioning as the Government’s three-tiered program from
isolation prevails over the coming three months.
feel very lucky, as Wine Australia has announced that 30% of Australian
wineries will not make it out of the pandemic, and I rest comfortably that we
will make it through just fine. The Global Financial Crisis back in 2008 taught
me to re-invest our profits back in our business by buying more land and
planting more vineyards, building the strongest national and international
distribution possible, and accumulating a war chest of funds for these times,
while not allowing inventory to build up in our warehouse. This has positioned
us very nicely for these times.
Andy Erickson, Favia, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Mayacamas
Vineyards (Napa Valley)
Luckily the vines do not know about the
quarantine, so they continue to grow, and farming is an essential activity, so
we are out in vineyards, keeping our distance but working in the same way as
normal. It’s been cool until recently, but we just got our first wave of warm
weather, and things are really taking off. Grass is still green in the hills, but the vines are really waking up. We can already count clusters in some
vineyards. It will be fun to taste the 2020 vintage in a few years and talk
about something completely different from the coronavirus.
Our Favia winery is
super-small. We are doing minimal winery work, and our team is mainly
working from home. I’d say that the biggest challenge, aside from the complete
unknown, is finding new ways to connect with our customers. Normally, this time
of year (between releases) we only have wine available for those people who
come to visit the winery. Seeing as this is not a possibility for the
foreseeable future, we are looking to get creative to reach out to people. More
than half of our wine is sold direct from the winery in one way or another, so
this is important. Also, restaurant business is non-existent, so we are
pivoting to partnering with some retailers around the country to get the wine
to the right people. Our Carbone brand (fairly new, and 100% in distribution)
was mostly on-premise, so we’re rethinking this as well.
Dawnine Dyer, Dyer Vineyard, Meteor Vineyard (Napa Valley)
Direct-to-consumer sales have stayed
strong during the first months of COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders, maybe even
increased some. As we have no tasting room or direct employees at our vineyard
on Diamond Mountain, we haven’t had to cancel events or lay off employees so it
has yet to disrupt our lives beyond what everyone else is experiencing: no
social events, fundraisers, wine tastings, or visits to San Francisco for the
Opera or a play and a dinner out. Instead we are becoming aficionados of Zoom
meetings and online solo performances in empty halls. We dine in every night,
and, yes, it’s taking a toll on our cellar as well! The Napa Valley as a whole
has embraced virtual tastings and promotions. We’ve participated in several Napa
Valley Vintners promotions but have been slow to adapt to the virtual
world—perhaps at our peril. To be honest, we’d rather make wine.
In the last month our daily concerns
for Dyer Vineyard have been pretty mundane: keeping up in the vineyard, and
making sure that supplies like barrels and bottles coming from Europe are still
going to arrive on time and that bottling schedules can be counted on and
accomplished with the appropriate social distancing. We’re spending more
time on our community interests in policy: dealing with temporary eviction
freezes, food insecurity and how we respond to the overall plight of those who
have lost jobs in hospitality and restaurants.
There is no question that this is a
disruptive event of monumental proportions and could affect how people
socialize and where wine fits in their lives for a long time. Wine is a social
beverage and, in our almost 50 years in the wine business, restaurants have
played an important role in our business by creating the space for people to
learn about and to enjoy wine. You only have to look at the increased role of
the professional sommelier to get an idea of how seriously restaurants take educating
customers about wine. It is currently unclear what the restaurants of 2021 will
look like, and our strategy for adapting is equally uncertain. Our hearts
break for those who have been forced to close their doors—the chefs and line
cooks, waiters and sommeliers who are out of work—and we look forward to being
a part of whatever comes next. In the meantime, thank God for FedEx!
Michael Silacci, Opus One Winery (Napa Valley)
Our most important priority has been to preserve and protect our three biggest assets—people, vineyards and wine. All but three members of my team come to the winery every day. My administrative assistant, packaging manager and enologist work from home. Tonia, our packaging manager, is due to give birth in May, and Alaina, our enologist, gave birth to Victor on April 3. I learned that I am not good at performing administrative tasks. Just trying to arrange lunch for everyone is stressful. Although I usually over-order to ensure that all are well-fed, I was three meals short last Thursday. The Catholic guilt hit me like a John Deere. When you add in laminating documents and coding invoices, I am a complete disaster.
Keeping an upbeat, fun atmosphere and managing anxiety takes constant effort. All vineyard, maintenance and custodial team members are relaxed about being at work. Vineyard and maintenance are comfortable because they have three to four times the social distancing than any other group. They also move around a lot. Honestly, the custodians are probably upbeat just because they have jobs. The cellar crew is a bit anxious due to the enclosed space. We have breakfast on Tuesday mornings and a hot lunch on Thursdays. Each week a different group chooses what we will eat. Last week the custodians asked for donuts, and this week it was scones. We work from home every other Friday to flatten the anxiety curve. Employees read books, look at work-related videos, or study a language. Whatever they choose, each person must submit a brief written report. I have received reports two paragraphs long, and I have received some with just one or two sentences. Next week I will have a couple of piñatas hanging in the mezzanine. We will divvy the spilled treats.
No one is allowed to enter the winery or vineyard shop without having their temperature taken and sharing any news of colds or difficulty breathing. The cut-off for entry is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degrees Celsius. Wearing masks, washing hands for 20 seconds, and spraying doorknobs, keyboards, phones, tabletops, desks, etc. with 70% ethanol is required. We have weekly meetings on Microsoft Teams with managers. All hospitality, sales and accounting staff work from home. They are offered classes in yoga four times a week. We stretch each morning in the cellar and vineyard.
We contact our friends and customers in different ways. We write them, we Zoom with them, we phone them. David (CEO), Chris (VP, Domestic Sales), Christopher (VP, Communications), and Laurent (VP, International Marketing) and I invited anyone who wished to join us to a “wine tasting” on Zoom last week. We had 75 guests. Each one of us chose two wines to share virtually with our guests. We will rinse and repeat this Friday at 9 a.m. PST to catch our friends on the East Coast and in Europe. Asia will follow next week.
