Small Wineries Staying in Business During the Pandemic

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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Our world is fed and thirsts are quenched by the small farmers, wineries, and brewers who work hard for their customers. Many of us consumers are worried about small farms and wineries that have lost much of their market share due to pandemic-mandated business restrictions. 

I’m impressed how some small wineries are surviving in a world turned upside down by the Covid-19 virus. Lucky for wine drinkers and me, most wineries can stay open if they conform to strict pandemic regulations. These new regulations make life challenging to keep the business open but I’ve found a few that seem to be doing okay for now.

Wineries throughout most of the world have had to close their tasting rooms, cancel weddings, and special events. Tasting room sales, special events, and parties are a huge part of their income. Just like small farms, small wineries face a host of obstacles in their daily lives. There is the weather, insects, market trends, and now a pandemic to deal with. 

I reached out to a few of my favorite small wineries to see how they were coping with business falling off a cliff. Some of their methods to stay afloat may help other wine producers, small farms, and business owners survive these trying times? 

On Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter I’ve noticed wineries stepping up their social media game with virtual wine tastings, wine specials, free shipping, and virtual happy hours. Vivac Winery has been doing a Facebook show called, A Fern Between Us: Emotional Sanitizer Wine Show to draw in their customers for a light-hearted session. I’ve helped out by watching a few episodes and purchasing a bit more wine online than usual from Vivac and other wineries. Social media is playing a big part in finding a way to stay afloat.

I wanted to know how small wineries were coping with the current situation. After emailing a few questions to several wineries, three of them responded to my requests to see how they are doing during the pandemic. I include their responses with minimal editing.

Ampelos Cellars, Lompoc, Calif.

A sampling of Ampelos wines.

Here is the impact for each main part of our business:

  • In the vineyard it is pretty much business as usual. The vines are growing and with the good amount of rain this winter and no spring frost challenges everything is looking good so far! Green, lush and happy shoots.
  • Since wines are considered essential we continue to run the winery as usual. We will be bottling in June but at a lower pace so that people can maintain social distancing.
  • Our tasting room is curbside pickup only but it is doing fairly well.
  • Sales to distribution has gone down significantly due to all on-premise business closed (restaurants, wine bars, hotels etc.) but we still get orders coming in – this morning one from Singapore…
  • Direct sales on the other side has increased amazingly. Rebecca and I spend some days a month ago evaluating our crisis-approach and out of that came a bunch of initiatives. Most important our weekly virtual wine tastings where wine lovers once a month receive a 4-pack of wines that we one by one open together and taste Friday afternoon. Rebecca and I host these tastings at the ranch at different locations and talk about vine growth, chicken and horses, organic and biodynamic, food and wine pairing (on Friday we are cooking in our kitchen!). We want to make it fun for everyone and bring our vineyard and winery into everyone’s living room. We already have over 100 participants. Similarly we just started a similar program in Danish for our significant Danish wine community.
  • Finally our presence and focus on Social Media has significantly increased. Important to stay in touch!

K.J.- How, have your online/phone orders increased?

 I think I covered that above.

K.J.- Who is still working at the winery versus laid off?

No-one has been laid off. We have promised everyone that we will work as hard as we can to make sure we can pay our bills and keep feeding their families.

K.J.- Anything else you’d like to add?

In times like this we have to re-evaluate our sales and marketing approach and be ready to react fast. Rebecca and I have been working together for over 25 years and we view this as an interesting new challenge!

Tablas Creek Vineyard, Paso Robles, Calif.

We are staying afloat thanks to the tremendous outpouring of support we’ve received from our fans and customers. We’ve worked hard (and I think successfully) to address the disappearance of the traditional avenues and venues where we’d meet our customers, including 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 of 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 received. 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 email, 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.

We have seen about half of our wholesale business disappear, as we’ve focused on restaurants for distribution rather than retailer, and the retailers we tend to be in are more likely to be independent than the chain and grocery stores that have been seeing big increases in business.

We’ve been able to keep all our full-time employees employed. We’ve shifted a few from the tasting room to working with our wine club/orders office to help them handle the increased load.

 3 Steves Winery, Livermore, Calif.

Steve Burman and author’s brother at 3 Steves Winery, Livermore, Calif.

We are staying afloat by offering deep discounts between 30 and 50% of cases of wine, offering curbside pickup at the winery with pre-arranged meeting time, home deliveries, and shipments. Our sales volume is up slightly over last year but we prefer not to profit from this difficult time which is why we are offering such large discounts until the shelter in place is lifted.

Two of the 3 Steves as well as our general manager have been working at the winery as we have been deemed an essential business by our Governor and the three of us have been keeping the sales and winemaking going. No other employees are working since we aren’t allowed to serve guests at this time. 

We all want to know when the pandemic will let up, and life can gradually return to a new normal. Until then, it’s good to know that several of our favorite wineries, craft breweries, and cider makers will survive. Thanks to Vivac Winery in New Mexico for recommending this subject, the three wineries that responded to my questions. With their ingenious methods of adjusting to the pandemic, we have a snapshot of what it takes to stay in business.

Kurt Jacobsohas been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his eighth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening  For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt’s travel blog, Read all of Kurt’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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