Moses Lake, WA 98837, USA

Basin wineries take a hit with doors closed

Staff Writer

MOSES LAKE — Businesses around the country continue to adjust behind closed doors, and social distancing measures continue due to the official responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wineries in Washington have not been immune, with owners and operators feeling the hit in various ways.

Eva Hill and her husband, George, have been operating the tasting room at Winchester Estate Winery near Ephrata for about four years now. An estate winery, it grows 100 percent of its fruit on its own premises.

Eva Hill said what they offer at their winery is an experience with the rustic, old farm buildings that have been converted into the winery and tasting room and the vines growing outside.

“When we can’t have people to the tasting room and we can’t sell an experience, it’s difficult because just doing curbside pickup isn’t the same as coming and having an experience,” she said.

They were lucky to jump on the delivery and curbside option right away, offering promotions, large discounts on a variety of wines and free delivery. As a result, business has been good the past three or four weeks, but she thinks that will be tough to sustain, Hill said.

She appreciates the support and patronage customers have given them since they were forced to close their tasting room doors. At a certain point, Hill said people aren’t going to be able to keep stocking up.

“I think there’s a glut of wine on the market in general, so I think larger wineries are having more difficulties than we are as a small one because they’re probably sitting on a lot of inventory that they can’t move to restaurants,” Hill said. “We can’t either. Everyone’s digging deep, but at some point, it’s not sustainable.”

The Hills haven’t seen any issues with distribution or supplies yet, but labor will be an issue as time goes on.

“We need about eight people to bottle a run of wine, and you can’t social distance in the winery like that, so it makes it hard,” Eva Hill said.

They’ve been trying to do all the labor they can themselves, but they’re sitting on a lot of wine they just can’t bottle right now. They’ll need more labor to deal with bottling.

Nancy Parr and her husband, Dennis, are the owners of Camas Cove Cellars in Moses Lake. Parr said it has been quiet around the winery since the shutdowns went into effect.

“It’s just extremely difficult because we’re used to having people in, people socializing with wine tastings and meeting each other,” Nancy Parr said. “We’re just not able to do that now. It’s more they have to order without tasting ... half the fun is tasting in a tasting room.”

A big factor for business at Camas Cove is hosted events, such as the Pirate Regatta in September, bringing people by boat to enjoy a live band and food. She said she’s not sure they’ll be able to do that, and added they’ll just have to wait and see how things play out.

“Events are a big part of our business, and they’re fun, music, stuff like that,” Parr said. “They’re mostly outdoors, so it’s conceivable we could go ahead with certain things if people are careful. But it’s unknown, it’s the great unknown right now.”

While the tasting room is closed, Camas Cove is also offering wines to be ordered for curbside pickup.

Parr said business for March and April has been down at least 85 percent.

“You really couldn’t continue if that was your sole income, because you have all the regular insurance, power, phones, and all the regular bills,” she said. “And, of course, you have to get supplies for making wine, the corks and capsules, things like that, transportation, and just getting that type of stuff in.”

Parr said they haven’t been bottling wine while there’s a chance the virus may be present.

J.J. Williams is the director of operations for Kiona Vineyards and Winery in Benton City. The biggest obstacle for them so far has been their twice-annual member releases, what Williams said people refer to as their “wine club.”

This year, the spring member release happened to fall on the calendar at the same time that businesses began to furlough employees, while others were told to stay home.

Typically, the member service acts like a subscription, with customers needing to opt out if they didn’t want to continue receiving wine.

With the uncertainty of everything, Williams said it seemed like the responsible thing to do to switch that to an opt-in structure, preventing customers from automatically being billed.

“If you’re getting furloughed and you lose your job and income goes from dependable and reliable to narrow because of no fault of your own, the last thing you need is multiple hundreds of dollars of wine, a luxury good, charged to your credit card,” he said.

The member system, typically a batch operation, has now became a manual one as Kiona Vineyard staff worked to submit each order individually. Williams said this upped the man-hours needed by a factor of eight.

Williams said, for a family-owned and operated winery, they’re lucky in being an established name that doesn’t rely as heavily on direct consumer sales.

“Most Washington wineries that fall into that description are very dependent on direct consumer sales, meaning for a lot of small wineries, if the tasting room isn’t open, they’re in the red for the day, or the month, or year,” he said. “That’s their main source of revenue.”

Williams said they’re fortunate to have their wine bottles on shelves in places like grocery stores in Moses Lake.

“People aren’t going to the restaurant or the wine shop to drink wine,” he said. “They’re throwing a few bottles in the cart when they’re picking up food, paper towels and hand sanitizer.”

One of the largest parts of the business operations at Kiona Vineyards is the amount of wine grapes distributed for other wineries. Williams said they grow for 60 different wineries and, if people are drinking red mountain wine, there’s a good chance the fruit comes from their farm.

For now, farm operations remain the same day to day, Williams said, but he expects there to be some demand issues down the road. Williams said he can’t imagine how other industries, such as restaurant owners, are dealing with the pressure of everything going on right now in an industry with an infamously thin margin.

The restaurant industry is intrinsically tied to the wine industry, Williams said. Independent, small wineries and restaurants in Washington are joined at the hip in this journey.

“When we start to open things back up and are, hopefully, firing on all cylinders again, we can only hope that the small, independent restaurants that have supported us over the years can open back up,” Williams said. “And that’s a big question mark for everybody.”