Usually, the excitement of harvest season draws guests to in-person experiences at some of the region’s leading wineries. Because of the current pandemic, many of your favorite Texas wineries have had to shut their tasting room doors to visitors and have lost sales revenue because of it. Though the economic effects on winemakers from coronavirus have been heavy, the pandemic hasn’t stopped activities related to harvest time.
After initial pandemic shutdowns in March, Gov. Greg Abbott allowed bars to reopen in May — and that included tasting rooms for wineries and similar booze producers. But then cases of COVID-19 and related hospitalizations skyrocketed, and on June 26, Abbott again ordered the closure of any business for whom at least 51% sales come from alcohol.
Texas wineries, including those in the state’s tourism-booming Hill Country, had to stop serving visitors again.
"We’re concerned because there’s no obvious timeline to this for reopening," says Julie Kuhlken, co-founder and chief marketing and hospitality officer for Pedernales Cellars in Stonewall, about an hour and a half west of Austin. "The fact is, we’ve been very unsuccessful in saying, ‘Hey, we’re not bars.’ Most of us (wineries) are closed by 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. in the evening."
Susan Auler, co-founder of Fall Creek Vineyards in Driftwood, agrees.
"It’s been tough, to say the least, when you’ve been shut down for essentially at least five months," she says. At the beginning of June, Fall Creek was able to briefly reopen their tasting room, which meant a boost to the bottom line.
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Despite the loss in profits from closed tasting rooms, Central Texas wineries have been busy.
"If there’s any silver lining to anything, we’re not sitting around twiddling our thumbs," says Jen Beckmann, director of operations for Fredericksburg-based Slate Mill Wine Collective, one of the largest wineries in Texas.
"It’s definitely been a time where we can focus on the craft and the product, along with growing the infrastructure of the business."
Keeping in line with social distancing, harvesting season in the vineyards hasn’t looked that different. Auler says, "The vineyards are expansive, so it’s easy to spread the pickers out."
Everything from row spacing to the number of workers assigned to work out in the grapes has been taken into account so the winemaking process can continue. Also, equipment such as mechanical harvesters used by Slate Mill has helped keep staff safe, because it requires little to no human power to operate while maintaining the same level of quality as handpicking, Beckmann says.
The pandemic "didn’t really slow things down for us dramatically," Beckmann says. "When the first shutdown happened, we were really walking into a position where we were expanding our cellar space and vineyard." In March, Slate Mill planted close to 155,000 vines, or about 100 acres, which is a big increase from the 35 acres the winery solely had before planting this year. "We were really able to reposition a lot of our interior working staff into either the vineyard or into the cellar to really help us grow that," she adds.
During the pandemic, wineries across the state have had to take innovative approaches to support their businesses. For example, Texas-based independent brands can produce their own wine through Slate Mill’s Custom Crush program. Under this initiative, small Texas-based brands that don’t own their own winery or facilities can enlist the assistance of Slate Mill, its winemaking team and its production capabilities. They can bring the grapes they’ve grown or secured via contract to Slate Mill, and the winery will help them make their wine from start to bottling. Beckmann says the effort is "helping people’s dreams come true and (launching) their business from ground up from under one shared roof."
Because wine fans can enter wineries only to purchase a retail bottle and wineries can’t serve customers in their tasting rooms, Fall Creek has taken advantage of the situation by hosting virtual tastings, which kicked off in March. The company recently partnered with renowned pastry chef and restaurateur Rebecca Rather for a digital food and wine pairing session.
"Everybody’s spending more time at home cooking. I’ve spent more time cooking in the last five months than I’ve hoped to for the rest of my life," Auler says with a laugh. "People really loved Rebecca’s cooking class. We had so many people texting in questions. We’re looking at bringing her back in August. We’ll bring in some more chefs, as well."
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Pedernales Cellars. They’re celebrating outside of the digital world, which is rare these days.
"We obviously had a bunch of things planned, but unless there’s a significant change, we’re not going to be able to do (them)," says Kuhlken. In the spirit of improvising, the winery hosts cellar tours which only can consist of private groups of up to 10 individuals wearing masks. People can purchase bottles at the end of their visits. People also can drink purchased wine on the lawn that features a beautiful view. Guests are encouraged to treat the experience as if they’re going to a park – i.e., bring their own lawn chairs and bottle opener. In August, Pedernales Cellars will host a yoga event, and wine can be bought afterward. They’re also planning to host a grape stomp in the future.
"When everything reopened in May and June, there seemed to be a lot of people who wanted to get out. People are less enthusiastic about that now," Kuhlken says. "The seriousness of this has hit Texas."