Post-Pandemic: How Small Wineries & Vintners Can Get Back to Business, Better!

By: Rod Hughes

Wildfires, faulty tanks, flooding, a pandemic, lockdowns, water shortages, tornados, tropical storms – the past two years have been, in a word, biblical in terms of challenges faced by vintners and winemakers.

  However, like the rest of the U.S. economy, there are signs of positivity on the horizon. Pandemic restrictions are loosening, and Americans seem eager to travel and resume their former leisure activities. This includes touring wineries as well as resuming their search for those great bottles to share with friends.

  This reality presents both opportunities and challenges to those in the winemaking industry.

  The challenges are not inconsequential: Northern California wineries faced savage wildfires in 2017, 2019 and 2020, leaving many around the country with the impression California wineries were irreparably harmed. In parts of Maryland, some wineries are still trying to put the pieces back together after Tropical Storm Isaias last summer. And let’s not forget the pandemic shutdowns, limited capacity re-openings and economic pain felt universally across all wineries. 

  However, the opportunities for those that made it through may be just as powerful.

EAST COAST SOLUTION

  One example is Old York Cellars Winery in Ringoes, New Jersey. Shutdown in March 2020 like much of the country due to COVID-19, owner David Wolin — a former attorney — gathered his staff and brainstormed.  (Photo: David is 3rd on the left)

  “We knew what we couldn’t do, and it was a lot,” Wolin explained. “The question was what could we do in this new environment?”

  Wolin and his team quickly turned to one of the major challenges for independent wineries: direct shipping to consumers.

  Winery direct-to-consumer shipping is legal in 47 U.S. states, each of which regulates its own system. Regulations, taxes and various packaging requirements can vary. However, Wolin and his team had time on their hands (they would reopen, albeit under strict New Jersey Department of Health restrictions, with limited capacity in June 2020). So Wolin put his legal training to work and secured approval to ship his Old York Cellar wines to 15 other states as well as Washington, D.C.

  In short order, he found a niche market and started shipping wine as far as California and Oregon. Much of the direct shipment was coupled with virtual wine tastings as customers reached out from all over the U.S. looking for creative ways to stay connected with friends and family through virtual activities. By the end of 2020, Old York Cellars experienced a 545 percent increase in online sales and swung from an early 2020 revenue loss of more than 70 percent to end the year up by 13 percent overall.

  For this New Jersey winery, its pandemic recovery began when it took on one of an independent winery’s biggest sales obstacles and found a way to turn it into a success.

WEST COAST SOLUTION

  Another example of finding opportunity amid challenge is Healdsburg’s Longboard Vineyards in California’s famous Sonoma wine region. Like Wolin in New Jersey, Longboard’s Head of Hospitality Heidi Dittloff and Oded Shakked, the owner and winemaker, had to reinvent the business following the March 2020 shutdowns.

  “We were at a stand-still, like a lot of businesses at that point, trying to figure out how to stop hemorrhaging cash while also looking for new revenue sources,” explained Dittloff. Like many pre-pandemic wineries, Longboard’s online sales were only between 1 and 3 percent of its annual revenue.

  “Of course, looking back, ecommerce seems like the default route. Just take your sales online. Simple, right? Um, no,” said Dittloff.

  Like many small wineries, outdated software and robust websites tailored for ecommerce sales had not been a priority. Before COVID-19, it could take shoppers up to 10 clicks to purchase a bottle of wine on a typical small winery’s website. In the age of Amazon’s One-Click mindset, that’s nine clicks too many.

  Dittloff’s solution was to re-examine the sales funnels for Longboard.

  The majority (more than 70 percent) of sales for most wineries before the pandemic came from three areas: tasting rooms, wine clubs and wholesale. The shutdowns and later limited capacity requirements of 2020 effectively took in-person sales off the table, as wholesale transactions dipped temporarily. Pivoting to touchless curbside pick-up and leveraging their wine clubs helped, but the key to surviving was replacing the lost tasting room sales funnel. Longboard accomplished this through what Dittloff called “data hygiene.”

  This meant closely examining all consumer data available, understanding new buyers versus pre-COVID buyers, and designing offers that matched buyers’ needs. To do this well, Longboard also had to reinvent its website as well as completely overhaul its shopping cart to create a more user-friendly environment that limited clicks, provided buyers with their order history and created stunning visuals. This also meant updating the winery’s Point-of-Purchase system.

  “None of this was cheap,” Shakked noted. “But it was either invest or vanish because no one knew back then how long the pandemic shutdowns would last.”

  With improved customer reach and systems tied to aggressive outreach on social media to bloggers and area businesses, Longboard grew its online sales from 1 to 30 percent of its revenue, replacing nearly all of its lost tasting room sales. The key to growth in 2021 and beyond, said Dittloff, is to maintain those online sales as restrictions ease and the tasting room business returns.

