By JESSICA WETZLER
Daily News-Record 4/11/20
The tasting rooms may be empty, but the wine is still flowing as COVID-19 has put local wineries in the Valley to the test to see how they can get their products to customers who can’t step foot inside their stores.
When social- distancing guidelines were put in place, Bluestone Vineyard and Cross-Keys Vineyards were quick to implement curbside pickup and delivery options for customers in order to keep their businesses going.
“The business has been tremendously affected by COVID-19,” said Babak Bakhtiar with CrossKeys Vineyards. “We have not only had to close our day-to-day operations, but have had a big loss in private and public events — most notably, the cancelation of Easter [celebrations], James Madison University’s graduation and Mother’s Day.”
Bakhtiar said CrossKeys was the first vineyard in the area to close both its bistro and tasting room two weeks before Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order due to the concern over the health of guests and employees.
At Bluestone Vineyard, Curt Hartman said overall sales have been “dramatically off,” adding that wholesale sales are running at roughly 60% of normal rates due to many customers, such as restaurants, struggling as well.
“Our sales through the ABC stores seem to be holding steady,” Hartman said.
On March 20, Virginia ABC announced it would adjust regulations in order to allow restaurants and eat-in establishments, along with breweries, farm wineries and wineries, to sell wine or beer in sealed containers for curbside pickup and delivery.
To cater to a wider audience, both CrossKeys and Bluestone began offering free shipping of online orders and direct delivery for customers who live within a certain distance from the winery.
Hartman said the winery has seen a large number of customers use curbside pickup and a group of people from out-of-state ordering wine, adding that they are using this opportunity to expand their distribution.
“We even occasionally see people parked in their cars for a few minutes to soak up the view,” Hartman said.
While the tasting room is closed to the public, both Bluestone and CrossKeys have put their creativity to the test by bringing the tasting room to the living room with virtual tastings each week.
“The idea of the virtual tasting was something we came up with to keep engaging our customers even though they cannot physically be here with us,” Bakhtiar said. “I had a conversation with our winemaker about picking three of his favorite wines that he would taste on a livestream, like Facebook or Instagram. The feedback was so well received on this first episode we have decided to make it a weekly event.”
To accompany the virtual tasting, CrossKeys Vineyards came out with at-home tasting bottles that feature three hand- picked wines every week. The tasting kits were released Monday and by Thursday were sold out.
For Bluestone Vineyard’s virtual tasting, the winery announces which wines will be featured in advance so customers can order the wine and enjoy the tasting in realtime.
“We release a new tasting each Friday at 3 p.m. and have them scheduled through May,” Hartman said. “Once the tastings are released they remain on the Bluestone Vineyard YouTube channel to be watched whenever you would like.”
On top of finding new ways to bring the business outside of the vineyard, both wineries have come out with new products with Bluestone offering canned wine and CrossKeys releasing its newest wine, the 2018 Viognier Reserve.
“Releasing a new wine has obviously been an extreme challenge,” Bakhtiar said. “We normally hold a release party anytime we introduce a new wine, and offer customers complimentary tastings and discounts on quantity purchases. Since we are not able to do that, we had to promote heavily on our social media outlets.”
Bakhtiar said the new wine was included in the first virtual tasting, which helped increase sales.
The idea of canning wine at Bluestone Vineyard had been in the works for several months, but finally came to life Thursday as the winery began selling canned rose, vidal blanc, moscato and Beau.
“This we feel will help with our restaurant customers that are looking for a smaller serving for take-outs and our personal customers who would like wine occasionally, but don’t want to open a whole bottle,” Hartman said.
While the experiences gained during the COVID-19 pandemic have helped local wineries find new ways to reach their customers, Hartman said it has been “unlike anything I could have imagined.”
“We really miss the opportunity to have our customers in our tasting room and on the patio. As one of our staff said, ‘It’s not supposed to be like this,’” he said. “When we can open to our customers and friends again you will see the same people and the same atmosphere that we had before. We are all looking forward to that day.”