The theme at Michigan wineries of late has been, in many ways, “adaptability.” When tasting rooms were closed and then reopened at reduced capacity, vintners hosted virtual events, began serving flights instead of traditional tastings and got creative with outdoor spaces to seat more guests.
While the onset of fall brings plenty of uncertainty to tasting rooms across the state, especially as colder weather hampers the usefulness of outdoor areas, wineries are leaning on creative solutions to keep summer momentum going.
End of the Road Winery in Germfask in the Upper Peninsula has had a surprisingly busy summer — the busiest yet, says co-owner Jim Barker. In keeping with government mandates, he’s currently maxing out his tasting room capacity at 10 people, also fitting about 28 on the patio. While the tasting room typically closes mid-October anyway, accommodating guests once temperatures drop remains a concern.
“We talk about it every day,” Barker says. “It’s like, what are we going to do?”
Barker bought some heaters for the patio this season, and he also has two 10-by-10 E-Z UP portable canopies that can each cover a group of eight.
“We’re hoping it’s going to help,” he says.
Tents and other outdoor updates have proved to be critical additions at multiple wineries. At Peninsula Cellars on the Old Mission Peninsula, a large Saddlespan tent is a fresh feature that wouldn’t have been possible in previous years.
“The township put a moratorium on some of the regulations that we’re generally subject to, including tents,” says Caitlin Hammond, director of operations. “We’ve historically not been allowed to have tents assembled for tastings or outdoor service or anything of that nature, so in light of the pandemic, the township put a moratorium on any enforcement for tents.”
Peninsula Cellars also added a hand-washing station outside the front door so guests could wash their hands with soap and water before entering the building. Repurposing the fire lane out front, with permission from the fire chief, was another pandemic-specific innovation.
“We were able to expand our table and chair seating onto the fire lane temporarily,” Hammond says. “We were still able to socially distance tables outside close to the building so they were accessible for anybody who couldn’t make the walk down to the tent or wouldn’t be comfortable on uneven ground.”
Left Foot Charley in Traverse City also recently opened new outdoor seating by its barrel room, a facility behind the main building.
“It’s the old root cellar of the state hospital, and there’s where we keep all of our barrels,” says Meridith Lauzon, operations manager. “Just outside of that, we added fencing and tables for up to 32 people.”
Left Foot Charley, which also has firepits and a tasting room patio that seats about 36, additionally acquired three 10-by-10 tents, Lauzon says, to provide shade and protection from rain.
Creative reconfigurations haven’t been limited to outdoor spaces, of course. At Dablon Vineyards in Baroda, both the layout of the tasting room and the tasting process itself have been altered.
“We used to have these big leather couches,” says owner Bill Schopf. “They were not conducive for social distancing, number one, and number two, we couldn’t find anything to clean the leather with. … We’re sanitizing with isopropyl alcohol after every use of every table and chair, both indoors and outdoors, and so we couldn’t do that with those leather couches.”
In addition to removing the couches, Dablon now strictly requires reservations for tastings, and no more than 10 guests are allowed inside at a time. Tastings are also set up in one-hour blocks: 45 minutes for guests to sip their wine, followed by 15 minutes for staff to clean.
“The good news is we have a very large patio and we have an outdoor service bar, so people don’t even have to go indoors if they want to have wine by the glass or wine by the bottle, which most people do,” Schopf says.
Time for Plan B
As wineries prepare for the fall, virtual events — which were particularly popular during the spring shutdown — may prove to be an especially helpful consumer engagement tool yet again.
“We have done online tastings and events,” says Chris Southern, winemaker and chief at Detroit Vineyards. “I think that’s a program that we need to continue to build, because who’s to say if we stay open for the rest of the year? A lot of people are still trepidatious about coming out.
“So just in terms of meeting people where they are, I think that there’s a lot of benefit to going online when we can.”
This summer, though, plenty of wineries have been getting steady in-person traffic, even if numbers have been down from previous years. Work-from-home flexibility has made it easier for people to travel, Hammond says, noting that a lot of Peninsula Cellars’ visitors have come from drivable distances — elsewhere in Michigan or neighboring states. Schopf, meanwhile, thinks people who would otherwise be vacationing abroad are perhaps spending more time at their second homes in the area, bumping up weekday numbers.
Still, no one’s quite sure what to expect this fall as the pandemic continues to rage and fresh orders keep coming from Lansing.
“If I’m being honest,” Southern says, “I feel like I wake up every morning and pick up my phone and say, ‘What did Gretch (Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) say?’ It’s very difficult to plan anything when the rules change constantly.”
Because of that uncertainty, flexibility will continue to be vital to wineries’ success.
“Our biggest lesson, I think, has been always (to) have (a) plan B, C, D, E,” Lauzon says. “I think … what has helped us the most is we haven’t just waited for state mandates to come to us.
“We have lots of different options that we’ve already thought out.”