LODI — Among the sectors of the economy anxious to reopen is the Lodi wine community.
Since March, winery tasting rooms in San Joaquin County, namely the some 85 in Lodi and Acampo, have been closed to the public, and wineries have been forced to cancel or postpone events in compliance with stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Smaller, family-owned wineries that derive a significant portion of their revenue, marketing and brand identity through direct-to-consumer sales and events have been especially challenged.
In 2018, visits to Lodi’s tasting rooms and events drew nearly 1 million people who spent $221 million, according to Visit Lodi.
Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, has closely monitored guidance from several sources, including San Joaquin County and the Wine Institute, a private, nonprofit trade association of wineries and associate members engaged in industries related to wine production and distribution. On May 5, the Wine Institute released reopening guidance for California’s wine tasting rooms after consulting with medical experts and California regional wine associations.
“What concerns me for the short term and the longer term is that those emotional connections that are made when a person visits are critical to our long-term success both as a region and as an individual winery,” Spencer said. “And without that ability, there is a disconnect from what is needed to move the region forward. We are anxious to get to a point where we can entertain guests again in a responsible and safe way.”
The winegrape commission has shared WI guidance with its constituents. Tasting rooms will not look or operate the same as before, but Spencer is confident Lodi’s wineries will adapt and provide the same high level of customer service as before.
The six pages of information and guidelines from the Wine Institute include recommendations for education and training, employee wellness screenings, employee sanitizing requirements, distancing and occupancy, and operations. Prior to reopening, employees are required to be educated on proper sanitation and personal hygiene requirements consistent with guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and that all tasting room visits should be made by appointment. Tastings should be conducted outdoors but if not, indoors with at least 6 feet of social distancing. Face coverings for employees and visitors will be based on county directives, hand washing stations are required, and a designated greeter or host is recommended to manage customer flow.
“These are hurdles that we are all quite prepared to deal with,” Spencer said. “Speaking with our other vintners, they’ll do what they need to do to get back open.”
Restrictions are being eased in some business sectors, though winery tasting rooms, bars, sit-down restaurants and nail salons were not included in the early stages of Phase 2 in Gov. Newsom’s four-phase framework to allow some lower-risk businesses and public spaces to reopen. When tasting rooms will be allowed to reopen is not certain, but many, including Heritage Oak Winery in Acampo, are preparing to adapt in accordance with WI guidelines.
“What we’re anticipating is that we are going to be using the outside areas more, either in back of the winery or in front of the winery,” said Tom Hoffman, owner and winemaker of Heritage Oak Winery and a wine grape grower. “When the weather is nice that will be fine, but if it’s cold or raining, we anticipate problems. We can’t have people in the tasting room because it’s going to get too complicated.”
Hoffman plans to offer a flight of wines rather than individual pours to minimize contact. He’s also procuring the hardware he will need, such as plastic glasses, face masks and serving trays. Hoffman said he has had to make sacrifices but has retained his staff during the closure without tapping federal or state payroll assistance.
“My tasting room sales for May are 30% off from May last year,” said Hoffman. “But at least I’m surviving.”
Contact reporter and wine columnist Bob Highfill at (209) 546-8277 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobhighfill. Join the From the Vine group page at facebook.com/groups/FTV209. For archived From the Vine columns and podcasts, visit recordnet.com/FTV.