As California returns to reopening, some in Wine Country wonder if it’s too soon in pandemic
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Monday that he’s ended the regional stay-at-home order and returned the majority of the state, including the six North Bay counties, back to the purple tier is welcome news to affected businesses. But business leaders are concerned the shutdowns aren’t over.
“Today we can lay claim to starting to see some real light at the end of the tunnel as it relates to case numbers,” Newsom said in a noon press conference, citing lower infections rates and hospitalizations, and more ICU beds becoming available.
Over the weekend, the San Francisco Bay Area ICU capacity, which includes the North Bay, surged to 23% and is projected to reach 25% capacity in another four weeks, Newsom said.
The purple tier allows for numerous re-openings, including restaurants and wineries, which can resume outdoor operations. Local officials, however, could choose to continue stricter rules. The state is also lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
Some North Coast wineries plan a quick reopening for outdoor tasting. Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines announced 11 of its sites in Sonoma and Napa counties would reopen Tuesday: Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, La Crema at Saralee’s Vineyard, Copain, Hartford Family Winery, Stonestreet Estate Vineyards, Matanzas Creek Winery, Arrowood Vineyards, The Spire Collection locations in Alexander Valley and Calistoga, Cardinale, and Freemark Abbey.
“We’ve been communicating directly with our club members and have seen a steady interest in bookings in general,” said Jackson spokeswoman Marlow Bruce about outreach to consumers after hearing Newsom’s change in the order Monday. “People seem excited to come wine tasting. As it would happen though, we’re up against Mother Nature.”
Reopening of other Jackson wineries locally is complicated by expected record rainfall forecast for Wednesday, as some aren’t set up to accommodate guests in bad weather, Bruce said. Most of the new bookings so far are ramping up for the weekend, when the rain is supposed to let up a bit.
“We’ve had a few dozen people booked already and we anticipate that energy to continue in the coming days,” she said. “We’re seeing guests book two to four weeks out as well, which is encouraging.”
Other local vintners say it will take some days to reopen. Castello di Amorosa, the stone castle winery near Calistoga, is working to get call back 20 employees needed to serve 60 outdoor seats for tasting. But it could take until Friday or Saturday before tasting could reopen tables with 40 seats under the tent in the courtyard or 20 seats under the heavy timbered canopy over the Il Passito patio, according to General Manager Jim Sullivan.
“January in Napa Valley is usually slow for wineries,” Sullivan said.
Napa Valley’s Silverado Vineyards plans to reopen for by-appointment tasting Friday. It will take that long to get visitors signed up for the 90-minute slots up via the Tock online reservation service and schedule supplier deliveries, said Nora Feeley, vice president of marketing and direct to consumer.
“The bummer thing is it is supposed to rain all weekend,” she said. Tasting appointments can be rescheduled or refunded.
The vintner is adding a fourth “last call” slot for tasting opened wines that day, because three daily tastings plus 30 minutes of sanitizing in between wasn’t making financial sense, she said.
The early December stay-home order also was costly. Among its creative ventures to pique visitor interest was the launch of a “decadence tasting,” featuring caviar and duck rillettes paired with wines for $95. Gearing up for the year-end holidays, the winery ordered thousands of dollars of those delicacies from a local chef, just days before California ordered all such outdoor services to be closed. All that had to be given away.
Trefethen Winery in Napa Valley plans to let some of the expected rain storms pass through before opening on Monday.
“A week ago, it was sunny and warm,” said Jon Ruel, president. “We tell guests to dress for staying warm outdoors.”
After previous experiences with opening and closing tasting during the pandemic, the vintner decided to leave up its outdoor tents for visitors, a large one for tasting flights of wine and another next to the villa for sampling culinary pairings. A handful of tasting room staff were furloughed with the stay-home order, but he’s expecting to be back up to full staffing of 18 full- and part-time workers plus on-call workers by early February.
“By now we’re good at it,” Ruel said. “We are now approaching 11 months since our first shutdown. During that period we refined our approach of offering gracious yet safe hospitality.”