For the first time, things are looking up since the COVID-19 crisis put New York State on “pause”. Now that virtually all regions have met the criteria allowing limited capacity re-openings, the local wine and craft beverage industry is once again bubbling with optimism. Plans to welcome visitors—even from six feet away—are in place.
From the onset, wine and craft beverage operations throughout the State were deemed “essential businesses,” meaning that people could still purchase alcohol. Consumer support for local businesses was overwhelming. For many stuck at home, curbside pickup, virtual tastings, online offers and attractive delivery options filled the void of a tasting room visit. In the wine industry alone, direct-to-consumer shipping offset nearly 70% of the revenue lost in the tasting room, and e-commerce sales surged an incredible 291%, according to WineAmerica’s winery survey during the March pandemic peak.
But in the Hudson Valley, where tourism is the lifeblood of the craft beverage and hospitality industries, the “NY Forward” plan for recovery couldn’t get here soon enough.The State’s multi-phased re-opening plan puts wine and craft beverage businesses in the same category as restaurants, which means outdoor spaces are allowed to open in Phase 2. In Phase 3, indoor tasting rooms get the green light. Just because businesses are allowed to open, however, doesn’t mean that they are required to. Business owners decide when, and how, they will let customers back in their tasting rooms.
In the Hudson Valley, where tourism is the lifeblood of the craft beverage and hospitality industries, the “NY Forward” plan for recovery couldn’t get here soon enough.
During the wait, many businesses have been keeping customers engaged in other ways. At Awestruck, cider makers in Delaware County, staff has been posting weekly live videos on social media to tell fans about their new cider flavors. “We pride ourselves on letting the liquid speak for itself, so we’ve tried to be as descriptive as possible,” says market manager Jessica Hubbard.
And, like the team at Awestruck, many business owners have been planning a safe re-opening strategy for months. Fortunately, Cornell University’s Craft Beverage Institute and a team of Cooperative Extension agents are providing clear, safe guidance.
Cornell developed a set of “best practice” protocols for tasting rooms in the State, incorporating recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), federal, state, and county governments, the State Liquor Authority, and organizations like the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. With groundwork laid out by the California Wine Industry, Cornell’s comprehensive guidelines are focused on ways to keep local craft beverage tasting rooms, indoors or out, open for the long term.
For business owners, taking common sense precautions means putting measures in place that not only protect their staff, but that will also allow visitors to have an enjoyable time. “We will be reducing our seating inside the taproom once we are able to re-open,” says Hubbard, “but we’ve added an abundance of outdoor seating so we can ensure our customers’ safety, as well as that of our amazing team.”
For consumers, the new practices may take a little getting used to. Visiting might entail making reservations in advance, entering and exiting through a different door, and following directional and traffic flow signs. Tastings might be timed. And certainly, limiting group sizes, social distancing, and wearing a face covering will become the status quo.
“It’s going to be challenging for wineries to train their staff on safety protocols and insure that visitors are practicing social distancing while at their establishment, says Jude DeFalco, Operations Manager of the Shawangunk Wine Trail, “but our wineries are excited to be re-opening and welcoming back their visitors.”
What is clear is that there won’t be any bands, private events, or group tours for a while yet. Until there is adequate testing, contact tracing, or a COVID-19 vaccine, visitors may be asked to confirm that they understand and will cooperate with the new practices, or may even be asked to sign a waiver. All this change may require thinking differently and planning ahead, but businesses are working hard to put these practices into play as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible.
All this change may require thinking differently and planning ahead, but businesses are working hard to put these practices into play as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible.
For those hesitant about visiting just yet, the New York State Liquor Authority is allowing the current practice of selling wine, spirits, beer and mixed drinks for takeout and delivery to continue for now, so supporting local producers is still possible. To find their latest offers, visit our Curbside Pickup & Delivery Guide.
For those eager to get back to enjoying a flight with friends in a tasting room, or walking through a vineyard with a glass in hand, keep in mind that State and local restrictions will continue to loosen as the Covid-19 crisis lessens. By following the protocols now, Phase 4 (the last step in the re-opening plan) may not be that far off.
“We will see things really pick up as we enter Phases 3 and 4,” adds DeFalco, “people are anxious to get out and see their friends.”
Businesses are just as eager to get back to some semblance of normal. “We are very excited to re-open,” exclaims Hubbard, “and so appreciative of our community’s support. We look forward to welcoming everyone back to our taproom soon!”
For those eager to get back to the tasting room experience, here’s what to expect:
1. The tasting room’s floor plan will have been redesigned
Seating arrangements will be set up to ensure there is at least six feet of separation between parties, so there is enough space for customers to approach and leave a table. Look for one-way traffic in and out of the building to keep the flow of visitors in check, and to help cut down on lingering. Depending on the business, capacity may be limited to half or three-quarters of the old normal occupancy to comply with new restrictions. Physical barriers, floor markings, and signs will remind customers to maintain the six-foot distancing requirement, and hand sanitizing stations will be part of the new décor, especially at the entrance and in rest rooms.
2. Sanitizing, sanitizing, sanitizing
Employees will be wearing gloves, face coverings, and other protective gear. New duties for staff will include following CDC guidelines to disinfect and clean work spaces and equipment regularly. High-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, credit card keypads, handrails, and touch screens will be sanitized frequently; chairs and tabletops will be wiped down after each party leaves. Other than a tasting glass (if it’s not given as a souvenir) no other plate or vessel will be reused or refilled, so expect more single-use items and alternatives like biodegradable plastic cups. Looking for a straw? You won’t find an unwrapped straw—or anything unwrapped, like crackers or palate cleansers for that matter—at any tasting bar or table.
3. More contactless communication
Online communication will reduce or replace person-to-person interaction. Visitors will want to keep their mobile phones handy. Email updates, texts upon arrival, mobile ordering, and contactless payment will reduce the need for close contact and become the new norm. To avoid multiple contact points, the tasting menu may either be single-use or cleanable between customers (i.e., laminated), handwritten on a chalkboard, or texted along with the reservation confirmation. Checking in? QR codes might make a comeback.
4. Socially-distanced service
Standing or sitting at the tasting bar will be allowed, but with six feet between parties. Tables will accommodate a maximum of six guests, for now. Couples and small groups traveling together in one vehicle can taste together (and sit together), and while face coverings will be required upon arrival, they can be removed once tasting begins. Keep in mind that if any visitor is displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19, however, or if they’ve come in contact with someone who has, they will be asked to leave. Each party may be assigned one staff member for the entire time of their visit, but if an employee is assigned to multiple parties, they’ll practice proper hand hygiene when moving between parties. Staff will pour samples, then step back to keep their distance. You can sip and swirl, but don’t expect to spit—it’s not allowed! All beverages and food items will be served in individual portions, and no bottles of any kind can be left on a table.
5. Opening up the outdoors
Areas outside have become an extension of the tasting room. Gazebos, pergolas, and other structures once used for special occasions can now double up as tasting areas, so visitors can spread out and practice safe social distancing in the open air, with decreased risk of transmission. Tents (with their flaps up) may be set up as temporary spaces for socially-distanced tasting. For now, picnicking on the lawn is prohibited, as is bringing pets. If it starts to rain, expect your order to be packed up to go while you’re asked to head to your car. On the plus side, increasing the on-premise capacity by adding outdoor spaces can help a business make up for revenue shortfalls due to the decreased capacity limits. Some businesses may also extend hours of operation—a win-win for everyone, especially on warm summer evenings.
Editor’s Note: This article was written in early June. The re-opening timeline was accurate at the time of this report.