Berkeley wineries rally during uncertain times

Bottles and Barrels and a mask reminder at the entrance of the Donkey and Goat outdoor wine tasting area. October 17, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

October 19, 2020

BERKELEYSIDE — Last month, the Napa Valley wildfires burned several vineyards and covered others in smoke and soot. The immediate impact on Berkeley’s dozen urban wineries, most of which are clustered in what has become known as the Drinks District off of Gilman Street in West Berkeley, varied from none to significant (one lost two vineyards and another lost eight tons of cabernet to smoke taint). While not all of the winemakers we spoke with had grapes that were directly affected, the smoke that ascended on the Bay Area was a foreboding reminder for all that fire season and climate change are inescapable concerns they’ll have to keep in mind on top of everything else this year.

The recent fires were yet another devastating blow to their operations, which have been hampered since March, when Berkeley’s shelter-in-place order shut down tasting rooms to slow the spread of COVID-19. This summer, the city flip-flopped in allowing venues to open outdoors. While wineries have once again been permitted to host tastings outside, smoke from various raging fires choked the air on and off for weeks, leading to numerous last-minute cancellations. And though Berkeley restaurants may reopen their indoor dining rooms starting on Oct. 26, the city said it is not planning to allow indoor wine tasting in the next health order.

When we asked how Berkeley winemakers were faring, we heard about their exasperation, acceptance and uncertainty. But, we also heard about their plans for realignment and new opportunities. And we heard about a resilient wine scene, one that needs the Berkeley community’s continued support.

The tasting room is what keeps the lights on

Maître de Chai sells bottles of wine at its outdoor tasting area. Photo: Pete Rosos

The tasting room is the lifeblood of an urban winery, and nothing hurts more than being shuttered. There’s no way around the fact that small wineries depend on these venues to introduce wines to the public. According to Silicon Valley Bank, the average winery today receives approximately 60% of its revenue from consumers buying wines at its tasting room.

In Berkeley, tasting rooms are the raison d’être of the Drinks District and the barrel-filled tasting room at Donkey & Goat is its ultimate destination. When shelter-in-place orders were first announced and closed Berkeley’s urban wineries, Tracey Brandt, co-owner of Donkey & Goat, knew early on that she would have to compensate for lost indoor tasting room sales. Blessed with a large backyard, Donkey & Goat was one of the first Berkeley wineries to reopen and remains a prime spot to sip a flight of award-winning wines while eating individually wrapped cheese and charcuterie. At the same time, Brandt revamped its indoor space to serve as a wine shop, where customers can purchase bottles in-person from the sidewalk at the tasting room door.

Donkey & Goat’s large socially distanced backyard tasting area is a prime spot to sip a flight of  wines while eating individually wrapped cheese and charcuterie. Photo: Pete Rosos

For Dave Gifford, co-owner and winemaker of Windchaser Wine Co., “the tasting room is what keeps the lights on.” Without any out-of-state distributors and only recently a Southern California distributor, Gifford depends on sales on-site at his Fourth Street winery. With his large indoor tasting room currently closed, he has been focused on growing his tasting room offerings, holding more virtual events and pop-ups, and expanding his wine club rosters. “Rent is my main cost. I might as well get as much out of it as I can,” Gifford explained.

Gifford, credits ramped up drive-thru sales and local delivery with keeping him busy. Although Windchaser is not hosting tastings, they have two tables outside the front door that can simultaneously handle six people, and Gifford hopes to add more outside seating soon. “I have an area of a parking lot that needs a little fixing up but will hold five or six tables safely spaced.”

Windchaser Winery owner Dave Gifford. Photo: Pete Rosos
Customers sitting at one of the two outdoor tasing areas at Windchaser Winery. Photo: Pete Rosos

David Teixeira of Lusu Cellars, recently reopened with five outdoor tasting tables just in time for Lusu’s fall releases, including several red wines and their first-ever hard cider. Tables are available by reservation for groups of up to four. For Teixeira, the new normal solidified the intimacy in the tasting experience: “The tasting room was always about one-on-one interaction, but the tasting room is small and would get crowded. Now, because of reservations, I can ensure a level of intimacy when showing wines that couldn’t always be preserved when it was busy.”

New opportunities in the new normal

With many tasting rooms closed, some Berkeley wineries have found new opportunities in the new normal. During the first phase of COVID adjustments, Josh Hammerling of Blue Ox Wine Co. said he threw everything at the wall to see what would stick. One of his ideas included a supper club delivery service, where Hammerling partnered with chefs, but that was short-lived.

