If there’s a single truth in winemaking in 2020, it’s this: Nobody knows what happens next. The novel coronavirus pandemic and Governor Newsom’s shelter-in-place order have created significant challenges for all industries, but viticultural businesses are facing a particularly difficult test.
According to wine industry analyst Rob McMillan, Northern California’s small wineries have lost an average of 40 to 60 percent of their sales during the state’s Covid-19 shutdown. That estimation is alarming for outsiders, but there’s good news: Many winemakers have quickly found ways to adapt to the uncertainty.
“Everything is obviously hard to predict and plan long term,” says Patrick Rawn, vineyard manager at Two Mountain Winery. “But in the short term, we are hanging in there. The farm is moving along, and we're taking lots of extra precautions to keep all of our team safe and healthy.”
We reached out to several wineries to discuss the ways that their businesses changed — and several key things that didn’t change.
Vines don’t stop growing during shelter-in-place orders. While vineyards have implemented new measures to keep their workers safe, the pandemic’s impact on actual viticulture has been limited.
“Our primary concern in the near term is to make sure that our teams are safe and healthy,” Rawn says. “We gave everyone on our team an extra week of sick time on top of what they might have already had. And if you’re out and you run out of sick time — well, we’re just compensating people for that time. At the core of our culture, we want to maintain a happy, healthy workspace for our crew. We don't want them to feel any economic pressure.”
As a whole, vineyards have been able to manage without massive furloughs or layoffs. There’s still plenty of work to be done, and wineries have been able to make the necessary adaptations without sacrificing productivity.
Kevin Sass, winemaker at Halter Ranch, echoed that sentiment.
“Our team used to meet in one room, now we meet in the cellar with seats that are 15 feet apart,” he says. “We take precautions with sanitizing forklifts on a regular basis and things like that, but few things have actually changed in the field.”
The one exception: When the pandemic hit, Halter Ranch was bottling its annual inventory.
“The bottling occurs in really tight quarters, so we modified things a bit to allow people to be in there safely,” Sass says. “The bottling slowed down a little bit, but it wasn't a major concern. For us, we’re done with it, so we don’t have to worry about it again until next year — which is nice, since we’re so focused on making other near-term adjustments.”
The major changes occurred in direct-to-consumer interactions. Customer retention quickly became key, and staff suddenly had to adapt to an uncertain market. Addressing the new reality meant finding new methods for reaching out to consumers and vendors.
While brick-and-mortar tasting rooms closed at the outset of the pandemic, the demand for the tasting room experience didn’t suddenly disappear. Some wineries began scheduling smaller tastings that would allow for social distancing and other appropriate safety measures. Brecon Estate quickly incorporated new software tools, implementing a reservation portal from point-of-sale company Orderport to manage tastings.
“I think personalized service is more important than ever,” says Nikki Smith, wine club and marketing director at Brecon Estate. “Wine club retention is vital.”
As California’s economy began to reopen, Halter Ranch offered virtual tastings — handled via video stream — in which an expert would directly engage with customers.
“If we get a call from a customer saying, ‘I'm having eight people over tonight, and we were wondering if at 5:00 someone could just walk us through the wines,’ that's essentially the same thing as standing in front of eight people and doing a tasting. And the way you can do things now — people can try the wines, then place orders for them afterwards — it's really the same thing as standing in front of somebody in a tasting room, except they get to do that at their own homes.”
Sass notes that virtual tastings aren’t quite the same as visiting a vineyard during the day, but some consumers might not be able to schedule a visit regardless of shelter-in-place orders.
“We are an experience,” Sass explains. "[Virtual tastings] are not the same thing, but it’s also not a bad experience to be with friends, eating food at your own house and getting information from someone who’s knowledgeable about the wines.”
“There are still people who want that experience, want to introduce their friends to Halter Ranch — but not everybody can get up there. We've started developing videos, slides, and focus points to help people see what we're about. When they do actually come visit, they know what they can do on our property, whether it's a tour, an excursion tour, a cave tour, or something else that appeals to them.”
Vineyards depend on data. Without constant on-the-ground analysis and regular communication, winemakers can’t make effective decisions — and neither can accountants, controllers, wine club managers, or the other decision makers involved in the process of winemaking. The sudden industry-wide disruption has compelled many wineries to rethink their data points.
“We have been keeping track of successful online campaigns, but since the year is so unprecedented, we doubt the hard numbers will be used for much in the coming years,” Smith says. “We ran our wine club a few weeks early so we could get wine out with all of the unknowns. Thankfully that was a fairly smooth process. We also pivoted to focus on web/online sales. We have a very loyal wine club and have built our email list, so we had much success with online sales, thankfully.”
Rawn notes that winemakers use historical data to find trends and make key production decisions. The stay-at-home orders made that approach much more difficult, but his team has adapted by keeping lines of communication open — and by promoting a culture of transparency throughout their organization.
“We've been doing bigger team meetings on a more regular basis, which is a good thing, and we’re making sure that we understand and address concerns,” Rawn says. “That’s something we’ll carry forward. We’re emphasizing open communication, even more so than we had before the pandemic. I felt like we were good at it in the past, but there's always room for improvement.”
Communication plays an important role in vineyard management, and tools like Vinelytics can help team members communicate effectively.
“This vineyard is a living and growing thing, and it's changing every day,” Sass explains. “Every day, these vines get longer, they get bigger, they start changing color. There are dozens of different things that have to happen from January through December. It's very difficult to track that type of thing.”
“It’s important to have a consumer-friendly way to approach that, and to see those processes on a map. It’s particularly helpful when communicating with your accountant, or your controller, or your general manager — for people who don't see what's going on out there. It's really hard for them to see the progress and the process.”
Sass says that Vinelytics has been instrumental in communicating with decision makers who don’t necessarily visit the field every day (and no, we didn’t ask him to say that).
“What Vinelytics does is that it allows you to see the processes. You always get asked questions; it's really easy to go to a computer screen and be able to show the process instead of just numbers on a spreadsheet. It's really a great conduit for everyone to be on the same page.”
“I haven't found any other programs that allow you to get the information and see it on a map — it's so consumer friendly to see what's going on. By the flick of a switch, you can see how far you are in lifting wires and how far you are hand-hoeing the property for starthistle. It has really allowed us to visually see these things on a computer screen, which is even harder to see in person. You can't conceptually understand it until you look at it on a map.”
Most experts in the wine industry believe that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that consumers interact with their products. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I personally do not expect work practices to return to what they were before the pandemic until Fall or so of 2021,” Smith says. “We have moved to ‘appointment only’ for weekends. Keeping staff healthy needs to be front-of-mind.”
“I think we're going to see some changes — needed changes — in business models,” Rawn says. “Smaller producers that are more focused on direct-to-consumer have had more exposure to the effects of the pandemic, as they’ve been forced to close their tasting rooms and brick-and-mortar operations.”
Rawn says that consumers have adapted quickly to receiving wine via mail. Wineries that adapt quickly to the “new normal" will be able to tap into a new, growing market.
“There’s this pivot towards going online and meeting customers at where they're at,” Rawn says. “I think we'll see a continued increase in digital communication. People will continue to come up with new ways to talk about their story and connect with their customer base instead of just waiting for them to walk through the door. I think that, ultimately, these new innovative business models will be a positive.”
Sass says that Halter Ranch’s online orders have increased dramatically over the past year, and while that’s attributable to the pandemic, he doesn’t anticipate a dramatic dropoff.
“Online shopping has been part of our shopping experience, but during the stay-at-home orders, it became a majority of our shopping experience,” Sass says. “And I don't know if it's going to go back.”