Is the New Wine Tasting Experience Palatable in 2020?
Spoiler Alert: It is for me!
A D Y S T O P I A N W I N E C O U N T R Y
Imagine you’re driving through rolling hills meticulously lined with vineyards. The sun is playing hide and seek behind the clouds, and it’s that perfect temperature when you don’t even notice the weather. There aren’t many cars on the road, or people out and about, which makes the drive rather tranquil. Just you and the catharsis of nature.
However, when you pull into your destination’s parking lot you notice that it’s deserted, and your arrival creates a dust cloud that keeps drifting along. The sound of your car door shutting is eerie, because the strangely intrusive noise echoes across a more desolate scene than you’ve come to expect for a winery’s tasting room. You begin walking toward the building and hear crows cawing ominously from above. As you enter the winery everyone freezes, and the record skips. You’re told to, “STOP! Stay outside,” but can’t tell to whom the voice belongs because the three people working inside are all masked and staring at you, unblinking, from a distance. You notice the sign to your right asking you to remain outside on the patio with directions to wear a mask on the premises. You slowly back up, still facing the door. Phew, made it to your table. Safe. A masked bandit approaches. You wonder how much cash you have. Oh wait, that’s not even acceptable currency anymore because paper is a vehicle for transmitting disease. So, what can they take? Hmm…you? You grab your keys and thread a single key through your fingers making a fist, like you’ve done during every walk in a parking garage at night, but you keep your fist hidden below the table. They’re getting closer. Breathe. You snap back to reality when you hear them asked what kind of wine you want. Long exhale.
Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Doesn’t it feel like we’re living in a dystopian reality though? The masks, the gloves, the partitions, the social distancing. It’s totally necessary, of course, and it’s an odd new world we’re navigating. At least for the time being.
H O W W E G O T H E R E
I remember vividly in March when people were discussing a 3-week quarantine, and I thought there was absolutely no way anyone would stay quarantined until April 6th. Are you kidding? We’re all going to go crazy¹. Oh, oh, oh how naive I was and sadly underestimated how long we would be fighting this coronavirus… as a country… as the human race. The end still isn’t in sight. It’s now June. Our kids are still not in school. Many people aren’t back at work. Non-essential workers aren’t taking trips or even trying to plan them. Well trying might not be true… at least once a week, my girlfriends and I contemplate when we’re going to be able to take a girl’s trip again to wine country. Like, ever?
Here’s a glimmer of hope for us all. Yes, we’re going to be living in a new reality for a while, but California wine countries are open again. And, it’s much more palatable than the dystopian experience you might imagine. Woohoo! But wait, how is that going to work, and what does wine tasting look like during a global pandemic?
I gallantly volunteered to get out of the house (wink) to check out what the new customer experience would be like and report back². My test cases were (I) Marimar Estate in Sonoma County, which is a standalone winery quite isolated, (II) Andrew Murrary Vineyards, another standalone winery but in Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County, and (III) Carhartt Vineyard, which has a tasting room Cabin with a private back patio in the town of Los Olivos. So, let’s take a look at the new rules in place and what wine tasting will be like for the foreseeable future. Yes, Virginia, you can go wine tasting again, and now you’ll be prepared to make the most of it while staying safe!
California tasting rooms closed in March, alongside our mandatory shelter-in-place orders. At first, some wineries shut down all-together. After two weeks, though, realizing there was not an end in sight, they had to open with a skeleton staff to keep operations going. They needed to handle wine club deliveries, online orders and field calls.
Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley was fielding calls from customers and shared that several people were calling just to talk to someone. They were lonely. Murray had an hour-long conversation with a wine club member who was just looking for some human interaction. “I enjoyed talking to someone just as much as he did,” Murray laughs.
And then there’s the grapes. Just because business slowed down, it doesn’t mean mother nature comes to a halt. Wineries also needed to maintain their vineyards which during the springtime in the northern hemisphere need shoot thinning. Many wineries were also bottling and doing some soul searching on how to make up for the lost revenues from tastings rooms and restaurants. You may have noticed more live content on Instagram and Facebook or virtual tastings over zoom. Marimar Estate in Sebastopol, for example, launched a cooking show on Fridays at 5pm Pacific with classic Spanish recipes and wine pairings along with step-by-step demonstration, by the mother and daughter duo. Every operation is going to take a slightly different approach, but the commonality remains that they are simply businesses trying to stay alive while keeping their employees and customers safe.
Fast forward to June. California wine countries have remained somewhat of an outlier in that they have had relatively few coronavirus cases. As we all know, these numbers change daily, but as I’m writing this there has been 3-5x lower infection rates in Sonoma and Santa Barbara Counties than Los Angeles County, for example.
It makes sense. These are rural farming areas, away from cities and actually not very populated when you take tourism out of the mix. I would venture to guess wine regions, in general, on a global scale, have seen a below average infection rate. How does an area with relatively low coronavirus cases open businesses that are extremely desirable tourist destinations?
T H E N E W R U L E S
Tasting rooms are open again or are in the process of opening, but with many guidelines in place. There are several entities involved in trying to regulate their reopening – the CDC, ABC, various vintner’s associations, the statewide mandates of course. Initially, wineries were lumped into the same category as sporting venues. Why? Well, they are tourist destinations where people from all over travel to sip and mingle in close proximity.
But the question was posed, “What makes restaurants different?” Restaurants, on the other hand, really cater more to locals. Well, wineries across the state petitioned, and they were heard. Now wineries can also open under certain regulations making them similar to restaurants.
