Forest Grove wine country feeling the crush
Yes, 2020 was a challenging year for local wineries.
Like most businesses over the past 11 months, wineries have suffered a toll as the result of restrictions placed on food and beverage/hospitality businesses throughout the state in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales, in many cases, have been down. Events have been limited. As a result, one of rural Washington County's growing industries has experienced significant frustration and setbacks.
"It's been a ripple effect," Plum Hill Vineyards owner R.J. Lint said. "Restaurants have been closed, so they don't need wine. Customers aren't socializing, so they don't need wine. And what does that mean for us? We don't sell wine."
According to a survey conducted by the Oregon Wine Board this past December, state COVID-19 restrictions were expected to lead to more than $4.5 million in lost revenue for 81 wine tasting rooms in Oregon — out of a total of 550 tasting rooms statewide.
Those numbers are primarily due to the significant dent in the on-premises sales that frequently come from tastings, corporate outings and other types of social gatherings either prohibited or limited by state restrictions throughout the year.
Lint, whose winery sits in the low-lying hills between Gaston and Forest Grove, said he has always understood the reason behind the restrictions. Over time, though, he's become frustrated by the state's inflexibility.
"I wrote a number of letters to the governor asking her to show me the science that says wineries have contributed to the pandemic, but I never got any response," Lint said. "Unfortunately, that type of communication has been the case since the beginning.
"The data tells me that this was a knee-jerk reaction from the government, and it's been very frustrating."
Beth Klingner and Kevin Johnson own and operate Dion Vineyards outside Cornelius. They said they're doing their part — they instituted the proper protocols, policed patrons regarding mask-wearing and social distancing, and have respected the virus restrictions even in light of their effect on the business. But despite their efforts to comply with guidance from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Health Authority, they feel they have been hamstrung.
"Don't shut down all the small restaurants and small tasting rooms like we've been the problem," Klingner said. "We've been doing the right things and working our butts off for nine months to try to do everything that OSHA asks us to do to keep everybody safe."
Montinore Vineyards, located south of Forest Grove, pivoted early on, focusing on enticing new customers by way of an increased online presence.
Sarah Horner, director of consumer experience at Montinore, said the winery did so by way of an aggressive telemarketing campaign, providing customers added benefits such as curbside delivery and free home delivery within a 25-mile radius and offering virtual tasting experiences.
Those virtual tasting experiences typically consist of sending participants wine in advance, then creating a Zoom meeting with the winemaker or winery staff member who talks about the wine and answers any questions patrons may have about the process.
She said the experiences have been very popular and have been embraced by people in both private and corporate settings.
"One thing about this is you can have people from all around the country participate," Horner said. "It's a neat community-building thing."
On-site, Horner said Montinore does primarily smaller functions, such as baby showers, memorable birthday celebrations and club functions. She expects that to continue going forward.
"We're always looking at ways to serve more folks," Horner said. "We hope to bring back tastings and continue our virtual meetups, but you know, I have pride in our team when it comes to thinking on our feet and acting fast, so we're always ready to pivot."
Klingner said she and her husband hope to get back to holding larger on-site events. In the meantime, however, she said the support from local wine enthusiasts has been impressive and appreciated.
"Not a lot of people want to come out, and I get it," Klingner said. "They don't want to put themselves at risk for a variety of reasons, all of which I understand — but people have been really good, particularly in this area, about going out and supporting their local winery and buying wine."
She added that Dion's sales were down roughly 30% in 2020. To keep sales up, the winery offered discounts, which cut into its profit margins.
As things open up and business returns to normal, Klingner said Dion will continue the cleaning mechanisms that have been in place over the past year as an ongoing safety precaution. It may not be "business as usual," she said, but it will be closer to it — and she hopes that will bring the people back.
"We have a 60-acre park," Klingner said. "We can spread people out a lot, and I'm hoping for a really nice summer where we can be outside and do some great tastings."
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