The Wineries Are Alright

Michigan vintners shift gears to weather the pandemic

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Celebration grams at Pink Barrel Cellars. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Ginsberg/Pink Barrel Cellars)

Michigan Wine Month looks a bit different this year.

Vintners are limited to shipping their wines or offering takeout until they can reopen their tasting rooms, precluding some of the normal on-site activities they might offer during the celebratory month of May. Meanwhile, they’re otherwise filling their time renovating facilities and updating websites, giving back to their communities and promoting their wineries in creative ways.

Stephanie Ginsberg, who oversees various operations for her family’s Pink Barrel Cellars tasting room in Grand Rapids, took some time to assess her business strategy when the COVID-19 situation escalated.

“We took a week when this all started,” she says. “We closed completely, and we took a minute to brainstorm.

“I said, ‘Well, if we can at least work to break even, we might as well do that.’”

She has since started personally delivering celebration grams, complete with a dessert, a beverage and balloons, to boost sales and help greater Grand Rapids community members mark special occasions while they’re sheltering at home. At this point, she’s “been all over town.”

“It’s been rewarding for us in the respect that we’re staying busy and it’s making people smile,” she says.

Making the Most of a Tough Situation

Other optimistic vintners see a closed tasting room as an opportunity to revamp their spaces. Becky Wrubel, co-owner of Green Barn Winery in Smith’s Creek, recently completed an overdue project when she knocked out a wall and added to the bar.

“We needed the room before all this,” she says. “It’s actually been an advantage to us to be able to knock it out and take our time to redo it. We’re trying to take advantage of the situation.”

(Courtesy of Pink Barrel Cellars)

The pandemic has also spurred Ginsberg to get a shipping license and freshen up Pink Barrel Cellars’ online presence.

“I’ve been talking about redoing our website for a long time and getting online shopping on there, and I procrastinated, and this forced me to do it,” she says. “It’s just pushed us to do something that we’ve talked about doing.”

Revamps haven’t been limited to individual wineries. Entire wine trails are strategizing ways to manage COVID-19 fallout.

In mid-March, the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail canceled its annual summer festival. While the cancellation is both disappointing and economically injurious, wine trail Executive Director Kathy Sturm sees an up side.

“This would have been our 15th year for this festival, which is a shame because we’re not able to present it,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s giving us the opportunity to look to the future — to the next 15 years or more — and evaluate the program and the event. And we decided that this is a good time to make those changes and make the experience that much better when we do come back up.”

During this difficult time, the trail is also helping its wineries stay afloat by postponing membership dues for the second half of the year and hosting virtual tastings to showcase its members throughout Michigan Wine Month.

Charitable efforts have been another focus of late. In a collaboration with St. Julian, Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail has been buying cases of wine from each member winery to distribute to front-line workers during the pandemic. St Julian will also be “donating several cases of their hand sanitizer,” Sturm says.

“They’re all small businesses, and they’re not thinking of just themselves,” she says. “They want to be able to help the community and do so in a way that they know how, which is wine.”

A ‘New Normal’

While they think of others, Michigan winemakers face a lot of uncertainty in their own tasting rooms this May: from how they might have to modify their pricing models to how they’ll ensure guests and staff stay safe when they eventually reopen.

In the Upper Peninsula, End of the Road Winery co-owner Jim Barker only started feeling the fallout from the closures this past week when he couldn’t open his seasonal tasting room May 1 as planned. Now, he’s anticipating “a slow summer.”

“I hope that things pick up and people get back and into the normal routine and we can get back to normal life,” he says. “And I know normal life’s about to change forever. This is the new normal, I think.”

Across the board, winery workers are eager to welcome guests back to their tasting rooms and resume holding events, which remain up in the air at this point. Ginsberg is looking forward to hosting more farm-to-table dinners this summer and sees her expansive outdoor space as a social distancing asset.

Kristi Nichols Shopbell of 3 North Vines prepares a batch of sangria. (Photo by Kristi Nichols Shopbell)

“We’re behind. We wanted to start in May, but maybe by June we’ll be able to do it,” she says.

Given all the uncertainty — of the timeline, of potential regulations, etc. — it can be hard to stay positive. But Michigan winemakers are a tough bunch.

“(The winery is) definitely something we put blood, sweat and tears into,” says Kristi Nichols Shopbell, owner of 3 North Vines in Croswell, “so we won’t be giving it up any time soon.”

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