Temecula Wine Country copes with restrictions due to coronavirus outbreak

Customers shop for and purchase wines at Europa Village’s take away and curbside pickup facility at the winery Saturday, March 21. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

From end to end, wineries in Temecula Wine Country are having to make adjustments in order to serve their customers.

Most wineries are keeping a skeleton crew on staff and allowing customers to come and buy bottles of wine, but keeping tasting rooms closed.

Some others are allowing people to come in and taste wine as usual, but with some changes like maintaining social distancing requirements. That move comes with both criticism and applause, depending on who you talk to.

While some wineries have kept staff on the books, quite a few have had to lay off a lot of employees as they face what could be several months of restrictions put forth by the county, state and federal governments.

“We have decided to lay off our tasting room staff and one wine club administrative staff, we believe at this point we need to conserve cash,” Steve Chapin, owner of Chapin Family Vineyards, said. “We are maintaining our farm crew, three people and one assistant winemaker.”

Cougar Vineyard and Winery’s Sangio’s Deli offers takeout food and take and bake pizzas while the tasting room remains closed. The winery is only open to wine club pickups and wine bottle and case sales. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

When asked how they thought the situation was being handled by government leadership, reactions were mixed.

“We understand the restrictions are for all our best interests,” Jennifer Buffington, owner of Cougar Vineyards and Winery, said. “Every day the restrictions get more restrictive in what we can do. This is a very fluid situation that we are monitoring and adjusting how we do business constantly.”

“I think this is what needs to be done to stop the spread of the disease,” Valerie Andrews, owner of Oak Mountain Winery, said. “Our hopes are that some of the medicines they are testing will cure the affected people and shorten the length of the business shutdowns.”

Chapin had a different take.

“The national leadership has been as good as it can be,” he said. “As a public health microbiologist with knowledge of PCR technology, I know it is difficult to ramp up PCR testing. I am amazed they are doing as many tests as they are on a daily basis.

Signs posted on the doors to Cougar Vineyard and Winery inform visitors of restrictions pertaining to the coronavirus outbreak and the products and services that the winery can offer inside. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

“The public has little understanding of PCR technology and therefore believe whatever the media tells them because they have no understanding of the facts,” he said. “I believe the ‘liberal media’ is dedicated to damaging President Trump and will slant any story in a negative perspective if it hurts the president. The California leadership is weak, but they are following the national directives and therefore acceptable in terms of actions and information,” he said.

Chapin was staying open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but that will change, he said.

“With the new mandate we are going to shut down until we hear better news,” he said.

The Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association issued a statement regarding the situation Tuesday, March 17.

“The implication of this to wine country is that the majority of our tasting rooms are temporarily closed to the public for wine tasting and on-site wine consumption,” according to the statement. “While our local wineries do this with a heavy heart, we must all work together so that our doors are back open for you to come visit as soon as possible.”

The TVWA talked about the wineries’ ability to adjust in order to continue selling wine.

“Our wine region was largely built on the direct-to-consumer model, so we are fully equipped to sell online and ship wine for home consumption,” the TVWA said. “Many wineries will remain open to fulfill online orders, wine club pick-ups and on-site purchasing using social distancing protocols. Many are also implementing local delivery to certain areas.

“You can also take advantage of our new Sip From Home program. Participating wineries are offering special discounts, wine packages, and shipping incentives to make it as easy and affordable as possible for you to get the wines you love so you can enjoy them from the comfort of your home,” TVWA said in a statement.

In addition to doing bottle sales only, Cougar Vineyard and Winery is offering pre-made pizza kits and selling goods like meats and other products out of their Sangio’s Deli. Oak Mountain Winery is open for bottle sales and wine club pickups and the winery’s Cave Café has to go orders.

“I feel that people are afraid to go out,” Buffington said. “We didn’t have a lot of to-go or online orders initially, we started calling members yesterday and the personal touch is getting sales.”

“We are getting a little support through online orders and some to go orders,” Andrews said. “We are trying to get the word out that we offer the food as you don’t need to go into town, and there are no crowds. We are able to (maintain social) distance.”

“We were open but sold relatively little; most of the activity is just wine club pickups,” Chapin said. “Our wine club appears to be very loyal. We have and will continue to be conservative in our business expansions and maintain a good cash balance with supportive lines of credit.”

Don Lorenzi of Lorenzi Estate Wines said life during coronavirus is going well.

“We’re selling bottles and cases,” he said. “Business is good. We have a very loyal customer base. We also had a virtual winery business model on the shelf. We plugged it in last Monday morning. We hit the ground running.”

Though Oak Mountain Winery had to lay off employees, they are sending them home with care packages from the restaurant. As for how sales are going, they are doing their best, Andrews said.

“We are grateful for our wine club members who are being very supportive and we are offering them free shipping during this time in return of their support,” Andrews said. “Our winery neighbors are a great community of compassionate owners who are communicating daily on this uncharted territory.”

According to Andrews, the process of winemaking doesn’t stop, virus or no virus.

“The winemaking portion of the winery continues as farming never stops,” she said. “Vines need pruning, wine needs bottling and champagne needs to finish fermenting.”

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.