Michigan Wineries Plan for Modified Business Models

Across the state, vintners are navigating new ways to operate

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Winery owners and managers around the state have been keeping a watchful eye on Up North as tasting rooms in parts of northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula have begun reopening. While there remains a lot of uncertainty about which COVID-19-related safety procedures and precautions will work well, one thing is clear: This season will be anything but ordinary.

Tasting Room Change-Up
For starters, the tasting process itself will look different as wineries try to cut down on close interaction between staff and guests. Some wineries, for example, will serve flights to eliminate the need for tasting room associates to approach customers repeatedly to refill their glasses.

White Pine Winery is considering how to revise its tasting format. (Photo courtesy of White Pine Winery)

“Every time you step up to make that pour, we’re breaking the 6-foot barrier, and so we can’t do that,” says Dave Miller, owner of White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, who is considering how to revise the tasting format. “We need to do disposable glasses, and we need to get it down to four samples, not six. So, we would just prepare a flight and then set it on the counter and step back and let the customer take it and then try to maintain that spacing.”

At Leelanau Cellars, staff wear masks and ask guests to as well. (Photo courtesy of Leelanau Cellars)

Leelanau Wine Cellars in Omena, which will be reopening soon, is switching to disposable, biodegradable cups, says President Bob Jacobson. Meanwhile, customers at Chateau Grand Traverse in Traverse City, which has reopened, are sipping wine out of a single logoed glass that they will then be able to take home.

“It’s just the idea that then we don’t have to wash it, people are not getting a glass that somebody else has used, and they can take it with them and do with it as they wish,” says Eddie O’Keefe, Chateau Grand Traverse president.

Ciccone Vineyard and Winery reopened Memorial Day weekend. (Photo courtesy of Ciccone Vineyard and Winery)

Other tasting rooms, such as Ciccone Vineyard and Winery in Leelanau County, which reopened this past Friday, are solely offering bottle sales and serving wine by the glass — forgoing tastings entirely, at least for the time being. Ciccone and others, including Bel Lago in Cedar, are also focusing on making the most of their ample outdoor space to accommodate guests.

“We have a really nice outdoor space, and so one of the things that we’ve talked about is focusing as much as possible on our outdoor seating because we can expand that easily and keep family groups together, of course, but keep groups that are not together separated nicely,” says Charlie Edson, winemaker at Bel Lago, which will likely open around July 1. “And so we think that will help keep people safe as well.”

Face masks will be another tasting room staple — for staff and, at least in some cases, customers.

Chateau Grand Traverse is requiring guests to wear masks when they come into its wine store. (Photo courtesy of Chateau Grand Traverse)

“We are going to require our guests to wear masks when they come into the wine store,” O’Keefe says. “When they’re tasting wine, they can remove the mask.”

Another big change this season will be the absence of large tour groups and oversized bachelorette parties, previously staples of the wine industry’s tourism business.

“We are not going to be offering winery tours, which we have for 45 years, and we’re not really allowing buses or any sort of large groups,” O’Keefe says.

Expect a New Look
Much like grocery stores and similar establishments these days, tasting rooms themselves will look different. Wineries are putting up shields around registers and tasting bars, providing hand sanitizer for guests and putting markers on the floor to help maintain social distancing.

At Chateau Grand Traverse, a staff member monitors traffic flow at separate in-and-out doors divided by a stanchion, and floor decals and stickers encourage social distancing and help regulate movement.

“We have directional arrows so that when we cash out, people are not crossing paths — they can get to the door without crossing paths,” O’Keefe says. “It’s encouraging stationary behavior.”

Still, while they’ve brainstormed detailed safety procedures and modified their business practices, some vintners have bemoaned a lack of direction from state government. That’s why the Michigan Wine Collaborative in mid-May circulated tasting room reopening protocols from the Wine Institute as talking points for wineries awaiting more specific parameters from Lansing. The protocols cover education and training, employee wellness screenings, distancing and occupancy, sanitization and operations.

“We put these out for the Collaborative just because we had a lot of our constituents saying, ‘What is going on? Is anybody doing anything?’” says Miller, who is also president of the Collaborative. “These are just for talking points and to share with your staff. Of course, the rules for Michigan are going to come from the MLCC (Michigan Liquor Control Commission) and/or the governor’s office, and those are going to override anything else, but at least you can start a conversation with your employees.”

Screening staff members’ health and potential COVID-19 exposure through survey questions and temperature readings has been another new standard of Michigan wine industry practice, and some wineries are getting techy with the process. The Michigan Wine Producers Association has partnered with Arkansas-based software company Movista to start using a mobile application screening tool — part of Movista’s Project Health initiative — at participating establishments this week, replacing physical surveys.

“The health screening questions may be adapted to fit local and state directives,” said Mike Edwards, Movista’s senior director of customer success, in a written response to Michigan Wine Country. “The questions (which cover symptoms, travel and exposure to people who have tested positive for COVID-19) are based on CDC, federal and state initiatives, and may be changed on the fly as new information or policies are created.”

In the end, the goal of these and other COVID-19-related initiatives is the same at every Michigan winery: keep customers and staff safe.

Signs provide information on procedures at Chateau Grand Traverse. (Photo courtesy of Chateau Grand Traverse)

“Just because we open up doesn’t mean the pandemic goes away,” Edson says, “and so we’re … really dedicated to keeping our customers safe and creating an environment that will be safe and enjoyable.”

While there is a lot of overlap between the safety procedures at different wineries right now, not every tasting room will have the same requirements or operate in the same way upon opening, so guests should call ahead before visiting.

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