Since Michigan wineries began reopening their physical locations this spring, the tasting experience has looked dramatically different from what guests knew in the past. In many cases, wine flights have replaced individual tastings, staff members stand behind shields and customers wait longer for a table as wineries limit capacity and sanitize between guests.
In short, wineries are juggling unprecedented safety regulations to keep their doors open. Here’s what guests can do on their end to make the tasting experience as enjoyable, safe and smooth as possible.
Wear a Mask
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-147 requiring the use of masks in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces, with few exceptions, makes this nonnegotiable. And it puts wineries in a uniquely difficult position: The order requires that businesses open to the public deny entry and service to would-be patrons who refuse to wear a mask.
Confronting barefaced guests to demand they put on a face covering is stressful for a tasting room associate just trying to do their job, and the last thing wineries struggling financially want to do right now is turn away a potential sale.
“I really can’t afford to ask somebody to leave,” says Tom Nixon, owner of Modern Craft Wine, who is based out of the original Au Gres tasting room.
Since reopening Northern Sun Winery’s tasting room in the Upper Peninsula’s Bark River, co-owner Susan Anthony has honed her technique for interacting with customers who don’t want to wear a mask.
“The first weekend we were open, I didn’t know how to handle it, so it was kind of tough because a lot of people weren’t recognizing it as important, and I didn’t know how to enforce it,” she says. “But I’ve kind of figured out how to enforce it, and everybody’s been fantastic about it.”
Now, she’s more confident in “laying down the law,” so to speak, reasoning with customers and even relying on humor at times.
“Sometimes, if someone is really giving me a hard time or if they’re talking about it, I’ll say, ‘Come on, we wear seatbelts, right?’” she says. “‘This is the right thing to do, and it’s OK. It’s not a lot of fun, but we’ll get over it.’”
Kristi Nichols Shopbell, owner of 3 North Vines in Croswell, urges customers to remember that wineries don’t make the rules — but they are required to follow them.
“This is not our rule,” Shopbell says. “This is the rules, and we’re going to follow the rules. … We don’t want to upset our guests, but at the same time, we want to keep people safe.”
Follow the Rules
While there is plenty of overlap, some wineries have different rules than others. It doesn’t hurt to call ahead to see what requirements an individual establishment has, and guests should also keep an eye out for signs containing instructions.
At Northern Sun Winery, Anthony asks guests to use the hand sanitizer available when they walk in and to flip the bathroom sign when they’re done using the space to indicate it needs to be cleaned. Trash is another concern.
“For outdoor wine tastings, we have a lot of customers, and they’re trying to be helpful, so they’ll bring their dirty glasses, or even if they have trash, they’ll bring the trash inside the tasting room, even though I have a station outdoors … to put the dirty glasses there and the trash,” she says. “I think they think they’re trying to be helpful to me by bringing it back in, where I want to be in control of how it’s brought in.”
Be Patient, Allow More Time
Enhanced cleaning protocols and capacity limitations mean longer wait times, so wineries ask that guests be patient.
“I think that it’s really helpful for guests to understand that wineries are predominantly a tourist attraction, and so we’re seeing so many people, most of them not local — or if they are local, they’re entertaining guests that are from out of town,” says McKenzie Gallagher, co-owner of Rove Estate in Leelanau County. “So just an understanding that we’re seeing a lot of the public, and just to be a little bit more patient. It’s kind of a clunky workflow. … It’s a lot more work to prepare, to clean, to sanitize, to really do anything.”
Last summer, Gallagher says, wine tourists might have been able to fit in four winery stops during an afternoon outing. Given the aforementioned delays, that number might not be realistic anymore. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
“Stay longer and take that time pressure off of whatever winery you’re visiting,” Gallagher says. “I think if guests visit us with the expectation that they’re going to relax and enjoy themselves … then it’s a better experience. It’s a more enhanced experience, 100 percent.”
Josh Morgan, head winemaker at Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery, also looks on the bright side.
“I think that this has created an exciting time in the industry, and it’s allowed some businesses and tasting rooms to really reinvent the experience that they’re giving customers,” he says.
Of course, many wineries continue to offer curbside pickup and shipping for customers who do not yet feel comfortable visiting a tasting room.
Keep Your Distance
The 6-foot social distancing rule isn’t just for grocery stores and waiting in lines. Guests at wineries are also expected to keep their distance from other guests and staff members.
“I don’t need to be hugged,” Anthony laughs. “They might try; I’ll just tell them that I’m a ‘no-touch,’ and I just explain that my dad is 93 and living with us and my husband’s recovering from cancer. Everybody’s been super, super nice. I’ve figured out how to handle it.”
Plenty of wineries have ample outdoor space as well, making social distancing less of an issue.
“Most of our seating is already outside, so that helps us out a lot in not having too many changes for our guests,” Shopbell says. “Our tables are spaced so that they are 6 feet apart from each other … our building’s open on three sides, and all the windows and doors are always open, so we have a very open space.”
Do Unto Others
The Michigan Wine Collaborative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the sustainability and profitability of the Michigan wine industry, is issuing a call for kindness as wineries and guests navigate a new normal.
“The Michigan Wine Collaborative is using the #staysafestayopen social media campaign to remind consumers that they can help their favorite wineries stay open and show their economic patriotism by wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and being kind,” said Vice President Gina Shay in a written statement on behalf of the Collaborative.
Individual wineries are taking a similar approach. At Modern Craft Wine, Nixon’s focus in equipping his staff to deal with customers is to “be kind.”
“Be respectful of people,” he says. “Understand their positions and ask them to be kind to you, you be kind to them, and be kind to people that are coming in around you. And respect everybody’s positions.”
At 3 North Vines, Shopbell regards guests with empathy.
“We know that everybody’s gone through a lot,” she says, “and I think we’re all dealing with this in ways, and that’s what we try to remember here with our guests is that a lot of things have happened, and we’re all a little more stressed out than normal.
“We’re trying to find a way to bring a little bit of relief to our guests safely.”