Oregon Wine Experience’s certified sommelier, Joseph Shaughnessy, looks at the screen to review recent virtual classes, which are a part of the Oregon Wine University component of the overall event. These classes are offered year-round. Shaughnessy oversees this portion of OWE; he also facilitates the judges and the competition portion of the event. ##Photo provided

Phase 2

Wineries adapt; Asante event tries hybrid approach

By Paul Omundson

As the lazy days of summer roll on, a paradox presents itself to the Oregon wine industry. Slow and fast changes are happening simultaneously. On one hand, reopening of tasting rooms continues slowly, solidly and somewhat fearfully. The latter is understandable in light of recent upticks in coronavirus — including a Newport fish processing unit where 125 employees and visitors at five locations tested positive for COVID-19. Owners of wineries, bars and restaurants know it can happen anywhere, any time and no vaccine is yet in sight. They also aren’t overly eager to reestablish traditional large outdoor activities this summer. Nor is there a demand for such bread-and-butter seasonal events like outdoor weddings, concerts and culinary celebrations. Maybe in 2021.

Nothing’s changed much since wineries moved from Phase 1, limiting groups to 10, to the less restrictive Phase 2 in mid-June, allowing larger groups. Wineries in Phase 2 already certified for hosting large crowds may permit up to 250 guests. But it’s not likely, at least for this summer.

Wineries are intent on carrying out a diminished, controlled visitor approach to maintain required social distancing but still provide a good experience. Returning guests are happy to be back and, in these special times, appreciate the visibility of virus prevention. The masks will come off at some point, but both wineries and consumers believe distancing and plastic barriers are here to stay. 

“The new normal right now is small, outdoor seated tasting experiences,” explained Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of WVWA (Willamette Valley Wineries Association). “We don’t want to be promoting or emphasizing large events.”

McLaughlin points to some notable successes so far in Phases 1 and 2. One major factor was smooth transition to a reservations-requested policy so wineries can better handle crowd flow. “It’s working well for most wineries, and many are selling out their reservations,” she said. Also, local wine fans seem to be stepping up support as out-of-state tourism wanes during the pandemic.  An encouraging sign is higher per-person sales recorded since winery doors reopened.

Coupled with this cautious, steady comeback at tasting rooms is the screeching, mach-speed change in communications and delivery systems already creating a fresh face for Oregon wine. Slow and fast, one on top of the other. That’s the way it’s going.

Blend Live and Virtual

This July, the industry and its loyal fans can witness a pioneering quantum leap in how a major wine event recasts itself during these times. Enter the Asante Foundation’s annual Oregon Wine Experience and Wine Competition. The Medford-based foundation acquired what was a modest regional wine competition and transformed it into an exclusive culinary fundraising event, raising $1.7 million dollars last year for its Asante Children’s Miracle Network and other healthcare programs in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Over the last seven years, the group has diligently courted wineries representing all the state’s AVAs. And the wineries have responded.

Just a few weeks ago, Asante arrived at a crossroads for its signature event. Postpone until next year? Everyone else has. “We decided to go for it,” said Desirae MacGillivray Myers, manager of marketing and communications. “Major factors included the large number of people counting on this event and realizing that with only six judges we can easily include that element.”

Starting with a live judging, July 18–19, followed by the unveiling of competition results and main celebration in August, the Oregon Wine Experience also will host a core of smaller in-person activities, some broadcast and amplified to a virtual audience.

The Medal Celebration, Founders’ Barrel Auction, Miracle Auction, Grand Tasting, Oregon Wine University classes and Ultimate Vintner Dinners will be slightly modified as a hybrid of live and virtual participation. Of special note, the two auctions are planned this year, but the bidding will be available online for anyone at home, no matter where they live.

These event adjustments will be watched closely by the philanthropy community. If Asante succeeds, the foundation’s fundraising ability will expand to a whole new level and a greater potential audience.

This emphasis on the web, for communication and as a channel for fundraising and sales, segues directly into the biggest change, not just for Oregon but globally, for the entire wine industry. That’s the trend of e-commerce, already dominant before coronavirus and now, in the midst of the pandemic, the preferred method to sell wine.

“We buy and sell just about everything else online. Why not wine?” asked Eugenia Keegan, director of Jackson Family Wines Oregon, which includes four wineries (Zena Crown, Gran Moraine, Penner-Ash, WillaKenzie Estate) and six brands.

Surprisingly, this swift and major shift from on-premise to off-premise sales does not weaken the value of in-person interactions at tasting rooms. “Going to the source and interacting with the people who grow and make your wine is always going to be appealing,” Keegan noted. “That won’t diminish one bit. It very much helps increase sales. “What we like about e-commerce is the efficiency and ease that it brings on the purchasing end.”

With a smile, Keegan says, as a Baby Boomer, she’s had to learn and adapt to a rapidly emerging online world. She mentions two major benefits regarding Oregon wine. First, the well-received Zoom updates on coronavirus that OWB (Oregon Wine Board) and WVWA jointly and separately supply to constituents and anyone else interested. “These meetings have been a glue that has brought regional associations together so everyone goes forward in step,” she said. The other benefit: the emergence of virtual wine tastings. “Online virtual tastings are unique, special ways for us to connect with our customers, especially these days,” Keegan added. 


Word Around the State

“We’re normally just rolling in tourists at this time of year,” said Ross Allen, president of the Rogue Valley Vintners and owner of 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery. “It’s definitely not happening for 2020. But we all know it will come back. There’s just too much going on in Southern Oregon that draws visitors. And on top of our attractions, we offer first-class wine. Things will rebound and get even bigger.”

In the small town of Elkton, most visitors are motoring west along the Umpqua River toward the coast and might stop at one of four wineries clustered in the area for samples and a stretch. The largest is Brandborg Vineyard & Winery; owner Terry Brandborg is president of the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association. Last month, visitor traffic was close to zero, “but it’s picking up a bit now,” he said. “It’s with regret that we decided, for the safety of all participants, to cancel until next year our two most popular regional wine events: Barrel Tour and Greatest of the Grape.”

Jennifer Kerrigan of Del Rio Vineyards, recently elected president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association, says “Half our members’ business is from the tourists who go through this area, so we need to recapture them when traveling ramps up again,” she said. On the positive side, she says “we’ve seen a big surge in online sales, and that’s what’s getting us through this summer.” Kerrigan attributes that success to aggressively using social media. Late in the outdoor season, probably September, she says Del Rio will likely host its fall wine club party outdoors, possibly in three waves of 75 people. Meanwhile, the winery has shelved last year’s popular and lively Friday night outdoor concerts in favor of a new “Sunday Slowdown” with live mellow afternoon music. 

One of the state’s largest operations, A to Z Wineworks and REX HILL, is planning to test the waters with small private parties in the facilities’ gardens. Also, REX HILL opens its tasting room in early fall after an extensive remodel that began last November says Amy Prosenjak, president and CEO. The size and economies of scale enable the Newberg-based group to maintain robust national sales. “The pandemic and shelter-in-place orders reaffirmed the importance of our distributor relationships,” she emphasized. “Wine sales have grown during the pandemic, and we expect that trend to continue as more people keep wines on hand. It seems likely online sales will remain strong even as retail reopens because the convenience is very attractive.”

Finally, a round of applause for Page Knudsen Cowles. Want a bold display of guts? Here you go: On June 8, she opened the newest Oregon tasting room, The Outlook at Knudsen Vineyards in Dundee. Discover more about this project and others in July's cover story. 

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