The California Wine Industry Adjusts to the New Not-Normal | Wine Enthusiast
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The California Wine Industry Adjusts to the New Not-Normal

With the one-two punch of the growing coronavirus pandemic and Governor Gavin Newsom of California ordering the entire state to shelter in place, the wine industry in America’s top wine-producing state is facing the greatest challenge of its time. This comes after years of devastating wildfires tested the resilience of Californians.

Restaurants, bars and tasting rooms are among the many businesses closed to limit the spread of the virus, while wineries are allowed to continue operating only essential production and viticulture functions.

Napa and Sonoma

In Napa, home to approximately 475 physical wineries, wine is a $34 billion annual business and accounts for 44,000 local jobs.

“The Napa Valley Vintners team is working like crazy to help our members, their employees and our community,” says Linda Reiff, president and CEO of the NVV. “We have dramatically changed, cancelled or postponed programs, and created 40 new endeavors in the past week alone. We want our members to keep as many people employed as possible, while following all proper health and safety requirements.”

That includes working to get unemployment benefits enhanced, secure tax relief and business interruption insurance, as well as change regulations.

Wineries have beefed up efforts to connect with customers in new ways in order to increase direct-to-consumer sales outside of winery visits. This includes the ability for restaurants to sell bottled wine with to-go orders, virtual tastings and no-contact local delivery.

Many of the same measures are being taken in Sonoma County, home to 425 wineries and where the wine industry and related tourism account for an estimated $11 billion per year.

“Many of our wineries are trying creative ways to outreach to wine consumers,” says Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW). “Our organization and the others that support the wine community are working with our elected officials and community leaders to support communication and getting real-time information out to our grape grower and vintner partners.”

The SCW is also working with business and tourism organizations around the county to support a “take-out, eat-in” promotion to help local restaurants.

Among the many cancellations caused by the pandemic is the annual Auction Napa Valley in June, an event that has taken place without interruption for 40 years. The NVV has given $200 million to community health and children’s education since the first auction was held in 1981. Even without the auction, the organization will continue its donations this year. —V.B.

Other Northern California Wine Regions

On March 18, rural Mendocino County confirmed its first case of Covid-19.

Zac Robinson, co-vice president of Husch Vineyards, says his team has gotten creative to confront the challenge. “When people find out I’m in the wine business they say, ‘Wow, that must be glamorous,’ but I tell them the next disaster is just around the corner: fires, floods and now this.”

He sat down with his sister and brother-in-law, who together run the Anderson Valley winery, to set their priorities during the pandemic.

“The first was protection,” he says. They decided to keep all 25 employees on but placed them into small work groups to minimize contact. The cellar team devised how to adapt a tank cleaning agent to use as a germ-killing general sanitizer, and they started making their own hand sanitizer with isopropyl alcohol and xanthan gum.

In the vineyards of Lake County, where vines are going through bud break, managers are asking crews to work every other row to avoid clustering, and to use disinfecting wipes on their machinery.

“We’re seeing the concept of social distancing, flexibility in optional employee leave, and increased sanitation protocols being taken very seriously,” says Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission. —J.G.

Central Coast and Southern California

After some initial confusion as to whether tasting rooms could stay open or not, wineries across California’s Central Coast are no longer permitted to hold public tastings as of Friday, March 20. That prompted emails to wine club members announcing special pricing on pick-ups (many of them curbside), new means of delivery (both through services like Postmates and, often, directly by the winemaker) and creative virtual experiences, from live tastings to vineyard tours.

Similar strategies are also being used in Southern California’s Temecula Valley, where many winery restaurants closed or began to offer take-out.

Vintner associations in each region are becoming aggregators of these new programs. Paso Robles launched “Home with Paso Wine,” Santa Barbara started “Let Us Take Care of You,” and Temecula unveiled “Sip From Home,” among other responses.

Despite the response, there is great concern on the part of producers.

“We’re stuck, and our bills haven’t stopped, but our revenue has,” said Municipal Winemakers and Potek Winery Owner David Potter to the Santa Barbara City Council last Tuesday, March 17.

Alison Laslett, CEO of the Santa Barbara Vintners, is trying to remain optimistic.

“I admire the creativity of my industry, and the tenaciousness of the vintner spirit,” she says. “They have soldiered through emergencies before and they will do so again, because at the core of their craft is to create something to share. I know they will find a way to do this safely, to bring some comfort to people during unsteady times.” —M.K.

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