Temecula wineries make adjustments to stay afloat

Nick and Cindy Palumbo
Nick and Cindy Palumbo of Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery show off their wine distribution window. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

Whether it’s offering discounts on bottle sales, selling wine slushies to go or turning their tasting room into a small market – Temecula Wine Country wineries are doing what they can to stay in business.

“I would like to point out that while reports of alcohol sales being up is true, that doesn’t tell the whole story,” Nick Palumbo of Palumbo Family Vineyards and Winery said. “Larger wineries with wide distribution are doing OK but the smaller wineries between 1,000 and 5,000 yearly case production, like ourselves, are taking the biggest hit and some may not survive if this goes on too long.”

Rich and Jennifer Buffington
Rick and Jennifer Buffington pause at the bar to greet guests as they arrive at Cougar Vineyards and Winery Saturday, April 18. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

It’s a very real possibility, he said, and they are worried.

“At first we were very encouraged and touched by the local support and are grateful to be in a business that is still able to sell directly to consumer and ship,” Palumbo said. “That said, while our winery was never reliant on special events or ancillary activities and focused on wine tastings and sales alone, we are taking a hit daily because of being closed to tastings.

“Sales are trickling in here at the winery as well as online and phone orders but it is certainly not sustainable,” he said. “Just because we closed our doors doesn’t mean the costs have gone away. We are an agricultural business and that can’t stop. We do have full-time work and have not been able to furlough our vineyard and cellar staff. In short, the bills are still there.”

“It is very quiet at the winery,” Jennifer Buffington of Cougar Vineyards and Winery said. “We almost had 10 people in our tasting room one time since mid-March. We have furloughed all but five employees. Starting next week, we will be closed entirely on Thursdays.”

Buffington said Cougar has made some adjustments to keep cash flow coming in.

Wilson Creek Winery
Customers line up to purchase a wine slushie, pick up their monthly shipment or purchase a bottle of wine at Wilson Creek Winery. Valley News/Jeff Pack photo

“We started curbside delivery and also local delivery through GrubHub,” she said. “It all helps. We also are selling produce from the deli including sliced meats and cheeses, avocados and tomatoes. We are also selling toilet paper since we don’t have the customers, and we already have the supplies. I don’t know why people are risking going grocery shopping when we have a pretty much empty tasting room selling fresh produce.”

At Bel Vino, they had to make some changes and fast.

“We are hanging in there and have had to pivot our business to more online sales and social media marketing to target more online sales,” Erika Batiz, general manager at Bel Vino Winery, said. “We have been busy with launching a new website with amazing deals for customers and wine club members. We have been doing retail sales and pick-ups at the winery.

“We have noticed that wine club members have been buying more wine, but we have also been offering amazing sales to stay in business. We are going to be launching a virtual tasting with our winemaker in May,” he said.

General manager Fred Wilson at Peltzer Winery said the math is pretty scary.

“The new normal at Peltzer is about 25% of our regular sales in our tasting room,” he said. “Our expenses have been cut by 50%. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out there is trouble in paradise. Our business is somewhat diversified. Our wedding business and wine clubs will keep us afloat.”

Buffington said most wine club members came through this month, but she expected numbers to drop next month.

“Many of our wine club members are going on hold – they want to cancel but we give them the hold option – because they can’t use their tasting benefit so our next wine club shipments will be much less,” she said.

While the struggles are there, Nick Palumbo and his wife, Cindy, were upbeat while manning the wine window at the winery Saturday afternoon, April 18. As customers trickled in to pick up orders, they smiled through it all, telling stories about customers making big orders to help them out.

Wilson said there have been some positives to talk about too.

“What we have noticed is our community and our loyal customers have really supported us through this time,” he said. “I have to give our marketing department credit for their creativity in keeping our brand innovative and relevant, our limited staff in our tasting room who concentrate on shipments and delivery, our wine club manager as well as our wedding department. We have all taken a hit. Slow business is much better than no business.”

As for whether a loosening of restrictions are on the way, most of the wineries were hopeful.

“Some of the wineries with restaurants here hopefully may see some relaxing of rules soon but to be honest, large crowds in tight tasting room spaces may be in the same boat as bars and stay closed for some time to come,” Palumbo said. “I certainly hope they let us open soon even if it is restricted to outdoor or limits to occupancy, etc.”

Wilson said Peltzer is making plans.

“We are already putting together our phased plan and are very happy with the hope of this,” he said. “Now we need our governor to react. California was not hit hard. Having the seventh-largest economy in the world, California needs to re-open and trust its population to practice safety using their judgment.”

Cougar thinks the easing of restrictions will be limited.

“We think that it will be for a limited number of people and keeping with social distancing, nothing like it was before March 16,” Buffington said.

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