Geoff Frey was taken by surprise Monday, May 18, when he heard Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had lifted the order barring bars and restaurants (and by extension, winery tasting rooms) from opening to indoor service in parts of northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, effective Friday, May 22.
“I really thought she was going to hold out until mid to late June,” says Frey, who owns Crooked Vine Vineyard and Winery in Alanson and is secretary of the Petoskey Wine Region with its 14 member wineries. “We’re all pleasantly surprised.”
Surprised — and now what? That seemed to be the reaction as some of the state’s wineries scramble to get ready to open earlier than they’d expected.
Whitmer’s order identifies the state by regions. It applies to operations in Region 6, which includes Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Crawford, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Presque Isle and Emmet counties, and in Region 8 covering Gogebic, Ontonagon, Houghton, Keweenaw, Iron, Baraga, Dickinson, Marquette, Menominee, Delta, Alger, Schoolcraft, Luce, Mackinac and Chippewa counties.
Lee Lutes, head winemaker and managing member at the Winery at Black Star Farms in Leelanau County and treasurer of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, says he had heard there might be some good news for northern Michigan wineries in the governor’s announcements Monday. He says there was initially some question because the order didn’t single out winery tasting rooms, but neither did the original one that shut them down, when tasting rooms were by extension lumped in with the directive as it applied to restaurants and bars.
“Obviously, it’s great,” Lutes says. “I think everybody’s a little nervous and a little anxious, which is normal. It’s a new time; it’s a new era. We all have to get used to these new rules of engagement.”
Those rules include operating at no more than 50 percent of normal capacity, which several vintners, including Lutes, say was better than they’d expected.
“I thought it was going to be 25 percent,” Frey says.
Winery tasting rooms must also implement other distancing and safety measures required by the governor’s order.
“Our people will be wearing masks, and we’ll be asking patrons that come into our tasting room space to be wearing masks,” Lutes says. “We’ll have shields up at all of our registers.
“We won’t be having your standard stand at the bar and engage with a tasting room associate as you would prior to this. What we’ll probably be doing most of is encouraging people to sit down at a table or a stool at the bar and maintain that distance.”
Lutes adds that customers might be asked to choose from a flight of dry whites, or dry reds, or sweet whites or sweet reds, for example, instead of interacting with the staff and selecting what they’d like to taste next, as they go.
“Then we’ll pour you a flight of three of those, or choose a wine to have by the glass, so there’s not a continual back and forth,” he says.
Food like charcuterie boards and cheese assortments will also likely be prepackaged at Black Star.
Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula will reopen to the public Friday, asking guests to make a reservation to order wine by the glass or a tasting flight online before arriving.
“This will assist with our capacity regulations as well as avoid contact at time of payment,” says CEO Marie-Chantal Dalese.
Chateau Chantal will follow all CDC and state regulations for cleaning, personal protective equipment and staff training.
Frey says frequent hand-washing, hand sanitizer at the bar and signs up reminding guests to be mindful of social distancing should be expected.
And the fact that all of this happens as the weather is improving helps because wineries will be able to utilize outdoor spaces, often in picturesque settings, to help spread people out.
“We have an attached outdoor pergola, but I’ve also submitted a request to Michigan Liquor Control to expand our area, because we have a large barn we normally do weddings in,” says Janell Preseau at Ciccone Vineyard in Leelanau County. “Most of our brides from the early part of the season have moved to next year, so I submitted to expand in that area.
“It has great potential; there’s a bar, a huge outdoor pergola attached to it.”
Meanwhile, Ciccone will be open this weekend to serve wine by the glass and for bottle sales, but the winery will probably hold off on doing tastings for a bit yet.
“My concern right now is that my staff feels comfortable and doing this where we can control it with a little less constant contact interface with our guests,” Preseau says. “So we’ll evaluate it after the weekend and gradually ease into the tastings.”
Crooked Vine also has a large, sheltered wraparound porch and a pergola, along with a portable bar that are likely to come into service as the winery navigates the new normal.
And groups would do well to call ahead to see what will be acceptable. The governor’s order prohibits public gatherings of more than 10 people, and some guidelines from the Wine Institute that many wineries are using as guidance recommend limiting parties coming together to no more than six.
“I think both groups (customers and staff) will need to return with patience in mind,” Dalese says. “We are all at different points with our comfort levels, and both groups need to be cognizant and careful with each other.”
Northern Sun Winery in the U.P.’s Bark River is also planning to reopen on Friday. According to a press release, Northern Sun will be able to accommodate just two couples or groups of two for a total of four inside the tasting room at a time. The tasting room may also be reserved for groups of up to 10. Masks will be required when not eating or drinking indoors and there will be hand sanitizer stations throughout the facility. Outdoor seating with scattered tables and chairs is also available, weather permitting.
Workers will sanitize customer contact surfaces before and after all tastings, and single-use wine menus will mean no repurposing. Northern Sun workers will also be wearing masks and observing hand-washing protocols.
Meanwhile, the winery will continue to offer its “Vino VanGo” delivery service, providing same-day delivery within 30 miles of Bark River.
Back in the Traverse City area, Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula is planning a Saturday, May 23, reopening. Its tasting room and patio will operate from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 50 percent capacity on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Marketing Director Megan Mulloy says tastings will be offered inside. The cost for five wine samples and a commemorative glass will be $5. Wines by the glass only will be available on the patio. The winery is also limiting groups to four people for now.
And Shady Lane Cellars on the Leelanau Peninsula is waiting until June 1 to open its tasting room for tasting flights and wine by the glass or bottle. In the meantime, the winery is offering penny shipping until June 15, when a $10 flat rate for shipping will be assessed; wine cub members will still be eligible for penny shipping at that point, however.
Spokeswoman Stephanie Casola says via email that when Shady Lane’s tasting room opens, “much of the experience will be table service-focused to ensure ways to maintain safe distances between all groups.”
Echoing sentiments expressed by many vintners, Shady Lane General Manager Rick DeBlasio says, “Please be patient with us as we navigate the necessary changes to ensure safety for all who visit. We so look forward to seeing you soon.”