Scott Jeffrey at Chehalem Winery in Newberg delivers wine to an eager customer. ##Photo provided

Wine in the Time of a Pandemic

Owners get creative as tasting rooms and restaurants close

By Tamara Belgard

It’s easy to say that the novel coronavirus, officially COVID-19, has changed our world drastically. It’s not only affected how we interact with friends and family, and how we live our daily lives, but it’s had a devastating impact on communities. While many of us learn to homeschool our kids, stock up on non-perishables, hunt for non-existent toilet paper, practice physical distancing and adjust to a lack of social interaction, others are experiencing even more challenges, as in managing illness in an over-taxed system or grasping to maintain livelihood.

When the virus initially hit the States, we first witnessed the shutting down of major sporting events. Amusement parks followed and then an avalanche of closures occurred: Broadway, retail, conferences, concerts, parades, schools, work and more. As of March 17, Gov. Kate Brown issued Executive Order 20-07, limiting restaurants, bars, tasting rooms and other places offering food or beverages for sale to carry-out and delivery with zero on-site consumption permitted. The restrictions will last until April 14, unless extended.

Although necessary, this declaration means millions of dollars of lost revenue and serious unemployment. A dizzying amount of people are currently out of work. Many of the more than 15.6 million restaurant workers (estimate from the National Restaurant Association) will lose paychecks during the crisis. McMenamins alone has cut nearly 3,000 jobs.

The wine business is also suffering. 

Earl Cramer Brown of Vertical Wine Group says his distribution business incurred a 50% loss in revenue in one week and fears it’s not getting any better. He said, “The mega-huge distributors and wineries may be able to weather this financially; we cannot. Go small to help big!”

Oregon owners continue looking for solutions to maintain their business and keep staff. Stoller Family Estate — among many other wineries — is offering curbside pickup of wines ordered online or by phone. “These are unprecedented times,” said Stoller president Gary Mortensen. “We are taking the necessary steps to protect our customers and our staff during this global pandemic.”

It’s no different in Southern Oregon. At Abacela, hospitality manager Tina Hamilton said, “After Governor Brown’s directive today (March 17), we are trying to think outside the box to provide our customers access to our wines while respecting their health and the health and safety of our staff members. Our main goal is to keep our staff working as long as possible and hopefully we can find some new and creative ways to get our wines into the hands of our customers in the process.”

Abacela is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and since their new label mentions Abacela as an “icon of innovation,” transformation remains exactly what they are working toward. “We are exploring a drive-through concept for our wine club pick up party, thinking about home delivery for our local customers and virtual tasting experiences,” Hamilton explained. “We just have to think on our feet and make as many positive adjustments as possible.”

Willamette Valley Vineyards is taking action, too. In addition to pick-up and curbside service from its Salem-area and McMinnville tasting rooms, the winery is also offering complimentary shipping on orders over $100 for Oregon and Washington addresses and $150 nationwide — excluding Alaska and Hawaii — and local delivery for orders over $100 in Salem, McMinnville and surrounding areas. 

To help offset customers depleting their stashes during social distancing, Willamette Valley Vineyards hosted an “Open that Bottle Night” on March 25, encouraging participants to post photos of themselves enjoying wines using the #WVVTogetherinSpirit hashtag. Those who posted were entered to win a “Restock your Cellar” prize of a case of wine. Winery director Christine Collier Clair said, “We’re trying to service our customers, keep our staff busy and support each other. In fact, we’re also meeting on how we can utilize our winery kitchen for employees and community members in need.”

The Willamette Valley Wineries Association has reinvented the fifth annual Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction as an entirely online event. What was once an exciting medley of lavish dinners, extensive barrel tastings and a packed room of high rollers bidding on the Valley’s best wines, will now be a virtual auction on April 4. Some 94 lots of 2018 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will be sold. Lizzie Adelsheim, trade relations and special projects coordinator for the association said, “While this pivot represents a significant change in the program, the auction remains the only way for Willamette Valley Pinot lovers to get these exclusive wines from the outstanding 2018 vintage.”

In Portland, Carrie Wynkoop, owner of Cellar 503, has created a feel-good offer to her customers. “The good news is that we can help. For every six-bottle pack of wines you purchase, a donation will be made to the Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation, which provides health care for migrant workers regardless of their ability to pay.” She explained, “The staff at the Virginia Garcia health clinics are working hard to keep the folks who pick the grapes and their families healthy during this scary time.”

Ways to support local business:

  • Purchase merchandise or gift cards (to be used later) from your favorite establishments.
  • Shop online. Most wineries not listed here are offering discounts.
  • Tip generously on delivery and curbside orders.
  • Drop a note of support to your favorite business — it goes a long way.
  • Follow local wineries, businesses, artists, producers, gallery owners and restaurateurs on social media channels — they'll appreciate the virtual love.
  • Be extra gentle with one another; everyone has been affected in one way or another.

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