“It was a fun thing to do for a few months, and it definitely helped keep the lights on. But the logistics of coordinating with chefs, designing menus, accomodating special orders, planning delivery routes that we drove ourselves, and trying to do all of this under temperature control in our vehicles with coolers, turned out to be an insane undertaking.”

Next, Blue Ox tried operating as a wine delivery service. “Not fun, but necessary to stay afloat,” he noted. Now that the dust has settled a bit and with no supper club to manage, Hammerling is gearing up to serve the new vintage releases of sparkling wine blend in on-site outdoor tastings.

Maître de Chai co-owner Marty Winters rolls out the pizza dough for the first customers of the day during a Posteggio event. Photo: Pete Rosos
Maître de Chai employee Jessica Force answers customers’ questions. Photo: Pete Rosos

Co-owners of Berkeley’s newest winery, Maître de Chai, Marty Winters and Alex Pitts, met as cooks in the kitchen at Cyrus in Healdsburg. MDC, as it’s affectionately known, was supposed to open a simple tasting room in May. When COVID derailed that plan, the duo flexed their creative muscles, put up a pizza oven, and have been hosting tastings and serving wood-fired pizza made at the winery in their parking lot.

“We call these pop-up pizza events and tastings Posteggio,” said Winters. Italian for parking lot, Posteggio patrons can expect two pizza options: a simple Margherita and a special selection, which to date has included toppings such as pepperoni, sausage, and pepper or ‘nduja and mint. In the future, the duo hopes to build a tasting bar and retail space where they sell products from the community and host pop-ups with local businesses that do not have bricks and mortar spaces.

Wine membership has its privileges

Bridget Leary, business and life partner of Chris Brockway, owner and winemaker of Broc Cellars, reports that they have taken a hit because their tasting room has been closed, but have made up the business with an increase in wine club memberships. Leary is betting that the shift in focus toward creating a more exclusive and elevated experience for their members will be a win-win: “People want to be part of something right now.”

Broc has also added local delivery service, pre-order and pickup service at “The Broc Door,” and they have connected with other local businesses to support each other during this difficult time. Broc collaborations have included offerings with Botania Living, Kronnerburger, the Medicine Ball Trio band, Reem’s, and are looking forward to collaborating with Standard Fare soon.

“The Broc Door” where customers pick up bottles of Broc wines (and buy plants). Photo: Pete Rosos

Although Covenant Wines is the largest winery in Berkeley and logs in with 7,000 square feet, they have never had an outdoor space for regular on-premise tastings. Instead, owner Jeff Morgan is focusing on serving customers via curbside pickup. Being large, Covenant has different wines coming out throughout the year with 20 or so releases annually. With something for everybody, Covenant offers a range of wine from a value-priced Lodi Roussanne to luxury Napa cabernet, one factor that may play into Covenant’s recent growth in wine club memberships.

Restaurant sales are down, but not for all

After direct to consumer sales, most small wineries depend on sales to restaurants for a significant portion of their income. In the COVID era, with people not going out to eat as much and many restaurants closing or struggling to get by, wholesale wine sales to eateries have mostly dried up. “We’re hurting for the same reason as the restaurant industry,” said Morgan.

Covenant Winery owner Jeff Morgan inside the winery’s cellar in West Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos

Then there is Jason Charles, owner, and winemaker at Vinca Minor, who said he has always had a solid wholesale following and reports no decrease in wholesale sales. “With 60% of our sales being to restaurants, I anticipated it would be grim. But we’ve seen things shift, with retail shops starting to absorb the restaurant business.” He also credits people drinking more, rolling out new releases like his first-ever cider, and free delivery and free shipping promotions. “I’m a one-man show,” he said. “We’ve always run a lean operation. I knew to succeed in a downturn, I’d have to be lean. This is how I’ve always operated.”

Most of the winery owners we spoke with aren’t focusing on recouping wholesale restaurant sales any time soon. Many are personal friends with restaurateurs and feel for them and their plight. No one wants to hit up already hurting restaurant accounts with the burden of buying more wine.

The future of Berkeley’s wineries

Jeff Morgan put it succinctly: “Those of us who have outlets for selling wines and enough reserves for six months to a year will emerge stronger. It’s not going to be easy, and I hope that the general public will be able to start going to restaurants and visit wineries and tasting rooms sooner rather than later so that we can restore our tradition of sharing fine wine and great meals together.”

Although it will be a while before normality is restored, Berkeley’s winemakers are a resilient bunch. From hard cider launches to parking lot brick-oven pizza pop-ups, the Berkeley wine scene is in modified full swing. Want to help the cause? As Jeff Morgan said, “The best thing people can do is buy our wine, drink them, and enjoy them.”

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