Tasting rooms reopen as pandemic challenges wine industry
In Newberg, Dundee and throughout Oregon, previously shuttered wine tasting rooms are making a cautious comeback.
Wineries were given the green light in mid-May to reopen their tasting rooms if they met Oregon Health Authority guidelines for social distancing, workplace safety and sanitization. Some tasting rooms already are open while others are still working to ensure public safety before inviting tasters through their doors.
Et Fille Wines opened its tasting room on First Street in Newberg the week of May 18. Their tastings are by appointment only, with tables spread out to ensure a safe social distance for patrons. Workers are wearing masks and thoroughly clean surfaces once guests depart. Et Fille's tasting room hours are from noon to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and owner Jessica Mozeico said they are trying to space appointments out as much as possible.
Mozeico and her employees were ready to reopen as soon as they got the word. They are thrilled, she said, to get back to business.
"Prior to reopening, we had been planning for different scenarios when we did reopen and how we would manage things," Mozeico said. "Our primary objective was to reopen in a slow, safe way to maximize the chance of keeping people safe and minimize the potential for COVID spread. When we got the green light, we were prepared, and credit for that preparedness goes to the Willamette Valley Winery Association."
Et Fille instituted same-day, complimentary delivery of its wines, as well as curbside pickup, before the COVID crisis reached a turning point. Virtual tastings over video chat have become the norm and it actually expanded the company's direct-to-consumer customer base all over the country. People who wouldn't have otherwise set foot in the Et Fille tasting room were video conferencing to taste the wines they had delivered to them.
Despite the excitement around reopening and the new connections Et Fille is making with wine lovers around the nation, their business has taken a hit during the pandemic.
"For small wineries like Et Fille, we have direct-to-consumer business and business-to-business where we sell to distributors who put our wine in restaurants and retail stores," Mozeico said. "The business-to-business side of things has completely shut down for small wineries. We're highly reliant on independent restaurants, which have all been closed down.
"This is the kind of thing that has a ripple effect throughout the entire wine supply chain," she added. "You see in the media that wine sales are up, which was true in the first week or so of this, but now it has fallen back to normal levels. That is also predominantly including large wineries and big chains that put their wine in big box stores. For small, independent wineries like us, we don't enjoy such placements and aren't necessarily realizing that increase."
Right in the middle of the pandemic in early April, with her tasting room closed, Mozeico's Oregon distributor pulled out of the market. She was without a distributor for business-to-business wine sales in her home state. While she eventually found a smaller one for the time being, she said she hasn't received any new orders or payments from distributors.
With many restaurants and wine bars around the state still closed or undergoing a limited reopening for dine-in service, the distribution end of Mozeico's business is essentially frozen.
"I expect that distribution sales will be slow to nothing for several months," Mozeico said. "What we do on the direct-to-consumer side is even more important now. Our wine industry is regulated by pretty antiquated laws that prohibit us from selling to interested retailers and restaurants directly, and a lot of those businesses are still closed so we couldn't sell to them anyway."
A 'busy' first weekend
With a view overlooking the rolling Dundee hills, Bella Vida Vineyard prides itself in providing an intimate setting and stunning visuals for wine aficionados and casual sippers alike. That experience disappeared when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but came roaring back when their tasting room reopened May 15.
Owner Steven Whiteside said local winemakers stuck together during the crisis and kept up with the latest information all the way up to reopening. He said the Oregon wine community has supported one another through the crisis and businesses like his are excited to welcome customers back in.
"We finally have alive bodies in our tasting room instead of staring at a computer," Whiteside said with a laugh. "Even though it's an altered version of normal with the spacing and safety procedures, it was great to see that when we opened on Friday the 15th. That weekend was busy for us, and it was amazing to see."
Like Et Fille and others opening up their doors, Bella Vida has wine tastings by appointment only (from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily) and encourages guests to keep their distance from those not in their party. Workers are masked up and keeping the place clean; one-third of the seating inside the tasting room has been taken out to set up safe social distances. The normally pet-friendly establishment is no longer allowing dogs to join their owners inside, for the time being.
The atmosphere is more close-knit, Whiteside said, despite guests staying a safe distance apart from one another.
"Things are a bit more predictable as far as what resources you need for the day, staff you need to come in, etcetera," he said. "Appointment only has forced a more organized tasting experience, and we're making safety the No. 1 priority. Even though we're at a distance, it's a more intimate experience."
Bella Vida produces between 650 to 850 cases of wine per year, putting them in the "micro" category of wine production, Whiteside said. Their sales are strictly direct-to-consumer, so they don't have to worry about the pressures of a shrinking distribution market.
"I'm ecstatic with the amount of traffic we've had here and the wine sales we've had here," Whiteside said. "My fingers are crossed that as we open again, we will continue this positive trend."
For a full list of wineries with open tasting rooms and additional information about the industry's response to COVID-19, visit willamettewines.com.
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