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Wine tasting through the corona daze

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Kyra Matheson, at left and Dion Candanoza sip wine at the combined Ryan Patrick Wines and Milbrandt Vineyards outdoor tasting area Sept. 18 on Front Street in Leavenworth.

These stressful days are enough to drive one to drink. But while the need is there, local wineries and tasting rooms have been pressed to come up with new ways to serve those thirsty customers. Some wineries now drive the drinks to them.

Changing state regulations meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 have created challenges for North Central Washington wineries and wine tasting rooms since spread of the disease grew rampant last spring.

In response, winery owners and managers have come up with creative ways to sell and distribute their spirits and offer safe social gatherings that customers are craving more than ever before. And those wine-loving customers have responded appreciatively.

Winery picnics on the lawn, wine slushies, virtual wine and appetizer tastings, drive-up service, home deliveries and free shipping are some of the innovative ways wineries are trying to expand sales and keep their establishments afloat while safely offering customers their delicious elixirs of happiness during trying times.

An outdoor experience

Wineries and wine tasting rooms with outdoor seating have a clear advantage. As of late August, tasting rooms in Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties can seat up to five customers to an outdoor table to 50% of its normal outdoor seating capacity with tables set at least 6 feet apart. Grant and Okanogan counties, which are at phase 2 regulations, are also able to offer indoor seating at 50% capacity, but only if they offer a menu of at least three food items. The food can be purchased from an outside caterer.

Tasting rooms in Chelan and Douglas counties, which are still at a 1.5 designation, can offer indoor seating at 25% capacity, if they offer food. No bar tastings can be offered in either designation. All staff and customers are required to wear masks except when seated at tables and drinking or eating.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can do in the safest way possible,” said Preston Sullivan, direct to consumer manager and wine tasting rooms manager for Jones of Washington. Jones has tasting rooms in the Pybus Market in Wenatchee and the Quincy Public Market. Both were open for bottle and glass sales with separated seating in the markets in July and early August. When regulations changed later in August, the tasting rooms created small outdoor seating areas and small tasting samples, each in their own sealed bottle.

New offerings include chilled wine slushies that have been extremely popular.

Sullivan offers curb-side service for people who want to purchase wine but who don’t feel safe coming into the markets. He also offers free local delivery for purchases of six or more bottles.

Allan Williams, marketing director for Jones, said tasting room sales are down, but web sales are up, so that helps balance things. Jones also sells wine wholesale to distributors in 15 states. Those sales started off the year way above years past, he said.

“We had our best quarter ever, but then came March,” Williams said. People are buying more wine than ever, but he said competition is fierce on the wholesale side. Off premise wine sales across the nation are up about 30 % from last year, according to Nielsen market reports for late spring.

“We’re still up for the year on the strength of that first quarter, but we haven’t been able to match that. We’re flat at best but I think we’ll end up okay,” he said.

Wine clubs to the rescue

Wine clubs have been salvation for many small wineries. Club members come for curbside pickup or are sent several bottles one or more times a year.

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People gather to sip wine in the outdoor seating areas of Crayelle Cellars and Horan Estates Winery in downtown Wenatchee at 15 Second St. in Wenatchee on Sept. 18. COVID-19 restrictions have pushed wineries to get creative in how and where they provide service to their customers.

“Our wine club members have come to the rescue,” said Danielle Mitrakul, co-owner with her husband Craig, of Crayelle Cellars. Craig makes wine for Crayelle as well as Karma Vineyards on Lake Chelan. Crayelle opened a new tasting room in Wenatchee next to the Numerica Performing Arts Center and behind the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce. Horan Estates Winery moved into an adjacent new space at the same time. Horan was offering only curbside pickup until mid-September when they added an outdoor seating area.

Mitrakul said the location is great because it’s downtown, but limited because the room is small. She was able to set up a small outdoor area. Groups of up to five are allowed in the tasting rooms at 25 % normal capacity, about 10 people maximum.

“We require masks when people come in and are wandering around, but they can remove them when tasting wine at the tables,” she said. “People have been very respectful of the rules. We’ve had not one complaint about masks.”

Crayelle offers groups a small carafe of each wine from which they can pour their own tastes. The winery also sells wine by the bottle or glass and offers appetizers and also encourages people to bring their own appetizers.

The COVID-19 lockdown came right before the winery was scheduled to deliver their first shipments of wine to wine club members. Members came to the location for curbside pickup and many purchased more than their required allotment to stock up and help the winery.

“They’ve helped us weather the storm,” she said.

Covering the bases

Up Stemilt Hill at Malaga Springs Winery, co-owner and winemaker Allen Matthews said Chelan County’s move to Phase 1.5 in July enabled him invite customers to the winery for outdoor picnics and music events. Music events were shut down again in mid-July by changing state regulations in light of an increase in positive coronavirus numbers, but Matthews was hopeful safe events will return.

