Consumers heading back to winery tasting rooms after pandemic closures will find radically different experiences.
“People are not going to just be able to pop into any winery on a weekend and belly up to the bar for tastings anymore,” says Kristine Gimse-Bono, general manager at Tertulia Cellars, which has a winery and two tasting rooms in Washington as well as a tasting room in Willamette Valley, Oregon.
As wineries are forced to restrict the number of visitors and their interactions with them, some changes might be for the better.
“We went from being a walk-in based tasting room to a reservation-only system,” says Tracy Timmins, vice president of consumer sales at Stoller Wine Group in Willamette Valley. Wineries are also now focusing on seated tastings, a welcome change for some.
“We’ve been thinking of doing table service for many, many years, and we never quite pulled the trigger,” says Kareem Massoud, co-owner and winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island, New York. “This was the perfect opportunity to move ahead with that.”
Although most U.S. wineries are now reservation-based, there is work to be done before people arrive to ensure safety amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We take reservations via our website, but it isn’t confirmed until we call everyone to have a conversation,” says Melissa Rockwell, direct-to-consumer sales manager at Sparkling Pointe on Long Island. “We find putting in that work to make the phone call goes a long way to touching base and answering questions.”
Others email new requirements and expectations for visitors to read (and, in some cases sign) before they arrive, or share documentation before they enter the winery. When people do visit, there are changes from the get-go. Some wineries now employ greeters and screeners to check reservations, talk about restrictions and manage socially distanced entrances and departures
“We want to create an experience where every foreseeable point of friction is removed upon entry,” says Carol Reber, vice president of Duckhorn Vineyards, which has implemented a greeter system. Duckhorn has five tasting rooms in California and one in Washington State.
Tiffany Stetson, general manager of retail sales at Goose Ridge Estate Vineyards and Winery, which has a winery and three additional tasting rooms in Washington, says tasting room work is different now.
“It feels a little bit more like we’re a TSA agent,” she says. “’I need your belt and your shoes and let me go with a wand right now.’ Instead it’s hand sanitizer and masks and a thermometer.”
Some wineries use walkie talkies, text messages or QR codes once guests arrive to communicate back to tasting room staff preparing tables. QR codes also substitute for paper or plastic menus at some wineries. That way, “no one needs to touch anything. No one needs to wipe things down,” Massoud says.
At present, tastings at wineries are almost universally outdoors, although some counties do allow limited indoor seating, particularly if food is served.
“People want to be outside where they feel safer,” says Gimse-Bono.
Still, hot temperatures can be a challenge, depending on the region and time of year.
“We’re running up and down our lawn and our patio space in a mask serving wine in 110 degree heat and doing so with a smile,” Stetson says.
Of course, how well this works depends on the setting. Some wineries are surrounded by idyllic vineyards. Others are in urban jungles.
“We’ve done so much to make our tasting rooms welcoming, and now we’re having to say, ‘We would love to have you, but here, let me take you down and sit you in a parking lot,’” says Stetson.
To minimize contact between servers and guests, wineries have changed their offerings, with a large number now pouring flights instead of individual wines where a server must go back and forth from the table. At Stoller Family Estate, flights are pre-poured before guests even sit down.
“That’s something we had never really provided before as a general tasting opportunity,” Timmins says of wine flights. She notes it has its benefits. “The distancing protocol of less trips to the table has actually resulted in a nice perk for the guest that they can go back and forth and do a compare and contrast. People like that.”
Across the country, visitors are currently required to wear masks at all times when on the premises, except when seated at their table and tasting. Group size is restricted, as determined by the state, but some wineries choose to reduce occupancies even further.
How has customer response been?
“We thought we were going to get a lot more pushback, particularly after people consumed some wine or if we were the second winery they visited,” says Timmins. “In general, people have taken things pretty seriously. The support has been amazing.”
While requiring masks initially created controversy with some, that appears to have receded at many wineries.
“At the beginning, when the mask mandate happened in Washington, everyone would just give you shit,” says Steve Wells, owner of Time & Direction Wine in Walla Walla, Washington. “Now people are being much better about it.”
“There’s really only been a handful for whom wearing a mask has been a problem,” says Massoud. “To them, we just tell them, ‘We’re sorry. You can’t come in if you’re not wearing a mask. It’s not a negotiation. It’s our policy.’”
While customers seem to have adjusted to the changes, some do try to skirt group size restrictions.
“We get a lot of people who make multiple reservations on our site and try to come with larger parties,” says Rockwell.
With restrictions on the number of people who can be at a winery at any one time—typically 25 to 50%—and radical changes in the tasting room experience, does it all pencil out? Many are saying yes…sort of.
“The average purchase versus this time last year is actually up for us across most of our properties,” says Lisa Clarkson, senior vice president of operations and direct to consumer sales at Precept Wine, which has wineries and tasting rooms in Idaho, Washington, New Mexico and Oregon.
Gimse-Bono agrees. “Our spend per guest from last year at this time went from $50 to $187.50.” Of course, wineries are seeing many fewer guests.
Wineries attribute the increased spending to the seating tastings, where guests also receive more individual attention and perhaps a better overall experience.
“Many of the changes we’ve made I think have been nice changes for our guests and our service,” says Timmins. “Guests are loving having a guaranteed seat with a beautiful view.”
However, there is always a catch.
“It’s a much busier, more stressful job than it was before all of the changes,” Timmins notes. Some hospitality workers note that they are more exhausted after a day’s work even though there are fewer customers simply due to the stress of the situation.
Operational changes like reservations, seated tastings and smaller groups are likely to become permanent.
“These are changes that we’ve all talked about before and just have never really fully implemented,” says Rockwell. “By focusing on the smaller groups and by being reservation only, it’s giving us more of an interested clientele. That’s a positive. We’re actually seeing a lot of opportunity with all of this.”
Reber agrees. “All of our properties are 100% reservation now, and I think we’ll never go back.”
Still, with wineries currently operating outdoors and colder weather coming, there are plenty of challenges ahead. More change is always coming
“When people said, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’, did I ever think that I’d be saying, ‘I sell hand and surface sanitizer’?” laughs Stetson, whose winery started making the product at the beginning of the pandemic. “I know more about hand sanitizer than I ever thought I would.”