California wineries cope as COVID-19 lockdown affects business

Spring bud in a California vineyard
Spring bud in a California vineyard
Spring bud in a California vineyard
Spring buds in a California vineyard

Even though buds are alive and well throughout the California vineyards, this is certainly a Spring like no other for wineries. Not even the challenges of the past dozen years that included a recession and subsequent economic downturn, a major earthquake, serious fires in multiple seasons and last year’s massive power shutoffs can compare with this, the COVID-19 virus’s near-total lockdown of almost all of the wine industry. Back on March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide order calling for all Californians to “stay home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of federal critical infrastructure sector”.

In an earlier directive dated March 15, the Governor requested bars, pubs and wineries in California to close for onsite consumption to help curtail the spread of coronavirus (COVID). Sale for offsite consumption is specifically allowed in the California Department of Public Health guidance, so long as social distancing requirements are adhered to. The California statewide order has been extended until May 1, at the earliest.

According to The Wine Institute, an American wine industry advocacy group, California wineries employ over 325,000 Californians and generate $57.6 billion, an annual economic activity. With California shut down this means that virtually all of California’s wineries are closed to wine related traffic. Workers tending the fields are still employed along with people in winery cellars and laboratories. “Curbside” wine sales are permitted, where customers are permitted to drive up and purchase bottles. Yet the vast majority of employees in the wine industry find themselves temporarily out of work.

With tasting room shuttered and most restaurants around the U.S. closed, wineries are trying to sell wine directly to the consumers, far more than ever before. Delivery services like UPS and Fed Ex are trying to keep up with the demand. “Even though restaurant sales have slowed, business is strong for Jordan at retail,” said John Jordan, CEO of Jordan Winery. “When demand shifted to retail wine purchases in early March, we pivoted quickly, and the results have been flattering. Our fans still want to drink their Jordan regardless of the fact that the novel coronavirus has turned all of our lives upside down.” Jordan is a very well-respected winery in Alexander Valley, a wine region in Sonoma, California. “Retail is strong because retailers usually don’t have access to Jordan, and they want it. We gave them access in early March, and lots of wine shops bought in,” added Lisa Mattson, Jordan’s director of Marketing & Communications.

Anthony Truchard II told me, “We are trying to keep life as normal here as possible while being mindful of social distancing and everyone’s health.  The agricultural work continues as we are pruning some of our older Cabernet vines.  The vines are spaced 11 feet by 7 feet so each person takes a row and can maintain good distance throughout the day,” said Anthony Truchard II, general manager, Truchard Vineyards. He goes on to say, “I think good meals and wine have brought a lot of people comfort during this time.” Truchard is a large, family run winery based in the Carneros region of Napa County.

Jeff Runquist, is the founder and winemaker at Jeff Runquist Wines in Amador County, California, northeast of Sacramento. He said, “Things have changed so fast due to the pandemic yet the winemaking process doesn’t have a brake pedal. It is going to take a lot more than a virus pandemic to keep the daffodils from blooming or the vines from awakening and starting their season, and so it is with the wine.”

Roger Beery, proprietor, J. Cage Cellars of Santa Rosa, California (Sonoma County) said, “As for J. Cage, winery production goes on as normal but, of course, there are no tastings which challenges the business model. To make up for the lack of personal contact, will are launching video wine tastings, particularly with our wine club members.” What’s the effect? “We are concerned about the near-term effect on sales with the reduction of wine tourism. As a small winery, we are looking for more and better ways to maintain the personal relationships with our customers that they have come to enjoy and expect.”

Stephen A Corley, proprietor, Monticello Vineyards said, “At a time of global pandemic, the Corley Family is deeply thankful for the out-pouring of support that is being shown to our family and our extended family of staff and their families, and all our neighbours and colleagues in Wine Country.” Monticello Vineyards is a venerated winery based in Napa Valley. “Almost everyone in the world is affected, the hospitality industry across the country and the globe is massively affected. California, the nation, the world finds itself unified in isolation as we endeavour to ‘flatten the curve’.”

And even though times are very tough right now with the virus still spreading and economic uncertainty all around, Jeff Runquist stated, “The hills are lush and green, the oak trees have pushed out their spring growth and the California poppies are starting their bloom. The landscape points to a future full of joy and happiness. And every night we reach the same conclusion, we will get through this – together.”

Bob Ecker is a Napa, California based writer