I stay put at home. I order delivery or pick-up four or five times a week to help local restaurants. I rotate restaurants at home and at work to spread the support. I encourage every member of my team to support the local restaurants as best they can. After all, we are still working and collecting paychecks. We also provide volunteer opportunities for people working at home. Every employee has up to 40 hours paid for volunteer work at non-profits annually.
Tod Mostero, Dominus Estate (Napa Valley)
The challenge is one that comes back day after day: not knowing. The greater challenge is to not know, yet to keep a clear vision of what is important: Taking care of our corner of the earth and caring for the people around us. And accepting that we will not always know exactly how.
In practical terms, we stay informed and strive to make decisions that make sense in the moment, adapt as things change constantly, and stay flexible. We communicate and check in continuously with each person on our team regarding their concerns, needs and individual health. We also continually question what work is essential and stay creative in finding safe ways of doing it. It has allowed us to remain open to new ways of working and has shifted our perspective on what is possible.
In the vineyard this means separating field workers by a minimum of 16 feet, eliminating ride-sharing, designating farming tools to one person (no tool sharing) and sanitizing all equipment daily.
In the cellar, we have been inventive to keep distance between workers. While racking our 2019 vintage, in order to maintain a healthy distance we resurrected the “racking goat” (la chèvre de soutirage in French), a traditional but long-forgotten French tool which allows one person, instead of two, to tilt and empty each barrel, slowly separating the clear wine from the lees.
This unusual time has been a rare opportunity to stop and reassess all that we do. Our hope is that these important lessons continue to inform us as we open as a community, into the greater unknown.
The "racking goat" used by Dominus Estate to enable a single worker to rack a barrel.
Jason Haas, Tablas Creek Vineyard (Paso Robles)
There have been a number of challenges,
from a business standpoint, brought on by COVID-19. Of the two main ones, we
don’t yet have a solution to one of them, but we’ve had some success in
addressing the other. The so-far solution-less issue is the widespread
closure of restaurants and the disappearance of that piece of our wholesale
sales. We’re doing what we can locally to support our restaurants who are
offering take-out, but nationally, the 60% of our wholesale sales that
historically have gone to restaurant accounts has just disappeared. We’ve made
up a little of that from higher volumes in retail accounts, but we don’t have
much distribution through the retail chain and grocery stores that have been
seeing most of the increased traffic. We had a number of programs I was excited
about this year for restaurants, including new seasonal-pour keg wines, an
expanded offering of some of our limited-release varietal bottlings, and some special
wines we’d blended for a few high-profile accounts. All of these are on hold
until the restaurant world gets back to business, and we’re expecting to finish
the year with extra inventory of the items we typically sell wholesale.
The issue for which I feel like we’ve
found some exciting solutions is the disappearance of the traditional avenues
and venues where we’d meet our customers: our tasting room, festivals and
tastings, and restaurant and retailer events. All of these have been closed,
canceled, or pushed back into the second half of the year. But these challenges
have forced us to fast-track some new sorts of experiences that we’d been
discussing before but never seemed to find the time to get up and running. I’ve
been hosting weekly Instagram Live broadcasts with guests here from the winery
every Wednesday. Our Winemaker Neil Collins has begun hosting Facebook Live
tastings, also with a guest, each Friday evening. We’ve launched virtual
tastings where people can order wine or just let us know that they have wines
they’d like to taste, and we set up Zoom calls and walk them through an
interactive tasting from their homes. These have all been extremely well
We’ve also redoubled our efforts to
share what we’re doing via video (we now have our own YouTube channel to
collect these), over e-mail, and on our blog. And the response that we’ve
gotten from our customers has been amazing. We’re seeing Internet and phone
sales three and four times what we were seeing pre-COVID. We’re seeing online
wine club signups five times our pre-COVID averages. It’s not quite enough to
make up for getting zero revenue or wine club signups from our (closed) tasting
room, but it’s far closer than I would ever have expected. All of these efforts
have in common that instead of asking customers to come to us, we’re reaching
them where they are. It’s all valuable enough that I’m sure we’re going to
continue to do much of it even after we can reopen, and I’m so convinced we’ll
be a better business for these changes that I made them the subject of my blog
David Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars (Sonoma County)
Our sales are substantially to
restaurants via our distributors across the U.S. and our importers
overseas. With those outlets closed internationally, our sales to
distributors and importers have of course dropped considerably. Proactively
we’ve asked our sales team to take accrued vacation time, then to go to
half-time working from home. As it is now, they can’t travel, work in
person with distributors, or visit accounts. Until this passes, they’ll
keep in touch with their accounts via phone and e-mail. Still, when 60% to
70% of your business is on-premise (restaurants), the sales figures drop
On the production side, agriculture and
agricultural processing are exempt industries in California. People may
not think of wine as an essential business (though many of our direct customers
stuck at home would disagree), but crops don’t stop growing and needing care,
and the processing of fresh produce (including wine grapes) is time-sensitive.
We just finished adding SO2 to our last lots four weeks ago—until then they
were vulnerable to oxidation and microbial spoilage. We did close the
winery the first two weeks of April to let folks adjust to the new situation
with their families, but we’re now back open, preparing for our June bottling
And of course, this is not a year to
try out any new vineyards. With sales
slowing due to restaurant closures, cash flow will become an issue for
wineries. They will want to buy fewer grapes to conserve cash, and make less
wine to try to sell in a challenging market. That translates to decreased
demand for grapes, which of course hits growers in the pocket book. They may
sell their grapes at a lower price, or not at all.
Still—cheers! Raid those old
bottles in your cellars! Then buy new ones…
Jeff Mangahas, Williams & Selyem Winery (Sonoma
The biggest challenge initially was
trying to understand and then adapt to a very dynamic situation. With the
shelter-in-place order and mandatory social distancing, obviously all of our
in-person interactions have stopped. Like all other wineries, our
appointment-only Tasting Salon was closed once the guidelines were announced.
