TEMECULA (CNS) – A Temecula Valley winery that was on pace for a record year shut down most operations, slashing staff and services, in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but its CEO expressed confidence today that the vintner will survive.
“I’m not scared of losing this business,” Bill Wilson of Wilson Creek Winery & Vineyards told City News Service. “We just need to hang on until we can kickstart it back up again.”
The winery is among 46 established vintners in the Temecula Valley that have closed their doors to most indoor dining and canceled events following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency proclamation last week ordering “non-essential” businesses to switch to telecommuting and for people to stay home as much as possible to limit COVID-19 exposure risks.
The executive order came just a few days after Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser issued a directive limiting gatherings to 10 or less anywhere at anytime countywide.
“It’s been like a chess match, with us trying to keep up with what the government is doing,” Wilson said. “We would make plans, then change them. So we finally decided to shut everything down except our takeout orders. We almost didn’t keep that going, but now that the hysteria has settled down somewhat and we’ve got kind of a new norm, which is still crazy, we’re allowing for curbside pickups of our products.”
According to Wilson, who shares proprietorship of the winery with his parents and other family members, sales volume and on-site activity were running at a phenomenal pace, far exceeding record levels set during the same period in 2019, when earlier this month “all of it unraveled.”
“We were having our best year ever, really our best year, and no one saw this coming,” he said. “All of our reserves are now going into minimizing the impact of the virus.”
According to Wilson, the winery has procured an expanded line of credit to buffer against financial shocks. He said business has plummeted 90% over the last several weeks, and only senior staff remain on-site, with a smattering of salaried employees working from home.
He said that of the 252 people employed at the beginning of March, only about one-third are still on the payroll.
“We’re trying not to disrupt lives as much as we can,” he said. “We’re making some of our most senior people do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, down in the trenches.”
Wilson said all employees’ health benefits are being covered for now, and he understood the winery would have to absorb paying unemployment benefits for up to four months under the federal stimulus plan.
“Hopefully we’ll get reimbursed for that with tax credits,” he said. “I sure didn’t order this shutdown. We were going great one day and then the next, it was, ‘slam, bam, shut down, bye, bye.”’
Concerts, birthday parties, weddings and other celebrations were all knocked off the calendar for April.
“It’s sad because we worked hard to make everything happen,” Wilson said. “What’s really bad is that, in the service industry like ours, employees depend on tips for the lion’s share of their income. That’s disappeared. You can only do so much with online sales and curbside pickup.”
For the operations still underway, Wilson said the winery is observing a strict set of “protocols for the benefit of guests and team members.”
“America is resilient, and I think what President Trump said about the cure being worse than the disease shows that he knows this can’t go on for four to six months,” Wilson said. “You’d have sheer panic in the streets, and the country would go crazy. Trump is smart enough to see that. He’s a business guy, and he gets it.”
According to Wilson, he believes operations will return to normal by the time hot weather arrives, and COVID-19 recedes as a threat.
There are plans for a 20th anniversary celebration that will coincide with his mother’s 90th birthday on Oct. 14.
“We’ve got something great here,” Wilson said. “We’re going to be fine when everything kicks back into gear.”