Finger Lakes wineries feeling the impact of coronavirus

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the closure of restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters earlier this week, he also effectively closed the tasting rooms of more than 500 wineries statewide.

Preventive efforts like this aimed at lessening the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic could have a devastating side-effect on the wine industry. Many wineries in the Finger Lakes thrive through their direct-to-customer sales, which will be difficult to maintain without their tasting rooms.

“We fall into that with the restaurants and the bars. We’re not allowed to do tastings. That’s OK in a way. I get it,” said John Martini, co-owner and co-founder of Anthony Road Wine Company on Seneca Lake. But the impact will be great, he said.

Tasting rooms aren’t exactly closed; they just can’t offer tastings or — for those with on-premises liquor licenses — sell wine by the glass. It’s part of an effort to discourage people from congregating in large numbers and spreading the virus.

“We do depend on our tasting room for more than 50 percent of our income,” Martini said. For many years, Martini has travelled to New York City weekly to participate in the city’s Greenmarkets, where he offers tastings of Anthony Road Wine Co. wine and sells wine. “I’m not going down to the greenmarkets until this kind of clears up,” he said, noting that his age puts him into a higher risk category. An employee in New York will continue to work on a reduced schedule with accounts there, he said.

Wineries are still allowed to make and sell wine on their premises. Some wineries are posting notices that they remain open to sell wine by the bottle or case, and will make arrangements to bring purchases to customers’ cars or ship wine to them.

Colleen Hardy, co-owner of Living Roots Wine & Co., an urban winery on Rochester’s University Avenue with a vineyard in Australia, was in self-quarantine in Australia this week. She had flown there to work the family’s grape harvest, but had been exposed to carriers of the virus on the flight.

She was remotely supervising changes in the winery in Rochester, including shifting to a new method of doing business temporarily.

“We’ve had to reevaluate our operations and our offerings both for the safety of the public and our team,” Hardy said. Living Roots is beginning same-day deliveries within 10 miles of the tasting room and can offer both wine and packaged snacks.
Like other wineries, Living Roots and Anthony Road are offering discounts and deals on shipping to try to keep sales going.

“Our tasting room is usually pretty busy, and so that is a huge part of our business,” Hardy said.

Living Roots only began distribution outside of its tasting room about eight months ago, so can’t count on its wholesale operation for much revenue now. “All of the liquor stores and bars we partner with are going through the same thing right now,” she said.

The impact the wine industry will endure isn’t just related to the halt in tasting room activities. Crises change consumer consumption patterns.

“People don’t stop drinking wine during times of economic uncertainty, but they do buy less and many scan the shelves more intensely looking for lower prices. The coronavirus alters the menu of wine-drinking occasions, which will have an impact, too, wrote Mike Veseth, editor of the Wine Economist, on its website Tuesday. Veseth is a retired professor of international political economy in Washington State.

Veseth said if wineries try to boost online sales, they may find the ease of price comparison on the internet makes bargain shopping more important for consumers than the high-touch experiences they’ve sought at wineries. Whether they’ll return to in-person visits is one of many unanswered questions at the moment.

With restaurants closed, diners won’t be ordering as many bottles of wine with their meals. However, to try to ease the pain for an industry Cuomo has painstakingly promoted for many years, the state has changed its alcohol prohibition on takeout orders. During the health crisis, the state is now allowing people to order alcohol on a takeout basis, so, you can get a beer, cocktail or glass of wine to go, just as you do a takeout meal.

A coalition of beverage associations was also planning to seek temporary relief from tax payments to the state, allowing them to meet their other financial obligations first.

“An important thing for us is to pay our staff and pay our mortgage and pay our bills, kind of in that order,” Martini said.

In the face of great uncertainty, both Hardy and Martini were doing their best to remain upbeat.

“It’s definitely a day-by-day, hour-by-hour thing,” Hardy said. “In uncertain times like this, it brings people together. We’re not the only ones feeling this. Everyone is being affected by this in one way or another.”
She was taking the opportunity of downtime in Australia to put together a video of the harvest there to share, hoping to keep customers engaged.

Martini, meanwhile, said at least the crisis falls during what’s normally an already quiet time for wineries in North America.

“Hopefully it’s brief. This is the time of year to have it,” he said.

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