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Coronavirus, fire crisis lessons for Sonoma County wine business: Safety first; form relationships

About the writer

Karissa Kruse is president Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation.

Read other perspectives on business recovery during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, even as we recover from the most recent wildfires, there has been one constant throughout: Mother Nature has remained active in our Sonoma County vineyards.

Despite the crisis, agriculture marches forward.

It continues to be an essential business which has kept our farmers and farmworkers employed to grow crops to feed and satisfy a nation. The pandemic has clearly highlighted the need for local food supply and, yes, wine supply.

During the past six months, many Americans have gone back to the basics of cooking at home and finding comfort from favorite recipes paired with bottles of beloved or newly discovered wines.

Others have found enjoyment in connecting with friends on a Zoom happy hour or catching their favorite winemakers and growers sharing family stories and tales from the wine cellar through virtual tastings. For those of us lucky to live in this beautiful part of the country, the vineyards and farms of Sonoma County provide a beautiful backdrop and much-needed open space and fresh air.

In a world filled with uncertainty and chaos, consumers care now more than ever about where their food and wine come from.

We are fortunate in Sonoma County that our farmers have been at the forefront of organic dairies and produce.

We are global leaders in sustainably farmed wine grapes and climate friendly farming. These are reasons why consumers confidently support Sonoma County food and wine.

Although COVID-19 has created an uncertain marketplace, for farmers, vintners and the organizations supporting the local wine community, the lessons from recent disasters in Sonoma County remain true: safety first, relationships and partnerships are critical, adaptability defines your success trajectory, and reputation is everything.

Safety First: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, harvest started with new adjustments and protocols to keep crews safe.

Fortunate to work outside, growers found innovative ways to keep crews small, creating “pods” of workers who could stick together on the same crew throughout the season. They supplied masks and hand-washing stations everywhere from the vineyard to the winery.

In fact, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation has supplied over 9,300 KN95 masks to local farmworkers since April. The foundation has also opened a Farmworker Resiliency Fund to support the financial stability of farmworkers and their families during COVID-19 and from the recent wildfires.

Relationships and Partnerships are Critical: “We are in this together,” has become the COVID-19 battle cry.

This is also true of partnerships and relationships. At Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), we have relied on decade-long partnerships with our local vintner and tourism counterparts.

In addition, we have continued to support our marketing partners such as Food & Wine, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast who have effectively told the story of Sonoma County wine, food and grape growing for decades.

We launched new partnerships with our friends in the restaurant business supporting local take out and Sommeliers from around the country who are Sonoma County’s champions and ambassadors with wine lovers everywhere.

We have witnessed the strength of the relationships between our local grape growers and vintners working together to weather this storm and support each other’s business. We really are stronger together.

Adaptability and Innovation: As “pivoting” became part of everyday conversations, at SCW, we prefer to say we are twirling, swiveling and shaking our way in this “new normal.”

Karissa Kruse, president, Sonoma County Winegrowers
Karissa Kruse, president, Sonoma County Winegrowers

At SCW, there are many events that we participate in to promote Sonoma County locally and nationally. These include Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Aspen Food & Wine, “Top Somm” - a program to host national sommeliers - and more.

We travel around the country and world to share the story of Sonoma County Wine and Ag. That has ceased, like it did for many local businesses, so we quickly created a new plan.

We went online, we shifted to digital, we created educational videos, we hosted webinars and virtual tastings to reach our audiences. In some ways we were connecting faster, more frequently and effectively with wine lovers, wine trade and media. These lessons will lead us to an even better plan in the future.

Reputation: Finally, at the end of it all, you can only control your reputation.

Sonoma County is known as being authentic, being real, sustainable, and accessible. It is beautiful vineyards, redwoods, and coastline. It is bike rides, hiking, and yoga. It is waving to neighbors even if you cannot see their smile under a mask. As we face this challenge as a community, we are reminded just how fortunate we are to live here.

About the writer

Karissa Kruse is president Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation.

Read other perspectives on business recovery during the coronavirus pandemic.

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