We’ve had to cancel our customer appreciation events, both in California as
well as at our sister winery in New York. We also do many events around the
country, from winemaker dinners to charity auctions, and these have all been
either cancelled or postponed. While connecting with our customers in all of
these ways is vitally important to us, thankfully our business model is
centered around our allocation list. Throughout the history of the winery
almost all of our wine has been sold directly to consumers, so we are extremely
fortunate that we can continue to maintain our business as we always have.
All of our full-time staff, besides the
winemaking and warehouse teams, are working from home. Over the last few
weeks, they’ve all learned how to be effective while working remotely. In
addition to our usual customer service, Zoom meetings, virtual tastings, and
FaceTime calls with customers are the new norm. We are extremely grateful that
our business model was well suited for making these minor shifts. We hope that
when this ends, our industry, along with the restaurant industry with which we
are so closely aligned, will quickly get back on solid footing. But the longer
this goes on, the harder that will be.
Thankfully, winery production and
farming are considered essential functions. The production staff are
coming to work and caring for the wine on a daily basis. With protocols in
place to ensure cleanliness and distancing, wine production has been as
efficient as ever. It seems like harvest is around the corner, with
flowering close to happening in the Russian River Valley, and we need to keep
moving forward as there is much blending and topping to accomplish. I rely
on a lot of seasonal help, especially foreign interns from winemaking programs
around the world, and it is not clear how many will be able or willing to come as
a result of all the uncertainty. I am hopeful that I will be able to get
the workforce that we need to make these handcrafted wines.
Ted Lemon, Littorai (Sonoma County)
Our business is quite rhythmic, or
cyclical. Not cyclical in the sense economists use the term, but in the
sense that we have two offerings a year with an occasional offer of a small lot
of a special bottling outside of the main ones. We also only welcome
visitors for private visits, so we are not dependent on large numbers of
visitors to the winery to pay our bills. On the other hand, restaurant clients
are very important to us. That business has completely evaporated.
Of course the challenges are
enormous. We are that much abused term, “a small family winery.” There
is no family fortune behind Littorai, no outside income, and we have no
investors. So either we sell wine or we close up shop. We have taken the
usual business steps of reducing expenses and making sure that our production
crew is concentrating only on essential work. On the other hand, every
crisis is an opportunity, so on the administrative side we are busy working on
changes to our systems so that when we do come out of this, we will hopefully
be in a stronger position.
Like all businesses, we have far more
questions than answers: What will happen to the restaurant business? How
long will it take to recover? When will people begin traveling
again? How “permanent” are the changes we see today? With so many
questions and so little clarity, we can only concentrate on what we know. We
are in the fine wine business. Quality means everything. All of our
efforts are directed towards maintaining quality at all costs.
We are fortunate to be part of a
winemaking tradition that goes back to the dawn of civilization. There
have been times far more difficult than this and winemaking has survived and
prospered. The ants may be the last around at the apocalypse, but we will
be the second-last to go…
Frédéric Barnier, Maison Louis
The first days were, as everywhere, stressful and a huge surprise. No
one was prepared for the outbreak of the coronavirus. So after a few days, and
to relieve some of the pressure on our people, we decided to close the winery
for a period. In the vineyard, a lot of work had been going on because the
weather over the previous six weeks had been great, and, as you may know, 2020
started off as a very early year.
After one week we reopened the winery and adapted the way to bottle our
wines from the 2018 vintage and to rack the 2019 wines to prevent any
contamination from COVID (e.g., two meters between each worker, masks,
washing hands, etc.). Our team was really happy to be back and to belong to the
group of workers who are active (still only 50% of active people in France are
working, and only 30% at their office or usual place). Finally, to be honest,
our daily life here in the cellar is not so different than usual.
Our biggest challenge has been to bring serenity and to trust our
capacity to organize the work with the lowest risk. In fact, it’s life outside
the winery that’s different. We consume less, we eat local, we take care of our
families, friends and neighbors. We cook more by ourselves and are
rediscovering that time is precious. Of course life at home with four children,
schoolwork to do and nowhere to go can sometimes be difficult, but I’m lucky to
be able to come back to the winery in the morning to breathe some aromas from
our cellars. What is new is that there are now no visits at our winery, and no
tastings except for our own “technical” tastings. So we have time to work well
and to do a great job!
For business, it’s too early to know
exactly what will happen. We still have some orders from everywhere in the
world, U.S.A. included. The biggest challenge will probably be the next six
months, but I’m confident about our resilience. Of course, we are very worried
about our friends working in restaurants and hotels. People at home are
drinking and when shops are able to reopen, maybe they will need to buy some
Frédéric Engerer, Château Latour, Domaine d’Eugénie,
Clos de Tart, Château Grillet, Eisele Vineyard and others
Here are the steps we have taken, in
order of importance. First is the safety of our employees (vineyard workers and,
especially, cellar workers): making sure that they understand and respect the
protection measures, and letting them know that they can come to work without
any stress. We have also canceled all tastings at Latour until at least mid-May,
and we have canceled our international events until at least October. And,
finally, we have postponed commercial wine releases.
But I’m afraid the biggest challenge is
still ahead of us, when we have to manage the return to work of all our
employees. This is still a page to be written. We’re getting prepared for this, but there are many new legal issues to deal with.
Jean-Marie Fourrier, Domaine Fourrier (Burgundy)
We had the earliest bud break
ever seen in Burgundy--the beginning of April, just after the beginning of the
lockdown—while bud break in the last few years has been in the middle of April and
more like the beginning of May 15 years ago! So our priority has been the
vineyards for the last month and we’ve been lucky to work with our staff
outside in the vineyards (keeping social distance is not a problem). But all
the local suppliers (garages for tractors, labeling company, etc.) have closed
their businesses, and the supply of things needed to work the vineyards or fix
our tractor quickly became a nightmare. Still, we have been really lucky not to
be as affected as people living in cities.
