It’s Spring All Over Again for Michigan Wineries

Indoor service comes to a halt with new state COVID order

Guests share wine in an igloo at Fenn Valley Vineyards. Photo courtesy of Fenn Valley Vineyards

A collective sigh of relief arose from Michigan’s wine industry when the state lifted a pandemic shelter-in-place order in early June that had shuttered them for all but curbside and online sales — just in time for summer business to pick up.

They’ve been operating at reduced capacity since, and with stringent safety measures including mask-wearing, revised tasting protocols, enhanced sanitizing, expanded outdoor seating areas and other preventive steps.

With the onset of cold weather, many were in the process of rolling out still another set of operating practices to compensate for the lack of outdoor serving areas when news came Nov. 15 that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was issuing a new three-week “Pause to Save Lives.” As of today, Nov. 18, wineries are limited to retail, curbside and online sales. Only entities with some sort of acceptable outdoor option can serve wines for tasting and by the glass — and only in those outdoor areas.

“We’re going to still be able to open (for retail sales),” says Dave Miller, president of the nonprofit Michigan Wine Collaborative and owner/winemaker at White Pine Winery in St. Joseph. “We can ship, we can deliver curbside — however people want to do it.

“Before (during the spring shelter-in-place order), everything was locked down and nobody knew what was happening. We have a much better sense of what’s going on now.”

Nate Love, an attorney with Lansing-based Kelley Cawthorne working on behalf of the Michigan Wine Producers Association, reported that new guidance from the state indicates that wineries can use tents for outdoor service as long as they only have one side wall.

“Anything more than one side and the tent will be considered an ‘indoor space,'” he said via email. Tables should also be at least six feet apart in tents and adhere to capacity requirements outlined in the order.

Some wineries had already erected igloo-type structures to accommodate outdoor service. The state guidance says those are permitted providing that they are only utilized by no more than six members of a single household at one time and that “employees enter fleetingly or not at all.” At Fenn Valley Vineyards, which has erected igloos, staff have been allowing one hour between bookings to ensure the structures have been sanitized and are safe for the next group, among other measures.

Many wineries do not have the benefit of outdoor facilities, though, and are planning accordingly.

Miller operates a tasting room in downtown St. Joseph with no outdoor capacity.

“We are not going to be able to do tastings, which has been a big part of our sales this year, or wines by the glass, but we can stay open for retail,” he says. “MDHHS says you should only have 30 percent capacity for retail, so we’re going to have to reduce our capacity from the 50 percent we had going.”

Guests sample wine outdoors at Michigan Wine Company. Photo courtesy of Michigan Wine Company

Joe Krajkiewcz, winemaker at Michigan Wine Company in Fennville, says the weather will be a factor in determining how the winery proceeds.

“We’re really going to be watching the weather to see if it’s nice enough for us to try and stay open outdoors,” he says. “I’m expecting that if the weather gets really poor, we will just throw in the towel and close.

“We will explore some online sales promotions to help reach our customers staying home to be safe.”

With only outdoor facilities, Youngblood Vineyard in Macomb County had already closed for the season when the new order came along. However, co-owner Jessica Youngblood says the winery plans multiple events in its offseason — ticketed functions like barrel tastings, special dinners and wreath-making classes, along with private parties — that will have to be postponed or canceled, depending on if the state order goes beyond Dec. 8.

No stress there.

“It’s hard enough worrying about all the unknowns of farming — are the grapes going to get frost damage, insect damage, drought? You always have that you’re stressing about and, on top of that, worrying about the safety of everybody and your employees and customers,” she says. “But I think we’re all learning to adapt pretty well.”

Sandy Sedine, owner/winemaker at Heavenly Vineyards in Morley, says her winery is reverting to retail sales only as it did during the spring shutdown.

“We were very fortunate in that our customers still came and stocked up on wine during that time,” she says. “With the holidays approaching, I think we will still have some great traffic and sales.”

Signs spell out Black Star Farms’ operating procedures for the three-week pause in indoor service. Photo courtesy of Black Star Farms

Lee Lutes, winemaker at Leelanau Peninsula-based Black Star Farms and treasurer of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, says Black Star is moving to curbside service that includes a discount on regular prices and online sales only with free shipping anywhere in the U.S.

“We started free shipping in the spring when we first closed down, but because of demand for it, we kept it going in the summer,” Lutes says. “Now I think the shipping will again become something of interest to more people.”

Lutes says wineries are in a better place than restaurants when it comes to being affected by pandemic shutdowns.

“Our brothers and sisters in the restaurant business and other hospitality businesses are all struggling,” he says. “Just the fact we’re able to keep the majority of our staff employed, doing other tasks that are going to complement the programs we can offer — we’re grateful for that.”

Black Star Retail Sales Manager Chris Lopez says they talked about trying to continue with outdoor service, “but came to the conclusion that having service in a covered area with sides, heat and multiple guests does not really constitute outdoor service and does not protect our guests or staff.”

And Lutes doesn’t see asking people to sip wine outside bundled up in ski wear, though he notes, “I’m sure some people will be willing to do it.”

Winery representatives are just hopeful that the closure will lift come Dec. 8.

“We’re hoping in three weeks we can go back to doing tastings,” Miller says. “We’ve been limiting capacity and having everybody wear masks and sanitizing between customers to reduce risk, and so far, nobody has contracted COVID (in relation to White Pine).”

Lutes reported similar success with no known exposures among staff or customers at Black Star.

“I feel like what we’re doing is working,” Miller says. “But we’ve all got to work together to go the extra mile here and get this thing under control.”

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