Like most industries, the wine industry has experienced a bounce back in recent months.
Despite tasting rooms having to limit the number of guests due to COVID-19 regulations and varying demand, many wineries and vineyards in Santa Barbara County have reason to believe things will continue trending upwards.
“When we closed the tasting room and closed the winery to the public, it was a super, super scary time,” Doug Margerum, owner of the Margerum Wine Company, told the News-Press.
“We asked for rent reductions on our various facilities and we did everything we thought we could but it didn’t go down as dramatically as I thought it would, and we have been able to operate well.”
Due to the pandemic, Mr. Margerum said his tasting room has moved completely outside, but that hasn’t stopped people from coming in and wanting a fun getaway.
“We’ve been exceptionally busy, way busier than I thought we were going to be,” Mr. Margerum said.
Pivoting to social media and promoting deals on shipping also helped the company make up some sales.
“We are offering these really cool bundles of samples of Marker wines and Barton wines that you can get at a reduced price and lower delivery so we can be able to introduce our wines and that’s proven to be really successful,” Mr. Margerum said.
At the beginning of the year, Mr. Margerum expected his wine company to have the best year of its 20-year run thanks to its tasting room, which opened in the summer of 2019. He also thought it would be successful due to the high remarks on their wine and the solid team behind them.
While COVID has set them back a bit, he said he is happy to see the company functioning and keeping his staff in good spirits.
“We are doing okay, we’re not doing what we could have done if this had not happened, but we are keeping a lot of people employed and happy so that’s what’s most important to me,” he said.
Even when COVID hit, Mr. Margerum didn’t regret opening the tasting room, calling it “a game changer.”
Since opening, the winery has seen an increase from 400 wine club members to over 1,100.
He is also looking forward to the day the tasting room and vineyard can be rented out for events like in the past, allowing the company to operate at full capacity.
“I have no regrets, none whatsoever and there is no hype (with our tasting room, vineyard) because it’s all true,” Mr. Margerum said.
David Lafond, the general manager of Lafond Winery and Vineyards, shared a similar sentiment, adding that his wine club has also seen an increase in members.
“I am definitely optimistic about our winery,” Mr. Lafond said. “Our customers have been very loyal and amazing in their support for us.”
Mr. Lafond said that while the wholesale part of the business has seen a downtrend, people are enjoying a trip to the tasting room more than ever before.
“They are enjoying it so much and they are appreciating, maybe even a little more, that they have this kind of resource in their backyard that they can utilize,” Mr. Lafond said.
Next week, Lafond will begin harvesting season and look forward to continuing its focus on its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
However, because of COVID, Mr. Lafond expects a more challenging season because they have to limit the number of staff members.
“It just depends on how available people are, and whether or not they’re willing to take on another job with the COVID environment out here with the challenge of wearing masks and social distancing, but we will try our best,” Mr. Lafond said.
Another worry Mr. Lafond shared would be people trying to sell their wines at a lower price.
“There’s definitely more pressure to lower prices and there’s a lot of uncertainty, so it’s difficult to sell through or try to anticipate the correct inventory. It’s a little bit of a challenge,” Mr. Lafond said.
Mr. Margerum also shared that grape farmers could be selling their stock at a lower price.
“However, I don’t really see that happening as much in Santa Barbara County because it’s a super-premium market with high demand,” Mr. Margerum said.
Both, however, are optimistic and hopeful that things can get a little more back to normal in 2021.
Suzanne FitzGerald, the manager of the tasting room at the Santa Barbara Winery, said while the tasting room accommodates less people, it has actually been a nice change of pace.
“People can come to the patio and sit down and actually enjoy the tasting slowly and compare their wines and just sort of take in the whole experience,” Ms. FitzGerald said.
Like most people at the start of the pandemic, Ms. FitzGerald did not envision the tasting room could operate at the level it is.
Luckily, right before the closure, the winery sent out a big wine club shipment, which helped them get through the first couple of months.
Since coming back, Ms. FitzGerald said the vibe has been a bit different, but overall positive.
“We are getting a different crowd, people that want to be out and want to enjoy the Santa Barbara life and they are very thankful that we are open and that they can do that,” Ms. FitzGerald said.
A big seller for the Santa Barbara Winery is its white wine, which is produced on site. The harvest is expected in early September.
She added that the wine industry, while operating at about 60% of its normal capacity, has a unique ability to pivot because “people still want their wine.”
“People seem to still be buying wine and they’re not really questioning price. Our bottle prices are very fair and we’ve always kind of kept our prices on the lower side for the quality but people still want their wine,” Ms. FitzGerald said.
Like Ms. FitzGerald, Jourdan Gantt, manager of guest services at Firestone Winery, has also seen more appreciation from customers at its tasting room.
“For the most part we’re dealing with very lovely guests. Everyone is excited to be out after everyone was in that lockdown. Everyone’s been super friendly, very accommodating, and very understanding so it’s been a very positive experience for us,” Ms. Gantt said.
She added that the biggest goal for Firestone Winery right now is to try to add more seating.
“I’m really optimistic that once we get more seating on site we will actually be hitting exactly what we were hitting last year, and even on certain days right now we actually are still matching what we did last year,” Ms. Gantt said.
In general, Ms. Gantt said that Firestone has seen a bigger demand in E-commerce sales, as well as people buying in bulk once they make it up to the winery.
Harvest season comes three weeks earlier for Firestone this year, and Ms. Gantt said she could not be more excited.
“During harvest, people are more excited because they can actually see the grapes being brought in and it’s more hands on so we are pumped and hoping we could continue doing great from here while keeping everyone safe,” Ms. Gantt said.