François Labet, Château de la Tour, Domaine Pierre Labet
Although we expected it, this
crisis has surprised us with its violence. The confinement officially started
on March 17th, but from the beginning of that month we had taken our precautions
by buying hydro-alcoholic gel and masks, because although nature does not wait,
we could imagine a ban being placed on working in the vineyards, all this while
asking our employees to respect the barrier gestures and safety distances.
Fortunately our profession was one of those authorized to continue to operate.
To date we have no cases of viruses at Château de la Tour or in our families.
Certainly, being in the country is preferable to being in Paris or New York
City right now, but we are shaken by all the announcements of deaths in these
cities that we love so much, as well as in the rest of the world.
Concerning our commercial
activities, of course they have slowed down considerably on the domestic market
following the closure of the restaurant business. Our government has put
considerable sums of money on the table to help all companies, but without
consumption business cannot be done. Fortunately, our international clientele
in more than 80 countries is still present and follows us, of course in Asia
but also in the U.S.A. where, despite the tariffs, sales in stores are still
very active. In Europe, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries are doing
well, but it must be said that our future is nevertheless suspended until
restaurants and hotels reopen, and this is the case all over the world.
Dominique Lafon, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Les Héritiers du
Comte Lafon (Burgundy)
We have adapted quite fast and easily
regarding social distancing and work: the office works from home and we
practice distancing in the vineyard and in the cellar. This is now working
really well and assures the production side, taking care of the vineyard,
following the new vintage and bottling the 2018s.
The office is really quiet as most
of our markets are affected. We still ship wine but at a smaller ratio. Last
week, our challenge was to find transportation to deliver to retail shops in
Paris as they are still active, but no carrier was available!
We do not know exactly where we are going
in terms of sales. All of our production is booked (so in theory there’s
nothing to sell), but it is hard to get answers on when the wines will move.
A big part of our clients are
restaurants, and we do not know when they will be able to reopen. I just
hope they will be able to stand strong through this crisis. Most of them
are good friends and I know it is really hard on them!
We are working on an online site
but this will not be ready until November. This approach might be one
of the keys to dealing with this crisis. I truly miss having people visiting
the cellar and I hope it is not going to last long. We are doing virtual
tastings and they work well.
Both domaines will get through this
crisis, but I guess our markets will be strongly affected and changed. We should
have a clearer idea by June and will need to continue to adapt to changing
Paul Amsellem, Domaine Georges Vernay (Rhône Valley)
The entire modern world is experiencing this pandemic—a period it has never experienced before. Everyone is impacted, and in all sectors. Our main concern when we heard about the need for total containment was that we would not be able to continue working in our vineyards, which would have been a disaster because nature does not wait, especially in the spring. But fortunately, the government exempted agriculture from the most rigid restrictions. So we have taken all the necessary measures to ensure that our employees can work in complete safety, because being in organic farming, we need many more people, especially workers from abroad.
As for sales, of course they are very slow because all the restaurants are closed and we are very well represented in the restaurant business. Exports are also slowing down, but fortunately internet sites are now selling much more wine than usual both in France and abroad.
Philippe Guigal, E. Guigal (Rhône Valley)
The French market, which is important for us (55% of our business), has completely stopped because of the closing of restaurants. And if wine consumption at home has grown in France like it has everywhere else in the world, French consumers are not buying much wine at retail. This is largely because the French tend to have cellars, and they are simply emptying their stocks. This situation is very different from the U.S., Canada or northern Europe, where consumers usually buy wine to drink it soon. Therefore, we are expecting a strong move from French consumers to refill their cellars after the pandemic, but right now 95% of our activity is oriented towards export markets with significant growth and excellent figures.
In order to ensure the preparation of the orders and keep enough sanitary distance between our workers, we have adopted many measures at the winery. First of all, we are totally closed to the public and we welcome truck drivers only in specific zones of our buildings. The minimum distance of one meter between people has been easy to maintain as we are fortunate to work in large facilities. One hundred percent of our workers are safe and in good health.
In the vineyards, we are worried about the lack of water and the precocity of the vintage, but our vignerons in the Rhône Valley truly enjoy working outside and feel very “free” during their working hours. Being a vintner in Côte-Rôtie has become a true privilege.
Andrea Felluga, Livio Felluga (Friuli)
Lombardy was one of the first centers of contagion, and we noticed its first
effects on sales as early as the end of February. As of March 11, our government
shut down all bars and restaurants and the lockdown strategy rapidly spread all
over the world. We were quick to adopt the necessary measures to ensure the
safety of our employees, as a winery cannot afford to stop its activities in
the vineyard and cellar even with markets being on hold (Livio Felluga is on-premises-driven). On a brighter note, we are
blessed with wines capable of aging: because their quality increases with time,
we can afford to slowly go back to business. As Italians say, we intend to make
“di necessità virtù” and after the
crisis Livio Felluga will hopefully offer even more
complex and intriguing wines.
Luca Currado, Vietti (Piedmont)
What you describe is happening in New
York City is exactly what we are living through here since more than a month ago.
We can leave our homes only to go to work (but many companies had to suspend
their activities), to the supermarket or to the pharmacy. There are long lines in
stores as well, and of course wearing a mask is absolutely compulsory. The
cities and villages are ghost places. All the shops, bars and restaurants are
As far as our winery is concerned, we
have been able to continue our activity. As you know, nature does not stop, so
especially in the vineyards the work has been going on without big changes and
has not slowed down. As for employees, in order to safeguard their health, some
have worked from home, some work at the office but with masks and the necessary
safety distance. In the past week, we are gradually trying to have people come
back to the office. We wear masks and have put up glass partitions to separate
Of course we are all waiting for May 4
and the beginning of Phase 2, which will enable us to partially go back to
Pietro Ratti, Renato Ratti (Piedmont)
The winery stopped in March for about a
week, in order to figure out how to manage the security and practical operating
distances in the daily cellar occupation. Same for the vineyards, which are now
starting the busy season of the year and need a lot of manual work. For the
employees it has been easier to keep them working from home.
