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Napa wineries move more tasting outside under new coronavirus rules as cases spike

About a month ago, Napa Valley’s winery tasting rooms got the green light to reopen after a three-month closure to stop the coronavirus pandemic, but Sacramento has stepped in to call for the closing July 9 of such local indoor experiences, as the state has ordered recently for a number of counties with too fast of a rise in cases.

But local wineries have found that COVID-19 safety protocols developed ahead of the first reopening in early June — namely, moving experiences outside — are allowing them to keep tasting operations open under the new rules.

At least through the end of July, visitors to Napa Valley won’t be able to go into winery buildings, bars, or restaurant dining rooms. How much longer that rollback of reopening continues will depend on how long the number of county cases per 100,000 residents stays above 100, the state’s threshold for placing counties on the “watch list.” As of July 7, Napa County reported 232 cases in the past 14 days, or 166.1 per 100,000 residents. Of the 454 total confirmed cases so far, 147 people have recovered. A total of 22,872 individuals in the county have been tested.

As it was, California guidance for COVID-19 safety at wineries, restaurants and bars, released June 5, called for moving as many functions outside as possible. Many vintners in the valley appear to have already done so, according to Rex Stults, head of industry relations for Napa Valley Vintners, which represents over 550 producers.

“This is better than getting closed all together,” Stults said. “People can still visit many, many wineries in the Napa Valley and safely enjoy their tasting experience. It'll just be done outdoors for the time being.”

At Silverado Vineyards on the east side of the valley near Yountville, the landmark knolltop winery opened to locals and club members on June 25 and to the general public on July 1, after retrofitting the winery for contact-free and social-distanced experiences and revamping tasting to be reservation only. The latter was one of the safety protocols adopted by all Napa County wineries in the pandemic, even those with older use permits that allow visitors to arrive at will.

“It is important for us to keep both our guests and employees safe so that everyone can continue to enjoy all that Napa has to offer,” said Russ Weiss, winery president. “At Silverado, we are lucky enough to have multiple large outdoor terraces overlooking the valley, so we can continue to accommodate reservations. Napa County has done a fantastic job protecting our community and we will always be in lockstep with their decisions.”

One of the main draws to Dario Sattui’s 13th century-style Tuscan castle nestled into the western slope of the valley south of Calistoga have been the tours of the historically appointed rooms such as the great hall, chapel and “torture chamber.” The indoor spaces of Castello di Amorosa had been reconfigured with clear plastic barriers and social-distance floor markers for the June 6 reopening. The requirement for appointments limited the number of people coming to the 171-acre property, but slots still were booked up to three weeks before the county policy change Monday, according to Jim Sullivan, general manager.

“We’re going to have fewer people on the property because the indoor tour option is no longer available, but we’ve got to get through this and get this terrible virus behind us and get back to some sense of normalcy,” Sullivan said. “People still want to come out and enjoy the outdoors and sit outside and do tasting.”

But Sattui’s decision to build the patio outside the Il Passito upstairs luxury lounge a couple years ago will allow that and the castle’s main courtyard to be reconfigured to handle all the tasting appointments, work that the staff was busily doing Monday and Tuesday.

Like the castle, Sattui’s other Napa Valley winery is heavily visitor-oriented. Wine is sold directly to the thousands of consumers who before the pandemic visit V. Sattui Winery on Highway 29 near St. Helena each year.

“There's a metric to what makes it worthwhile to even open up and host tastings,” said Ali Paterson, vice president of marketing. “With the social distancing required everywhere but especially indoors, we're not even remotely close to reaching the volumes that we were reaching before we had to push out(side).”

Though the winery’s deli is a favored stop for visitors to the valley, V. Sattui hadn’t previously considered opening its lawn to tasting because that’s where it had held weddings, lobster fests, corporate events and club member gatherings, Paterson said.

Because large events like that aren’t allowed under pandemic health orders, the winery has sectioned the lawn into two seated areas for 45- and 90-minute tasting experiences. There's also a socially distanced “Under the Oaks” stand-up tasting area set up over bark mulch and a large tent, designed to mimic the feel of the tasting room.

Thought has gone into how to replicate the exclusive indoor visitor experiences, Paterson said. The reserve room normally accommodates 14-16 people, but social distancing cut that to eight to 10, changing on the hour.

“That was the proper place for tasting big reds and older-vintage wines, but we’re now using giant umbrellas and high-end lounge furniture we use for weddings on the lawn,” she said.

Member events have moved from the cellar to the courtyard just outside that building.

V. Sattui already had marketed its outdoor experiences before the pandemic, partnering with the Napa Valley Wine Train for experiences in the surrounding vineyard.

What is frustrating for the wine industry is that even if the operators do well in following protocols that keep employees and consumers from contracting the COVID-19 virus on the property, vintners will still have to deal with business closures from infections that happen when residents aren’t careful about how they socialize elsewhere.

“The county is having serious discussions now about enforcing such things,” Stults said. “I think (the protocols) should not only be done at wineries and restaurants but also at households. It’s about taking this more seriously as a community.”

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers wine, construction and real estate. Gary Quackenbush contributed reporting on restaurants.

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