Tasting Room Tips: Wineries Share Strategies for Safe Reopening

With states beginning to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions, the process of safely reopening may feel like a complicated process.

Vintner Magazine reached out to wineries across the country and asked them to share some tips that have helped them begin safely serving their customers who visit in person.

Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas has a nice leg up when it comes to knowing what’s safe and what isn’t: a medical doctor who happens to make their wine. Owner and Winemaker Bob Young, MD, MPH, practiced medicine for 35 years, serving as the top state official in Arkansas and Kentucky.

“Navigating the regular ups and downs of inclement weather or fussy bottling lines is one thing, but no one would have imagined a pandemic literally stopping us in our tracks,” said General Manager Jennifer McInnis a week after a winter storm left numerous residents and businesses in her state without power or water for days. “Bending Branch was closed to the public for seven months, aside from curbside pickup and delivery, and in order to reopen, we had to reconsider all of our winery experiences.”

With a doctor leading the way, Bending Branch has prioritized safety when tailoring its operations to the pandemic:

  • All service is outdoors, with tables spaced apart, and reservations are required. The winery uses Tock, a website that allows customers to make their reservations online.
  • Masks are required except when seated for tastings.
  • Reservations have hard stops so staff can conduct sanitation protocols in between tastings.
  • UVC light and Ozone are used to sanitize working areas overnight.
  • All guests receive sealed glassware and individual carafes of wine for self-guided tastings to minimize contact. Those are pre-packed and also sanitized with UVC light.

At their Wine Club Lounge, they added a couple of cabanas and more tables adjacent to the vineyard.

“Bending Branch strongly recommends that outdoor seatings are the safest way to continue to provide service for the foreseeable future,” McInnis said. “The best advice going forward is to consider how to grow your in-person winery experiences while still being safe to protect your customers and your employees. We will continue to require reservations through Tock, which is integrated into our point of sale, and take advantage of our large outdoor space and vineyard seating for tastings.”

Tom Nye, General Manager of Blind Horse Winery in Kohler, Wisconsin, started working to mitigate the virus in real time when the pandemic first began to take hold last spring.

“There was no technology that was sufficient to do this though at that time. So in April [2020], we used what we could, which was standard UVC light to sanitize the space and spraying an antimicrobial on all surfaces which would stay effective for three months,” Nye said.  

While this helped, they knew this wasn’t a long term solution. As soon as products became available to help mitigate the situation in real time, they installed them and started a campaign to educate the health department as well as employees and the public.  

Blind Horse has good outdoor space, but being in Wisconsin, they didn’t want to lean on that as a solution during long periods of colder weather.

“We installed Far UVC 222 lights in certain buildings where they were more appropriate. Far UVC 222 is a form of UVC that is safe for use in occupied space,” Nye explained “We installed fans in other rooms that sucked up the virus and used standard UVC light to kill the virus. Both products offer 99% effectiveness and real time mitigation.

Nye said Blind Horse also wanted to be an example of a company that invests in the safety of the public, and said its customers had expressed their appreciation of that.

“Our customers feel safe coming here and we hear often about how we are the only restaurant and winery they will visit,” Nye said. “Our business has been able to build back up to only be off by about 10% of normal levels.”

The weather in Healdsburg, California, where Papapietro Perry Winery operates is a little different than that in Wisconsin.

Owner/CEO Renae Perry said Papapietro had implemented new features such as a reservation system for tastings and, fortunately, had created a covered, outdoor tasting patio just before the pandemic hit.

“We have outdoor heaters, and have hired someone to sanitize after each visitor. It’s working well.”

When shifting to an outdoor full-service model, Perry said it was important to spend time training employees.

“It required additional training for the staff since now they are a bit more like waiters,” Perry said. “Not everyone can adjust from the tasting bar to table service.”

Neighboring winery Limerick Lane, which is also located in Healdsburg, took a similar approach by moving everything outdoors. The winery offers tastings and tours with spaced out appointments to allow time for proper cleaning and sanitization between guests.

“We set up an outdoor greeting station where our hosts meet the clients and explain the process and expectations,” Operations Manager David Messerli said. “Customers can take a complimentary mask and use hand sanitizer before they begin the tasting.”

Limerick Lane installed a large covered structure and purchased a fire pit, chairs, and blankets (that are washed after every use) and repositioned their tasting bars into this area. 

The tasting area is adjacent to the estate’s vineyards. When weather allows, Limerick Lane treats guests to a vineyard tour/tasting experience. Customer traffic and appointments are lessened by the extra amount of time for set up and clean up, which Messerli said is necessary to keep our staff and customers safe.

Because of the previous years’ fires and COVID closures, Limerick Lane was adhering to a fairly tight budget. So, the team decided to look around and use the assets that they already had. 

“The estate vineyards were an easy choice as it makes the wine stories relatable and applicable,” Messerli said. “I think that it’s always important to play to the strengths of your business. We had recently secret shopped our own winery, so we had a good idea of what connected with our customers as well as what clearly did not.”

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