Napa Valley restaurants received approval to start offering indoor dining last week. Now, some of the region’s vineyards are about to reopen, in the hope that crazy local tourists will come out of isolation in search of a wine adventure.
The state wine industry was hit hard by Covid-19, which not only closed wineries to visitors (although, as essential businesses, they are still allowed to produce wine), but also restaurants and hotels approaching the most popular time of year for tourists.
According to Visit Napa Valley, May and June are the start of Napa Valley’s peak season, when the region attracts an average of 3.8 million visitors. In 2018, they spent more than $ 2.23 billion.
“It was very difficult,” said Stephanie Honig, director of sales and communications at Honig Vineyard & Winery. “We try to be optimistic and to remain positive for our children and our employees, but it is disturbing to have so much uncertainty.”
This uncertainty goes beyond the on-site shelter restrictions imposed in mid-March. Honig said that while the winery had benefited from a slight increase in grocery sales, its overall sales had been cut in half last month, largely due to the collapse of the restaurant industry .
The Wine Institute predicts that the US wine industry will lose nearly $ 6 billion as a result of the pandemic. Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank said a positive for the whole industry was the rise in retail sales of wine, which he said rose by almost 30%. However, he said that larger, large-scale wineries benefit most from these sales, while smaller wineries have more difficulty.
“The typical small winery lost 20% of its restaurant sales and 28% of its tasting room sales; nearly 50% on average,” said McMillan. “Some of this was invented by some of the other sales tactics, but nothing close to normal.”
Many vineyards, such as Fontanella Family Winery and St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery, have launched virtual tastings.
“Our goal right now is retention,” said Karen Fontanella, owner of Fontanella Family Winery, which produces 4,000 cases of wine a year and saw sales drop slightly during the pandemic. Fontanella attributed the virtual sessions to the engagement of club members and the purchase of wine.
The challenges will remain once wineries in the region are allowed to reopen. Emma Swain, CEO of St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery, said it was difficult to predict how many tourists would choose to venture out before a coronavirus vaccine was available. Once they have done so, Swain says they could find the new reality of wine tasting in a discordant post-pandemic world.
“Almost all of our tastings will take place outside,” said Swain. “But, you’re going to be more distant from each other, we’re going to ask you to wear a mask when you’re not tasting, we’re going to have our team wearing masks, and so it’s a little more difficult to be as friendly that we want to be. “Swain said the wine during tastings will be poured into disposable materials.
“We think it will always be fun, but it’s a bit of a change,” said Swain.
In some cases, the lessons that winemakers learned during the pandemic will continue even after the physical tasting rooms reopen. According to the president of the winery, Catherine Durand, about a third of the participants in virtual tastings at the Inglenook estate of Francis Ford Coppola are new arrivals. She attributed these solid tastings and online sales to keeping overall cellar sales stable during the pandemic. Even after the shelter practices on site ended, Durand said the winery will continue virtual tastings for those who are hesitant to go to public spaces or fly to Napa.
The reopening could even present new opportunities for the wine industry, which is struggling to gain ground with millennials. McMillan said the bucolic beauty and iconic Napa wines could appeal to young Americans who generally prefer craft beer to Cabernet Sauvignon.
“During the early opening, there will be an opportunity to deliver to young consumers, as it is likely that older consumers will largely take refuge,” said McMillan. “Young consumers will be more adventurous and without sports or concerts, there has never been a better opportunity to get their attention.”