  “There’s a lot of opportunity for wineries like ours to come out of this pandemic stronger than when it began,” said Shakked. “Pursuing those new sales funnels and making better, smarter use of data will be critical to that future growth.”

ONGOING SOLUTIONS

  For many independent wineries and vintners, undertaking the paperwork headaches, sales tax collection and reporting, as well as the logistics of shipping wine to dozens of other states, is too heavy of a lift. For some, so is a complete overhaul of its web, ecommerce and POS systems.

  This is where a solid communications strategy can play an integral role in helping independent wineries rebound from both the pandemic and all that came before it.

REINVENTION

  One early and likely ongoing solution that will continue to be needed is the reinvention of outdoor spaces. Despite re-openings, some customers aren’t going to be completely comfortable going back indoors. This means, especially for the purposes of enticing wine club and other regional customers, developing seasonal or quarterly “makeovers” of outdoor spaces. While the upfront costs and sweat equity can be considerable, they can be recouped through a thoughtful email and social media campaign promoting the spaces. Done well, these reinvented spaces can present customers with something new or different to see several times per year while also purchasing your wines.

  Old York Cellars has done this successfully, creating a Winter Wine Village on its 28-acre property in late 2020 and early 2021, complete with decorative cabanas, high-end fire pits and posh outdoor furniture. A tented “Spring Wine Village” offers a similar vibe at Old York Cellars with a focus on new views, a dining menu and a return of outdoor entertainment, as well. Cana Vineyards & Winery in Middleburg, Virginia took a similar approach, creating 10 cozy fire pit areas on the lawn overlooking its 43-acre property and nearby mountains. Patio heaters on the winery’s outdoor decks and front porch created warm winter spaces along with ceiling heaters and an outdoor pavilion with stunning stone fireplace. S’more kits were also available for purchase.

  By mixing up the outdoor experience for customers, small wineries can offer something fresh and new for regional customers, road-trippers and wine club members to bring them back. These outdoor makeovers also present opportunities for email marketing and public relations to introduce customers to a remodeled venue as well as special offers.

A COLLECTIVE VOICE

  Additionally, small wineries should closely examine working with their local grower’s associations and/or chambers of commerce to come together with a single voice on their industry. Consumers are likely to remain unsure of what is and isn’t possible with travel and tourism businesses for some time. Using a collective voice to let travelers know that area wineries are open for business is key.

  Partnering with other business or marketing associations can also reveal additional opportunities for wineries to grow their way out of the pandemic and its economic challenges. A great example of this type of partnership is the collaboration of the Napa and Sonoma wineries working with LuxeSF, a B2B partner network comprised of sales and marketing professionals focused on luxury marketing in the Bay Area. As recently as April 2021, LuxeSF hosted a panel of small wine producers to talk about what happened in their industry in 2020 and offer tips and best marketing practices going forward for independent vintners.

MAINTAINING THE PULSE

  Surveys, of course, are an ideal way to stay connected to winery customers. They have the added value of not being seen as an overt sales tactic. Not only can these surveys help to keep small wineries top-of-mind, but they can also be great tools for gauging customer sentiment and crowdsourcing ideas as the country reopens. For instance, a survey about how customers might feel about a “garden party event” this summer or fall is a great way to gauge how to best address the potential use of masks as well as possible turn-out.

  Surveys about continued virtual tastings, satisfaction with prior wine shipments and ecommerce experiences can also provide vital insights into the continued strength and likelihood of these pandemic-induced sales channels.

BECOMING PUBLISHERS

  Finally, and this is a recommendation that should not be dismissed out of hand, wineries need to become content publishers.

  The world has changed, and we’re now in the experience economy. A consumer’s personal experience with a brand, service or winery can drive sales. And in a world where smartphones are ubiquitous and even grandparents are mostly on one form of social media or another, wineries need to feed consumers’ insatiable appetite for content.

  If wineries produce no other form of content (and they should produce a variety, just like their wines), it must be video. Video content should run the gamut, including tours of the vineyards, the first crush of the season, 3 to 5-minute video winemaker interviews on topics for aficionados, as well as casual tasting room tourists, 30-second event update videos and more. These videos should be shared across all the winery’s social platforms and promoted via email marketing and the website. Consumers are 37 times more likely to engage with a piece of video content than a newsletter, blog or long-form article.

  But that video needs to be brief and packed with good, non-sales information. They also need not be slickly produced. In fact, millennials and Gen Z consumers find simple smartphone videos to be “more authentic.”

  The pandemic is just the latest in a string of challenges to wineries, but it’s also likely to have one of the most profound and lasting effects on the industry. The good news is all wineries will have ample opportunities to rebound from this latest challenge, but it won’t be a return to normal or even a “new normal.” Rather, what comes next must be a new approach to how the business of wineries and vineyards are conducted and how they engage with their customers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Rod Hughes is vice president and principal with Kimball Hughes Public Relations. A former journalist and frequent public speaker, he can be reached via email at rhughes@kimballpr.com or by phone at (610) 559-758

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