If the wine/vineyard work cannot stop,
what’s really challenging is of course the wine “business” in terms of
shipments and deliveries. As you probably know, in markets like Italy,
restaurants represent almost 80% of the business of fine wine. In the
last 20 years our region—Piemonte and, within it, Langhe—has developed into one
of the greatest food-and-wine destinations in the world. For the majority of
the local wineries this represents a very important market, along with direct
sales to private customers who visit the cellar. With the lockdown, which
includes restaurants, wine shops and private parties, the consumption of fine
wine has stopped. We’ve seen a small increase in on-line business but that
cannot compensate for the loss of restaurant business.
This loss of sales will shortly affect
those wines that have to be drunk young, like Arneis, Dolcetto, and fresh-made
Barbera and Nebbiolo. In a few months, vintage 2020 will arrive in a cellar that’s
probably still half full of previous vintages. That’s why we are thinking of
reducing the quantity of the upcoming vintage in order to avoid a risk of
overproduction. Of course it will all depend on when and how restaurants will
reopen and how confident and safe people will feel.
Overall, I think that even if we
discovered new ways of virtual socialization, the physical and emotional
contact, which is typical of Italians, is difficult and impossible to replace. That’s
why we can’t wait to share our wines around a table, preferably in a nice restaurant
that we love.
Blair Walter, Felton Road (Central Otago)
Yes, it’s been an interesting season,
to say the least! We started picking on March 20 at Cornish Point and finished on
April 20, which makes it the longest harvest in many years. We had cool and wet
weather during the flowering, which widened the fruit set and, consequently,
the ripeness at the different vineyards. In addition, we experienced one of the
coolest Marches that we have ever seen, slowing up the ripeness considerably.
In some ways, this was welcome, as it gave us time to put the necessary
procedures and precautions in place so that we could continue to harvest in a
safe manner. It also meant that we didn’t have the pressure to gather the fruit
as quickly as we could—a complete contrast to 2019, when the vintage was
gathered in just 11 days over a spread of 12.
Agricultural and horticultural
businesses were deemed “Essential Services” that were allowed to continue to
operate during the national lockdown, which was imposed on March 25. We were
determined to do everything we possibly could to ensure the health and safety
of our workers as there had been a lot of trust put in us. Our local
Winegrowers Association, New Zealand Winegrowers and MPI (Ministry of Primary
Industries) issued strict protocols and procedures; we had inspections and
phone calls from MPI to make sure that we were complying and happy with the
regulations. We split the harvest team into two 20-person groups that were
isolated bubbles, and the five of us in the winery created our own distinct
bubble with no contact with the vineyard teams—apart from chats from a distance
when they dropped off fruit or we had to discuss where to pick next. We have
strict protocols on any deliveries and delivery drivers. Three of the winery
team are living at the winery: Harry and Jordan sharing a one-bedroom flat and
Larissa living in her van in the carpark for the last five weeks. My family and
my assistant winemaker’s family are part of our bubble that strictly have no
One funny and slightly sad incident was
in the early stages, when we very quickly ran out of hand sanitizer and had to
resort to using our uncut Fine (our distilled Pinot Noir lees uncut at 66%).
That was expensive hand cleaner, but it sure did smell good!
Brian Bicknell, Mahi Wines (Marlborough)
main challenge has been the health of our staff, as we were lucky to be
considered “essential,” and with that designation came a lot of responsibility.
Our team all showed up at the winery every day kind of knowing they would have
been safer staying at home, but they came anyway to do what they love doing. To
alleviate their concerns, we moved to two distinct shifts and spent 30 minutes
between each shift sterilizing everything that we could, such as equipment like
forklifts, handles, spanners, the lab, toilets and such. We were using a local
gin-based sanitizer which smelled so good! Everyone aimed to keep a two-meter
spacing, which for a tactile person like me is very hard. All staff had to
go straight home and straight back to the winery, which was quite easy as
nothing is open anyway. Then, all reported in the morning on how they were
feeling and what they had done the night before (again usually pretty boring
stuff like cleaning wine-stained clothing!).
We hand-pick a lot so the crew had to
come up with a new method of picking so they could respect the two-meter gaps.
This was slower and a bit complicated but we have had about nine days now with
no new cases in Marlborough so something has worked. Similarly, it would have
been difficult to keep two-meter spacing along our sorting table for the hand-picked
fruit, but we were lucky that that fruit this year was clean and didn’t require
One of the many joys of
vintage is that you get to hang out for six weeks with young focused winemakers
from all around the world, keeners who have invested in the trip to New Zealand
to learn, teach and generally soak up the fun that is vintage. I think there
are maybe a thousand of them who descend on Marlborough each harvest and the
whole experience is great, with the bars and pubs full of people who love the
process, and the product, of wine. The feel was so different this year because
we split into two separate shifts and could not interact at all, other than a
quick chat from about five meters as we changed over. We usually meet up at a
local pub after a shift, and again that couldn’t happen. So basically the fun
factor wasn’t there.
As to the business side: I didn’t move fast enough in 2008 and took in too
much fruit and lost a lot of money by selling wine in bulk at a loss, so this
year I quickly sold on a bit of fruit and there was demand for that, which was
positive. We are something like 90% restaurant worldwide and they are closed,
so we are focusing a lot more on the independent wine stores, like Mr. Wrights
and Vino in New York.
The first thing that happens
is that orders from your overseas agents are suspended, so sales stop, and then
the payments from distributors slow down as they retain cash to get through the
crisis, so cash becomes an issue. Obviously on-line and direct-to-customer
becomes more important so there is a renewed focus on that also.
Larry McKenna, Escarpment (Martinborough)
Notwithstanding many challenges, the
New Zealand wine industry has been very fortunate to be granted “essential
service” status, allowing us to continue harvesting. Escarpment was in the
middle of an excellent vintage when given notice of moving from level 2 to
level 4 (complete lockdown for at least 4 weeks) over the next 48 hours. It
took another 18 hours after that to hear we had been granted special status,
allowing the industry to complete its vintage. We are fully committed to
hand-harvesting around 250 tons of grapes, so we had few options.
