No More Feeding at the Trough – Tasting Rooms During COVID-19

Wine shops should be teaming with people by now. Tourists should be coming to the Okanagan in droves and enjoying wines on patios and tasting bars. Wineries should be selling their newest vintages as they have every year.

None of that is happening right now. At least not with the same volume as previous years.

Even with the relatively good weather that we had in the Okanagan for the whole spring, which would normally bring people out to the wine shops, none of this has happened. The Covid-19 pandemic has shut down some shops and caused a huge re-think of the way that the industry conducts business.

Some wineries have been ready to adapt. Some have chosen to shut down their tasting room completely.  Many have choosen to open later than they normally would. What makes this a difficult time for wine lovers is not that they can’t access the wines that they love, it is the unpredictability of what they can expect out of winery experiences. That makes planning to visit wineries difficult and impulsive visits less possible.

Larger wineries with big tasting rooms and lots of space will be able to accomodate people just fine. Hester Creek on the Golden Mile Bench has made it easy to enter and exit their wine shop easily with a hand sanitizer station and a greeter ready to assist you.  They cannot host the same number of people at the tasting bar like they used to, but you can safely taste wines and then make purchases with more than enough social distance between groups.

Smaller wineries have it a little tougher. Some wineries with very intimate tasting rooms, like C.C. Jentsch Cellars in Oliver, have temporarily done away with tastings altogether and only offer curbside pick up for their wines. Clos du Soleil winery in the Similkameen Valley ceased all tastings for the spring and have only recently opened their tasting bar by appointment. Since one of Clos du Soleil’s owners is Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Health Officer and unanimously heralded hero during this crisis, it stands to reason that Clos du Soleil’s small tasting room will be conducted with the utmost in social safety procedures in mind.

When small wineries do open for tastings, they will likely be by appointment only and with limits on group sizes. The ‘by appointment’ thing is still scary for some wine tourists although it really shouldn’t be. Wineries like Black Hills have been doing it that way for years, which has sometimes put them at odds with the more casual wine tourists who go there with equally casual expecations for a wine shop experience. To expect (or, as I have personally witnessed, rudely demand) free tastings of wine with little or no notice is no longer going to be the norm. Though they have had to reduce their total capacity and size of groups, relatively little appears to have changed for the Black Hills experience, showing just how ahead of their time they were in creating a unique experience.

Wineries are now forced to be creative with the rooms that they have, which in general, were all rooms designed with pre-Covid traffic patterns and customers in mind. This is where there is potential for the really creative wineries will shine. Here’s the Thing Vineyard on Black Sage Road has created designated In and Out doors and placed impossible-to-miss yellow tape on the floor for customers to stand behind when their wines are being poured. Owner Leah McDowell said that her customers have been completely fine with the possibility of extra wait times. The change in routine from the extra measure of social distancing (where the person pouring the tastings steps back from the bar before the customer can reach for it) is going to take people on both sides of the tasting bar to get used to. This is particularly true when there is no plexiglass separators, as McDowell has so far prefered not to install because she feels that it breaks that personal connection with her customers.

One thing that I am personally glad to see gone are the days of people crammed around a tasting bar in a wine shop of any size. When there are that many people, getting a real sense of the winery’s story or the wines’ details are almost impossible for customers to hear or wine shop staff to present. Holding the attention of that many people in any space, large or small, becomes extremely difficult and the experience is diminished. The great story about the history of the property and the way the winemaker may love this wine gets reduced to, “This is our Pinot Blanc!” shouted across the bar. That’s not an experience. That’s barn animals feeding at a trough. Making an appointment at a winery means that you will probably get the same great experience if they are busy or not.

Hester Creek has opted not to take appointments but they have the space and procedures in place to limit customers. So there is no appointment needed but you might be standing in line for a while. Black Hills takes appointments and they may not have times available when you are in the area, but you won’t have to wait long when you get a time. Will there be unanimity among wineries about how to do things? Not likely. For now, the casual style of wine touring may be temporarily set aside for a mixed bag of experience styles.  Each winery’s wines are unique and now their experiences will be too. Best to read the signs when you arrive and follow along with the procedures so that everyone stays safe.

And just in case you think the rules don’t apply to you, winery staff know that they are not obliged in any way to pour anything to anyone. So if you choose to use a wine shop to start ranting loudly about how the government is just using Covid to turn everyone in to commies, you will very likely be refused service of any alcohol.  Free speech is a right. Wine is not. It’s best that you move along.

Please Note: Spitting is problematic now since there is debate about the safety of spitting out wine into a spittoon. The wine shops that I’ve seen recently have all removed them or replaced them with plastic cups. One winery that I went to asked spittoon users to go outside of the wine shop or around the corner somewhere. The BCWI’s list of guidelines indicates procedures for spittoons but it seems that some wineries are removing them or otherwise limiting their use. Designated drivers or people touring solo have limited options for tasting wine now so please be away of that.

If you are wondering what wineries are openKayla from UncorkBC has compiled an excellent list of wineries and their availabilities for tastings. Click here to check it out!