Wineries get creative to boost sales, keep workers employed during coronavirus crisis

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Before the coronavirus outbreak hit the United States, wineries around the country were gearing up for what is usually their busy season. Now, many are exploring new business models in a struggle to stay afloat.

“There's been peaks and valleys, but, you know, I'm going through the fight,” Howard O’Brien, the owner of Chateau O’Brien Winery and Vineyard in Virginia, said.

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O’Brien takes a very hands-on approach to his winery. Like many other owners, he’s had to get creative with things like online sales, virtual tastings, discounts, curbside pickup, and in his case, in-person deliveries.

Wineries around the country were gearing up for what is usually their busy season. But in the face of COVID-19, many are struggling to keep their business afloat, having to turn their business models on their heads. One winery in Virginia is personally delivering wines to customers' doors.

Wineries around the country were gearing up for what is usually their busy season. But in the face of COVID-19, many are struggling to keep their business afloat, having to turn their business models on their heads. One winery in Virginia is personally delivering wines to customers' doors. (Elina Shirazi)

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“So I drop it off and I ring the doorbell or knock and then I go at least six to 10 feet away to my vehicle and I stand there, and some people in the back of a lawn, they want to talk with me for a little while … I kind of forget for a little bit of the time that I'm delivering wine, that I'm, you know, I'm interacting with my clients again, and that warms my heart. And I think it does for them too,” O’Brien said.

Virginia winery owner Howard O'Brien takes a very hands-on approach to his winery. Like many other owners, he’s had to get creative with things like online sales, virtual tastings, discounts, curbside pickup and in his case, in-person deliveries.

Virginia winery owner Howard O'Brien takes a very hands-on approach to his winery. Like many other owners, he’s had to get creative with things like online sales, virtual tastings, discounts, curbside pickup and in his case, in-person deliveries. (Elina Shirazi)

“It is a very social product. It does unite people, not just because it's alcohol, but because it's something to discuss,” Jennifer Breaux of Breaux Vineyards in Virginia said.

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Breaux is hosting virtual wine tastings every Friday. She says it’s been a fruitful way to stay connected with clients and stay busy ever since the pandemic first affected her business financially in March.

“The virtual tastings have been really successful. They're just starting to take off. It didn't take much because people are home. They're bored. They're looking for something to do. I think it's connecting us on a level that doesn't feel like business,” Breaux said.

Breaux said that while she has accepted the current situation, her winery is doing their best to respond to the pandemic, and keep things going until they see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I can certainly say the hospitality industry, wineries included, and restaurants, I believe they've been hit the hardest through this pandemic. We're so customer-based, one-on-one. You know, visitations are really important to both businesses. When things started to go downhill with the pandemic, we responded expeditiously, but it just didn't seem like it was fast enough.”

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Texas wine enthusiast Shelly Wilfong said wineries across the country are experiencing similar financial hardship.

"It is going to be a really hard time for wineries. And I don't think we fully understand the impact this is having, and I think it is going to be a slow recovery. When you think about potential job losses and potential economic impact, the numbers are just staggering,” Wilfong said.

Wilfong added that the United States' wine industry, which generated more than $70 billion in 2018, may see a loss of billions due to the pandemic.

“There is some new data that came out today that the impact of this pandemic is tremendous for wineries around the world and across the United States," Wilfong said. "We are anticipating an economic impact of somewhere around $6 billion, so wine is a big business in the United States.”

It's because of that impact that the trend of virtual tastings has become necessary in the Lone Star State. Richard Becker, the president of Becker Vineyards, said it is a fun way to keep people working.

Texas Vineyards move toward social media to help them stay afloat during Coronavirus Pandemic.

Texas Vineyards move toward social media to help them stay afloat during Coronavirus Pandemic.

“We would send you three bottles for that week and then you would have them and then in your sequestered living room, you can open them and taste them with us," Becker said. "We think we are going to be able to do it for the near future and everyone is working hard and it is fun to make it work.”

Becker said thousands of people have joined his team for the virtual wine tastings, which are held two to three times a week.

"I am just really amazed and delighted by the response," Becker said.

The winery owner added that he is making "every effort" to keep all of his employees paid through the pandemic, adding that it's more important than revenue.

"It has taken a lot of innovation to do that," Becker said. "We are committed to not losing any of our employees to this terrible virus and the tastings are helping us successfully keep our people."

Becker Vineyards has been in Fredricksburg, Texas for the last thirty years and closed its tasting rooms for the first time in mid-March to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus.

Becker Vineyards has been in Fredricksburg, Texas for the last thirty years and closed its tasting rooms for the first time in mid-March to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus.

Becker Vineyards has had at least 10 virtual tastings as of April 20, and the vineyard hopes the revenue generated will help them fight the unseen battles of the industry.

“Everything that we need for production is impacted by transportation," Becker said, noting that this has made even wine bottles harder to obtain. "The whole system is stressed."

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The National Association of American Wineries says it has lost more than $40 million in the month of March alone. So far, 80 percent of them have still been able to carry on with their production. The association added that at least 4,000 people were laid off nationwide in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.