Ready, set, open.
It sounds easier than it is.
Following their northern Michigan brethren, which were allowed to reopen with some modifications to capacity and other practices May 22, many wineries across the rest of the state are getting ready to open their doors as of June 8. That’s the date that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic lift.
“We are going to be following all guidance from federal, state and local authorities,” says Brian Lesperance, vice president of operations and winemaking at Fenn Valley Vineyards, who is serving on a reopening committee in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “We have been actively engaged with various state of Michigan departments who are working extremely hard to create guidelines and best practices not just for the wine industry, but for the entire tourism ecosystem.
“Our goal is to create an environment that is safe not only for our customers, but our hardworking employees as well.”
Dave Miller, owner of White Pine Winery in St. Joseph and president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, says northern Michigan wineries have been using extra caution and making the most of outdoor spaces when possible while limiting the number of people allowed inside.
“Everyone is starting slowly to be sure they get it right as much as possible,” he says. “Everyone is rethinking their business models to incorporate more shipping and virtual tastings to stay in touch with customers.
“So far, the feedback I have heard is optimistic.”
At White Pine, Miller is following Wine Institute guidelines for reopening: employee health monitoring; enhanced sanitation and hand-washing practices; social distancing including limiting the number of people in tasting rooms and on patios; and face masks on staff and on guests upon entering. With a small tasting room that has one entry door for entering and exiting, White Pine will hold off on doing tastings to start and instead offer wine by the glass and bottles to go.
“We see tastings as being the most difficult part of reopening since we will have to use disposable sample glasses and menus and be in close proximity with guests for an extended period,” he says, noting that he hopes to resume doing tastings in late June.
While there is some apprehension among employees, including some who are older and have decided not to return to work now, Miller is confident that the winery can reopen safely.
“We, like our colleagues in the wine industry, love what we do, and we intend to continue growing grapes, making and selling wine,” he says. “We will adapt to the new normal with everyone else.”
Burgdorf’s Winery in Haslett is now taking reservations to help meet the state-imposed 50 percent capacity limit upon reopening Tuesday, June 9, says owner Deb Burgdorf. Groups will be limited to no more than six at one table. Seating will be outdoors, weather permitting, with tables at least 6 feet apart. Guests will be required to wear a face mask when placing and receiving orders and walking to their tables; staff will also be wearing masks and maintaining heightened cleaning and sanitizing protocols.
Burgdorf’s husband, Dave, is a woodworker, and he’s created wooden holders to accommodate a new four-glass wine flight the winery is rolling out to replace a sequential tasting using one glass.
“This will be a more sanitary method for our customers, since all wine pours will be into clean glasses,” Burgdorf says. “No chance of a bottle touching a glass that had been used.”
Dizzy Daisy Winery in Bad Axe has been open during the shutdown, providing curbside pickup, selling to vendors and offering $2 sample bottles for patrons to order ahead and take home to try. Now for resuming tastings, the staff has put X’s on the counter spaced 6 feet apart to keep guests distant from each other.
“Our employees wear masks and will stay 6 feet apart from customers,” says General Manager Olivia Britt.
Paw Paw-based St. Julian Winery & Distillery is planning to reopen with limited capacity at its various locations — all are different types of spaces calling for separate protocols, says vice president and winemaker Nancie Oxley.
“Initially we will limit our tasting rooms to either preselected flights or glasses of wine,” Oxley says. “During peak times, our guests will be limited to 45 minutes.”
Employees will be wearing masks, and St. Julian is requiring customers to wear them until they are seated or standing at their assigned tasting area where guests will be spaced 6 feet apart. Sanitizer will be available for everyone — St. Julian has been making its own — and tasting areas will be thoroughly cleaned after each customer.
“I think everyone will be a little uneasy, until they adjust to the new norm of wine tasting,” Oxley says. “Making all of our customers and employees feel comfortable and safe will be our top priority.”
At Youngblood Vineyard near Romeo, which just opened a few years ago, owner Jessica Youngblood says all of their seating has been outdoors anyway. What’s new is that they’ve just tripled their outdoor space, which was in the plans all along.
“I guess you could say we’ve been prepared for a global pandemic since day one,” she jokes.
Apprehension and new normals aside, wineries are ready to be hosting guests again.
“We are ready. Many wineries have vast amounts of open space, and with some ingenuity and cooperation from customers, we believe we can create a safe and fun environment,” Lesperance says. “This is important for guests as well as employees.”
Oxley is looking forward to enthusiasm from customers who will be glad to return.
“We have several regulars that have been longing for the day to come back in and enjoy our wine and company,” she says.
Being closed to visitors created a hardship for many, Miller notes.
“Many smaller businesses — including wineries — are struggling financially due to the shutdown,” he says. “They are ready to reopen their businesses and start selling wine directly from their tasting rooms again.
“We will not be returning to business as usual, but we will be open taking small steps to get a feel for our new reality.”
Youngblood can’t wait.
“We are so excited,” she says. “This has been a long time coming.”