Mary Ann Lippe of Boyne Valley Vineyards recalls one moment among many this past weekend that brought home the significance of being able to reopen operations — even if on a limited basis.
“I had one couple on Friday, sitting underneath the tree, just the two of them,” says Lippe, who manages the tasting room at the Petoskey winery. “It’s just such a pretty spot.
“I asked if I could take their picture … (and learned) this was the first time she had stepped out of their house. She had a perma-grin — and so did I, actually.”
Scramble to Open
When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an order May 18 that meant winery tasting rooms in the Upper Peninsula and parts of northern Lower Michigan were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity May 22, it caught many who had expected to have to stay closed for a while yet off guard. Some wineries in the areas included in the order elected not to open then, wanting to take more time to get it right or assuage staff safety concerns. Some still have not opened.
Those that did report overall positive experiences, with some mentioning a few issues that they’ll continue to address.
For Lippe, having plenty of outdoor space, great weather and a garage door that could be opened in the tasting room proved a perfect combination for enabling the social distancing required. The staff installed sanitizing stations at the entrance, with sanitizing sprays at each table.
“We didn’t allow any tastings,” Lippe says. “Instead, people could come up and get a glass of wine, go outside and enjoy it and not be around the bar with other people.”
The winery served its limited food menu, but on disposables. Wine was poured into real glasses, though, because Boyne Valley has a commercial dishwasher that sanitizes in 90 seconds.
“My customers were just so thankful to be out,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard, ‘It’s the first thing I’ve done that’s normal.’ I was pleased.”
Chateau Grand Traverse Marketing Coordinator Megan Molloy says most guests were happy to follow the guidelines the winery implemented, which included serving groups of four or fewer only. While turnout was lower than it would normally be on Memorial Day weekend, she says there was consistent turnover at the tasting bar and just the right amount of activity on the patio, with “no crazy wait times.”
“We didn’t turn anyone away,” she says. “If anything, we had waiting areas outside of the tasting room with stanchions, and people waited 10 or 15 minutes to be let into the tasting room or seated on the patio outside.”
The price remained $5 for five tastes, but each guest received a commemorative stemmed glass to take home with them. On the patio, wines were priced by the glass with a stemless glass to keep. Including the glasses reduced “the exchange between customer and staff,” Molloy says.
At Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery, winemaker Josh Morgan says business was steady and similar to last year’s levels for the weekend. The tasting room interior was limited to bottle purchases and bathroom use only, with just six people allowed inside at a time — masks required.
Food and wine service was offered on 3,200 square feet of patio spread over three decks. A hostess took customers to their table, and the winery utilized a QR code for each party to make for a contact-free menu experience.
“We rolled out a new three-sample tasting wine flight for individuals to complement the five-sample tasting flight we already had,” Morgan says. “We wanted to create an experience that was relaxed and allowed the consumer to enjoy being outdoors and the view of the rolling countryside.”
Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula required reservations, which President and CEO Marie-Chantal Dalese says set the tone for maintaining capacity and preparing guests for what to expect.
“Ninety-nine percent of customers were respectful of our desire to keep them and staff safe by wearing a mask indoors, minding the 6-foot markings and keeping capacity at 50 percent,” Dalese says, noting that business on Saturday ran at half of what a normal Memorial Day weekend would bring.
Chateau Chantal wasn’t using cash; instead, customers could open an account tied to a charge card to make purchases.
Going forward, Dalese says, rainy days will be an issue.
“Our east and west patios are very expansive and can accommodate guests, but when it’s raining, our indoor 50 percent capacity is a drawback to meeting demand,” she says.
Not Open Yet
In the Upper Peninsula, winemaker and owner John Lucas didn’t open Yooper Winery tasting rooms, and he’s not sure when he will. For now, he continues to sell his wines through Upper Peninsula Inspired in Munising and Mackinac Island Winery in Mackinaw City, online and wholesale.
He says he’s waiting until July and August to see how things are going. He does the bulk of his business between July and October, with the tasting rooms closed in the offseason.
“I would imagine this season is going to be a bit soft for sales,” he says, suggesting that visitors check his website to get updates and see where Yooper wines are available in the meantime.
Peninsula Cellars on the Old Mission Peninsula also elected not to open its tasting room yet, offering curbside sales instead. The winery was in the process of construction inside, thinking that the state wouldn’t be allowing them to open until June or even July. Also, Director of Operations Caitlin Hammond says there is some staff apprehension about reopening too fast. Many employees are retirees or people who work other 9-5 jobs during the week.
“We wanted to be sure everyone felt safe and comfortable with the flow we would be able to do,” Hammond says. “But we have plenty of acreage and vineyard to spread people out.
“We just wanted to be able to give everybody the time.”
Normally, the Bayshore Marathon would have been going on this past weekend, which would have closed the road and slowed business anyway. And Peninsula Cellars has been doing a strong online business, with orders from 38 states.
“Our shipping has skyrocketed,” Hammond says.
She admits to being surprised at the reactions of some people who drove in expecting to do tastings and finding curbside available only.
“We had, I would say, a healthy 70 percent of people being agitated and annoyed we weren’t open, like we were mandated … to be open,” she says. “A healthy number of people were pretty understanding, and a lot of people just drove through.”
Peninsula Cellars is hoping to open in early to mid-June with outdoor service.
“We were very grateful for everybody’s willingness and excitement to come up here,” Hammond says. “We just needed some more time.”
About the Masks
Winery staff members are wearing masks, and most wineries require that guests also don them in public areas on the property and when not in the actual act of tasting or drinking a glass of wine. Chateau Grand Traverse reported that customers were cooperative.
That was not the case everywhere, however.
“More people than I expected (gave) kind of the eye roll: ‘My God, another one with the masks,’” Hammond says. “We were surprised at that response.”
In the Upper Peninsula, Susan Anthony at Northern Sun Winery also experienced mask blowback. The winery was open for outdoor wine tastings, and Anthony had spaced tables and chairs apart so guests wouldn’t sit too close to each other.
“We were busy,” she says. “We sold almost 40 percent more this four-day period than the last (year).”
Anthony was working alone, using disposable menus and a new contactless point-of-sale system. She had masks available with signs posted that wearing one was required to enter the tasting room to use the restroom or shop.
“Most people didn’t want to wear a mask inside the tasting room,” says Anthony, a retired nurse. “So I have a new policy that you can’t enter the tasting room without a mask on. Guests that do not comply will be asked to leave.
“I wasn’t that strict before because I thought people would be more respectful.”
As a “customer is always right” kind of business owner, she says taking such a hard line isn’t her usual style.
“I don’t know if it’s the nurse in me, or my 93-year-old dad is living with us now,” she says. “I would tell people about this and say that I need to keep him safe; this isn’t about you.
“This is about the community.”