The “New Normal” – Wine Tasting in the Summer of 2020
A brief case study of local wineries in Traverse City, Michigan
On May 18th, Ben Gulow, tasting room manager of 45 North Vineyard & Winery in Leelanau, Michigan, was socially distancing with the management team of the Traverse City-area winery to discuss the winery’s potential reopening. The team agreed that while it was time to start rethinking their operating procedures in the “new normal,” it was also likely that the stay-at-home order in Michigan would be extended. As it would turn out, the state-at home-order was extended, but in a surprising twist, businesses in the region were permitted to reopen by an executive order.
That same afternoon, much to Gulow’s surprise, the state’s governor issued an executive order allowing for restaurants, retail and offices to reopen on Friday, May 22nd in advance of Memorial Day weekend. In other words, the wineries of the region had 72 hours to consider reopening for what has historically been one of the busiest weekends of the year.
To Reopen or Not Reopen, That is the Question
“We’ve had many extensive conversations with our staff weighing our reopening options,” said Jenna Veiga, marketing and events manager at Mari Vineyards on the Old Mission Peninsula. “Making sure that we get this right for the safety of our customers and our team, as well as following the executive order and recommended health guidelines, is our utmost priority. It’s not as easy as opening the door and flipping on the lights.”
The team at Mari ultimately pushed their reopening to the following Thursday, on May 28th, in order to both avoid potential Memorial Day crowds, but to also ensure all that the necessary and mandated safety protocols were in place.
“Every bar and register must have sneeze guards in place, safety and cleaning procedures have to be rewritten, and the staff retrained,” Veiga said. “We’ve been measuring the distances of our outdoor seating, adding signage and markers on the floor, and purchasing disposable masks and gloves for our staff. It’s important to us that we get this as right as possible and opening on a weekday after Memorial weekend seemed a better option for us.”
Mari will permit outdoor seating for by-the-glass pours. Traditional tastings will remain at a halt for now, but depending on how things progress, the team may add the option for table flight service. Guests are required to wear masks when indoors or when interacting with staff, but are then allowed to remove the masks once seated at the outdoor tables. Reservations are encouraged, but walk-ins are welcome and groups will be capped at an upper limit of six.
Added Veiga, “Mari is known for the education we provide our guests about the wines, but for now, we need to limit our personal interactions. It’s going to be an adjustment of expectations as we all learn to navigate these new challenges.”
Shady Lane Cellars on the Leelanau Peninsula has also opted to push back its opening date, announcing it will reopen to the public for service on Monday, June 1st.
“Preparedness is the biggest factor in our decision to delay the reopening,” said Rick DeBlasio, general manager of Shady Lane Cellars. “We have to bring staff back, retrain everyone, and prepare the winery for a new type of outdoor, hybrid table service.”
Like Mari, Shady Lane will be limiting its service to outdoor spaces; however, the winery will allow for glass, bottle and flight selections. They will also have two pre-prepared charcuterie board options in the coming weeks. Additionally, the winery has designated areas specifically for winery club members, to guarantee they always have space to be distanced yet together.
“We’re planning to designate our staff to specific tasks,” DeBlasio said. “For example, the employees serving the wines will be different than those cleaning, and we’ll have other staff dedicated to guest interaction.”
Shady Lane is also using the Movista platform, Project Health, designed for use at superstore chain, Meijer for monitoring the health of employees.
“The app does not keep any personal health information on file, but it does track daily temperatures and asks a series of questions relating to Covid-19 exposure,” said DeBlasio. “It’s a red light, green light type of application that will help us to manage overall safety and risk.”
Both Shady Lane and Mari will initially operate under reduced hours, allowing the staff more time to clean before and after each day of operation.
“You would think with reduced hours and limited capacities, we’d have less to do,” added DeBlasio. “But in reality, it’s really the opposite. That said, we are excited to open and to see our guests again. It’s not in the way we would like to see them, and we wish it could be business as usual, but it’s how things need to be.”
Ready or Not; Here We Go
Less than 15 miles south on M22, Rove Estate Vineyard & Winery did open for Memorial weekend for both tastings and by-the-glass service.
