Rising to the Challenge

Wineries continue to shift gears, adjust during pandemic times

(Photo courtesy of Northern Sun Winery)

Enjoying a glass of wine or two at a tasting room is a treat that many Michiganders had become accustomed to before COVID-19 came along.

Since then, wineries have had to adjust their tastings and other activities in myriad ways with varying results. But one thing has remained constant: One way or another, Michigan wine fans won’t be deterred.

In fact, Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Orchard and Cider Mill in Charlotte, says there was an uptick in individual visitors in 2020. That translated to no decrease in revenue — all the more remarkable at a time when patronage from group tours went dry because of social distancing guidelines.

“People are still looking for experiences,” Tennes says, noting that what’s changed is that “they don’t want a crowded tasting room.”

Dave Miller is president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative and owner of White Pine Winery and Vineyards. (Courtesy photo)

Dave Miller, president of the Michigan Wine Collaborative and owner of White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, says White Pine’s revenue was down significantly in 2020 because the winery relies primarily on direct-to-consumer sales. At the same time, however, the winery also acquired a license to ship to customers in Illinois and Indiana.

“Basically what we’ve tried to do is just cut costs where we can, push back bottling and buying labels, things like that,” Miller says, adding that they have tried to take advantage of state, federal and private aid opportunities while also sharing that information with other Michigan wineries. Through his work with the MWC, Miller has seen firsthand how the impact of COVID on Michigan wineries varied.

“What I heard from some of the larger wineries is their sales actually increased because people were buying more wine from grocery stores while they were staying at home and whatnot,” he says. “Since (White Pine Winery is) not out in distribution, we did not have that kind of impact.”

He adds that he hasn’t heard of any wineries going out of business as a result of the pandemic’s effect on business.

“It’s a mixed bag, but my sense is that everybody is getting through it one way or another,” he says.

Black Star Farms south of Suttons Bay saw an increase in shipping in 2020. (Courtesy photo)

Lee Lutes, winemaker at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, says Black Star’s shipping increased quite a bit in 2020. At the same time, COVID altered how the staff thought about Black Star’s overall business model.

“In a region like ours, the tourism traffic that we get normally is almost overwhelming,” he says. “It can be thousands of people a day in the depths of the season, and so what this whole thing has done is, it’s forced us to try and get the word out utilizing different channels of communication, different methods of actually getting wine to people, over what has been traditional for us.

While the business was growing between 10 to 15 percent a year previously, it’s plateaued some.

“But even with that, with the whole COVID thing, we didn’t make as much wine last year; we kind of downsized our production just a little bit, we cut some employees that we might’ve otherwise held onto over the winter. There are just so many unknowns in terms of what things are going to look like in another three months, six months, nine months that we’re being much more cautious.”

This cautiousness has meant, for example, buying fewer barrels and repairing rather than replacing or upgrading equipment. Lutes notes that the pandemic has challenged the long-held notion that the tourists will always be there and business will always grow, though he remains upbeat about the long term.

“I feel like we have to be optimistic,” he says. “I’m one of these people that feels if we don’t have hope, what do we have?”

As for consumers, Miller recommends that they contact wineries individually to find out about hours and operating procedures in the coming months.

“Go out and explore, call places, we certainly welcome the business and welcome the traffic, and all the wineries that I know of are doing everything they can to make sure that the environment is safe and to protect customers and their staff as much as possible,” he says. “Come and visit and we’ll help you have a great time and do so safely.”

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