Fortunately many of our contract laborers
are Thai, on temporary visas, and they were willing (and very able) to continue
working. Without them it would have been a disaster. So grateful!
We had to rejig all of our picking and
winery staff into smaller teams which were able to socially isolate (keep at
least a two-meter distance). Numerous staff around the district took the
opportunity to move home, leaving most wineries with skeleton teams. In
Escarpment’s case we were fortunate to have reliable vineyard staff come into
the winery to replace a couple of interns who decided that they didn’t want to
remain in Martinborough, and we were able to replace them in the vineyard with
We have never had such clean premises!
A requirement of the essential service status is complete sanitization twice
daily. Alongside this, logs of all personnel movements, contacts logged daily
and no visitors.
On a more down-to-earth level we have
experienced the first-ever vintage without all the fun of the event. No drinks
after work, no fancy vintage dinners, no vintage party, and virtually no great
bottles shared, which is always an integral part of harvest, especially with
young enthusiastic interns who are here not only to help with harvest, but to gain
the holistic experience.
New Zealand is now at the end of the 4-week
Level 4 period but it has been extended another 7 days; then it will be Level 3
for 14 days. We have finished picking a very successful crop. By the end of Level
3 it will be all pressed and in barrel, so life may have a chance of returning
to the new normal! Dare I say it, we will be looking forward to a break!
Mat Donaldson, Pegasus Bay Winery (Waipara)
Harvest was a couple of weeks earlier
than usual this year and at the very start, COVID had not really been talked
about. We don’t really watch the news and the first we heard about the virus was
that maybe some of our team wasn’t going to make it from Europe. In the end we
had three who couldn’t
make it, but we made do. Two of my brothers stepped up and worked the
harvest, which was handy.
About three weeks in we were uncertain
whether our operation would be closed down, but luckily the prime minister
decided that wine is an essential primary industry in New Zealand and we were
allowed to keep operating as normal. The weather was kind and, to be honest, it
was quite a relaxing harvest. We had to close our restaurant and cellar-door
sales which meant that we had our own private chef and we could play music as
loud as we wanted. To be honest, COVID didn’t significantly affect us.
I haven’t left the property (except for
going to vineyards) for the last six weeks, but that’s normal for me over
harvest. I’m only just starting to realize that the world has gone crazy. We
still have about 20 vats of red to press and some late-harvest gewürz to pick,
which we should have done in the next week or so. And then I guess I will try
to integrate back into this new society that I hear is out there. It sounds
like I have been lucky enough to miss out on some difficult times, which I
am thankful for.
Josh Bergström, Bergström Winery (Willamette Valley)
When this thing started unfolding in
early March, I was on the road for sales and people were elbow-bumping but
still attending large tastings, like the one I was at. Every day brought a
new closure, a new story of famous chefs and wineries closing their doors for
the safety of their staff and customers, and a new and staggering sick and body
count. My wife Caroline and I asked ourselves daily if we should close as
well but felt lost and unsure of the right direction. What was happening?! Then,
almost as if out of an apocalyptic movie, all restaurants were closed, millions
of people were unemployed, and our state government mandated the closure of all
tasting rooms and I had to lay off five of my team members. Caroline and I
went to a local grocery store to get groceries for dinner only to hit a wall of
hundreds of people in long lines with overflowing grocery carts filled with
canned foods, toilet paper, bleach products—and all of their faces were filled
with dread. We actually cried that morning out of fear for what was to
Now more than five weeks later, we are
still here trying to keep a family business “in business.” The feeling of
dread has not left but the initial panic has subsided into a daily routine of
safety procedures and austerity measures. We have had to gut our regular
expenses down to just the basic farming, winemaking and sales initiatives. We
were able to trade wine for distillation “heads” from a good friend of ours
here in Portland who owns House Spirits and we made large containers of 70%
alcohol spray that we spray on everything all of the time because Purell and
other hand sanitizers are impossible to find. It smells like a Gin and
Tonic, so at least there’s that to look forward to 30 times a day.
Because our wine warehouses and FedEx
and UPS deliveries have been deemed essential, we are still able to ship people
wine and that has been our saving grace. Without those key businesses, and the
fact that all of our customers are trapped at home and want to cook and eat and
drink, we would have suffered the same terrible fate as our brothers and sisters
in the restaurant world. The restaurants have had to pivot into take-out
but that will not be the silver bullet in getting them to be able to re-hire
and re-open. I fear that fine dining and communal dining as we have known
and loved them will be irreparably changed, and that also saddens me. When
“Go Fund Me” is the largest supplier of American health care and business aid,
we have a problem.
Bergström Wines has been in business
for more than 20 years and we intend on being here on the other side of
this. I don’t know what that will look like but it will be a lot leaner
than it is now. My son, who is a senior in high school, was just sent an
e-mail that he had graduated. No online classes, no prom, no ceremony, just a
good-luck wish. Today he is in our vineyards disbudding and wondering what
his future looks like too.
All of this said, we are
fortunate. We have a house and a job and our health and we are able to get
out into the vineyards daily. We have been able to pivot our business into
online sales and our distribution network, though hurting, is finding sales
opportunities in the “off-premise” retail sector.
Tony Soter, Soter Vineyards (Willamette Valley)
First let me say that COVID doesn’t
care if it’s spring, but our animals do, our vines and gardens do, and we most
gratefully have much to keep us busy. If the sun is up, the vines will grow. We
have bud break and first leaves to tend. So it begins. In the cellar, wines
always reawaken in the spring. Young ones finish their malos or generally
de-gas after their first winter and accelerate their evolution. Older and more
evolved wines don’t make themselves ready for bottling by themselves but
present a work opportunity. It's all what we live for and what we will
sacrifice to sustain.
