Every year, after a long winter’s rest, local wineries and their guests look forward to the first weekend of April, when the wineries come alive, ready to show their first releases of the season during Spring Kick-Off Weekend.
As the Walla Walla Valley welcomed the new year of 2020, the last thing anyone expected was stay-at-home quarantine orders being issued by the state just a few months later due to the contagious coronavirus, COVID-19, sweeping across the world.
Spring Kick-Off Weekend was canceled.
Cancellations of these special wine weekends not only affect wineries but also local restaurants, lodging, along with downtown retailers, grocery stores and gas stations.
Wine weekends keep local businesses and their employees active besides bringing in a large amount of tax revenue to the county and cities.
So what happens when wineries are told to close their doors? They remain open — virtually.
Many of the wineries remained open for “curbside” pick-up and home delivery, besides offering online wine discounts and shipping promotions.
The quarantine may have sapped the wine-tasting crowds out of the tasting rooms, but it didn’t sap the enthusiasm, creativity and community-mindedness of winery owners.
Owners Drew and Maura Bledsoe along with winemaker/partners Josh and Kim McDaniels of Doubleback Winery gave back to the Walla Walla hospitality industry whose employees felt the impact of the pandemic. Restaurant, lodging, and winery employees were treated to complimentary meals courtesy of Doubleback Winery. Partnering up with Andrae and Michelle Bopp of Andrae’s Kitchen the hospitality industry enjoyed AK’s halal-style chicken or gyro falafels by ordering ahead of time and showing their last pay-stub during pick-up.
Michelle Bopp shared the outcome was a huge success with a sell-out almost every day.
Although tasting rooms were dark and empty, winemakers still found a way to connect. In the comfort of their customer’s homes, virtual tastings allowed wine enthusiasts to view some of the newest releases and special offerings for online purchases and curbside pick-up from their favorite wineries.
Some wineries even presented virtual happy hours allowing wine enthusiasts to pull wines from their cellars to enjoy while chatting with their favorite winemaker.
Steve Wells, winemaker, and owner of Time & Direction wines offered his customers to shelter in place and chat with him online by purchasing a discounted flight of four bottles of his current releases including a one-on-one online wine tasting where he discussed each of the wines reviewing their history, label design and tasting notes.
The tastings often reached two hours and for a quarantined wine enthusiast, it was the perfect way to spend an evening. The flight included Grenache rosé, viognier, syrah, and a red blend.
Winemaker and partner of Sleight of Hand Cellars, Trey Busch, started virtual tastings at the end of March hosting every-other Saturday with an average of 150 viewers and 500-600 comments during the tastings. The winery picked a theme and advertised through their mailing list and also used social media.
“They (virtual tastings) have been, first and foremost, fun for me since we can't engage with our customers face to face at this time,” Busch said. “So this is a great way to have that connection with our customers.
“We keep our format loose and fun, and talk about not only the wines we taste but also the vineyards and music.”
Busch has been a part of the Walla Walla community for 20 years, and in 2007 he and co-partners Jerry and Sandy Solomon founded Sleight of Hand Cellars.
Besides engaging their customers via online tastings, giving back to their community was also important during the quarantine. Any customer who brought in a receipt from a local restaurant or small business received a discount on Sleight of Hand Cellars wines — and of course featuring curbside pickup.
Another project was offering the local restaurant industry employees that were currently out of work due to the quarantine a one-time bottle purchase of Sleight of Hand wines for one cent. One penny? Yes, to keep Washington State Liquor Board happy as per state law mandating not to give alcohol away.
It’s important to note that during this interview we were still in the middle of the quarantine, and depending on how much longer the quarantine would continue, Busch said he has a few more ideas for quarantine retailing “in the hopper.”