With the pandemic's outlook improving, Willamette Valley wineries anticipate welcoming more guests.

PMG FILE PHOTO -  For many an Oregon wine industry challenged by the pandemic and the ensuing economic strife, there is a sense of optimism.

Gray skies are beginning to fade away and the sun is leaning in to peck the Willamette Valley on the cheek. It isn't summer yet, but the season's warm embrace is on the horizon and so, too, is a return to Oregon wine country for many who've been cooped up inside due to weather and the pandemic.

Thousands of Oregonians are getting vaccinated by the day; millions across the country are as well. Although we are far from out of the woods, with many still suffering the impacts of COVID-19, the light at the end of the tunnel is visible. For many in Oregon's wine industry –- itself challenged by the pandemic and ensuing economic strife –- there is a sense of optimism.

"I'm extremely optimistic for the business prospects and for our ability to safely welcome guests back into the valley," said Jessica Mozeico, owner of Et Fille Wines and board member of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association. "I think with unemployment creeping down a bit, we can expect to see more discretionary spending, and I think people are itching to get out and experience a little bit of normalcy. They may not want to travel internationally or by air, so that poises us in the valley really nicely for visitors going on day trips and weekend trips."PMG FILE PHOTO - Every year around this time, Oregonians and visitors from out of state emerge from their cocoons and head out for wine-centered afternoons in Newberg, Dundee and everywhere else grapes grow.

Increasing vaccination numbers and dropping case counts should line up with an improvement in the weather, a change which typically brings more business to the wine industry anyway. Every year around this time, Oregonians and visitors from out of state emerge from their cocoons and head out for wine-centered afternoons in Newberg, Dundee and everywhere else grapes grow.

"We are historically pretty low in terms of visitation in January through March," Mozeico said. "We normally see an uptick in April, May and June anyway, so I think this dovetails nicely into vaccination and reopening plans. One of the keys will be making sure we focus on safely reopening. At Et Fille, we are still following similar protocols … by appointment only, and that allows us to have greater assurance that we will keep everyone safe."PMG FILE PHOTO - Cellars throughout Oregon wine country will be busy as wineries gradually return to normalcy after more than a year of challenges during the pandemic.

With more summer events in the offing and county-by-county restrictions beginning to lift, the lion's share of wineries are choosing to maintain pandemic-era safety precautions and still limit crowds, Et Fille among them. Staying on a more conservative plan for keeping patrons safe should pay off in the long run, Mozeico said, as society at large continues to fight off the virus.

The pandemic forced many wine businesses to shrink or shutter altogether. Others adapted and stayed afloat, while some thrived despite the challenges. Mozeico said she and other owners of small wine businesses learned three crucial things during the pandemic: the importance of developing and maintaining an online presence, the added value of virtual tastings and the ways she and her colleagues need to scenario-plan for sudden changes in business practices.

"Our online sales were up eight times in 2020 compared to 2019, and that's largely because the importance of being able to order wine online grew exponentially with the pandemic," Mozeico said. "Virtual tastings turned out to be a wonderful way to grow our customer base and reach people we wouldn't have otherwise reached. These individuals may not have the luxury of living in or near spectacular wine country as we do here in Newberg. I will continue to do that because it creates a winemaker-led experience for people all over the country and world.

"We all had to adapt in some way or another in the last year and examine our various business models. I think being flexible as a business in adapting to consumer preferences and comfort levels is going to be important as well."

As she tries to do with restaurants and other businesses, Mozeico said she encouraged those thinking about a return to wine country to buy local. Patience is a virtue as well, especially for guests venturing out of the house for the first time to go wine tasting who may be expecting an experience that requires little advance planning.

"Be thoughtful about the companies you support and try to buy direct," she added. "The best ways people can do that are buying wine directly from the winery or online and showing up if they're comfortable for a tasting or other experience. There are delivery and curbside pickup options at many of our businesses as well and that will remain the case well into the future."

Most wineries have tastings by appointment only, so wine aficionados and casual sippers alike are encouraged to visit the websites of their favorite businesses or call to book their visit. If one is not familiar with local vintners and their products, is a solid resource, as are review sites such as Yelp and Google Reviews, to find businesses in the area. But planning ahead will be crucial if one plans to visit, Mozeico said, even as wineries begin to relax restrictions and welcome more people into their tasting rooms or onto patios.

As with any day in the sun, it's important to protect oneself. That formerly called for sunscreen, but now includes a vaccine and a mask.

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