Tasting rooms are pouring wine in Calaveras County again under new state guidelines, but operations have changed since COVID-19 caused a three-month disruption in sales.
Many of the 40 family-owned and operated tasting rooms in Calaveras County are opening “slowly but surely,” that is, providing visitors a positive experience while adhering to safety procedures, said Sandra Hess, executive director of the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance.
Online tasting experiences, sale promotions and curbside pickup are a few innovative ways wineries were able to stay afloat over the past three months, Hess said.
“The last few months have been rough and we all found ourselves trying to work through unknown waters (in) the best way we could with the information we had,” said Rochelle DeLong, Ironstone Vineyards general manager. That said, “our small town is resilient. Business owners got creative to still build streams of revenue while balancing the ever-changing restrictions.”
Stephen Kautz, president of Ironstone Vineyards said the winery isn’t cutting back or dropping any grape or wine making production this year, adding, “We see a very bright future as it moves forward."
Some smaller area wineries are facing production cuts or are considering purchasing less, due to the economic setback.
Renegade Winery in Mokelumne Hill offered wine free of charge for the month of May to keep its club members happy, but it will likely be purchasing less grapes this year, said co-owner Sue Ruger.
“We took a big hit and weren’t able to sell a lot,” Ruger said.
The winery has suspended its Friday night concerts to avoid gatherings, but it may offer live music during lunch hours on weekends, Ruger added.
Matt Hatcher, owner of Hatcher, School Street and Chatom Wineries said he was “very thankful we’ve had wine club members coming in and picking up bottles to get through this” – a sentiment echoed by every winery owner the Enterprise spoke with.
Hatcher said tasting room business has been 10% of what it used to be since the economy was shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19, and he’s had to lay off employees.
Like many others, Hatcher, since March, has allowed socially distanced curbside pickup, with employees making sales behind a table across the entrance.
Although tastings were allowed again on June 12, reopening hasn’t necessarily been a return to normalcy – wineries have to follow social distancing guidelines that limit the number of attendees in a tasting room.
“It’s hard to make the same kind of money taking out half your tables, but we’re doing our best to make adjustments,” Hatcher said.
Some establishments with outdoor seating are exclusively holding tastings outside, including Vino Moda, another winery off Main Street in Murphys.
Serving visitors in its backyard will be the status quo “until heat prevails, to make sure everyone feels comfortable,” said co-owner Dre Vader.
Vino Moda didn’t have a huge decrease in sales, thanks to its club members, Vader said.
“We’re very thankful for (our members) who have made sure we stayed a part of their lives,” Vader said. “At this point, we just want to make sure people can get out and taste some of our newer wines and reconnect.”
Another challenge is ensuring that groups of tasters are from the same household and at least 6 feet away from other customers.
Servers are also supposed to provide a clean glass for each tasting and not pour into a glass that a customer has already used.
“It’s a little weird,” said Stewart Mast, owner of Brice Station Vineyards in Murphys, adding that he bought 1,500 disposable espresso cups to comply with the new sanitation standards.
Mast said sales are down about 60% for Brice Station, which grows all of its own grapes and also sells to other wineries.
“That could well be where we’re impacted is in our sales if other wineries are cutting back,” Mast said.
With an overhang in supply, the vineyard’s production and bottling schedule is off, and Mast may have to buy new barrels to store wine, he said.
“The 2020 crop is coming along, so we’ll have quite a bit of barrel inventory by the time harvest is over,” he said. “We may sell out some bulk wine … We’re not in a position to do a bunch of bottling.”
Liz Millier, owner of Milliaire Winery in Downtown Murphys, said free shipping and special deals helped keep the winery fairly unscathed.
“We’re glad to have people back and see our friends,” Millier said of reopening.
Hess said visitors should check the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance's Tasting Room Directory to find out which wineries have reopened for tastings, as opposed to exclusively bottle sales.
She said the economic disruption from COVID-19 is a “minor setback in the bigger picture” for the county’s wine industry, which has been “booming” thanks to an uptick in tourists in recent years. Hess added that vacation homeowners were instrumental in keeping wineries afloat through the challenging time.
This story was updated June 19 to include a link to the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance's Tasting Room Directory.