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California wineries prepare for visitors and a new normal

Visitors to California wineries in Napa Valley, Sonoma and beyond can expect new rules if tasting rooms are allowed to reopen, but there will also be fresh experiences to try.

Face masks, a fixed boundary for social distancing, more outdoor tastings, individual spittoons and extra hand sanitiser stations are among a host of measures being proposed, and rehearsed, by California’s wineries as they seek clearance to reopen for visitors.

Some Sonoma County wineries opened their doors for the first time in weeks over Memorial Day weekend, after authorities gave a green light to venues offering sit-down meals.

Jackson Family Wines reopened its Kendall-Jackson Estate for outdoor dining, and was also offering vineyard walks and a take-home picnic at La Crema in Russian River Valley, said spokesperson Kristen Reitzell.

Most wineries across Sonoma and neighbouring Napa Valley remained closed, but there was hope that things would change in the coming weeks as California’s health department pursues a phased relaxation of the coronavirus lockdown – dependent upon the number of Covid-19 cases in different areas.

Many wineries have spent recent weeks working with trade bodies to re-organise their tasting rooms.

‘We expect the initial operation upon re-opening to be much different than before the pandemic,’ said Ryan Moore, vice president of consumer sales at Ridge Vineyards, which has tasting rooms at Lytton Springs just north of Healdsburg and at Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

‘All staff and customers will be required to wear masks (when not engaging in tasting), all visits will be by appointment only, sanitation and cleaning protocols will be dramatically enhanced, and outdoor tasting options will be prioritised,’ he told Decanter.com via email, adding, ‘Service and hospitality is part of our DNA, so we are excited to get back to hosting guests’.

‘We are ready to go,’ said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners trade body. ‘Our members want to get open as soon as possible,’ he said in a telephone interview. ‘Obviously we want a safe environment for our customers.’

While public health and safety is naturally a primary concern, Haney said wineries were struggling financially alongside the hospitality industry in general.

In many cases, ‘online sales have gone up but not to the point it overcame sales from restaurants and visits,’ said Haney. ‘We are concerned, especially for small wineries.’

He added, ‘Time is of the essence, for sure.’

Alongside the stringent hygiene measures, Haney said wineries were also getting creative when it comes to reopening. ‘You might see some new things. We are confident that it can still be a fun and great experience.’

Outdoor tasting and vineyard walks could become a much bigger theme of visits. Jordan Winery, based near to Healdsburg, said this week that it would launch ‘a new Paris on the Terrace restaurant-style dining experience’ from 18 June, for example. It will open for seated food and wine pairings from 11 June.

Technology being used to host online tastings could also be incorporated more permanently.

This may include visits or winemaker masterclasses crossing between the physical and the virtual spheres, where ‘part of the group is there, but part of the group is not’, said Haney.

In Napa, the county’s board of supervisors has given temporary permission for wineries to expand outdoor tasting space, said Teresa Wall, director of marketing communications at the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) trade body.

Wineries in Napa Valley have also been pushing for approval to reopen, having lost significant tasting room revenue. ‘We are still in a holding pattern,’ said Wall.

The NVV has drawn up detailed draft safety guidelines that have been submitted to state authorities, via Napa County officials.

It also created a task force to test new approaches. ‘The two small-size wineries on the task force were actively involved in creating these guidelines while ensuring that they are feasible to implement,’ said Wall.

‘We have not received any negative feedback on implementing these guidelines. Our wineries want to do the best job possible of welcoming back guests safely and taking care of their employees.’

How quickly will visitors return?

It is early days, but Reitzell said of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, ‘We are almost fully booked for this coming weekend and have bookings as far out as July.’

While safety remained a priority, she said guests were ‘excited to have a place to come and enjoy wine and food, but also to show their support’.

Haney cited research from Sonoma County Tourism that also found an enthusiastic response. ‘People were saying, “we want to come and see you”.’

Initially, wineries would likely rely on day-trippers, such as those from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hotels remained closed. Beyond the US, several countries have continued to either implement restrictions on movement or advise against travel that is not essential.

For those unable to visit, Haney said the best way of supporting wineries was to buy their wines. ‘That goes a long, long way,’ he said.

See also: 

Napa winery tasting rooms stay shut but Oregon reopens

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