On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, May 3, I embarked on a tour of Temecula Wine Country, looking to see what area wineries are doing during the lockdown restrictions handed down by California Gov. Gavin Newsom more than a month ago.
While some wineries were closed, at least in the afternoon, others offered wine club pickups and bottle sales, both inside tasting rooms and at outdoor locations, but no tastings seemed to be offered at the 10 or so wineries that I visited.
For an afternoon like the one on Sunday, roughly 73 degrees and breezy, the wine country would generally be teaming with people, tour groups bussing wine drinkers between stops, groups laughing at tables, wedding parties bustling in and out of the region.
But these are very different times.
In the weeks leading up to Sunday, visitors would be hard-pressed to find more than five vehicles in any given parking lot. The roundabout at Anza and Rancho California roads before might take a minute or two to enter, but it was smooth sailing on this day.
A growing restlessness with the restrictions imposed by the governor, combined with outright protests on a weekly basis, has maybe convinced people to venture out a little more.
There were more cars on the road, more cars in the parking lots.
I found groups of people congregating on their own in the grassy areas at a winery on Rancho California Road and several groups of anywhere from a couple to a dozen people in camping chairs and sitting in on the bumpers of their cars in the parking lot of yet another.
Construction continued on a developing winery on De Portola Road.
Admittedly, these are tough times for wineries, unprecedented in fact. The intent of my journey to wine country was to attempt to show the beauty that is being missed by so many.
But herein lies the overwhelming feeling when visiting these days – a billion-dollar industry has ground to a near halt – and in some cases, people’s livelihoods are at risk.
Perhaps lost in the confusion are the hundreds of employees that have been laid off or furloughed. Hostesses, wine servers, sommeliers, groundskeepers, janitorial staff, farmworkers – all let go.
As the chants to reopen grow louder, one has to question, what does that look like?
Clearly some wineries are allowing guests to linger on the property and to drink their wine purchase while others are strictly adhering to the guidelines.
For a region that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year collectively promoting itself far and wide as a wine region worth visiting, is it fair for some wineries to seemingly turn the other cheek while others continue to abide by the rules?
If an employee was let go by a winery immediately when the restrictions were put in place, are they more or less likely to return to that winery when the call to reopen is answered?
Will some employees have moved on from the industry, seeking jobs in other fields, hoping for a more lucrative and stable career?
Where will that loss leave winery owners, general managers and others as they try and put together the pieces of a once-thriving business that reopens to a response almost nobody can predict?
When will the dam break, and more and more of the public decide to ignore the county and state restrictions and visit the wineries anyway?
How will wineries react to that?
Like everything else these days, I await the answers that only time will tell, but it sure will be interesting.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.