Pandemic an opportunity for B.C. wineries to reset, reinvent

What could wineries look like this summer? That’s what the BC Wine Institute is working on

Tasting rooms at wineries across B.C. may reopen this summer, but chances are things won’t look the same.

On Thursday (May 14), over 60 stakeholders with the BC Wine Institute met virtually to brainstorm ways winery owners can safely ease back into normality.

Taking the protocols suggested by the B.C. government for restaurants, the institute is now developing a list of suggested best practices which will be presented back to industry, and to government, for review.

Re-defining how wineries think about tasting rooms could be key for their recovery, according to the BC Wine Institute. In addition, a reservation system, and allowing product sampling outside, have been suggested as ways to both satisfy health protocols and improve the experience for the consumer.

Will all staff in the serving room wear a mask? Will winery visitors be required to wear masks? The institute president says this may be up to the individual establishment.

“We believe that as long as we can provide a safe environment, and respect those tenants of COVID, we should be good,” said BC Wine Institute president, Miles Prodan.

“For us we actually see it as being a positive; if we do this properly, we can cover off what we need to do for COVID, but we can also provide a really great education experience to our visitors.”

Prodan told Black Press Media that he believes there’s some trepidation and worry with grape growers about what reopening will look like; some are worried protocols may take away from the overall wine tasting experience.

He explained that wineries will have to slow down, limit the amount of people allowed in at a time, and respect social distancing protocols.

“What we see happening is perhaps a reservation system, where you book in advance,” he said. “You come in, you sit down, somebody meets you, what’s called a curated experience, where they bring the wine to you.

“They sit down and they spend some time actually going through the whole wine experience.”

The institute came up with the following recommendations for best practices, to help B.C. wineries recover, which will be presented to industry next week:

  • Encourage outdoor experiences
  • Educate more consumers about B.C. wine
  • More intimate relationships and customer knowledge
  • More wine club members
  • Tiered tastings experiences, (tastings of varying length, complexity, to attract a wider audience)
  • More control over the flow of visitors; where they go, while respecting social distancing protocols.

Impact of closures on B.C. wineries

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic an order has been in place prohibiting wineries from serving wine, however, they have been able to continue selling it. Some wineries in the South Okanagan said in conversation with the Western News that the tasting room accounts for between 35 and 75 per cent of their annual revenue.

“The ability to serve wine in a tasting room is critically important for us,” said Prodan.

“We’re in deep, deep trouble,” said Quinta Ferreira owner, John Ferreira. “Especially if this COVID thing keeps our wine shops closed, where do we get the money from?”

Prodan echoed this statement.

“Generally the rule is, the smaller you are in size of winery, the more dependant you are on a winery visit,” said Prodan.

Wineries have been promoting online sales since tasting rooms closed but this hasn’t been working for all businesses.

Quinta Ferreira, a family-owned winery located in Oliver, is a smaller-scale business which relies heavily on tasting room visitors. Ferreira said it accounts for 75 per cent of their revenue. They have been producing fruit since 1979 and wine since the turn of the century.

“People that are out there, they kind of stick to their wine club, so they don’t venture into others. So if you don’t have a big wine club, like the big outfits, we can’t compete with the big outfits, we’re in deep, deep trouble.”

It’s mid-May, and most wineries are either suckering, trimming focused on removing unwanted leaf growth, or planting new vines.

Ferreira called upon the B.C. government to further assist farmers through the summer.

“That’s basically the only way that’s going to keep us going,” he said. “Is if they cover us for the 75 per cent of our labour. Because we’re not getting any money. We send out the odd case here and there, but it’s not enough to cover the expenses.”

Just around the corner, Ferreira said growers will have to start bottling, which means a further investment to purchase the bottles.

“And where’s the money?” he questioned.

COVID-19-related worker shortages affecting small businesses

As growing season has begun, worker shortages due to COVID-19 has also challenged fruit growers.

For Ferreira, his regular workforce of year-round workers help, but only account for about 50 per cent of his workforce. Right now he has five workers, but could use ten.

The Oliver winery relies heavily on seasonal workers to make up their workforce, and May is usually the month they start to arrive in town.

“And I don’t see too many of them around,” said Ferreira.

The Loose Bay Campground, a seasonal facility catering to mainly agricultural workers in Oliver, is open for the summer and accepting visitors who must be assessed before entering the premisis.

