Food + Drink, Sonoma Wineries, What's New in Sonoma County

How to Support Small Sonoma Wineries During the Coronavirus Pandemic

With tasting rooms closed and special events for wine club members canceled, the “little guys” are struggling. Wine lovers can help.

Enjoyment of wine is an essential part of life for many who live in Wine Country, though we can’t now justify — as the governor of California has made clear — visiting tasting rooms to sample and purchase wine. Not during a pandemic, even if the pantry has run out of pinot noir.

Those blessed with stocked wine cellars and cooling units can drink up. What better time than now to pull the corks on those bottles you’ve been hoarding for a special occasion? It’s here.

For everyone else, there are options for buying wine without hitting the tasting room trail. Grocery stores are the most obvious choice. As providers of “essential” services, they have stayed open during the coronavirus closures. From the chains (BevMo, Costco, Safeway, Lucky’s, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods among them) to the locally-owned gourmet grocers (such as Oliver’s Markets, Big John’s in Healdsburg, Petaluma Market and Sonoma Market), wine selection is typically diverse and covers all price points, although virus-related delivery and restocking slowdowns might occur.

Supporting local wineries

The best way to support Sonoma County’s small wineries, many of which don’t produce enough vino to place their wines in stores, is to order directly from the producers and have the bottles delivered to you while you’re hunkered down.

According to Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, the typical small winery gets roughly 30% of its business from tasting-room activity and another 30% from wine-club sales. With tasting rooms closed and special events for wine club members canceled, the “little guys” are struggling. Wine lovers can help.

In the two-day gap between the closure of California tasting rooms on March 17 and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order on March 19, wineries scrambled to get wines to their fans via self-delivery and curbside pickup. Now that staying at home is the prudent thing to do, ordering wine to be shipped to your door not only reduces risk of coronavirus exposure, it’s a boost to small businesses.

As an example, Serena Lourie and Alan Baker, proprietors of Cartograph Wines, have a hefty rent for their downtown Healdsburg tasting room space and sell most of their wines direct to consumers through the tasting room, wine club memberships and online ordering. After two days of curbside pickup and hand-delivering wines themselves, they moved to shipping via UPS to keep the bottles flowing. Those phoning the tasting room have their calls forwarded to the couple’s cell phones so they can assist with orders and answer questions.

The Mariani brothers at Scribe Winery in Sonoma recently offered free shipping on four selected wines ($198) as part of their “Hacienda at Home” program and included recipes and a link to the Hacienda tasting room and farm playlist. Others, such as Comstock Wines and Gary Farrell Winery, both in Healdsburg, are offering virtual tastings. Customers order a specific set of wines and taste them, via Zoom or Skype, along with the winemaker at an appointed date and time.

Shipping deals

The cost of having wine shipped to homes and businesses through common carriers such as UPS and FedEx is prohibitive for many consumers. A 12-bottle case of wine can cost up to $60 for two-day delivery, in addition to the purchase price of the wines inside. Ground rates are less expensive but come with no guarantees on when the box will arrive or the travel conditions for the bottles. One afternoon of high heat can “cook” wines as they sit on shipping docks or in delivery trucks. Time of year is everything with ground delivery.

To lessen the shipping-cost impediment, the Sonoma County Vintners association created the “Sip from Home with Sonoma County Wines” program, where dozens of local producers post shipping deals and bottle discounts. Some include portions of the proceeds being donated to charitable causes.

Balletto Vineyards in Santa Rosa offers free deliveries within Sonoma County and 1-cent shipping on six or more bottles. Westwood Estate Wines in Sonoma Valley offers a 10% discount on wine purchases and complimentary shipping on three bottles or more. In Alexander Valley, Stuhlmuller Vineyards charges 1 cent for shipping and offers a 15% discount on wines. Ram’s Gate Winery in Carneros has complimentary shipping and 15% off wine purchases.

These are online offerings only, short-term solutions to what vintners hope is not a long-term problem. The pandemic situation is fluid, regulations can change in an instant and so can winery’s offerings to consumers.

Retail options

On the retail store side, Willibees Wine & Spirits owner Vikram “Sunny” Badhan said his two locations, in Petaluma and downtown Santa Rosa, are able to remain open because they have restaurant licenses. Alongside the to-go food sold at the store, Willibees’ wines, spirits and beers are sold for takeout. Scheduled tastings and special events are off the board for now.

Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, a popular warehouse-style store with a vast selection of wine, beer and spirits, closed on March 17 and announced March 19 that it would resume fulfilling online orders, shipping them via common carriers. On March 22, it initiated a program for same-day, local deliveries through the app Drizly, available in the Apple app store.

Sonoma Wine Shop, on the plaza in Sonoma, is closed, though its sister site, La Bodega in Sebastopol, is open for takeout food and wine sales.

It should be mentioned that wine shipping is not guaranteed to continue through the pandemic. UPS, FedEx, Golden State Overnight and other shippers could postpone operations at any moment, making now the time to order the chardonnay you can’t live without.

Note: Someone 21 or older must be present to sign for all alcoholic beverage deliveries, no matter which delivery service is used.

Bottle Barn: 707-528-1161, bottlebarn.com

Cartograph Wines, 340 Center Street, Healdsburg, 707-433-8270, cartographwines.com

La Bodega, 2295 Highway 116 South, Sebastopol, 707-827-1832

Scribe Winery, 707-939-1858, scribewinery.com

Sip from Home with Sonoma County Wines: sonomawine.com/sip-from-home

Willibees Wine & Spirits: 309 Lakeville Hwy, Petaluma, 707-762-2042; 700 Third St., Santa Rosa, 707-978-3779, willibees.com

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