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Want To Taste Wine? Sign This Waiver

As Wine Country re-opens throughout California and visitors return to tasting rooms once again, beyond mask-wearing employees and lots of hand sanitizer, they may encounter something unusual before sipping and spitting: legal waivers to sign.

I chronicled my wine tasting experiences at newly reopened tasting rooms in both Napa and Sonoma in my monthly column for Jancis Robinson which was published yesterday, and one of the things I encountered in both places was the stipulation that I sign a legal waiver before being permitted to taste wine.

This, dear friends in the wine industry, is the opposite of hospitality, and a surpremely bad idea that should be halted immediately.

Why?

Because forcing customers to sign away their legal rights and make attestations as to their health before entering your facility and tasting your wine is not about keeping them safe, it’s about keeping YOU safe. And when you are in the hospitality business, and you find yourself forcing your customers to do something uncomfortable that is entirely for your benefit, you’re doing it wrong.

Just ask any of the restaurants who are opening up in your county. The idea of forcing someone to sign a legal document before sitting down to have a meal is patently absurd. I haven’t been out and about much since things started reopening, but when I recently sat down in a restaurant for the first time since the shelter-in-place began, I certainly wasn’t asked to legally attest to the fact that I had no symptoms of COVID-19 and agree that I wouldn’t sue the restaurant if I later became sick.

You want to take my temperature as I come in the door? Fine. You want to ask me to sanitize my hands? Great. Insist I wear a mask except when I’m eating and drinking? Excellent idea.

But don’t get the lawyers involved.

Here’s the way I see it: either you are comfortable enough with your ability to keep your customers safe and can deal with the risk of frivolous lawsuits (which by the way, could have happened before COVID-19, too) or you’re not.

If you’re not — if you’re truly frightened to death that there’s a significant likelihood that someone might catch the virus through no fault of yours and choose to sue you — then you should seriously consider whether you should be opening back up right now.

And lord knows, there are plenty enough signs that this re-opening may be too much too fast already. And there almost certainly will be a second wave.

I say this with the deepest compassion and empathy for business owners and their employees who are truly suffering right now. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the government shut down your business and force you to furlough or terminate employees who, in this industry, probably feel like family. It’s heartbreaking, and I join many of my industry colleagues in demanding that the government take care of the hospitality business in the same way it has been taking care of the airlines and the banks and the country’s wealthiest corporations.

But if you feel like you need some level of protection, work with your insurance companies and lawyers to find a way to do so in a way that does not impact the guest experience. For instance, here’s what I was greeted with when I pulled into Peju Winery‘s parking lot last Wednesday:

Sign reading: "Welcome, by visiting our winery, you affirm that you are well and do not have any symptoms of COVID-19."

Now I’m not a lawyer, and I assume this probably isn’t anywhere near as protective as a signed legal contract, but from a customer experience perspective, it’s miles better. Such signs have long been posted in wineries thanks to Proposition 65. There’s got to be an equivalent approach for COVID.

I implore my industry colleagues in these trying times: don’t forget the principles of hospitality as you struggle to regain your footing. By all means, do what you need to to do keep everyone physically safe and healthy. That’s an important part of taking care of the guest. Forcing them to cover your ass legally most certainly is not.