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Vintners cheer return of indoor tasting in Napa, Marin counties with loosening of coronavirus restrictions

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the wildfires, the Schramsberg Vineyards property is getting less than half the number of visitors who normally come to the Diamond Mountain property near Calistoga. But proprietor Hugh Davies is glad to be able to host tours of the sparkling wine producer’s caves following months of closures from the virus lockdowns and the Glass Fire’s encroachment onto the property.

Napa County’s Oct. 20 move into the orange, second-least-restrictive tier of California’s four-level reopening plan allowed winery tasting rooms to reopen again indoors, but only at 25% capacity. Marin County on Oct. 27 became the second North Bay county to move into the orange tier.

Schramsberg restarted its cave tours again on Oct. 23. But the capacity limit and protocols for not allowing people of different households to mingle means that instead of six to eight cave tours a day with several couples or groups of visitors participating in each, now there are four tours a day of couples or small groups. A bright note is that the fewer number of visitors to the property are spending more per trip, Davies said.

“People who come during COVID and forest fires, they want to be here,” he said. “They had to push through some obstacles to get here.”

Rex Stults, head of industry relations for 550-plus-member trade group Napa Valley Vintners, said the county’s move to the orange tier has been a much-anticipated change, but he’s worried it won’t last long.

“We’re not seeing it now, because it is sunny and 80 degrees outside, but usually as we move into November it is cooler and there’s a chance of rain, which is quite welcome at this point,” he said, referring to the devastating fire season this year. “There were concerns over the normal weather patterns and having to do everything outside while waiting for rules to operate inside.”

It’s been nearly four months since winery tasting rooms were allowed to operate inside. In early June in the third month of the pandemic, California wineries got the OK to reopen their tasting rooms under guidelines such as by appointment only, social distancing, plastic barriers and sanitation.

But a month later as cases statewide spiked, Sacramento reversed such allowances for indoor activities, leaving vintners the only option to remain open for tasting was to take those operations outside. And a number of North Coast wineries did so while they waited for the OK to reopen again. That closure lasted beyond July as originally stated, and then came the heat waves that helped spawn the massive Hennessey and Glass wildfires that filled the Napa Valley air with smoke for weeks in August and September.

The county-based reopening framework changed at the end of August into the state-led Blueprint for a Safer Economy, with its four-color system for determining business reopening based on COVID-19 metrics, namely average daily cases per 100,000 residents and average positivity rate. And that system morphed again with the introduction in early October of a health equity rate for cases in vulnerable populations.

Napa Valley Vintners, Wine Institute and industry trade groups from other regions in the state had been in talks with public health officials in Sacramento since April, trying to distinguish wine tasting operations from bars or tap rooms in risk for transmission. Chuck Wagner of Napa Valley’s Caymus Vineyards sued the state in May over continued closure of tasting rooms, dropping the matter after the state initially allowed them to reopen.

“We knew that if got to (tier) orange, that would take care of some of the concerns we were having, but what remains is the matter of how long we can stay there (in that tier), combined with what Mother Nature will eventually bring our way,” Stults said, expressing concern about rising county COVID-19 metrics.

It’s only been a couple of weeks since Schramsberg reopened its outdoor tasting experiences after the Glass Fire. There are limited spaces inside that can accommodate small groups of two or four, but Davies also is looking to the potential of having to move tasting back outside if cases rise. There are building overhangs that can accommodate tables, and outdoor heaters have been acquired.

And early this year, the winery rented a large generator that can run the whole property, after two years of keeping key operations going with smaller power systems during dozens of days of outages. With multiple public safety power shut-offs by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and outages around the Hennessey and Glass fires, Schramsberg’s power would have been off for a total of nearly two months this year without the larger generator.

“The show must go on,” Davies said. “We just cannot stop if we want to be in business for the long haul.”

Unique tasting situation in Marin

In Marin County, there’s one public tasting room that’s still operating among the area’s couple dozen wineries. While Novato’s Trek Winery is now allowed 25% for its tasting room per the orange tier, it’s getting a bigger boon from that level’s allowance for indoor dining at 50%, rather than 25%. That’s because of the special license it has from the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverage Control for wine and beer operations.

Andy and Liz Podshadley started Trek in 2008 and opened the tasting room when the new winery was opened in downtown Novato in 2012. Last year, the family opened Rancho Novato Brewing Co. next door, using a Section 23038 license made possible via a 2018 law that allows beer and wine to be served on the same property.

But to get that license, Trek Winery and Rancho Novato Brewing had to serve food, so they offered charcuterie platters and small flatbread pizzas. But with the pandemic, county and state officials started cracking down on what constituted a restaurant, and that required a “substantial menu,” including dessert and salad with a main dish.

Trek-Rancho Novato took the first four months of closure of all indoor operations in Marin to remodel the property, adding a taproom and bars in the barrel room to accommodate smaller groups for social distancing.

“Now that we’re allowed 50% occupancy, that will help with events,” Andy Podshadley said. “Before, we were limited to 25 people to a room, but people were nervous to be inside. We have big doors on the wall we can open, and people are now more comfortable about sitting inside because of the airflow.”

The patios can seat 50. Half-capacity indoors allows for 50 in each of the facilities three rooms, or 150 total.

But making it through the pandemic has been a struggle for the family business. Just before the economic lockdowns in mid-March, Trek was in the middle of refinancing, and that took the company out of the running for getting a U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loan. But the refinancier, Summit State Bank, waived payments through the end of this year, allowing the company to save up for when payments begin.

Getting that break has been critical, because when the pandemic came, the winery stopped its club shipments. Direct-to-consumer sales had been 85% of revenue, with distribution covering the remainder. All the distribution accounts disappeared, although some accounts in Montana and Idaho are interested in ordering, Podshadley said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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