Sonoma Valley tasting rooms can open with new guidelines

Tasting rooms are now allowed to host guests as long as strict coronavirus safety protocols are followed, and the tastings must include a meal. It’s not an ideal situation for some wineries that don’t have kitchens or chefs, but it has opened up other opportunities for partnership with local caterers and eateries.

“The meal requirement does not enhance safety and could be a distraction, but we are committed to aligning with the county on their requirements for wineries and guests. We look forward to the day we can focus again on the beautiful wines of Sonoma,” said Prema Behan, general manager of Three Sticks Wines on West Spain Street.

Three Sticks Wines’ culinary partners for food options include El Dorado Kitchen, Ovello Salumeria, Vella Cheese and Miyoko’s, which they utilized for a variety of creative virtual experiences including providing recipes to pair with their wines, which guests could prepare or not while attending an online experience. Other wineries also partnered with local food purveyors to meet the requirements.

“We’ve partnered with two Sonoma-based eateries: one a long-standing community staple and one new to the scene,” said John Michael Sweazey, second generation proprietor of Anaba Wines. “We are excited to work with Girl & the Fig and Kivelstadt Cellars Wine Garden and Eatery to enhance our guests’ tasting experiences with food options curated for Anaba Wines. This new food requirement has allowed us to quickly work with two of our favorite culinary friends, and we can’t wait to pair their creations with our wines.”

The shelter-in-place orders initially prohibited in-person tastings to take place, throwing a curve ball to the wine industry that pivoted and started hosting virtual tastings and other online activities such as trivia games, happy hours and chef pairings.

“In Sonoma Valley, where 80 percent of the wineries produce 5,000 cases of wine per year or less, the impact of COVID-19 will be especially challenging for those operations that rely on seeing visitors in person and/or restaurant sales,” said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance.

Some wineries rely solely on direct-to-consumer sales that occur in their tasting rooms. While some wineries report huge increases in online sales – some offered free curbside pick-up, free or discounted shipping, and personal delivery – the industry as a whole is taking a big financial hit.

“California Wine Institute released information on a recent analysis by wine industry expert John Moramarco, that estimates the impact of COVID-19 to California’s wine industry alone to be as high as $5.94 billion. Tasting room sales throughout the state are predicted to decline 80 percent in 2020 over 2019 levels, equating to a $3 billion loss to the industry,” Cottingham said.

Sonoma Valley wine industry and associated businesses are “the largest employer in Sonoma Valley and account for more than 65 percent of the local jobs,” Cottingham said, indicating a great impact on the local economy.

“Sonoma Valley wineries have been mapping their forward strategies for some weeks now and planning to re-open slowly and carefully,” Cottingham said. “They care about their employees, their community and their guests and want everyone to be healthy and safe and of course our vintners still want to deliver the warm, authentic, and world-class hospitality that we are known for here in Sonoma Valley.”

Cottingham was among several wine industry-related associations that signed a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking for the meal requirement to be eliminated.

The May 26 letter from the California Regional Wine Associations – 28 agencies that include Napa Valley Vintners, Sonoma County Vintners Association, and Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, read in part: “While our associations appreciate the opportunity to reopen in counties that have received a variance as part of the ‘dine-in restaurant’ protocols, serving a ‘meal’ is not something that most of our members are accustomed to doing. It strikes us as illogical that a winery must offer a ‘sit-down, dine-in meal’ as a condition to reopen. If a winery can safely reopen with food service, a winery can certainly reopen safely without food service.”

Cottingham said Newsom’s office briefed the Wine Institute – an advocacy group for wineries and affiliated businesses – that new guidance will be coming soon, but Cottingham said “it was not clear” what that guidance included or when they would receive it.

“You could say that our vintners are proceeding with cautious optimism. The unknowns are many in this environment,” Cottingham said.

John Sweazey, first generation proprietor of Anaba Wines, said they “are thrilled to re-open up our Vintners House to our extended Anaba family,” and making sure they are following all the state-issued protocols.

But like Behan and Cottingham said, wineries want to get back to the business of interacting with their guests.

“We are ready to reopen the (Three Sticks) adobe and welcome guests back for our personalized hospitality,” said Behan. “With enhanced safety protocols, the experience remains tranquil, exclusive and delightful as always.”

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