For Minnesota wineries, necessity has been the mother of reinvention.
And no matter how the pandemic plays out, the changes might be more than temporary — in at least some cases more than welcome.
To be sure, shutdowns and safety directives have disrupted the way tasting rooms — for many the lifeblood of these businesses — operate around the state. Attendance is down, most events have been canceled, and the experience is markedly different.
Wineries have rebuilt their outdoor visitor spaces to allow for social distancing and to minimize the number of guests in the indoor tasting rooms. Many have cut staff, and all have taken measures to protect their employees’ health.
And, by and large, they have revamped the experience, serving glasses, flights and bottles at tables rather than having customers belly up to the bar for individual pours. In the process, they have emphasized edifying as well as entertaining their clientele.
“To be honest, the sit-down model is what I have seen as what we want, not just people holding out the glass and saying ‘more,’ ” said Kyle Peterson, co-owner and winemaker at Winehaven Winery and Vineyard in Chisago City, Minn. “We have less volume of customers, but the quality of the experience is up. Now they can really learn more about Marquette,” a cold-hardy red grape developed by the University of Minnesota.
At the opposite corner of the greater metro area, attendance at the Winery at Sovereign Estate in Waconia is down drastically because of social distancing, and viticulturist Isaac Savaryn said he’s just fine with that.
“The difference now is that people are coming out for the wine,” said Savaryn, whose family owns the winery. “It’s now more of an educational experience. I’ll take 100 who want to know about wine over 1,000 who just want to get drunk.”
Still, revenue is down most everywhere, even if bottle sales are up. (“Last month we sold 400 cases of wine; it used to be that a good month for us was about 200,” Savaryn said.) Not only has capacity been reduced, often drastically, but weddings, concerts and other events — often a significant aspect of Minnesota wineries’ business plan — are down if not out.
“We have done one wedding so far, compared to the usual 20 or so,” said Tami Bredeson, owner of Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria, Minn., “[and] we have almost no non-wedding events. Our fundraising events, corporate events, reunions, etcetera, have all been canceled.”
Winehaven has had some smaller weddings outdoors. “They shaved down the guest list to [around] 40,” Peterson said. Morgan Creek winery near New Ulm, Minn., is “shutting the winery down completely on those days when we have weddings,” said co-owner Paula Marti.
Losing concerts also has been an issue for wineries. Sovereign had six large shows last year but is hosting only smaller gigs in 2020. Marti lamented the loss of concerts that she called “major comfort gatherings” for her guests, and said that all Morgan Creek events have been canceled — with one notable exception.
“We have continued our yoga series. It’s an outdoors yoga-and-brunch combo. Mankato [nearby] is a big yoga town.”
Keeping their distance
The venues themselves have taken on major alterations. Employees at North Shore Winery in Lutsen, Minn., spent the spring constructing a new outdoor area, increasing seating from 30 to 80 — with enforced social distancing.
“The seating is actually hooked to the decks so people can’t move them,” said co-owner Kim Schroeder, “because sometimes we go, ‘Whoa, way too close.’ Everything is done outside under tents. Our staffers feel more comfortable, and I think customers do, too.”
Winehaven has taken a similar approach. “We bought a couple of tents and, frankly, they have been our lifeblood,” Peterson said.
Although it has enormous indoor spaces, Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery in Spring Valley, Minn., also has moved almost its entire guest operation outdoors, said co-owner Kristin Osborne. Fortunately, it also boasts almost boundless outdoor space, as well.
“We can socially distance better than anybody in the state,” Osborne said. “Once we opened, people just preferred being outside. Right now, wide-open spaces and fresh country air is appealing to a lot of people when there’s all this uncertainty.”
Unless the weather is disagreeable, she added, “the only time customers come inside [through garage-type doors] is to order.” That would be with masks on, of course.
Staffers wear masks at all these venues, most of which also request that customers don them when moving around outside.
Most visitors have been amenable. “The first couple of weeks, some people were, ‘Really, I have to wear a mask?’ ” Savaryn said. “But mostly people are glad to be outside doing something [and are] more respectful of what is going on.”
Bredeson said that her staff had reported “zero pushback” on masks.
Her workers have had to make slight adjustments with the combination of masks and the plexiglass that tasting rooms installed at their service areas.
“We are getting better at sign language,” she said with a laugh, “because communication by two masked individuals separated by plexiglass can be a challenge.”
Of course, it’s a bit difficult to sniff and sip wine with a mask on, but wineries are taking steps to minimize if not eliminate potential exposure: disposable menus at Morgan Creek, requiring reservations at Sovereign and others, compostable glasses at Carlos Creek, table sanitizing between seatings, etc.
More challenges await as the weather inevitably turns, among other factors. “We’re worried about the second wave,” Winehaven’s Peterson said. “We’re just trying to stay ahead of that and enjoy this while we can.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.
IF YOU GO
Carlos Creek Winery, 6693 County Road 34 NW., Alexandria, Minn.; 1-320-846-5443; carloscreekwinery.com
Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery, 78757 Hwy. 16, Spring Valley, Minn.; 1-507-346-7300; fourdaughtersvineyard.com
Morgan Creek Vineyards, 23707 478th Av., New Ulm, Minn. 1-507-947-3547; morgancreekvineyards.com
North Shore Winery, 202 Ski Hill Road, P.O. Box 7, Lutsen, Minn.; 1-218-481-9280; northshorewinery.us
Winehaven Winery and Vineyard, 10020 Deer Garden Lane, Chisago City, Minn.; 651-257-1017; winehaven.com
The Winery at Sovereign Estate, 9950 North Shore Road, Waconia, Minn.; 952-446-9957; sovereignestatewine.com
For a listing of more than 30 Minnesota wineries and information on their tasting rooms, go to mnwines.org