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'What about us?': Napa Valley wineries wonder when tasting rooms can reopen, as local eateries welcome back diners

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When wineries reopen

Here are examples of guest safety protocols outlined in the Napa Valley Vintners guidelines:

• Guest health and safety requirements should be clearly displayed at the visitor center entrance,

• Hand sanitizer should be provided for required guest use upon entry,

• Hand sanitizer should also be provided at multiple locations throughout the property,

• Promotional materials provided to guests should not be reused,

• Tasting menus should be disposable or made viewable from video screens or “no-touch” pads,

• When pouring wine, wine bottle necks should not touch the guest’s glass,

• Refrain from using wine “drop stops” to pour wine,

• Wineries should post CDC guidance and proper handwashing practices in rest rooms,

• Commercial water fountains should be marked as “out of service” and bottled water made available upon guest request;

• Waste receptacles should be made available for disposable, one-time use materials,

• Wineries should use “contactless” payment methods to the extent practicable,

• Entrance doors to tasting areas should be propped open or when possible, held open for the guests when they enter the space,

• Close proximity to guests should be minimized to the extend feasible when pouring wines, receiving payment, or handing-off merchandise,

• Follow proper sanitary guidelines after any close physical contact,

• Wine purchases should be carried to the guest’s vehicle for placement in the trunk by winery staff.


For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track here how California counties are progressing toward criteria for reopening their economies.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom paves the way for restaurant reopenings with precautions, wineries in the Napa Valley are marshaling forces within the county and among other officials to get pandemic restrictions on their multi-billion dollar industry lifted.

On the same day that Napa’s supervisors passed a resolution allowing restaurants to move tables outdoors and start serving customers, the Napa Valley Vintners’ Association and the county forwarded to the state a seven-page list of best practices for Napa County wineries.

The document outlines proposed protocols to go beyond rules now in place and raise the bar on ways to safeguard winery employees and guests, while allowing for economic activity in Napa County to resume responsibly — when deemed appropriate by state and local public health officials.

“Wineries are ready to reopen, which makes sense given their ability to derive greater use of outdoor facilities allowing for even larger social distancing. Why are restaurants permitted to offer dine-in and outdoor service, while wineries are not? Both restaurants and wineries should be reopened at the same time,” said Rex Stults, association vice president of industry relations.

Even as restaurants in the area were allowed as of May 20 to welcome back customers for indoor dining, at present, wineries and tasting rooms are not allowed to open. They cannot until the county moves into stage 3 of California’s four-stage recovery plan, based on state guidelines published on the website covid19.ca.gov/industry-guidance). Newsom has said when stage 3 is reached, all state wineries would be granted permission to open at the same time.

As of early Friday afternoon, 43 California counties, also including Solano, Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma in the North Bay, have been allowed to reopen shopping malls along with swap meets, retail stores and dine-in restaurants, with schools to follow in June.

On Friday, Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau rolled out Sonoma Valley Safe, guidelines the organizations stated will “protect the health and welfare of employees, guests, and our community while providing world-class hospitality. “

Drawn from best practices from the California Department of Health, Sonoma County Economic Development Board as well as industry-specific organizations, the guidelines deal with issues like physical layout, cleaning protocols, employee training, necessary supplies and other programs.

Businesses can go through Sonoma Valley Safe self-certification assessment, and be able to identify themselves as such, the groups stated.

Other changes, such following standards of face mask wearing, will also have to be followed. As for the issue of when wineries will open the wine trade group, visitors bureau and the chamber stated, “The exact dates when businesses can reopen will follow the guidelines from local government. Sonoma Valley Safe prepares the business and provides signs and graphics for them to use when that time comes.”

Until Newsom’s order shut down the public side of the wine industry on March 15, Napa County wineries (at a minimum) were able to host 10 visitors per week, or one to two per day, by appointment only. Numbers vary depending on each winery’s use permit specifications.

Today, no winery in the county is hosting visitors – except virtually via video conference services.

In its letter to county supervisors, the vintners group stated that in 2018, the Napa Valley welcomed 3.85 million visitors who spent $2.23 billion and provided $85.1 million in tax relief to residents – largely through winery visits, hotel stays and fine dining experiences.

When wineries reopen

Here are examples of guest safety protocols outlined in the Napa Valley Vintners guidelines:

• Guest health and safety requirements should be clearly displayed at the visitor center entrance,

• Hand sanitizer should be provided for required guest use upon entry,

• Hand sanitizer should also be provided at multiple locations throughout the property,

• Promotional materials provided to guests should not be reused,

• Tasting menus should be disposable or made viewable from video screens or “no-touch” pads,

• When pouring wine, wine bottle necks should not touch the guest’s glass,

• Refrain from using wine “drop stops” to pour wine,

• Wineries should post CDC guidance and proper handwashing practices in rest rooms,

• Commercial water fountains should be marked as “out of service” and bottled water made available upon guest request;

• Waste receptacles should be made available for disposable, one-time use materials,

• Wineries should use “contactless” payment methods to the extent practicable,

• Entrance doors to tasting areas should be propped open or when possible, held open for the guests when they enter the space,

• Close proximity to guests should be minimized to the extend feasible when pouring wines, receiving payment, or handing-off merchandise,

• Follow proper sanitary guidelines after any close physical contact,

• Wine purchases should be carried to the guest’s vehicle for placement in the trunk by winery staff.


For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track here how California counties are progressing toward criteria for reopening their economies.

