Temecula Wine Country gearing up to deal with virus fallout

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Jeff Pack
Staff Writer

With regional, state and federal agencies recommending that the public limit face-to-face interactions with other human beings and crowds due to the threat of transmission of the coronavirus, that leaves hospitality and entertainment venues and businesses wondering what the next few weeks will look like. 

“People are nervous,” Devin Parr, Brand Marketing Partner for Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country, said in a phone interview on Friday, March 13. “We’re getting phone calls because that’s just sort of the vibe right now nationwide. But as of now, the tasting rooms are open and people are welcoming. Visitors and staff are taking every precaution, using heightened cleaning and disinfecting measures. They’re being diligent and reporting anyone who’s sick and sharing that they stay home and don’t come to work.”

Parr said several member wineries are even rolling out new features such as a sip-from-home program. 

“For people who don’t feel comfortable coming to wine country or they can’t,” she said. “Wineries are offering special packages of wines and discounts and shipping incentives so that people can Temecula Valley from the comfort of their home.”

She said it was too early to gauge what the immediate impact would be on wine country. 

“It’s kind of a double whammy since it’s going to pour rain through the weekend,” Parr said. “Even if there was no coronavirus situation, rain typically impacts visitation even under the best of circumstances.”

But, she said, the wineries and tasting rooms are open for business and making sure they are being safe and responsible.

“We’re monitoring the situation,” Parr said. “Obviously if local conditions dictate that we need to close then we close, but we’re not there yet and we’re taking every precaution to do our part and follow CDC guidelines, just to make sure that we are compliant as well.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep people informed,” she said. “And if we close, we will obviously communicate that to visitors and share that information on our website.”

The latest information from the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association can be found at ww.temeculawines.org. 

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 said so far it is business as usual, with some added precautions.

“We are still running our tours in all of our locations,” she said. “Obviously we’ve stepped up our disinfecting practices. We now have our daily wiping down of all of our handrails, headrest, armrests, et cetera. We are coaching our team on social distancing and emphasizing if anyone has any symptoms of illness not to come to work, and not to come on our tours.”

Kelliher said she has been communicating with all of her guests with planned trips to wine country. 

“I just sent out a message to all of my guests just sort of ensuring them that we’re monitoring the situation that there haven’t been cases of COVID-19 in the wine countries that we serve,” she said. “The Wineries are all open and stepping up their safety precautions. Obviously we’re getting tons of phone calls, questions, and concerns.”

The company has wine country tour services in Paso Robles and Sonoma in addition to Temecula Wine Country, but also provides transportation services to businesses and organizations outside of wine country. 

“We do a lot of group transportation as Stryder Transportation and we do group transportation for Pechanga,” Kelliher said. “We had a 200 person group, our first group that canceled last week with Frito Lay. We had a 1,400 person group that was scheduled to come into Pechanga this month that just officially canceled today. We were doing transportation for them. We’ve had wedding cancellations, Tobin James, their 23rd annual VinFest up in Paso Robles, we do a lot of transportation for that, it was canceled yesterday. 

“We spent all day doing refunds, pretty much,” she said. “It’s horrendous for business.”

Kelliher said they have been offering tour credits instead of processing a full refund.  

“We have a lot of people take us up on that, so that’s great,” she said. “We don’t have big crowds here. We’re following what the governor has outlined. And we’re even doing things like if we have 10 people on a tour, whenever we can, we’re putting them on a 20 or 30 person passenger shuttle so they can spread out.”

Kelliher said she thinks there will be long-term effects from this. 

“It’s incredibly hard on business and Iwe’re one small company and just the impact it’s had on us alone and you multiply that over and over and over again,” she said. “We were in Sonoma a few days ago and they’re really feeling it up there. It’s worse than here. Probably because of the proximity to San Francisco. Their hotels, a lot of them have closed and some of the restaurants have closed. 

“Fortunately, I don’t think Temecula is getting hit quite as hard, but as I heard from Scott Wilson (Pechanga Resort Casino) that every group that instead of canceling, they have postponed, they have rescheduled for a future date. I consider that delayed success, you just have to be patient and try to get through it.”

Amy Brewen of Brewen’s Empire Trolley said she is starting to see the impact. 

“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 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 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.”

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