Bars and tap rooms empty on St. Patrick’s Day. Wine tasting on hiatus. Major viticulture industry events canceled or rescheduled. Restaurants cutting their occupancy by half and later switching to take-out only.
The COVID-19 virus continues to upend life as usual and blast its way through the economy.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued guidelines on March 15 that sent businesses scrambling to adjust. The governor did not require bars, brew pubs and wine tasting rooms to close and restaurants to reduce their seating to separate customers, but tri-county businesses have acted overwhelmingly to protect customers and employees from the virus.
While businesses scrambled to adjust, the guidelines changed late the next day, when the governor expanded his directive to restaurants statewide, requesting they suspend dine-in service rather than having the option to remain open with a 6-foot separation of tables. Tri-county health departments issued the same guidance. Ventura County’s order made compliance mandatory, effective March 18.
Paul Dargan closed Dargan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant in Santa Barbara on St. Patrick’s Day out of safety concerns, although he believed at the time he could have opened at reduced capacity, and he said the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“There won’t be one Guinness sold, unfortunately,” he said the day before the annual revelry. He said the current week and the one to follow are usually the two busiest of the whole calendar and his numbers are down 70 percent year over year.
“Obviously, there’s more important things going on for everybody,” he added.
Dargan had planned to reopen after St. Patrick’s Day after removing tables and bar stools to create social distancing. On March 18, there was a voice message to customers on the restaurant’s phone line saying it was closed and he was considering options for a delivery and pickup menu.
Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. was serving customers beer and food inside at two of its six locations, Buellton and Santa Maria, with tables separated by 6 feet, but that could change any minute, according to Jason Turton, manager at the Santa Maria tap room, where they offer pizzas.
Earlier, the company’s retail director, Tony Grimes, told the Business Times that the tap rooms were operating under varying local rules, with Santa Barbara, Los Olivos, Westlake Village and Arroyo Grande venues either selling takeout beer only or takeout beer and food only.
All the tap rooms have shortened their business hours, he said, and he urged patrons to check the company’s Facebook and Instagram sites for the latest information.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this time and we can’t go back to normality, but we are doing everything we can to comply but also still keep craft beer flowing on the Central Coast for people,” Grimes said.
Shaun Smith, co-owner of Institution Ales, with tap rooms in Camarillo and Santa Barbara, said they operated at 50 percent capacity inside the facilities for a day before switching to takeout only for their craft beers, pizzas and salads. They had put up table tents to block off areas and keep a 6-foot distance between patrons, but that changed quickly.
Wineries in the region overwhelmingly have acted to protect customers and staff. They’ve stopped offering public tastings and many have shut down the venues entirely. Others are keeping the doors open, but only to pick up wine club orders or bottles to take home.
The owners of Foxen Vineyard & Winery in Santa Barbara County said in an email to customers that temporarily closing their two tasting rooms was “the hardest decision we’ve ever faced in our 35 years of business.” They’re offering $5 shipping on all orders within the continental United States and other incentives for people to order wine for delivery or to pickup at their location.
Daniel Daou, co-owner of Daou Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles, sent employees who interact with customers home with full pay for two weeks while the tasting room is closed. He said he’s sad at shuttering the tasting room and seeing almost no traffic on the usually busy road he takes to work.
“We agree with Gov. Newsom to lay low for a couple of weeks,” he said, and to then reassess.
Santa Barbara Vintners Executive Director Alison Laslett said she sees two things going on that are important.
“We have first and foremost the social responsibility to keep the public safe and so wineries are engaging in that effort, and secondarily we have to figure out how to keep our local economies and small businesses alive during this time.”
Laslett said tasting rooms have closed and wineries are making bottles and cases available for purchase, with many offering delivery service or curbside pickups.
Laslett’s office is advising wineries to look up the California Employment Development Department’s web page on the coronavirus that explains how temporarily idled workers can collect unemployment benefits, something that she said will be crucial for the wine industry.
“It will save some people’s financial lives and also save their jobs,” she said.
Anne Steinhauer, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Coast Wine Collective, said all members have shut down their tasting rooms and about half are offering pickups of orders at the winery.
She expects that wineries will be able to keep many employees at work doing inventories, cleanup and other tasks.
“While this is hard, none of us want to spread this and we do know that it’s easily spread. And so we’re all trying to do our part while also maintaining the integrity of our small businesses.”
WINE EVENTS AFFECTED
Four major wine events in the Tri-Counties have been postponed or canceled.
• The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance called off its annual Vintage Paso Zinfandel Weekend, which was set for March 20-22 to celebrate the region’s heritage grape. The After Party Tasting that was to include 26 wineries and more than 250 guests at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles was canceled days before Gov. Newsom issued his strict directive on March 16.
Also scratched was a Zinposium Seminar, which was to feature three winemakers leading guests through a tasting at Castoro Cellars.
Until March 17, the Alliance was planning to go ahead with three Zincursions, outdoor events with 20 to 30 guests. Christopher Taranto, executive director of the alliance, said those outings and tasting events at individual wineries were called off after the directive on wineries was issued.
• Santa Barbara Vintners, the group that promotes Santa Barbara County wineries, announced that the 2020 Santa Barbara Vintners Festival, originally scheduled for May 2 at Rancho Sisquoq Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, has been postponed to Oct. 10 at the same location. The organizers said they will transfer tickets already purchased to Oct. 10 or issue refunds to those who cannot attend.
• A pair of wine industry conferences that were set for March 24-25 at the Paso Robles Events Center have been rescheduled at the same venue. Central Coast Insights is now set for Aug. 26 and WiVi Central Coast will follow on Aug. 27. The conferences will include speakers, panels and tasting seminars.
WiVi will also include a daylong trade show with more than 200 exhibits. Wine Business Monthly, organizer of the events, said tickets and exhibitors’ booth contracts will be honored on the new dates.
Taranto of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance said the precautions that are being taken now in the wine industry may be just the beginning, given the massive shelter in place orders in effect in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sonoma County.
“It’s probably a bigger story even beyond wineries if we all have to shelter in place,” he said.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]