[UPDATE — Wednesday, May 13, 2020: Governor Northam announced yesterday that Northern Virginia can wait until at least May 29 to reopen based on a request by some members of the Board of Supervisors. Wineries in Loudoun County will not be opening on May 15 as part of Phase I even though they have worked tirelessly to follow safety guidelines set forth by the state.]
The following is the first article in a multi-part series covering the gradual reopening of the Virginia wine and cider tasting rooms. Please email me if you would like your reopening included in future articles.
On Friday, May 15, Virginians will again be able to dine at their favorite restaurants ( outdoor seating only), get a haircut (by appointment only), attend church (at 50% of capacity) and visit their favorite winery or cidery (outdoor seating only).
This measured reopening is part of Governor Ralph Northam’s three phase plan to reopen businesses across the state. Phase One: ‘Safer at Home’ includes restaurants, dining establishments, food courts, breweries, cideries, mobile units (food trucks), distilleries, wineries, and tasting rooms.
The gradual reopening is welcome news to the local wine industry. “We are ready and can’t wait to see our guests,” said Jennifer Breaux, Vice President of Breaux Vineyards in Loudoun County. Breaux’s sentiment is echoed across the industry.
Even before Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 55 on March 23, 2020, ordering statewide closure of non-essential businesses and schools, many wineries had made the difficult decision to close their tasting rooms for the safety of their teams and customers.
As tasting rooms closed, event revenue and wine sales plummeted causing wineries to layoff team members. When not in the vineyards pruning or battling frost throughout the night, winemakers scrambled to get up to speed on the latest digital tools like Zoom to host virtual tastings to help buoy sales.
Online sales have been brisk for many wineries but do not match revenue lost from cancelled events or sales from tasting rooms that are usually busy this time of year.
As part of Phase One of the state’s reopening plan, ‘businesses must strictly adhere to the physical distancing guidelines, enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices, and enhanced workplace safety practices and should continue to offer takeout and delivery options.’
“Service at wineries will look different under phase one,” said Mary Beth Taylor Williams, an attorney and president of Williams Compliance & Consulting Group, who has helped the industry navigate legal obstacles during the shutdown.
“Reservations will likely be required, many wineries will have hosts/hostesses to help ensure physical distancing procedures are followed, staff will be wearing masks and only outdoor seating will be available but, customers will get to spend a beautiful afternoon enjoying the views on the grounds at their favorite winery. I think we’re going to see some wineries get really creative with alternatives to tasting experiences.”
Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane will be offering a reservation-only curated experience for $295 per couple (limited to groups of 10) that includes reserved seating at a private table (for up to four hours), digital photos of your visit, $295 in wine and beer and even cloth face masks. Guests can bring their own picnic or order from Field & Main or other nearby restaurants.
At Breaux Vineyards in Loudoun County, online registration via the winery’s point of sale system will provide a more customized and streamlined experience.
“To avoid high touch situations and to accommodate guests in a timely and organized manner, we will encourage everyone to set up an account via our point of sale system,” said Breaux.
“Setting up an account will allow guests to reserve a time slot and order wines ahead of their arrival. Once they arrive at the winery, they text or check in at our front welcome area and then will be escorted to their table, given their wines and (for now) disposable wine cups. If additional wines are desired, we will handle it table-side or they can simply order online right from their table. We have set the grounds up like a restaurant, so we have designated staff-manned sections for service.”
Breaux Cellar Club members will have the first opportunity to reserve their seating preference and will be welcomed to the winery two hours prior to general opening time.
The financial and emotional strain of the shutdown has served as a catalyst for some wineries to reevaluate their tasting room business model.
“This shutdown has been extremely stressful but we’ll come out of this stronger,” said Jim Law, founder and winegrower at Linden Vineyards, situated in the town of Linden, about 60 miles west of Washington, DC.
“When we reopen we’re going to implement things I’ve been talking about for years. More seminars and being open by reservation only will allow us to focus on our best customers.”
Other wineries are considering a reservation-only approach to limit the number of visitors during the initial reopening phase and to focus on their most loyal customers.
“Moving forward, Casanel hopes to adopt a by-appointment only/Club Members only approach,” wrote Katie DeSouza, winemaker at Casanel Vineyards in Loudoun County, by email.
“It’s the only way we can control the amount of people on our property. We are worried about the backlash of going ‘by appointment only,’ but it’s the only safe choice in our minds right now.”
At Veritas Vineyards in Afton, CEO George Hodson, who serves on Governor Northam’s task force for reopening Virginia’s economy says, “we have an extensive plan in place to minimize contact between staff and guests and plan on opening with reservation-only spaces with defined boundaries.”
Some winery and cidery teams are still working on reopening plans based on the industry-specific requirements released by Governor Northam’s office late Friday (May 8).
Courtney Mailey, founder of Richmond’s Blue Bee Cider, said by email, “since the industry-specific requirements were just released last night, the sales team managers and I need a couple of days to process the exact staffing requirements necessary to provide a high-quality on-site experience while continuing to provide local deliveries, curbside pickup and shipping out of state. With only 50% occupancy allowed it may not be fiscally responsible to double our staffing, which may be necessary to meet government sanitation and distancing directives. We just need some time to work that out.”
Each phase of the Governor’s plan to reopen the economy is expected to last about three weeks but, ultimately, is dependent on virus trends. Cidery and winery reopening plans are subject to change based on updated requirements and guidance.
Check winery websites or call before your visit for last minute updates. Practice patience and understanding with winery staff and each other as we all navigate the constraints of this new reality.
I hope to see you on the local wine trails soon — from a safe distance, of course!
ADDITIONAL OPENINGS (These details are in addition to rigorous cleaning practices implemented by each winery. CHECK WINERY WEBSITES DIRECTLY for most up to date information:
- Williamsburg Winery: The retail shop and indoor tasting room remain closed. All outdoor seating on patio and inside two-level 1619 Pavilion will be spaced six feet apart to allow for social distancing. Picnic areas will re-open, but guests may not congregate in groups of more than 10. The winery will leverage the online reservation system to schedule tastings.
- Glass House Winery: All tastings and seating will be available by reservation only. Seating will be available on the back deck, by the lake, on the grass between the lake and winery, on the small patio and at tables above the parking lot and bottle building deck. Music starts next Saturday and Sunday.
- Rosemont of Virginia — Guests MUST make a reservation to enjoy wine on-premise by calling the winery directly at 434-636-9463. Tables on the patio or on the Rosemont lawn can be reserved for a two-hour time period ($50 deposit required). Tent spaces on the upper level of the lawn, closest to the vineyard, are also available for $100.
- Spinning Jenny Vineyard — Outdoor seating on the grounds will be available. Call the winery for a reservation.
[A big thank you to each winemaker who took the time to email or speak with me about reopening, especially Mary Beth Williams for spending time on a Friday night to explain the latest guidance from VDACS and to Jim Law for taking so much time on the phone to chat about the future of Virginia wine. Much appreciated!]