With more than 400 wineries and 45,000 acres planted to vineyards, the local wine industry and its associated businesses is the largest employer in Napa County accounting for more than 45,000 jobs.

While production activities and online sales have been able to continue during the Shelter-in-Place order, business generated by in-person tasting room visits and related travel spending has come to a standstill.

A staff member in Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza’s office said he is conferring with State Senator Bill Dodd to find ways to enable Napa’s wine industry to reopen as soon as possible.

“Wineries have been working with local health officials on safety measures for reopening tasting rooms,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa. “It’s an issue that’s been discussed with the administration, and we’re waiting for further guidance from the state Department of Public Health relative to reopening tasting rooms. We know that science and data will dictate when additional businesses can open. Given the work of the industry and the progress we’ve made on our public health metrics, I’m hopeful they’ll be able to open soon with safety adaptations in place.”

Similar support was also offered by Minh Tran, CEO of Napa County.

“County staff has been coordinating with industry groups, including the Napa Valley Vintners, to draft safety protocols protecting the health and safety of all winery employees and patrons. Our board of supervisors passed a resolution yesterday (May 19) to temporarily allow outdoor wine tasting to ensure physical distancing. Napa County has also been in close contact with all our business partners like Chambers of Commerce, cities and town, industry groups to prepare for the reopening of our economy,” Tran said.

In a recent analysis by wine industry expert John Moramarco, managing partner with BW 166 LLC, he estimated the impact of COVID-19 on California’s wine industry alone to be as high as $5.94 billion dollars. At the same time, tasting room sales throughout the state are predicted to decline 80% in 2020 over 2019 levels, equating to a $3 billion-dollar loss to the industry.

In Napa Valley, 70% of the wineries produce 5,000 cases of wine per year or less, meaning that the impact of COVID-19 will be especially challenging for those operations that rely on restaurant sales and/or seeing visitors in person, according to Napa Valley vintners.

Based on the state’s COVID-19 website, several references to reopening wineries have been listed and later de-listed without explanation, creating uncertainty among winery owners and operators in Napa County and elsewhere.

As of May 20, Napa County reported 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with three confirmed deaths. A total of 4,485 individuals have been tested and 4,086 tests were negative. Some 305 tested patients are awaiting test results. Sixty-six individuals are currently being monitored due to having close contact with a confirmed case. Of the confirmed cases, 44 individuals have recovered.

The vintner group’s guidelines cover staff personal hygiene protocols and maintaining of social distancing, as well cleaning and sanitization practices.

Additional sections focus on winery visitation measures including 14 guest safety procedures, guidelines for food pairings, and specific cleaning rules for tasting areas, wine “dump” buckets, glassware (using high temperature commercial dish washers) as well as the cleaning of all contact surfaces at frequent intervals. (See sidebar listing several detailed winery protocols.)

Emma Swain, CEO of St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery in Rutherford, was a member of the seven-member Napa Valley Vintners task force charged with drafting the safe practices guidelines.

“Direct-to-consumer wineries want to reopen as soon as they can, along with the rest of us, while focusing on safety. The way we operate the business is definitely going to be different, with visitor reservations in advance, wine poured outside and more emphasis on virtual tastings and tours. People will be paying up front and customers will have to be on time for pickups.”

She said California has great weather, and most people prefer to be outside. “Our patio will be expanded to accommodate more tables with distancing. It will be enjoyable to be able to socialize again,” Swain said.

Swain noted that using virtual conferencing technology enables groups of 50, 100 or more to engage with St. Supéry. She said some 2,000 plus individuals can be connected simultaneously on Facebook.

Video participation includes two-way chats, question and answer periods, and watching various dishes being prepared. This winery started virtual tastings 10 years ago. Now it does this regularly for those who can’t come in person.

Swain emphasized the need to have restaurants, hotels and wineries open to support each other and thinks a lot about the changes coming.

“On March 9 we rebooted our virtual tasting program with a winemaker selection series covering wines recently shipped to club members," she said. "Everyone is introduced. We share comments from chefs in our kitchen, provide recipes, offer cooking tips and present wine and food pairing ideas and property tours. These are not Hollywood productions. We’re here to have fun! I participate in 10-12 video meetings a week.”

Karen Fontanella and her husband have kept Fontanella Family Winery going during these difficult times. She said their six full-time employees were retained to support production and administration, and that tasting room personnel were reassigned.

This winery produces 4,000 cases a year at its Mt. Veeder appellation property west of Napa. It is one of the smaller operations in the county, and such producers collectively represent over two-thirds of all wineries in the county.

“We rely on our tasting room for most sales and to enlist additional wine club members," Fontanella said. "About 95% of our sales are direct, but with our tasting room closed since March 15, margins are shrinking and revenue has declined by 20% due to the shutdown and shipping costs – which are not cheap. We are relying on wine sales through webinars, shipping promotions and discounts to serve our customers and attract new ones.”

She said they still don’t know how bad a decline in wine club member sign-ups will be, and that they are doing everything they can to retain them, however, a high percentage come through tasting room contacts.

Fontanella, also a member of the Napa Valley Vintners guideline development task force, said one of her goals was to try to keep wineries from being lumped together with bars and lounges in state orders listing when certain industries can reopen. Bars and lounges cannot resume operations until stage 3.

“Times are definitely changing, and we will evolve with them. The ability to reach out visually through the Internet will certainly be a major part of our marketing and sales strategy moving forward,” she said.

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