As warnings and fears about Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) ramp up, schools have been ordered to close and increasing numbers of businesses are sending employees to work at home, Michigan wineries are also assessing how to respond.
Some, like Yooper Winery in Cooks and Menominee in the Upper Peninsula, aren’t even open at this time of year. But winemaker and owner John Lucas says he is feeling the pinch in sales of his wines in stores.
“We’ve noticed the stores have stopped purchasing our wines as much,” says Lucas, who wholesales his wine in Michigan and nearby Wisconsin. “They’re keeping lower volumes. I think they’re bracing for what is yet to come.”
So are many of the wineries with tasting rooms that are open year-round. Lee Lutes, director of winery operations at Leelanau County-based Black Star Farms and treasurer of the Michigan Wine Collaborative (MWC) industry group, says Black Star is expecting to take a bit of an economic hit.
“How severe it will be, I think, will depend on how severe this gets,” he says. “It’s a little early yet with everything that’s come down this week … to see how the public is going to respond.
“But we are by no means in full panic mode. Let me just repeat that. We are not in full panic mode.”
Lutes says it’s still too soon to say if Black Star’s wholesale business is being affected.
“This really just ramped up this week,” he says, “so I think an awful lot of people are just getting their heads around how it’s going to affect their business directly.”
As for the tasting room, Lutes says midwinter and early spring can be slow times anyway.
“Because it’s not a really busy time of year, most of the wine businesses are choosing to stay open — tasting rooms are staying open,” he says.
Clean, Clean, Clean
That’s not to say it’s business as usual, as sanitation procedures are being ramped up at Black Star and elsewhere.
“We’re responding with the vigilance the CDC is recommending,” Lutes says. “We’re all putting out notices of more extensive cleaning — maybe an extra shift or two shifts per day.
“We’re all being more vigilant about encouraging staff to wash their hands an extra time. We’re definitely making sure if people aren’t feeling well, they need to stay home.”
At Mackinaw Trail Winery & Brewery in Petoskey, co-owner Laurie Stabile says the staff is also taking extra precautions, including spraying a Clorox-based air freshener and using an antibacterial product to clean tables, the bar and door handles.
At this point, a St. Patrick’s Day party scheduled for March 14 was still a go.
“We’ve had customers all day,” she said on Friday, March 13. “One from Alpena said, ‘You know, we can’t stop our lives.’ And I can’t shut my business down, because I have bills to pay.”
Brian Lesperance, vice president at Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville and a member of the MWC executive committee, also said traffic was continuing to be at normal levels in the tasting room this week.
“You might not notice much of a difference, except for we have an abundance of hand sanitizer,” he says. “And what you don’t see behind the scenes is we’ve dramatically increased the sanitation and cleaning we’re doing.”
Based on emails he’s receiving and posts he sees on social media, other wineries are taking a similar approach.
“Luckily, wineries specialize in cleaning — making wine is all about cleaning — so we have a lot of access to high-quality good-for-the-environment cleaning materials,” he says. “We’re using the things we usually use to protect the wine to protect the customers.”
Fenn Valley has told employees who aren’t comfortable working with the public right now that they can stay home without marring their attendance record. And should any worker get sick, the company will cover their pay without requiring them to use regular paid time off.
A wine dinner for about 50 coming up in a week is still on, though Fenn Valley is stressing that it will do full refunds when bookings are canceled due to illness.
“We have not talked about closing,” Lesperance says. “I think at this point, that’s probably not going to be necessary because of our location in a rural community in a slow season with staff that wants to work and has the ability to work.
“But we’re going to work through it just like every industry, and customer safety and the safety of our staff are at the forefront.”
Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula has modified its procedures when it comes to groups, effective March 13. Groups larger than 12 aren’t going to be accepted until further notice to help maintain a threshold of no more than 50-100 visitors at a time. The winery is also suspending winery and wine cellar tours.
Groups of seven to 12 will be limited to wine by the glass only, and Chateau Chantal asks that one person be designated to place and pay for wine orders.
Groups of one to six will still be able to purchase tastings as well as wines by the glass at the bar. However, wait times may be longer as the staff takes extra time to clean and sanitize between guests.
Meanwhile, there’s always the internet. Lesperance says Fenn Valley does a robust online business.
“That’s another great way to have Michigan wines be part of your procedures,” he says. “Just order it and have it show up in the mail.”
And as consumers are stockpiling everything from toilet paper to tuna, Lesperance hopes they’ll keep Michigan wine in mind.
“Anecdotally, everyone is trying to figure out how to stay entertained for a month,” he says. “I can tell you, if the kids are home for a month, wine has to be part of the parents’ equation after they go to bed.”