Funk Zone tasting rooms anticipate a busy summer
Wine tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone are predicting that local residents and wine lovers all over the nation will be “champagne” at the bit to go wine tasting this summer.
After a long 13 months of back-and-forth openings and closings, the county entered the orange tier last week, and wineries can now operate indoors at 25% capacity. For wineries that were able to weather the storm — many thanks to direct-to-consumer bottle sales — employees in the industry are saying summer 2021 will bring back much needed revenue with a wave of vaccinated consumers.
“We already have a huge flux of people coming on the weekends, so it’s probably going to get even crazier for the summer,” Mars Wakefield, a sales associate at Melville Winery’s tasting room on State Street near the Funk Zone’s entrance, told the News-Press Thursday afternoon. He said that Melville tends to attract mostly tourists, and he’s had customers from Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Texas, Chicago and even Arkansas.
“People are starting to travel more, which is great,” Vincent McGranahan, another sales associate at Melville, told the News-Press. “We’re starting to see people from all over the country, which is awesome … Even before the orange tier, people would come up from Los Angeles all the time, every weekend. They spill into Santa Barbara, and we love them.”
Mr. McGranahan said Melville’s loyal wine club members helped keep the tasting room running throughout the closures, and while some members had to cancel their memberships, many have re-signed up after the worst parts of the pandemic.
“We have a very substantial amount of wine club members, so we were still sending out shipments. People were still buying wine when they could, so I think things are doing OK,” Mr. McGranahan said. “We’re very fortunate with the local community gathering and supporting local business as well as wine club members from all over the country.”
Reservations have been booked full on Saturdays at Melville, but weekdays tend to be a little slower. The associates said many customers still choose to dine outdoors, especially as the tasting room still requires a food purchase to dine indoors.
“We’re just looking forward to seeing more people,” Mr. McGranahan said. “Pouring wine is always a good time, but the people is what makes it fun.”
Paradise Springs Winery’s tasting room in the Funk Zone is doing quite well these days according to the manager, Ashley Ramirez, who said that business has actually increased by 25% from pre-pandemic numbers. Since moving into the orange tier, Ms. Ramirez said business has increased by at least 30%.
“I don’t know if it’s stimulus checks or whatever, but people are spending,” she told the News-Press. “I think people got so isolated and cooped up inside, and then all of the sudden, their freedom is back, so it’s nice.”
Tourism is high at Paradise Springs like other wineries, with visitors from “L.A. and S.F. all day long,” according to Ms. Ramirez. In addition, while customers now have the opportunity to sip drinks indoors, the manager said people are still choosing to dine outdoors at Paradise Springs’ large outdoor patio.
“I don’t know if it’s like a fear we have of the indoor space available … Maybe they’ve gotten used to being outdoors all the time, but I would say the first choice is definitely outdoors and then you get the random people that want to come inside,” Ms. Ramirez said. “We also remodeled the patio and it’s really inviting with great ambiance, so I would say more people actually want to sit outside because it feels very European now all over Santa Barbara.”
Paradise Springs Winery is the first bi-coastal winery in the United States, with another location in Virginia. Kirk Wiles, CEO and founder of Paradise Springs, said both locations are doing well.
“I think survival was the name of the game,” he told the News-Press. “Everyone stepped up and found a way, and people still wanted to come out and support. People in Santa Barbara love their wine, and it’s a tight-knit community, so I think you saw a lot of locals wanting to support local business — that’s what helped us get through.”
Also working in Paradise Springs’ favor was that it uses more of a direct-to-consumer model rather than restaurant wholesale.
“That part of the business hasn’t fallen out for us like it has for others,” Mr. Wiles said. “If anything, the DTC has drastically picked up because customers aren’t going to restaurants or out to consume alcohol; they’re doing it at home so they want to order more actually to drink at home or wherever it is they enjoy it.”
The winery founder spoke to what he believes is a societal change that’s approaching as a result of COVID-19, representing a good sign for the world of wine.
“I think this whole pandemic has had people shift priorities in life and shift the way they think and the way they consume,” he said. “It’s definitely changed consumer behavior, and the fact that we’ve been on the good side of that for the last 13 months — I see it continuing.
“People are more intuitive on connecting what they’re doing with food and wine, and that bodes well for our industry.”