“We were lucky in that our core team was still on staff at the winery enabling us to prepare faster than might otherwise be possible,” said Rove Estate tasting room manager, Heather Durham. “We’ve established distancing protocols, sanitation stations, and pre-packaged picnic snack packs.”
Rove Estate will permit tastings in the tasting room at a limited capacity and by reservation only. They have set-up four tasting stations to accommodate two to four people per area and have installed a vinyl barrier at the tasting bar to act as a sneeze barrier between guests and staff. Groups of up to 10 are permitted, but will be divided into two tasting stations. The winery has also set up outdoor bar service to allow for by-the-glass purchases and table seating.
“We will have daily team meetings where temperatures will be taken and contact questions asked,” said Durham, “but most importantly, to check in on the team’s mental health and make sure they are comfortable with the new procedures.”
Rove Estate outdoor space includes a large veranda and tented outdoor area allowing for a 50 percent capacity of around 60 guests.
“We’re so excited to see our guests again,” added Durham. “While there is some nervousness that we’ll have too many people at once, or have to enforce social distancing, we’re mostly seeing reservations come from individual couples or very small groups of friends. And we expect most people will just be happy to be out again.”
Bonobo Winery on Old Mission Peninsula, also opted to reopen for Memorial Weekend, but also with limited service and hours.
“We’ll begin with glass pours, outdoors only this weekend, but don’t expect our restaurant to reopen just yet,” said Todd Oosterhouse, owner and general manager of Bonobo Winery. “And as we’re able to increase our staff in the coming weeks, we hope to be able to add takeaway tastings for people to enjoy at their tables.”
Bonobo has established one entry and one exit point for the winery and has added plastic table cloths for easy clean-up and numerous hand sanitizing stations available around the property. Groups are permitted but are limited to no more than 10 people. While reservations can be made, Bonobo will mostly operate on a walk-in basis with walking (masked) servers to accommodate guests’ glass pours.
“We know the stay-at-home order is still in effect,” said Oosterhouse, “so we will also continue to offer curbside pickup and takeaway bottle service for those looking to enjoy our wines at home.”
Oosterhouse also acknowledged the difficulty of staffing under the new and limited services and capacities. “We have to figure out how to balance the reduced dollars coming into the winery with how much staff we can afford to bring back.”
Added Oosterhouse, “And it’s been a challenge finding staff interested in coming back for limited hours as doing so would jeopardize their unemployment payments from other full-time jobs. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out in the coming weeks and as the summer season really kicks into full swing.”
Small Business Realities
As for Gulow and the team at 45 North, they determined not to reopen for the time being.
“Staffing is the biggest concern for us,” said Gulow. “As we were contemplating reopening for Memorial weekend, we were only able to get commitment from three staffers. Some of our team are out of the area and choosing to stay home until that order is lifted, others are concerned about losing their unemployment from their day jobs, and a couple are just uncomfortable given the state of the world. It’s not an easy decision for anyone, and for Memorial weekend, three staffers under the new normal isn’t feasible.”
The team is potentially looking to open in the next week or two, depending on staffing.
“We’re fortunate in that we have 110 acres of outdoor space all zoned for service,” said Gulow. “However, this still requires a new game plan. We don’t expect to offer tastings, but we will provide glass and flight service.”
As the team rebuilds, retrains, and works to ensure the flow of service under the new protocols, they are also researching various reservation systems.
“The unpredictability of the potential number of guests is one of our biggest challenges,” said Gulow. “We want to accommodate all we can under the new guidelines, but even if we require reservations, we know others will continue to walk-in, so it’s a balancing act, every detail of which has to be considered.”
Navigating the “New Normal”
With approximately 3.5 million annual visitors to the Traverse City region, the coming weeks and season will prove a challenge on many fronts in the Covid-19 pandemic era. Each winery representative expressed a mixture of elation and nervousness as reopening commenced, and said they expect to learn as they go, making accommodations on the fly if needed.
At the close of business at Rove Estate on the first Friday of reopening, Durham said, “Today was nothing short of amazing. Every visitor was incredibly kind and patient. Everyone was mindful of the new rules and appreciative to all the changes in our tasting room. As we got through the day, our anxiety subsided and this ‘new normal’ became comfortable. Things are different, but it’s doable.”
*45 North opened to the public following Memorial Day weekend.