Temecula Wine Country dealing with virus fallout

Temecula’s wine country may experience a drop in tourism as a national state of emergency has been declared due to the coronavirus Friday, March 13. Gov. Gavin Newsom Sunday, March 15, set guidelines that included the closure of wineries and bars. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

When news broke that Gov. Gavin Newsom announced guidelines Sunday, March 15, meant to deal with the spread of the coronavirus, you probably could hear a pin drop in Temecula Wine Country.

It wasn’t long until leaders in wine country began taking action and making plans – Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association called an emergency meeting for 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 17, after press time, some wineries closed tasting rooms, others remained defiant, pledging to stay open.

“We called ABC Sacramento this morning and they have not put out a mandate that you must be closed,” Christina Falik, who owns Gershon Bachus Vintners with her husband, Kenny, said Monday. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re going to be open as usual. We are doing our social distancing. We have a cleanliness protocol in so that when people come in and then they leave that we’re taking care of their spot. Our staff is healthy.

“We do not see the reason, especially during the week, for any kind of hysteria about going to a tasting room. I just don’t see it. And if the governor is suggesting that you can go to a restaurant, we don’t understand how there could be any difference between somebody going out to eat in a restaurant where there’s people and going to a tasting room to taste wine where there’s people.”

She questioned the logic of the guidelines and the financial implications.

“For those wineries that have restaurants that are able to remain open, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever that they can’t also serve wine,” Falik said. “We don’t get it. We don’t understand how somebody could have been so flippant about making a regulation without any kind of basis of problem that it would cause.

“I want to know how they’re going to make up for my loss, if they do that. Is FEMA going to pay me back for that? Are my employees, who work by the hour, are they going to be able to recoup any of their money from the county or from the state if we remain closed?

“I think there’s way too many questions on the table for us to overreact in a situation where we don’t even see cases and are speculative right now as far as I know.”

Dean Foote of Foot Path Winery also characterized Newsom’s guidelines as an overreaction and that his winery would remain open for tastings.

As of Monday afternoon, South Wine Resort & Spa was to remain open.

Others are making adjustments to deal with the issue.

“We saw this coming but didn’t really know exactly how it would affect us directly,” Nick Palumbo of Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery said. “We have always been a small, intimate winery that didn’t have any large gatherings or large staff. Regardless of that, we have taken any and all precautions and will continue to follow state and federal recommendations.”

He reminded that the recommendations are not enforceable mandates at this point.

“This could very well change but as for right now, we will follow the suggestions and go to appointment only visits which means visitors may call for appointments, visit our tasting room to talk to us about what we do here at the winery, pick up any pre ordered wines or purchase any wines they may be interested in at the time of visiting,” he said. “We will not be offering tastings at this point but again, this is a very fluid time and all this may change. It is also important to note that we can and will ship our wine to our customers.”

At Akash Winery & Vineyards, the doors will remain open for pickups for the time being, but no tastings will be held.

“We at Akash Winery are of course very flustered and saddened it has come to this,” Akash Patel, owner of Akash Winery & Vineyards, said. “We are here to do what we have to do to make our citizens feel safe. Nonetheless this will pass in time and just as any other hurdles our family has come across in the past, we will simply jump over yet another major hurdle and bounce back from this. We are offering free ground shipping during this and free delivery to local residents so they can continue to drink outstanding wines.”

At least two wineries, Peltzer Winery and Robert Renzoni Vineyards & Winery, said they will also halt tastings in statements made on social media accounts.

“These are uncertain times and the most responsible thing for us to do as a business, and as a family in this community, is to respond to our government’s recommendations with compliance,” according to Peltzer’s statement. “As of tomorrow, Monday, March 16, Peltzer Farm and Winery will be open only for wine pickups. No tastings or glasses will be poured and bottles cannot be opened on property.”

“Our doors will still be open to our members who need to pick up their wine, and to those interested in purchases to take home,” according to Renzoni’s statement. “At this time wine by the glass sales will be discontinued. Mama Rosa’s Trattoria will be open at half occupancy as the governor has requested. We are encouraging to-go orders as much as possible.

“Robert Renzoni Vineyards cares about our local community. We will do everything in our power to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Europa Village’s tasting room is closed, but wine club members can pick up wine at Europa Village and the public can order and pick up wine curbside. Both pick-up services are available daily from 10 a.m. o 5 p.m. Online purchasing will be available until April 30 at shop.europavillage.com/Shop/Offers.

In addition to wineries, peripheral businesses like wine tour companies are starting to feel the effects of the coronavirus issue.

Kim Kelliher of Grapeline Wine Tours and Stryder Transportation, which has wine country tour services in Paso Robles and Sonoma in addition to Temecula Wine Country, said the news Monday from the federal government about limiting groups to 10 or less is going to significantly impact their business.

“We ran tours today in Temecula, Santa Barbara and Paso Robles,” Kelliher said Monday. “We were able to deal with the 50 people or less. We had already committed to keeping our shuttles at 50% capacity. We were sanitizing, going by appointment only, asking the wineries to work with us and keeping social distance. All of that was coming together nicely. Until this 10 and under and now it’s quite a bit tougher.”

She said there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how the market will respond to businesses being open or being closed.

“Some of the winery owners, like Leoness, were open and they were being chastised by customers or people calling saying, I can’t believe you’re still open,” Kelliher said. “There’s just a lot of emotion and there’s a lot of considerations. At the same time, we’re all small businesses, we’re all trying to figure out how we navigate this new world right now? And unfortunately, I don’t even know the answer yet.”

Amy Brewen of Brewen’s Empire Trolley said she was starting to see the impact las Friday.

“Obviously the focus of my business is wine country and weddings and corporate events,” she said. “I did have a corporate event, which is kind of one of my larger clients, that said, ‘Hey, you know, we’re just gonna push this out a couple of weeks. We’ll follow up with you then.’ That was a large one. However, it was one. I have one client, she’s a wedding client and her family is in Hong Kong, so they’re just praying for the best.”

The wedding and event business in Temecula Wine Country generates millions of dollars each year. From transportation to wedding planners and event coordinators to caterers and hotels – there is a potential for many to take a serious financial hit.

But Brewen said she has faith.

“I’m a very optimistic person by nature. I feel like seeing the downtrend in China is a good thing. And I would like to think if everyone can be proactive and see what has worked in other countries and starts doing those things now before it gets really bad here, then we can minimize it.

“As far as wine country, I will say that’s probably the one I’m most hopeful and yet pause a little because while they aren’t always a 250-plus person event, obviously you can get over 250 people there at any given time at a winery. And that’s definitely a leg of my business,” she said.

So far, Brewen said, she hasn’t received any outright cancelations, just postponements.

“I’m still receiving calls about people wanting to book,” she said.

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