US vintners try to say 'cheers' despite virus

Los Angeles (AFP) –


The coronavirus outbreak has proven a sobering experience for vintners across California as they try to navigate the pandemic by organizing virtual wine tastings and slashing prices to remain afloat.

"We had to close down our tasting room and normally, we have many visitors to the winery at this time of the year," lamented Valerie Von Burg, co-owner of The Wine Foundry.

The small winery which produces 11,000 cases of wine a year is located in the famed Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, one of the first regions in the United States to impose a lockdown to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

Although wineries are considered "essential" businesses and as such are still allowed to operate, with tourism dead in the region, so are sales.

Vintners say that with wine tasting rooms and restaurants shuttered, they expect to lose at least 50 percent of their business this year.

"It's hard. We're still calling the grocery stores and we tell them we can ship the wine ... but even though they're definitely seeing increases in wine sales, they're not able to take anything new now," said Amy Madsen, of the Byington winery.

Like most of their fellow 4,000 vintners across the state, Byington Wines and The Wine Foundry are struggling to come up with creative ways to bring in business, offering deep discounts for customers online and waiving shipping costs.

But they are well aware that this may not be enough to compensate for their projected losses.

"Every single winery is experiencing the same thing," said Von Burg. "It definitely is a turndown in business for us but we are not planning to lay off any employees.

"And so, we are trying to get very creative in how we respond to the current situation."

She said once the shelter-in-place order was issued in early March by the governor of California, forcing businesses to shut down and people to stay at home, her team went into crisis mode to come up with ideas to limit losses.

- 'All stuck inside' -

One obvious solution, she said, was to organize virtual wine tastings. Other wineries, including Byington Wines, are doing the same.

"I worked in high tech before ... and we used to do these webinars where you would attract your customers or prospective customers," said Madsen. "So it seemed pretty straightforward and easy enough for us to do."

At The Wine Foundry, the first such wine tasting session took place last week, with the winery's oenologist, Stuart Ake, providing virtual guidance to the 25 people taking part in the free event.

Those attending were regular clients for the most part but also included a wine lover from Chicago, Illinois, a couple from Ohio and a family from New York -- all of drinking age.

The group sampled a 2013 sparkling Blanc de Blancs and a 2018 pinot blanc that most of those attending had purchased beforehand. Those who didn't have time to buy the wines listened intently as Ake analyzed the drink.

"The initial trial, while successful on certain levels, highlighted opportunities for improvements in terms of delivering content and interaction with group members," Ake later told AFP.

He said that contrary to in-person classes, he found it difficult during the webinar to "read body language or facial expressions" through a small computer screen.

"I cringed when I found myself slipping toward something akin to a wine lecture," said Ake, adding that he planned to up his game for the next session -- and might even maintain such events post coronavirus.

One of those who took part in the event, Mark Ellengerger, himself a vintner, said he enjoyed the hour-long social gathering, even though it was virtual.

"We're all king of stuck inside," he said. "And I think everyone appreciates whatever outlet it is, be it virtual or otherwise."