(LA Trend) — It will definitely take more than a bottle of white to drink the pandemic away, but Temecula wineries still hope you’ll try. From reinvented mobile-only menus to pandemic-approved protocols, wineries are stepping up to provide a somewhat normal experience during this extraordinary time.
After the state-mandated shutdown in March, businesses across the country were forced to re-evaluate their operating plans to provide the safest environment for both staff and customers. The moratorium on indoor dining and alcohol service hit California’s Temecula Valley particularly hard. The region has nearly fifty wineries and is known as a travel destination for locals and out-of-towners. And, if this weekend’s trend was any indication, Californians cannot get enough of local wines.
“Going through COVID and having to look at your business and how that works has been a challenge but we’ve been really creative and stepped up,” said Patricia O’Brien Vice President of Sales and Operations, Danza del Sol Winery and Masia de la Vinya Winery.
Vineyards and restaurants have collaborated to safely re-open. BJ Fazeli, the owner of Fazeli Cellars used his role in the Inland Empire Small Business Development Center and Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce to help connect wineries with business resources.
“This is my community and I’m very much involved,” Fazeli said.
The Inland Empire Small Business Development Center provides resources to local businesses and helps them connect with professional services like web designers, legal help, and bookkeepers.
“We found that people were struggling with the state guidelines and we had some additional funds via the CARES Act to assist,” said Paul Nolta, the Interim Director of the Inland Empire Small Business Development Center.
The Inland Empire Small Business Development Center tapped Barragan Corp International, a risk management firm, to provide safety assessments and develop site-specific plans for local businesses. Nolta says twenty-five businesses have taken advantage of this service so far.
Fazeli was one of the first wineries to use Barragan’s services. Changes to winery operations included instating a reservations system to limit capacity, moving all dining outdoors to tables spaced at least six feet apart, and creating a single-route entrance and exit plan, among other protocols.
“This is a new world,” said David Barragan, President and CEO of Barragan Corp International. “Call in advance to find out what the protocols are. Don’t show up without a mask. Have patience, at the end of the day, the business owner is trying to provide the best and most healthy environment for guests and the staff. You can still enjoy a wine tasting experience—it’s just different.”
Guests can expect menu changes, new tasting experiences, different operating hours, and more strictly-enforced time limits on tables. Although some wineries offer walk-in seating, most have pivoted to online reservations and strongly encourage guests to call in advance.
“The most popular item on our menu is the wine tasting,” Fazeli said. “It’s usually conducted at a counter where the wine educator is on one side of the counter and takes the group through six steps from the lightest wine to the roundest wine…with the outdoor-only mandate, it’s not practical to do that. We’ve come up with a flight of three two-ounce glasses, a white flight, a rose flight, a red flight…this gives you three totally different experiences of a single varietal.”
Instead of enjoying wine at the countertop bars, guests can sip and savor flights from their seats. Fazeli Cellars, which already had a full restaurant before the pandemic, was one of the first wineries to reopen with an extensive menu.
Baba Joon’s restaurant offers Mediterranean-Persian fusion foods that pair well with the cellar’s offerings like the Persian Tacos which seamlessly blend Persian flavors and California cuisine. The chicken koobideh with pickled onions and sabzi salad is drizzled with mast o musir and served inside lavash bread. Boland Rooz is the recommended pairing.
In addition to reconfiguring the tasting experience, wineries are using technology to provide guests with contact-free options and virtual events. In the earlier days of the pandemic, online sales were a driving force for many wineries. O’Brien reported a two-hundred percent increase in online orders since March.
Now that limited on-site options are available, reservations for tastings, tours, and outdoor dining are filling up fast. Groups are limited to six people or fewer and guests under twenty-one are not permitted.
“At first, when everyone wanted to stay home we did free delivery, everyone was drinking a lot of wine. Now, people want to go out. They’re changing how they interact. They’re staying longer and making more of an event out of it. Our sales have stayed the same even though we have fewer guests,” said Stephanie Staab, Marketing and Business Development Manager, at Avensole Winery.
When Avensole Winery offered a socially-distant five-course meal and tasting menu, Staab says the event sold out within twenty-four hours. The next Sunset Sips will be held on September 25th to celebrate California Wine Month.
“People are really receptive to the fact that they can dress up and go out again,” Staab said. “We’re finding new ways to keep the tradition of what we do alive but in a different format.”
Limited capacity dining provides a more intimate experience where guests can still expect personalized attention and spectacular views. Choosing a smaller venue, like Masia de al Vinya can also help quell crowd-anxiety. Masia, the sister, winery to Danza de la Sol, offers shaded and covered outdoor seating with vineyard views. Although food options are limited, the relaxed, unhurried vibe paired with a flight or two of wine does not disappoint.
Masia de la Vinya uses QR codes instead of paper menus and food is limited to picnic-style charcuterie boards by Grazing Theory. These light bites provide the perfect pairing for mid-morning or afternoon sips, especially during Temecula’s notoriously hot days.
If in-person dining is not on your agenda, there are plenty of virtual options for club and non-club members. In May, Danza offered two different sneak peeks of early release wine that were on sale for two weeks; a super Tuscan 2015 and 2016, both of which sold out quickly.
“People jumped on because they’re been home for two or three weeks already, the [virtual tastings] really took off,” O’Brien said.
In addition to mastering new technology, O’Brien says the wineries have experimented with the format of virtual events and collaborated with other small businesses to provide food and wine events.
“We’ve had to evolve and learn on the fly but it’s still been great to offer the same personable service we’ve known for,’ O’Brien said. “When people get here, they’re totally appreciative and they felt like they could relax and enjoy in an otherwise extraordinary time.”
And, according to Staab, 2020 may not completely be a wash. Despite the pandemic, recent heatwaves, and poor air quality due to forest fires, there may be something to look forward to.
“This is a really fantastic year for vineyards,” Staab said.
Jennifer Capps, Wine Director at Avensole, explained that this year’s balanced conditions were great for all the grapes on the property. Capps said that the weather was cool in the morning and warm in the afternoons during the growing season.
Avensole Winery is known for its heritage Zinfandel vines that are over fifty years old, grapes are hand-harvested overnight. Three tons of grapes were harvested in two phases to create a special French Provence style high acid dry blush and a limited-edition Zinfandel, a bold, moderate tannin red.
Here’s to raising a glass of 2020 red when the world seems more under control. In the meantime, Temecula wineries provide a welcome respite from the current reality of 2020.