The regulations are in place so communities can continue to stay close knit while carefully reopening and practicing social distancing, so in theory, we won’t get the rapid transmission that accompanies crowds and common modes of travel in the 21st century.
How are they opening wineries while keeping it safe for their community? Here’s an overview of some of the new rules. Some are steadfast, while others are more open to interpretation.
To start, patrons are required to purchase a bonafide meal of food with their wine purchase, and on the same ticket, just like a restaurant. Each winery is handling this differently, but the end result will be a meal with your vino. Andrew Murray Vineyards is partnering with a local restaurant, Baker’s Table, for prepackaged items, while Carhartt Vineyards of Los Olivos has a food truck coming onsite and Marimar Estate (with a full kitchen) is preparing tapas and charcuterie. This mandate has pros and cons. Pros – the wineries get to open, and you get yummy food, so you don’t need to plan for another meal. Fewer stops is also safer and more relaxing. Cons – how many meals can you eat? The full day of hitting up 4 (or more) wineries is likely going to cut back to one or two maximum. Expect a higher check, naturally, since you’re not just buying wine.
Making reservations ahead of time is required. The days of waltzing into a tasting room for an impromptu flight because you’re walking or driving by some winery that looks cool are done. For now, at least. Reservations are important for a few reasons. First of all, wineries would prefer and/or are requiring small groups of 6 or fewer people. This is intended to allow families to come, but separate families to social distance themselves. Secondly, they want to accommodate as many people as possible, but limiting the number of people at the winery at one time, so they need to space out tastings. Also, their sanitation processes are now quite thorough between appointments, so they need to space appointments properly allowing for cleaning. I, for one, am happy about this. When you walk up to your table, you know it’s clean and ready for you.
Wineries will be utilizing their outdoor space and encouraging outdoor seating as much as possible. Score!
Employees at the wineries will be wearing masks at all times. Guests are required to wear masks moving about the property – coming in, going to the bathroom, leaving, etc. The only time a customer’s mask can be off is if you are seated at your table. This is for everyone’s protection and certainly reasonable. “Wear a mask? Ughhhh.” If that is your initial reaction, well, think about it a little more. Wine countries have remained very safe this spring, and inviting people back into wineries means the employees working there need to be protected just as much as the guests.
Chase Carhartt of Carhartt Vineyards put it succinctly, “Our roots are in hospitality and creating a welcoming space for guests, and we also need to protect our community. Wearing masks is just respecting that.”
F I N A L L Y, I S T H E N E W W I N E T A S T I N G E X P E R I E N C E P A L A T A B L E?
So, here are my thoughts after having experienced the new wine tasting experience personally. I felt so unbelievably refreshed getting out of the house and even just driving through these gorgeous areas. The scenery, the fresh air, seeing vineyards again was food for the soul. Wearing a mask walking in - OK, this is different. And, interfacing with someone else in a mask is odd, for me mostly because you can’t see facial expressions, and I usually like to make a connection with whomever is pouring. I miss smiling at someone and seeing them smile back. However, the mask thing is such a small fraction of your total experience. You get to your table and then, voilà, you can take it off. You can interact freely with your table guest(s). I was lucky enough to have a best friend join me for one of the tastings and, with just the two of us at a large table, easily kept our distance while still catching up. We needed it. It was a mental health break.
A long drive through stunning landscapes. Connecting with an old friend. Tasting delicious wine and food. Good for the mind, the body and the soul. I did take extreme precautions². And you know what, to answer your question, “Was it worth it?” Yes. Yes, I would do it again. No, I wouldn’t fly to a wine country, but I am comfortable with driving. And that seems in line with what governing bodies regulating the wineries are intending – discouraging tourism (for now) but creating a safe and welcoming place for neighbors.
I have been ordering wine online and doing online tastings and whatnot, but it’s just not the same as being among the vineyards, swirling that grape juice around in your glass. Plus, I’m a little bit of a wine nerd, if you didn’t know already, so I want to hear how the wine is made or what was challenging about the vintage or what the winemaker thinks of their wine. I am a student of wine, and wearing a mask isn’t going to diminish my passion one iota.
¹ As I am currently working on writing this during my “at home office hours” my 4-year-old is banging a shovel against the metal patio furniture, and my 2-year-old is lying down kicking both feet against one of the glass doors. Relentlessly. I’m not going crazy. You’re going crazy.
² Initially, when I was thinking of going anywhere, it didn’t seem possible. How could I do it without putting myself at higher risk, and in turn, my family at higher risk? And then, what if I spread something unknowingly? After much thought, I came up with a plan and took extreme precautions during my travels. I didn’t fly to northern California, I drove. I only stopped for gas, with gloves and a mask on, throwing the gloves away after use and disinfecting my hands, credit card, door handle, steering wheel, etc. What about the restroom, you ask? Well, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of stopping at gas stations or fast food places to use a public restroom, so I used my kid’s travel potty in the trunk of my car… no joke. It’s quite the quad workout. This takes the meme “will do anything for wine” to a whole new level. I have a bar of soap in Tupperware, jug of water and paper towels in my trunk so I can do the full monty hand washing. Purell just doesn’t seem like enough. Extreme precautions I tell you. Thankfully, traffic in LA is way down so my drive from south Orange County to Santa Barbara wine country was just over three hours, which I could make without any stops along the way.