With a little planning and embracing of the “new normal,” it is possible to return to the tasting room.
With long-distance travel off the cards for many of us this year, now is a good time to set our sights a bit closer to home. Fortunately for those of us in the U.S., wineries across the country have been quick to adapt to the current state of affairs, offering enhanced safety protocols, innovative seating arrangements, and even virtual wine tastings. If you are interested in wine tasting but not sure what it entails, these tips can help you safely prepare.
Familiarize Yourself With Local Safety Measures
While many wineries across the country have re-opened to some extent, gone are the days when you could jump in the car and spontaneously hop from winery to winery: wine tasting during the COVID-19 pandemic requires a bit of planning ahead. As pandemic regulations vary greatly from state to state, be prepared for different options and experiences depending on where in the country you are based. While the West Coast—where the majority of U.S. wineries are located—has re-opened its economies under a Western States Pact, each state has its own laws regarding alcohol sales and consumption.
Seek Out Wineries Going the Extra Mile
Although all places of business are required to abide by local health and safety guidelines, many have opted to go above and beyond the minimum to keep guests and staff protected. For example, Hiyu Wine Farm in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge has hired a retired nurse to supervise their cleaning standards. They’ve also added a few heated tents to allow visitors to eat safely and privately, even in the chilly winter weather. California’s DAOU Family Estates has developed an extensive protocol, complete with single-use menus and stylus pens, both of which guests are welcome to take home.
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Look for Spots With Outdoor Seating
Although plenty of wineries are now offering indoor seating, understand that you are putting yourself at higher risk by sharing indoor space with others, especially considering that for wine to go in, masks must come off. Fortunately, many wineries have ramped up their outdoor seating options, adding patios, and offering additional tables. Estate Tasting Room in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has taken outdoor seating to the next level, with geodesic “wine pods” for groups of up to six people, complete with heating and lighting. If you do end up in the open air, be aware that cooler temperatures can impact the taste and body of the wines you’re sampling, and due to the current shortage of heat lamps, it’s a good idea to bundle up.
Make an Itinerary Before You Go
Your best bet is to come up with an itinerary and be prepared to book ahead (and possibly pre-pay). While some spots do allow walk-ins, many are adjusting to operating under reduced capacities by requiring reservations. Remember to look into party limits, particularly if you’re going with a group of four or more people, as many wineries can only accommodate smaller groups. Finally, make sure you have a designated driver in your party, as some drivers and wine tour companies have ceased operations indefinitely.
Be Prepared for a Different Kind of On-Site Experience
While your previous wine tastings may have involved plenty of cozying up to other patrons at the bar, don’t expect to be rubbing any unfamiliar shoulders on your next outing. Instead, expect to be seated at a table spaced at least six feet from other parties, even if you’re outside. If you’re a swirl-sniff-spit type, you may have to switch up your approach; spit buckets are likely to be absent. Finally, be prepared to take a more DIY approach to your tasting. In pre-pandemic times, having a sommelier present to explain the story behind each pour was the norm; today, you’re more likely to end up with a collection of pre-poured carafes and a laminated description card on your table.
Winery tours have also slowed down, with many producers opting to stop offering facility tours altogether. If you do want to take a tour, be prepared to pay a premium for a private experience. Virginia’s Williamsburg Winery, for example, offers tours by appointment on Friday through Sunday; masks are naturally required except when tasting. And while operations may feel pared-down in many respects, there’s at least one perk to the “new normal”—food. In some parts of the U.S., such as Washington State, wineries are allowed to operate under the same regulations as restaurants, as long as they serve food. What’s not to like?
Consider Virtual Wine Tastings
If you don’t feel comfortable venturing out to a winery, don’t despair: there are plenty of wineries offering virtual tastings. Most will ship wines to your home and generally offer access to pre-recorded videos to enhance the experience or the option to hop on a video call. Expect experiences as unique as the wineries that offer them; for example, Napa’s St. Supéry hosts weekly tastings complete with moderated discussions featuring winemakers and cooking instruction, all moderated by their CEO. Nearby Stag’s Leap coordinates virtual holiday parties in which different households can come together online to taste together; the winery takes care of all the logistics. Oregon’s Sunshine Mill pays homage to its building, a former Cheez-It factory, by offering bags of the savory crackers with every kit.
Think of the Silver Linings
It’s been quite the year for U.S. winemakers, between pandemic shutdowns and wildfires blazing throughout many of the country’s largest wine-producing regions. While the wine industry hasn’t been spared from the economic challenges of 2020, a few innovations borne from this rough patch in history may be here to stay. Virtual tastings may continue to be a thing, meaning those who live outside of major wine regions will get more access to top wines without having to fly hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Wineries that have started serving food to meet local requirements may continue to do so, while wineries who have created patio seating may opt to keep it open. Finally, while many wineries used to close or limit hours in the cool winter months, many, such as the Willamette Valley’s Utopia Vineyard & Winery, have adapted to capacity limits by shifting their model to daily operations.