After two months of closed doors, many San Luis Obispo County wineries are reopening — but wine tastings may stay virtual for now.

When the county was approved to move into Stage 2 of California’s Pandemic Roadmap on May 20, 2020, wineries able to offer food on-site could begin welcoming customers again for dining-based reservations. 

The second stage of reopening doesn’t allow wineries to open for casual, non-reservation wine tastings, as the purchase of a seated meal and a glass or bottle of wine is required for customers.

Wineries that do not or cannot offer food on-site are not allowed to reopen in Stage 2 of reopening.

“This particular guidance and movement forward does not allow for the reopening specifically of bars, brew pubs, breweries and wineries unless they have sit-down, dine-in meal service available,” county spokesperson Michelle Shoresman said at a virtual press briefing on May 20. “I know that this is not a win for everyone in the food and beverage industry, but it is a step forward.”

This step has allowed most wineries a chance at upping revenue.

Before shelter-at-home orders went into place for California, tasting rooms were often the backbone of a winery’s income. To fill the financial void from having tasting rooms closed since late March, many wineries began offering virtual tastings and fell back on online sales or wine club memberships. 

For Tobin James Cellars, a Paso Robles winery, the focus has been upgrading their e-commerce site and pushing out email campaigns during the pandemic rather than running virtual events, according to Assistant General Manager Ben Lunt.

On the other hand, the team behind Tolosa Winery in Edna Valley almost immediately began producing virtual content for the first time ever to supplement their e-commerce sales.

“Our goal was to keep our followers and customers engaged since they were unable to visit the winery,” Tolosa’s Marketing Manager Collette Van Gerwen said of their virtual tastings, yoga teachings and winery tours. “[The yoga courses] had another purpose to help take care of each other and ourselves as the climate of the pandemic escalated.” 

Upon hearing news that they would be able to open to the public again, Tolosa quickly reverted their focus back to on-premise sales and pivoted business to have a soft reopening on Memorial Day weekend from May 23 to May 25. 

The reopening came at a perfect time, Van Gerwen said, as they had only scheduled their virtual events until May 28.

“We were able to swiftly implement a new reservation system and we had already been forward-thinking in our reopening tactics,” Van Gerwen said. “When we got the green light we were able to really quickly just open.”

Since Tolosa had already been preparing the property and employees for a social distance-abiding reopening, as well as had previously acquired licensing to bring in food trucks, it was able to open in just three days after Stage 2 was announced.

Many other wineries across the Central Coast also reopened for reservations after meeting the state’s requirements of dining capability, employee face coverings, COVID-19 training, facility disinfecting and ability to keep attending parties distanced from one another.

Wineries may offer meals either made in-house or via food vendors and can continue with curbside sales, according to county spokesperson Shoresman. However, not all wineries have the legal ability to bring in catering, including Edna Valley winery Biddle Ranch.

“Our decision to hold off on reopening was truly a consequence of the guidelines in place from the state, county and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control,” Maddie Page, Biddle Ranch’s tasting room manager, said. “The only way to reopen the tasting room in Stage 2 is to offer a full dine-in experience by partnering with a bonafide meal provider. This obviously presents numerous challenges for any business not currently set up to offer meals.”

Although many wineries have a past with utilizing food vendors, like Tolosa, who used to run “Food Truck Fridays” at its tasting room, the ones who don’t were left behind in this stage.

Some local wine tasting spots like Niner Wine Estates opted to keep their tasting rooms closed the weekend following state allowance, despite having dining capabilities.

“We wanted to be careful and take this seriously, not to discredit the wineries that did open,” Andy Niner, president of Niner Wine Estates, said. “It may have been that others were more prepared than us, but we are just taking the precautions we need and that involved not opening too soon.”

In the meantime, the wine industry is fighting to get all wineries open for safe and socially-distant wine tastings, regardless of seated dining or not, according to Joel Peterson, the executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

For the wineries that have opened, virtual wine tastings are still on the horizon as typical wine tasting remains unavailable. Tolosa, for example, plans to continue virtual private tastings and has a new series of virtual events scheduled for the summer. Plus, wineries are offering virtual sales so wine can still be enjoyed at home.

Whether open or not, most San Luis Obispo wineries are consistent in their dedication to accommodate their customers and employees as best as possible.

“Our focus is on the health and safety of our team members and patrons, and on full compliance with reopening guidelines,” Page of Biddle Ranch said. “As soon as we can make the necessary modifications to our current tasting room, we’ll reopen again.”

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