“Our sales were down 66% during Phase 1. Now we’re doing 50% to 60% of normal,” he said. “Holy cow, we’re doing good compared to some businesses that have been savaged by this. I’m not complaining.”

Matthews said he’s been closely following health district rules for sanitary cleanup, mask wearing, capacity and safe distancing. Wine club sales, web sales and off premise sales through local wine shops, restaurants and golf courses have helped keep sales moving. He also offers free delivery to local customers.

“We’re trying to cover all the bases, to be safe and sell a little wine,” he said.

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Outdoor tables at Cairdeas Winery in Manson are spread out to maintain a safe distance between groups.

Charlie Lybecker, co-owner and winemaker for Cairdeas Winery in Manson, said much the same.

“We’re trying to be safe and play by the rules. We want to stay open,” he said. Business has been good since Cairdeas has been able to reopen its tasting room by reservation. With Manson’s busy summer tourist season, there’s no lack of customers. It’s more about providing tastings and sales safely and within regulations. All service is done outside, with tables spread out to maintain a safe distance.

Creativity pays off

Before the tasting room reopened in June, Lybecker created ways to get people to order wine. He put together six-packs of mixed Cairdeas wines and then encouraged buyers to participate in virtual Zoom tastings, with discussions on a different wine each week.

Cairdeas also started free UPS ground shipping or 50% off air shipping of six bottles of more of any of its wines.

“The online stuff we’ve done has really helped. Sales are way up,” he said. “We’re happy to be doing as good as we are.”

Several other Lake Chelan area wineries including Karma, Tsillan Cellars, Benson Vineyards, Fielding Hills and Rio Vista Wines, have taken advantage of the summer tourist season with larger indoor or outdoor picnic areas that offer views, small group socializing and fine wine in a safe environment.

Leavenworth wineries lucky enough to have larger tasting rooms and outdoor seating — including Ryan Patrick and Milbrandt Vineyards downtown, and Icicle Ridge Winery and Silvara Vineyards a few miles to the east — have been able to safely serve small tasting groups from the abundant flow of tourists.

Icicle and Silvara in years past stayed busy with music events in June and July. They hope to restart those events when Chelan County moves to Phase 2.

The combined tasting room operated by Ryan Patrick and Milbrandt offers group tastings by reservation only. Table assignments are limited to an hour or less with groups capped at five people.

The city of Leavenworth closed off busy Front Street, allowing wine tasting rooms and restaurants can offer outside service to the tourist crowds.

That’s a similar arrangement used by Cave B Estate Vineyards in Quincy. Grant County has been at Phase 2 COVID-19 restrictions since late May.

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Cave B's grape-covered piazza is perfectly suited for socially distanced tasting.

Perfecting the picnic

Although those rules allow more indoor wine tastings, Cave B has decided to stay with only outdoor tastings and only by reservation, said Carrie Arredondo, Cave B events and marketing director. No reservation is required for glass pours and bottle sales throughout the week. Customers are encouraged to bring a picnic and enjoy their drinks on the lawns overlooking the Cave B vineyards and the Columbia Gorge.

Arredondo said the winery was gearing up this year for an extensive slate of music and entertainment on its outside stage, but it was not to be.

“We had outdoor seating for 1,000 people. Instead, we had events for 100 people who sat in circles drawn 6 feet apart,” she said.

Other musical events had to be cancelled when regulations changed in mid-July restricting all such entertainment that could draw crowds.

“We’ve been monitoring things closely. All tastings are outside with groups of five or less,” she said. Guests are encouraged to bring a picnic basket. Tables are reserved for an hour or less and then sanitized before the next seating.

“We’ve had to hire more staff, but the guests absolutely love it. The silver lining is that it’s been so popular that we plan to move to a similar outside system in the future,” she said.

Freddie Arredondo, Carrie’s husband who is the winery’s head winemaker as well as a certified chef, held online virtual tastings using Zoom earlier in the lockdown. Freddie paired meals with bottles of Cave B wine purchased by subscribers.

“We held 12 weeks of ‘Fun Fridays with Freddie.’ They were very popular,” Carrie Arredondo said.

Carrie has kept an online blog about Cave B’s history and the creation of The Gorge Amphitheater, both started by her parents, Vince and Carol Bryan. The family only owns the vineyard and winery today.

New rosé hits the spot

Freddie also created a new sparkling rosé to brighten up the gloomy overcast of COVID-19. When Carrie announced the idea of the wine online, wine club members quickly made advance purchases to pay for the bottling. The wine has since become a hit.

“There’s a lot of hard things and a lot of beautiful things that will come out of this,” she said. “It shows what people can do when they believe in each other.”

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