No one knows for certain when Wine Country will open back up in California. As wine tourism represents more than $7 billion of the California economy and employs more than 375,000 people, it’s clearly high on the list of things to get re-started once the government has decided to loosen the current shelter-in place restrictions. California governor Gavin Newsom has indicated that the re-opening of businesses will move in phases, but the details of those phases are not concrete beyond the suggestion that Phase One will include reopening of some retail businesses that can offer takeout and/or curbside delivery.
Wine Country tasting rooms don’t quite fit that description. However, in addition to the statewide plan and guidance being provided by the Governor, individual counties are developing their own plans, and at least one of them, San Luis Obispo county, has suggested that opening winery tasting rooms would be included in their Phase One reopening plans, if given permission to do so by the State. So far, that county has had that permission to implement their own plan denied.
Counties around the state are doubtless hard at work developing their own plans for the eventual easing of restrictions, and so eventually, we will be able to leave our homes and head to Wine Country for a flavorful respite.
The (Immediate) Future of Tasting Rooms
When it finally happens, visiting a tasting room in wine country will look a lot different than it does today, at least as far as some guidelines published recently by the Wine Institute of California are concerned. These guidelines paint a picture of a very different type of experience than we might be used to having, though one that still promises to offer the kind of enjoyment people seek in their visits to wine country.
Even as I was writing this article, the announcement was made that Oregon will allow the reopening of tasting rooms, beginning tomorrow, May 15, with guidelines similar to those that follow.
1. Tasting by appointment only (MOSTLY)
The only way to visit a tasting room in California will likely be by appointment. Many tasting rooms in Napa were already by-appointment-only, by virtue of specific licensing requirements, but in many of those cases, someone dropping in could often easily secure such an “appointment” just-in-time. Such flexibility won’t go over well in our new normal. If you show up without an appointment in California, you’ll likely be turned away. In Oregon, people will be allowed to drop in without an appointment.
2. Small Groups Only
You’ll be able to bring a few friends, but not more. Party sizes will likely be restricted to six or fewer individuals in California, ten or fewer in Oregon. For now, Wine Country will see a continued reprieve from the dreaded-but-lucrative tourist buses.
3. Masks reQUIRED, Except When Sipping
Masks will be required in California, though only “recommended” in Oregon. While you will be able to remove your mask once you’re seated to drink some wine or eat, masks will be expected when you enter a winery tasting room and while doing things like walking around the grounds, or getting up from your table to go to the restroom. Winery staff will be required to wear masks as well as gloves.
4. Outdoor or Physically-Distanced Seating
No more bellying up to the tasting bar in your favorite little tasting room. Groups will be required to occupy their own individual table, and that table will need to be placed in such a way that keeps the group at least six feet from any other group visiting the same facility. Individuals within the same group will not need to maintain physical distance, but the winery will be required to arrange their seating so that groups can maintain proper distancing.
Those wineries in California that can provide outdoor seating that meet these requirements will likely be able to open sooner than those who cannot.
5. Wrap it Up Early (In CALIFORNIA)
In California, wineries will be required to stop serving alcohol and food by 5 PM. Oregon will be more lenient and allow service until 10 PM.
6. You Sneeze, You Cough, No Service
While no clear and definitive criteria have been offered, nor any specific guidance on how to monitor such things, wineries will be required to deny service to “customers displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19.” You can expect to see signage to this effect at wineries.
7. Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs
Speaking of signage. As we’ve now come to expect everywhere we go outside of our homes now, wineries will be covered in signs indicating proper physical distances, requirements or recommendations for masks, things you can touch and things you can’t and more. Hopefully they won’t have to block the view of the vineyards while we sit and sip.
Despite all those changes and inherent restrictions, I suspect that Wine Country will find itself quite busy as it opens up even as shelter-in-place guidelines are still operating. Who wouldn’t want to get the hell out of their house and go taste some wine someplace pretty if they were able to do so right now?