READ MORE: COVID-19 precautions and testing in place for Loose Bay campers

Although the Western News was not able to gain access to the campground, several cars, including some from Quebec, were seen arriving at the site. It is unknown how many are staying there currently.

“Agriculture in the South Okanagan is key to food security, and economics in the area,” said Town of Oliver mayor Martin Johansen.

Farmers having the ability to get their crops harvested in a timely manner, when they’re ripe, and get them handled appropriately by motivated people who know what they’re doing, he said is invaluable.

“Workers coming here, whether it’s foreign workers coming from Mexico, or domestic farm workers coming from other provinces, they’re key to the whole process working, and key to the economic stability in the whole South Okanagan.”

COVID-19 especially challenging for small businesses

Sukh Bajwa, owner of Eau Vivre winery in Keremeos, said they also rely heavily on walk-in traffic to make ends meet.

Sales on shelves have been challenging as well. A smaller, newer winery to the area, Bajwa admitted many consumers tend to choose the product of a more well-known winery, over his.

In their third year of operation, the business is focuing on new ways to promote their name and prepped hard to make 2020 their best year yet, but when COVID-19 hit, it took the wind of their sales.

Asked what the key to recovery is, Bajwa said they will simply have to, “ride the wave.”

“Hopefully tasting rooms will open soon, I’m hearing positive feedback on that. And then hopefully people will support us,” he said.

With wineries being closed for two months, Bajwa theorized that reopening could bring with it a wave of support from the community.

“Maybe we’ll be better off by the end of the year, or maybe we won’t be… we’ll just have to brace ourselves and hope that we are doing the right stuff, just wait and see,” he said.

Despite challenging financial times, Bajwa said he supports the governments decision to shut everything down.

“I support the decision that they did shut everything down,” he said.

By the same token, Bajwa said that some believe it was an overreaction.

“You can’t really say much about it, I think our government did the right thing, we just have to work with it.”

He said we will never know the alternative result, and for this, he’s glad.

“I’m so glad that we will never know about it, it could have been way worse, or it could have been nothing. That’s something that I don’t even want to know,” said Bajwa.

Reinventing the tasting room

A reinvented tasting room, Prodan explained, could satisfy both provincial health protocols, and give consumers a better experience in their visit.

This iniative, he said could serve as a way for wineries to also reinvent some traditional practices, which could benefit them in the long run. He said the opportunity to reset is a positive thing.

“These are things that we’ve been talking about for years, about how do we improve the winery experience, and this could help to facilitate that,” said Prodan.

An issue that the BC Wine Institute plans to raise with government is how a winery license currently works with regards to tastings.

Currently only in tasting rooms can wineries serve samples, something Prodan said needs to change. Allowing tastings outside on the winery property, he suggested could more easily allow patrons to be physically distanced, and improve their overall experience.

However, he said there’s challenges with this.

“Everyone wants to deliver the best experience that you possibly can, but that comes at an expense,” Prodan explained.

Less traffic coming into the winery due to social distancing protocols, and increased cost to train staff on the education side of things, could make this idea of a winery experience impossible for some.

This challenge, Prodan explained, is compounded by the fact the majority of workers at wineries are seasonal. This could prove problematic when a grape grower considers investing in their wine education.

For this reason, proposals by the wine institute for industry, will simply be suggested best practices, and not mandatory. From the consumer’s perspective, not all will appreciate a reservation system. Some, Prodan suggested, may prefer to stick to a spontanous wine tasting on a sunny day. He said the institute respects this as well.

“Nobody wants these (best practice suggestions) to be mandatory,” said Prodan. “Our role is about how to best market BC wine, and we think of this as one of the ways of doing that… it’s not a one size fits all.”

The key to bouncing back

Since the start of the pandemic, South Okanagan wine owners admitted wine sales online have increased slightly, and that support from the community has been steady.

In B.C., Prodan said the wine industry is fortunate.

“We’re fortunate in the B.C. wine industry, we get tremendous support from locals,” he said. “By far the majority of our wine is consumed within the province, people buy our wine and enjoy our wine.”

In the meantime, Prodan explained, while wineries await opening, smaller businesses will need to continue to focus on direct to consumer (online) sales.

When wineries do eventually reopen, Prodan encouraged locals to expand their horizons, and visit a new winery.

“We (in the Okanagan) don’t have to rely on people coming from Vancouver or the Albertains, I mean we do, they’re very important to us, but realistically we need to focus on our friends and neighbours.”

@PentictonNews
editor@pentictonwesternnews.com

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