Plans to Build Success in the New Year: Expert Outlook 2021

There always seems to be a lot of talk centered on how you can learn from mistakes and from the dips in life. Well, 2020 has certainly taught many wineries hard lessons, and planning for 2021 is still a difficult chore as the global pandemic has made life-altering notions that have sent many wine producers scrambling to stay flexible. Some situations had to happen day by day as city, regional, and state mandates altered opening times along with what and when something could even be sold and in a certain matter.

Taking a step back and looking over what 2020 has delivered along with what 2021 could hold is something that needs to be done for each facility nationwide. Thoughts of sustaining overgrowth may be the mantra now, yet, discussions and planning on growth must be made — no matter how tentatively they may be — over the next few months.

Vintner touched on points of what was learned in 2020 and how it applies to the future with winery experts from across the country. ​In a sense, planning for 2021 in 2020 is​ really too early for many that Vintner spoke with.

“We have only had ​five​ months of the current situation and each month has been different – phases, rules, restrictions​,” said Glenora president and CEO Gene Pierce. ​“​We will be reviewing 2020 at year’s​ end and be making longer-term decisions/plans at that time​.”

That may have to be the plan for many as they prepare the harvest of the fall and plan on how it will play out in the coming year.

WHAT NEW STRATEGIES WILL STAY?

With a tasting room at the winery that was typically busy and packed with visitors before the COVID-19 pandemic, ​Papapietro Perry very quickly moved to host a series of virtual and online events earlier this year.

​“​Instantly, we realized how much money we had been leaving on the table​,” said co-owner Renae Perry​. ​“​While we were forced to pivot to this format, what we learned is that many customers​ —​ usually that live far away​ —​ had the chance to visit us just one time in Healdsburg.

​“​Reaching out to people where they live is such a smart idea. Why didn’t we do this all of the time? We are selling more wine, our customers are more engaged, we are reaping the benefits of participating in online events, and trying out things that we had never done before.​“

The Sonoma County, California winery’s club members can join a virtual event and unbox their wines along with ​the ​Winemaker​ Ben Papapietro​, ​and ​everyone in the country now has the opportunity to taste with ​him​.

​Papapietro Perry was also forced to move to a reservation system only for people that do visit ​the tasting room​, but they have found it to be quite successful​.

“It actually offers a better experience for our customers as they have a seated tasting, with a person serving them the wines​,” Perry said​. ​“​We were always reluctant to make that change, but it has worked out and I believe it will be here to stay.​“​

The way this year has gone, it has forced ​Shade Mountain Winery & Vineyard to adapt quickly. 

“​We have realized that people came to value “our venue” and what it has to offer​,” explained owners Jenny and Bill Zimmerman during Camp Pennawine, an annual event put on by the Pennsylvania Winery Association and was run virtually this year​. 

​“​We are a winery and ​Vineyard and located in a safe, hospitable area in rural America​,” they said of the ​central Pennsylvania Susquehanna River Valley. ​“We offer serenity and a place to get away​ … ​to get away from the craziness that the pandemic has caused. 

​“​So we offer a respite from the responsibilities of life​ … ​just for a short while.​“

The Zimmermans said that consumers have been coming to visit ​Shade Mountain as small groups of friends to enjoy wine and the views of the vineyard. 

​“We feel as though people will continue to come to rural America to find this escape​ — ​so we want to add additional outdoor seating​ ​and other ways to enjoy wine aside from barside tastings.”

They have also discovered that wine flights have been a fabulous stand-in​ for consumers to sample​ tasting selections ​while enjoying​ them out on ​the deck ​and away ​​from the inside.

When ​Whitebarrel Winery reopens​, ​owner, Winemaker​ and​ General Manager​ Richard Obiso said the Virginia winery​ will be a reservation only, tour, and tasting only full experience winery.

​“​We will take groups only ​two times per day and they will be able to tour our farm, greenhouses, manufacturing area, barrel area, and they will all be greeted with a full wine tasting and charcuterie board​,” he explained, adding that the biggest stumbling blocks have been setting an expectation for the guest when they arrive at the winery, and then, meeting or exceeding that expectation while not trying to be something they are not.

SOME SUCCESS OUT OF 2020?

Tassel Ridge suffered a decline in overall sales in 2020 but the only good news was in wholesale. ​The ​Iowa winery​ is​ allowed to self-distribute in-state​ where ​it has more than 400 outlets. 

​“​Our growth in wholesale revenues is in the low single digits​,” said ​​owner Bob Wersen.​ “We attribute that to significant improvements in display graphics, bottle neckers, shelf talkers, and displays we lend to our retailers. 

​“​Our customers tell us that they can find our wines easily in the store. Our brand strength has also motivated many retailers to regularly put our wines on sale and this has a major impact on sales volume.​“​

As a 100% employee-owned company, ​Indiana’s Oliver Winery continue​s​ to grow with ​the goal of bringing people together through wine.

​“​Everyone in the company is invested, and we all care​,” said Director of Marketing, Sarah Anderson​. ​“​That’s why we’ve built our business on a foundation of strong relationships​ ​— ​with our customers, retailers, growers, and distributors​ — ​knowing that our connections with each other are important.​“

Oliver will continue to expand ​its wholesale distribution and improve ​the tasting room and vineyard experience.

