Pressing on: Virginia wineries adapt and hope in response to COVID-19

Veritas Vineyard and Winery is just one of the many local winemaking operations that had to pivot quickly to sell wines online and curbside due to the coronavirus’ effect. Courtesy subject Veritas Vineyard and Winery is just one of the many local winemaking operations that had to pivot quickly to sell wines online and curbside due to the coronavirus’ effect. Courtesy subject

For many, COVID-19 has made it feel as if time is standing still. For local wineries, however, the early- April budbreak marks the start of the growing season and serves as a hopeful, but also stark, reminder that the cycle of winemaking continues forward. Planning, attention, and hard work is required now if wine is to be made in 2020.

In large part, Virginia’s wineries are small, family businesses and face significant financial challenges during this unprecedented time. Not only must they pay immediate expenses associated with taking care of vineyards, but revenue generated now is required to pay for the harvest and winemaking in the fall. 

The wine industry is inextricably intertwined with the restaurant, event, and tourism industries, and springtime in Virginia is usually a peak time for these businesses. With tourism down an estimated 78 percent versus last year, tasting rooms closed, and weddings canceled or postponed, wineries have been forced to move away from their reliable business models.

George Hodson, general manager of Veritas Vineyard and Winery and president/co-owner of Flying Fox Vineyard & Winery describes the Virginia wine industry as “foundationally built on the wine-tourism model.  We have set ourselves up to sell wine at full retail out of our tasting rooms.” He believes the industry must adapt, but that it’s nimble enough to do so. Like many wineries, Veritas and Flying Fox have pivoted from on-premises sales and consumption to online sales and delivering the product to consumers in their homes. “We have been forced to completely restructure our sales model.” 

Rather than seeing this as a temporary or undesirable response, Hodson believes changes wineries are making now will position them well for the future. “I actually believe that this will be a catalyst event that will change the way people purchase wine. People have been trending toward increased online purchasing, this is going to accelerate that curve exponentially.”

Elizabeth Smith, who owns Afton Mountain Vineyards with her husband, Tony, has also turned to online sales. Their winery had an e-commerce website in the works for several months, but COVID-19 served as an impetus to move forward quickly. In addition, they  added wines from Monticello Wine Company, a second label intended only for distribution, to the website. Smith describes online sales as a lifesaver for their business. Like many wineries, they are offering free shipping and curbside pickup. 

Afton Mountain usually has about 95 percent of sales go through its tasting room, but going forward Smith says “we will continue with online sales and increase the number of states with which we register to ship wine.” The rapid launch of their e-commerce platform has necessitated a lot of troubleshooting and revamping of operations, but has also allowed them to learn the new system quickly. 

In the vineyards, physical distancing is relatively easy because there is a lot of open space, but there are other factors that impact employees. Smith says that normally they would hire extra crews to help with the workload, but this year they are only using core workers for both financial and safety reasons. In addition, they’ve asked their employees to stop working other jobs and limit their social interactions when at home.

In the winery, distancing has delayed bottling in some places, as bottling lines often require workers to stand side-by-side for long periods. While most wineries have not yet addressed what things will look like during harvest, they stress that winery work can continue with proper protocols in place. 

Some, like Benoit Pineau, winemaker at Pollak Vineyards, do not anticipate many changes. He says they have a very small team that, through staff education and common sense, can continue to work without risk. However, similar to Afton Mountain, they are asking employees to be responsible with personal time. Pineau refers to the ideal scenario as “home-work-home” with limited or no social activity.

Amidst all of this, it’s obvious there is still great optimism for the 2020 vintage and for the future of Virginia wine. Hodson sees the response from the state government as an important measuring stick. He explains that the governor, secretary of agriculture, and Virginia ABC have worked hard to aid the industry. “Postponing tax payments, easing restrictions, allowing modified operations…we simply cannot ask for more support than we have received,” says Hodson. “This is a signal of the importance of our industry on a state level, which is also a signal of the maturation of our industry.” It’s estimated that the Virginia wine industry has an annual economic impact of over a billion dollars, and the state clearly recognizes that.

Perhaps an even greater cause for hope is consumer support. With online sales and curbside pickups, many wineries across the state are reporting that sales are exceeding their expectations. Hodson describes the response as “overwhelmingly positive,” and is excited about what it indicates. The fact that customers are responding with dollars “tells me our community is supportive of our industry. Ultimately, we are seen as integral members of our community and people want to make sure we are around when this all ends.”


Drink local

A guide to getting central Virginia wine to your table

Afton Mountain Vineyards

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Curbside pickup available on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

 

Ankida Ridge Vineyards

Free shipping on orders more than $75.00.

Curbside pickup available.

 

Barboursville Vineyards

Free shipping on 12 or more bottles.

Half-case and case discounts.

Local delivery and curbside pickup available. Virtual tastings.

 

Blenheim Vineyards

Free shipping on orders more than $50.00.

Local delivery available.

 

Cardinal Point Winery

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Curbside pickup available.

 

Chestnut Oak Vineyard

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Local delivery and curbside pickup available.

 

Chisholm Vineyards at Adventure Farm

$20 off shipping for six or more bottles.

Curbside pickup available.

 

Ducard Vineyards

Free shipping on six or more bottles.

Local delivery and curbside pickup available.

 

Early Mountain Vineyards

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Discounts for half case or more.

Curbside pickup available.

Virtual tastings.

 

Flying Fox Vineyard and Winery

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

 

Gabrielle Rausse Winery

Free shipping on four or more bottles.

Volume discounts available.

 

Horton Vineyards

Curbside pickup available.

 

Jefferson Vineyards

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

 

Keswick Vineyards

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Curbside pickup available.

 

King Family Vineyards

Free shipping on six or more bottles.

Free local delivery on three or more bottles.

 

Michael Shaps Wineworks

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Local delivery and curbside pickup (at Wineworks Extended) available.

 

Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Curbside pickup available.

 

Pollak Vineyards

Free shipping on six or more bottles.

 

Septenary Winery

Free shipping on six or more bottles.

Curbside pickup available.

 

Stinson Vineyards

Free shipping on four or more bottles.

 

Veritas Vineyards and Winery

Free shipping on three or more bottles.

Curbside pickup available. Virtual tastings.

 

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Keith Wallace
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Keith Wallace

We’ve been working with healthcare professionals (it’s good to be located close to medical school!) to develop a plan for our C19 future. Being in the wine trade is really going to change. I hope our white paper can help some other wineries and/or wine schools adapt: https://www.vinology.com/covid/