We have laid off our on-site hospitality
team while maintaining their full health care coverage. We are grateful that
the government programs are assisting in covering lost wages for these folks.
Everyone else is more than working, trying to reinvent ways we do commerce as
well as interact with each other. Improvisation is the watchword. How about
opening a farm store? Selling produce and prepared goods along with wine . . .
ready for pick-up or free local delivery. Wine farm will travel. Will prevail!
We are grateful for the substantial
subscription patronage we have, which has represented more than half our income
in recent years. This was not the case in 2008 when recession brought incoming
orders to an end, but then at least channels of business were open. I never
thought I would be thankful for the Amazon paradigm, but being able to
reach and effectively transact relationships directly with our customers is a
lifeline of both hope and purpose.
There is a wall we will hit in the
months ahead when dramatically reduced income will inadequately meet the
mounting expenses of farming and winemaking. As dismal a prospect as another
indebtedness is just to backfill business disruption, we are again fortunate to
be in a position supported by banking and government to mortgage our shortfalls
when the time comes. And while this will be a burden for our business, and a
stress to our people, I am hopeful the financial burden will not bear on our
Best of all, the wines are still for
sale. We can’t say that about meals in our great restaurants. There is a grief
I feel nearly as much as the human losses our restaurant friends are suffering: it is the void of creativity that is
Again, we can be grateful that the
pleasures inherent in our creations of bottled wine remain intact. We hope many
people will continue to find comfort in the things they can fully
appreciate. Even as you contemplate curtailment and loss, lift a glass of
fine wine and thank your good fortune that you can still taste and smell the
wonders of life. I know many of us winegrowers will be thanking you!
Abrie Beeslaar, Kanonkop Estate (Stellenbosch)
South Africa, as always, is a complicated
place. Our government has the challenge to set rules for very diverse
communities, including those that have no jobs, no food, and where people live
in very tough conditions (partly due to the current government). So the rules
and laws that have been put in place are very strict, and also enforced to that
We are not allowed to leave our homes (luckily
we have some space on the farm to jog), and are only allowed to go shopping for
essential goods, and visit the doctor and dentist, etc. This is the 4th
week of lockdown and a lot of people are getting very frustrated.
Wine and tobacco have been categorized
as non-essential, and nobody can buy any alcohol or cigarettes. I think we are
one of the few countries in the world that has such strict rules in place. We
are also not allowed to export any wine, although the export of other
agricultural products is continuing. Nobody can make any sense of this policy,
and our industry has been in long discussions with the government trying to
understand their reasoning.
At this stage we are not selling any
wine, locally or internationally. We have orders that need to be sent. We have
local customers that have no wine left, and can’t buy anything anywhere. We
will be losing shelf space if we cannot supply in the near future, and you know
how tough it is to get listings. The whole industry is waiting to see what the government
decides on the reopening of business on the 4th of May.
At the winery we are allowed to carry
on with necessary activities, and all of our work is up to date in the winery
and the vineyards. Before lockdown we filled the whole supply chain, so our
wines will be on shelves and in stock immediately. Two thousand twenty was a
fantastic vintage for us, and we are very excited about the quality. One of the
challenges that we have overcome is this “dazed and confused” feeling; we’ve done
this by continuing to focus on quality no matter what. We also have very strict
rules and regulations in place concerning social distancing, face masks and
screens, and hygiene. All of our people are also screened every morning before
they start work.
Anthony Hamilton-Russell, Hamilton Russell Vineyards
challenge has been maintaining business health in the face of our fairly
draconian South African lockdown regulations. We are determined not to cut any
salaries or lay off any of our staff. And so far, so good. We are one of very
few countries that has banned the sale of any alcohol during lockdown. For a
few days the government granted permission to proceed with export shipments of
wine that was already bottled, labelled, boxed and ready. This was then revoked
when the transport of wine within the country was banned. So we cannot generate
any revenue at present, but costs continue. I particularly feel for restaurants
and hotels (worldwide). For them a sale lost today is a sale completely lost.
For us, we still have our wine and if we don’t sell it today, we can sell it
later. Our problem is one of financing the cash flow implications of delayed
income in a difficult business climate.
working hard to get and use additional bank financing to see us through. This
is not a situation we can cost-cut our way out of without hurting our business
badly—and the wellbeing of our team and their families. Our inability to sell
wine at present doesn’t mean we can’t continue to build demand. Like so many,
we have taken to Zoom and Microsoft Teams to communicate and host tastings with
our distributors, customers and consumers. Essential work continues in the
vineyard and cellar with all the precautions in place. We are currently nursing
our beautiful 2020s—our 40th vintage—in the cellar and we look forward to
selling these into a world restored to full health in 2021.
Charles Back, Fairview Winery (Paarl)
challenge is the moratorium in South Africa on the sale of any alcohol drinks,
including wine. This has not only been imposed on the local market, but exports
are also prohibited.
all our own grapes for the production of wine and all vineyard workers are
currently at home while receiving remuneration. The combination of these two
factors is crippling our wine industry. We have contacted many authorities
and joined several discussions to try and negotiate the opening of alcohol
sales with the government.
Gyles Webb, Thelema Mountain Vineyards (Stellenbosch)
We went into a three-week lockdown on
the 26th of March, without too much warning from our government or
clear information on what we could and couldn’t do during this period. What was
quite clear was that we could not sell any wine. We had a mad scramble to
finish our grape picking and to get the wine safely stored in tanks or barrels.
After a few days we were informed that we could carry on with certain farming
operations but we decided to have a complete shut-down for our business for
three weeks. The lockdown was then extended for another two weeks. We had
urgent winemaking issues to attend to (checking malolactic fermentations,
getting wine into barrels, racking, etc.) so the winery staff have been doing
some essential winery work, and the vineyard team is busy with soil preparation
for new vineyard establishment, but our office staff and sales personnel are
still at home on full pay.