​“​We’ll likely keep growing, as long as quality is not compromised in any way​,” Anderson said. ​“​We’re also focused on having fun and building our team. Oliver is all about finding ways to reinvent what wine is supposed to be​ — ​and not taking it too seriously.

​The winery’s latest expansion​s are due to increased points of distribution and great partnerships with national accounts. ​Growth in recent years is being propelled by ​brands such as ​Oliver Blueberry Moscato (launched in 2019) and Oliver Cherry Moscato, ​along with the winery’s seasonal Apple Pie and Peach Pie wines, and the continued success of Sweet Red, part of ​its Soft Wine Collection​.​

NEW CONSUMER PURCHASING HABITS

The DTC market is expanding rapidly​,​​ as is the off-premise wholesale market,​ noted Vintner and owner of Flambeaux Winery, Art Murray.

“Initially, we steered about from off-premise, but now that our winery has gained a bit of a reputation, we are willing to be on the shelf as more people are buying​,” he said. “​With DTC it’s a matter of getting the attention of the consumers.​“

The winery’s online virtual Instagram Lives and participating in virtual fundraisers have helped.

​“​Locals coming out to taste has also helped DTC, because people are so desperate to find something fun to do and within driving range​,” Murray said. “These trends will continue. ​“Restaurants, we fear, are in a tough position for a good while. Many will disappear, many will struggle and not be able to sell as much wine, our winery will shift with it. While DTC and off-premise grows, we will grow with it. I also suspect that many states have and will continue to reduce their restrictions on DTC due to COVID. Limitations on shipping wine direct may loosen, and some states that don’t have DTC at all may open up. This all may happen within the next year.​“​

Fero Vineyards & Winery are counting on a sustainable core of customers who value the locally grown and produced products of ​its business​ to find new success.

​“Providing customers the ability to see the vineyard and be part of the story will differentiate us from simply buying wine at a wine store or online​,” said owners Chuck and Daneen Zaleski.​ “The key element is wine quality and having that tied to our people and vineyard site.​“

Roeder feels a​ greater focus is obvious ​as it will be paramount for safety and social distancing protocols​ for consumers​. 

“​The emphasis on quality of service is ever greater​,” he said, noting that about 20% of the Barrel Oak guests have not behaved responsibly in following the winery’s pandemic rules of operation. “This puts everyone at risk and requires additional labor costs to manage. It is hard to grow the business when a significant percentage of your client base is demanding that you accept their values rather than accepting a program that would allow increased on-site sales if respected and followed by all.

“The intelligent application of easy to use and readily accessible tech which also simplifies administrative functions is critical to fulfilling the needs of our guests.​“​

Matt Moersch, ​the ​CEO of Moersch Hospitality Group​ which runs Round Barn Estate, Tabor Hill Winery, and other entities in Southwestern Michigan said that moving into 2021 ​they believe ​the company’s largest opportunity for growth ​and​ building​ ​on 2020 would be the ​Direct to Consumer market. 

​“​We plan to continue to deliver our hospitality experience beyond our properties​,” Moersch said​. “The best way we can do this is by inviting people to become a part of our family of brands​.”

The plan to launch​ ​the Vineyard Premier Membership Program ​began in ​October, 2020. Benefits will include free shipping on online purchases, access for two to the “Jammin in the Vineyard” weekend concert weekends (a USA Today 10 Best) at the Round Barn Estates​, as well as exceptional member pricing for on property bottle sales and online bottle sale purchases.

​“​We’re super excited to offer this program to our guests and believe it will be a huge savings and convenience to enjoy our products – on property and online.”​

SMART INVESTMENTS

Virginia’s ​Barrel Oak Winery​ had just completed ​a new website rebuild at the beginning of 2020​, which was an even more smart investment than Brian Roeder had planned.

​“This platform was state of the art and has allowed us to put in place several new interactive web-based sales platforms such as for-fee reservations and simplified club sales enrollment, payment, and administration.​“​

Papapietro Perry is working on a large website rebuild and Perry said they have learned more about technology in the last six months than they ever would have anticipated.

“With Facebook and Instagram Lives, Zoom tastings, and other technology innovations, we have survived and are continuing to grow,” Perry said. “If the pandemic had happened ten years ago, we likely all would be out of business. As terrible as it is, we are lucky that we have these technologies in place to take the place of in-person interactions.”

​Armstrong Valley Vineyard has added other sides of technology to the Pennsylvania winery as co-owners Jake Gruver and Dean L. Miller told Vintner during Camp Penawine they are looking at a new POS system to be more flexible in everyday activities and reporting.​ They are also investing in equipment, adding a new destemmer and grape press for the harvest season.

“Those pieces of equipment are wonderful,” they said.

​Fero has been putting some alternative packaging in cans as a trial. 

​“​We constantly work on viticultural and enological alterations to produce the best possible wine​,” the Zaleskis said.​ “We have gone in the direction of simplifying the process to reflect the unique qualities of our region and climate of our vineyard site using a natural winemaking process.”​

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