NAPA, CA – If you’re a wine lover, I’ll bet you a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that you’ll like some of the changes the last year has wrought in California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys.
That’s not to say the wine industry and its workers haven’t suffered staggering losses from COVID-19 shutdowns and devastating wildfires. Wineries were shuttered for months; experts say vintners will lose billions of dollars statewide. But akin to the advice to make lemonade when life hands you lemons, winemakers have turned sour grapes into fine wine by converting some of the past year’s liabilities into advantages.
They’ve done it by transforming the wine-tasting experience into a series of adventures. Although you might find it more difficult to belly up to a bar in a tasting room — COVID-19 safety guidelines limit the use of indoor spaces — vintners have created lively outdoor activities and added innovative online experiences.
Winery lawns or courtyards have metamorphosed into socially distanced spaces. Unlike many businesses forced to move to parking lots or sidewalks, wineries often have lush grounds at their disposal. Vintners took full advantage, adding cabanas, fire pits and music to bring a party vibe to their tastings.
The region’s towns got into the act too, setting up vibrant mini-parks for alfresco dining and tastings. In Napa, Sonoma, Yountville, Calistoga and St. Helena, visitors find flavorful fun on the sidewalks and back streets where string lights, heaters, tents and festive decorations add spirit to the experience.
Visitors seeking athletic pastimes can mix wine tasting with horseback riding, hiking, cycling or kayaking tours. Feeling lazy? Spend a leisurely afternoon tasting while taking a gondola ride down the Napa River or watching horses graze under the shadow of Mt. St. Helena.
Foodies have lots to choose from. They can visit parklike grounds at a tony Napa Valley vineyard such as Cakebread Cellars or Louis M. Martini and spend $75 or $100 per person for a private party that includes wines and a food pairing. Basic tastings will set them back $30 to $40.
If they’re in the Sonoma Valley — and on a budget — they can buzz over to the expansive mansion and picturesque grounds at Ledson Winery & Vineyards, where they can sit at a picnic table, try a charcuterie-and-cheese plate for $12 and taste five varietals for $30.
Or, if they’re looking for something new, they can check out recently restored Faust Haus, a Prohibition-era Victorian outside St. Helena that offers tastings, starting at $55, on the veranda or in the stunning gardens.
Most wineries also offer virtual tastings, a lucrative business that skyrocketed last year when customers grew tired of being trapped at home. Industry insiders call it “bringing the winery to the people.” In most cases, vintners ship bottles in advance to clients who have arranged video meetings. They can be as small as a solo tasting or large enough to accommodate hundreds of participants.
The tastings have been a silver lining in a period fraught with disappointment.
“The wine industry needed some creativity. We’d been doing the same things for too long,” said Chris Puppione, director of Passalacqua Winery, a small vintner in Healdsburg. “The Zoom tastings allow us to be creative; they allow us to have a dialogue with people, not a monologue.”
Outdoor tastings, of course, require different skills. For the most part, they are hands-off propositions designed to socially distance customers and staff. There are extensive rules about wearing masks and making advance reservations because capacity is limited. Most wineries host tastings only Thursdays through Mondays or in some cases on weekends.
Cakebread Cellars is among those that won’t rush to move its tastings indoors when state safety guidelines ease. “Safety is important — for our guests and our employees,” said Jocelyn Hoar, a Cakebread vice president. “But we’re very fortunate because we have wonderful weather here. People prefer being outdoors.”
Few seem to miss buddying up to servers and other customers in this era of disconnection. In fact, two of Cakebread’s wine club members found a plus in the safety regulations. John and Irene Brunow love the outdoor tasting experience.
“Even with all the safety precautions required because of the pandemic, we felt welcome, safe and appreciated,” said Irene. “Since the number of guests at any one time was limited, we got to spend more one-on-one time with our wine club hosts.”
Of course, the pandemic wasn’t the only cataclysm to befall the region’s winemakers during the last year. Massive wildfires, heavy smoke and 100-degree-plus summer days also took a toll.
The LNU Lightning Complex wildfire, one of the biggest in state history, ignited in August, burning 368,000 acres. In late September, the Glass fire broke out, destroying another 67,000 acres, along with hundreds of homes in Napa and Sonoma counties. Dozens of wineries were damaged. Then the pandemic caused more shutdowns in December and January.