So the challenges to our business are
quite simple: we are not permitted to sell wine, locally or for export, so
there’s no income, but our salaries and wages bill remains the same. On top of
that our debtors are being very slow in paying us and I expect we will have a
lot of bad debts, especially from restaurants that have been forced to
close. I imagine that many in our industry are in the same boat and we
urgently need to get sales moving again in order to stay afloat. More
worrying, of course, is the plight of our poorer communities where the
unemployment figures are skyrocketing and hunger is becoming a real
issue. It’s going to be a bumpy ride for quite a while yet.
Aryn Morrel, Morrel-Peña, Gard Vintners, and Others (Washington)
Ninety-five percent of what we do is
for our client wineries, and keeping our staff focused on what's in front of us
rather than worry about what harvest could be like, if it will happen, and if
we'll make it there has been complicated. We had a staff member quarantined
early on, before we had tests readily available in our area, and the stress of
needing to keep our operations moving while we waited for him to become
"eligible" for testing with the limited amount of tests they had
available was interesting, to say the least. Our clients still needed us to
keep moving on their behalf but with people trying to be extra careful, any
cough, slight fever or perceived symptom was treated with a stay-away attitude.
We went for nearly three weeks trying to manage over 100,000 cases of
production and the 100+ bottlings we do a year with only three people,
All hands on deck was the only way to
keep moving but it was almost cathartic at the same time as I spent most of
those three weeks racking and blending wines by myself in silence. It’s been
oddly invigorating to get back out on the floor and away from the paperwork and
managerial responsibilities and just go back to what got me to this point. It’s
easy to put together a theoretical blend with samples your staff pulls you, but
to go on the floor and lay out 200 barrels and taste and blend as you rack,
clean and prep the barrels to be refilled by yourself reminds you of the
process you know so intimately well but has slowly drifted away as you worked
your way up the ranks. Not just telling your staff what we needed to do to get
through this but to show them has
made our team closer and more appreciative of each other’s commitment to get through
this together. We bottled and shipped 13 different wines in April alone and you
could see that the progress we were making was taking weight off of everyone
and that we were getting more efficient with fewer people as we stopped
thinking there was going to be someone else to do the work. It's just us.
The second part of what's happening is
that we own several brands and having our tasting room shut down and our art
gallery closed has made us appreciate the normalcy and financial stability that
used to exist. Communication with your clientele has always been important, but
especially now. How can you stay in front of people and not be another one of
the countless emails, Facebook/IG posts that every business is sending out? How
can you show genuine concern for the people you've come to know over the years
while trying to let them know you've got that new Chardonnay, Cabernet,
Grenache, etc. ready for them if they need it? How can you support the
customers/restaurants/salespeople when they need it while also not pressuring
people to buy your commodity? We actually haven't sent a single
"purchase"-related email to our customers but have continued to show
through social media that we're still operating and have new wines if someone
wants us to ship something to them. We're available but we don't want people to
feel like we're selling them, as they're getting that from everywhere. Our
wines will exist for long enough for people to eventually enjoy them but we're
thoughtful of others like our emerging artists who have put together a show
only to have that opportunity disappear and not know when it could come again.
Louis Skinner, Betz Family Winery (Washington)
The coronavirus has significantly changed
how we do things here at Betz. First of all, trying to figure out how to best
proceed with life and business since the COVID-19 outbreak started has been
difficult. We were scheduled to host our annual Spring Release weekend event at
the winery (March 6-8) just as public health recommendations began to be issued
in our area, asking for congregations of 250 or more people to be cancelled. In
response, we have offered our customers the ability to pick up their wine at
the winery, whenever they are able to come in, which has also presented unique
challenges. Like many other small wineries, we had to all of a sudden rearrange
our winery, allowing us to pack wine on an as-needed basis in order to
accommodate our members’ pick-ups.
As the situation has worsened, leading
to shelter in place and the loss of so many jobs, we have grappled with two
questions: How can we help the community? And how can we stay connected with
our customers? We have been raising money for the Seattle Foundation COVID-19
Response Fund, and are donating 15% of the sale price of each bottle to help
those most in need. There are a lot of people out there struggling, and
And the whole world is getting creative
in finding new ways to stay connected. We have been using this opportunity to
increasingly connect with our customer base through Zoom. Bob (Betz), Steve
(Griesel), Bridgit (Griesel) and I have all taken part. It’s been an unexpected
chance to offer them an experience that might not be available under normal
circumstances. In these difficult times, people want to stay connected now more
The impact that COVID-19 has had on our
restaurant and service industries is breathtaking. If there was ever any
uncertainty about the importance of protecting our restaurants, there should
not be any longer. At the end of the day, wine is a food product. Its home,
above anywhere else, is at the table. Without restaurant tables to put our
wines on, we will continue to be without one of our most important sources of
bottle sales. If not for the 10+-million restaurant and service workers facing
unemployment right now, or the loss of one of the most important parts of our
culture, then for the fact that our success is tied to theirs. Support
restaurants any and all ways you can.
Rick Small, Woodward Canyon Winery (Washington)
The biggest challenge has
been that tasting rooms in Washington were required to close to slow the
pandemic. Not only did we have to place two full-time tasting room employees on
furlough, but we lost face-to-face contact with our customers. Although wine club
releases and online purchases continue to ship, we are providing curbside
pickup as well as local deliveries; it feels very different.
This time of year is when we
usually begin our season for receiving visitors. It’s unsettling to look out
onto the patio that is usually full of happy people enjoying a glass of wine
and instead see no one. Also, two of the Valley’s largest consumer weekends are
in April and May. Not having those hurts financially as well as not being able
to connect with our existing customers and meet new ones at those events.
Hopefully wine tourism will
come back fairly quickly for us, because people will want to get out of the
cities to rural, open areas to have a relaxing diversion. In the meantime,
continuing to engage with our customers through increased email correspondence
and social media postings, focusing not just on sales but also on maintaining
connections, is going to be a priority. We’re also working with our
distributors to increase opportunities for off-premise sales and paying close
attention to what is happening so that we can make the necessary adjustments.
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