YOU CAN GO WINE TASTING IN THE BAY AREA AGAIN THIS WEEK, BUT SOME WINERIES WILL REMAIN CLOSED DUE TO RAIN
BY ESTHER MOBLEY
Wineries in the Bay Area, including in Napa and Sonoma, can now reopen for outdoor wine tastings after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted mandatory stay-at-home orders throughout the state on Monday. But many vintners said they were planning to wait at least a week before hosting visitors again, in part because of heavy rain forecasts.
Some wineries planned a quick turnaround. By Monday afternoon, wine tasters could book Tuesday reservations at tasting rooms like boutique Papapietro Perry in Healdsburg and the edgy Prisoner Wine Co. in St. Helena. Jackson Family Wines, one of California’s largest wine companies, said that 11 of its tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma counties would open Tuesday, including Freemark Abbey, Cardinale, La Crema and Copain. Others announced plans to reopen later in the week, such as Napa’s millennial-focused Ashes & Diamonds on Wednesday and Sonoma’s upscale Three Sticks on Thursday.
“We are raring to go,” said Mike Dashe, owner of Dashe Cellars in Alameda, a Zinfandel specialist. “We’d been waiting for this announcement.” Still, without a rain covering for his wine garden located in the Naval Air Station, he said he would be delaying the reopening to Feb. 5, in the hopes of clearer skies.
The news was surely welcome to the more than 50 Wine Country businesses, mostly restaurants and wineries, who recently sued Newsom over the outdoor dining ban. Under the new guidelines announced Monday, restaurants may immediately resume outdoor dining in all Bay Area counties except San Francisco, where restaurants must wait until Thursday. California residents are still advised not to travel more than 120 miles from their home.
“This is a huge step in a positive direction,” said Linsey Gallagher, CEO of Visit Napa Valley, which promotes tourism to the county. She cited the success Napa County has had so far with its vaccine rollout — already, more than 14,000 residents, or 10% of the county population, have received a vaccination — as evidence that it’s taking safety seriously.
The rain, however, was already dampening vintners’ excitement. A rain-protected outdoor patio is currently under construction at Three Sticks, said general manager Prema Behan. Until it’s finished — likely in February — they’ll be able to host just three tables at a time.
Jeremy Kreck, winemaker at Mill Creek Vineyards in Healdsburg, anticipated that there would be a mess of tree limbs and debris to clean out after this week’s storms, and planned to start pouring wine for visitors again on Feb. 5.
Tasting rooms are a vital revenue channel for California wineries, especially smaller-scale ones, and this year they became even more essential for those who had depended on wine sales to restaurants and bars. “Our wholesale distribution throughout the country probably on average is down by 50%,” said Dashe. That’s why reopening the tasting room “is crucial to our operation,” he continued, “especially since it has been a bit of a trauma to have it closed during the whole holiday period.”
Tim Colla, winemaker at Saintsbury in Napa, a winery known for its single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, stressed that reopening a tasting room after being shuttered for more than a month can’t always happen overnight. “Our ability to open isn’t necessarily dictated just by the county’s approval,” he said. “We have to reschedule our tasting room staff, take some time to prepare. There’s a lot of leg work.” Coupled with the atmospheric river on the horizon, he expected Saintsbury to get its doors open sometime after the Feb. 7 Super Bowl.
Several other Bay Area vintners gave a similar, early-February timeline for their projected reopenings, including Ridge Vineyards’ two locations in Cupertino and Healdsburg and Wente Vineyards in Livermore.
But after a year of several back-and-forth guidelines on whether and how wineries can be open for tastings, many vintners were trying not to get their hopes up that this new reopening would be permanent — or that it could save their businesses.
“There’s still a lot of hesitation about how excited we can be about it,” said Katie Bundschu, vice president of sales at the massively popular Gundlach Bundschu Winery and owner of Abbot’s Passage Winery, both in Sonoma. “We’ve been down this road before.”
Bunschu expected both properties to reopen in a limited capacity later this week. But she harbored no illusions that it would feel anything close to normal. “We’re still a year or two away from seeing anything like the foot traffic we saw before COVID,” she said. “That’s not going to happen until people start feeling comfortable getting on a plane again.”
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