GARDEN CITY — Idaho’s $200 million wine industry is struggling during COVID-19, and local wineries are finding innovative ways to keep sales going.
With changes to farmers markets, weddings and other outdoor spring and summer events, wineries are relying on individual sales and wine club memberships to get by during the outbreak.
“This feels like holding your breath as an industry and a nation,” said Michael Williamson, one of the owners of Williamson Orchards and Vineyards. “It feels like a temporary thing, and we are all seeing how long we can hold our breath until this blows over.”
The family-owned business is one of over a dozen wineries along the Sunnyslope Wine Trail near Caldwell.
Williamson maintains a vineyard and farm and also a retail business. He said the farm side of the business is normal, because the work typically requires workers to maintain a safe distance from each other.
“If our farmworkers took the last two weeks off, we might as well have taken the year off,” Williamson said. “On the growers’ side, farmers get income once a year and you have to budget and plan for all the operations and harvest until you get paid again.”
Williamson Orchards and Vineyards sells its wine grapes to other wineries, so Williamson hopes the wineries can continue to buy from them.
The vineyard’s retail sales are another story.
“Even before the shelter in place we were seeing our retail drop,” Williamson said. “We have been modifying our practices around that. We are doing drive-thru pickups and phone-ahead sales. We are doing everything we can to survive and keep our employees safe.”
Like most wineries, Williamson Orchards and Vineyards is offering curbside pickups and online sales. The vineyard is also hosting Facebook Live videos where one of the owners does a demonstration. The vineyard has done a virtual wine tasting and a pruning demonstration. Williamson said the business hopes to do more online videos and suggested maybe hosting a Zoom call where people can wine taste together.
“This is a creative group,” Williamson said. “People in the Idaho wine industry are creative, to do this work requires out-of-the box thinking.”
Apart from the Sunnyslope region, some wineries in Garden City are also trying to find innovative ways to stay open during the pandemic.
Telaya Wine Company in Garden City typically uses the spring and summer months to hosts several big events and event series. Those have been canceled.
“That is $20,000 to $30,000 a month in events that we can’t do now,” said Earl Sullivan, owner and winemaker at Telaya Wine Company.
The inability to serve customers wine by the glass has also impacted sales, Sullivan said.
Telaya’s wine club memberships are now an important part of the company’s model, he said, and one way Idahoans can support the local winery.
Kathryn House, founder of House of Wine, a Boise-based wine lab, wine education classroom and consultation business, said joining a wine club is a good way to support local businesses. She also encourages people to stop at the local wine shops for wine.
House said parts of her business have been slow and her classes have all gone online. Wineries are still using the House of Wine lab to test their wines.
Telaya is offering curbside pickup and local wine deliveries, Sullivan said, and customers can purchase wine in-store. He said there are often food trucks parked outside, offering to-go food.
“We are trying to make it easy and as comfortable as possible for people who want to order,” Sullivan said.
He said Telaya decided to keep all of its employees, despite the shortage of sales. Employees are working on renovation and database projects, “things we could never get to before,” Sullivan said.
According to an economic impact study by the Idaho Wine Commission, about 1,200 jobs are tied to the Idaho wine industry.
Crystal Potter, co-owner of Potter Wines in Garden City, said they have also seen a shortage in sales. Potter Wines participates heavily in both the Capital City Public Market and the Boise Farmers Market. The Capital City Public Market has been postponed, and the Boise Farmers Market is moving to online sales for essential goods such as bread and produce.
Potter said the winery has had to limit employee hours, but it is still open, offering curbside pickup and free deliveries in Ada County.
Sullivan said it is important for people to continue to support local wineries so the industry can get back to full strength when the threat of the coronavirus passes.
“It is important that the community understand that the Idaho wine industry brings $200 million in economic development in state of Idaho, through employment, tourism and sales,” Sullivan said. “If we want that engine to restart we need all of these local wineries, and most of us are these mom-and-pop shops. We need to make sure we can turn that engine back on we need to.”
Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Shatz Dolsby said people are still purchasing wine so the industry is still stable, but she said wineries are fearing what is to come.
With tasting rooms closed, lots of wineries have had to let go of some employees or reduce hours, she said. But, wine is still being made and vineyards are still being harvested, she added.
Dolsby said the push for people to “buy local” is helping the industry.