Covid-19 and Small Wineries — A Personal Perspective From the Trenches

We live in a very different and crazy, uncertain world right now and for many of us it involved simply going home, working from home and doing the occasional jig-saw puzzle to break up the day.  We watched mainstreet businesses shutter for the first time in our lives and for some of us even saw friends get sick (some really sick) and even die. Our news sources suddenly became Covid-19 updates and little else.

I’ve been close to the craft wine world for a lot of years and latley kept in contact with many small, even  some very obscure winemakers to see how this new world order impacted them.  I, for one, found myself buying cases and cases of wine direct from wineries, where  before I might buy a couple of cases a year, just to support them in this strange and uncertain time.  Brick and Mortar Winery stands as one of my favorite and most regular sources of boutique Pinot Noir, Rose, Chardonnay, Nouveau (an American take on Nouveau Beaujelais) and Vin Claire (my all time favorite white blend) and represents just that sort of craft winery.  A few years ago I asked Matt Iaconis to write a guest blog for me on the modern style of Chardonnay and how it has evolved over the years as one of California’s signature wines.  Well today he seemed like the perfect person to ask to pen a blog post on what the new Covid-19 world means to the craft wine industry.  I am posting his unedited perspective so you can all share in what I have observed and followed this past few months.  Enjoy!

An Open Letter from Matt Iaconis 

I’ve had the pleasure in knowing Robert (Bob) Minto (a/k/a “Poor Robert” to many in the craft wine world) for nearly a decade. He has supported my wife Alexis and I since we first began producing wine for nakedwines.com. When we launched our own two wineries (brick & mortar and delta wines), he was amongst the first to sign up for our mailing list and has championed our wines since the beginning. So, when Bob mentioned the opportunity to share our story, as well as how this global pandemic is affecting us and the wine industry as a whole, it was a quick response: ‘Yes, absolutely.’

Our two small, family-run wineries have a wide spectrum of wines, and in turn, a wide audience. The first winery we launched back in 2011 was brick & mortar (www.brickandmortarwines.com), where we originally specialized in single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Our newest winery, delta (www.winesforchange.com), specializes in your everyday drinker: high quality wines at an affordable price point of $15 per bottle. Plus, we donate a portion of all sales to two different local organizations here in California dedicated to helping fight for climate change.

Back at the beginning, we didn’t have grandiose goals or dreams of owning our vineyard or winery space; instead, we just wanted to produce wines that we loved to drink and share them with people we love. As we have evolved as a winery, we added different tiers of wines: some high-end, singular expresses of a given place and time, as with our single vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays; some more accessible, broader reaching wines like our Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which are blends of several different vineyards and come in at a price that is much more affordable for many more wine enthusiasts; some exciting and fun natural wines like Vin Pétillant and Nouveau, which create a ‘human’ aspect to our brand – just real wines, nothing pretentious; and cans – our single biggest risk we’ve ever taken as a winery, stepping outside our comfort zone only to find ourselves as an industry leader in quality wine in a can.

When we started brick & mortar, we knew this brand would be our foundation for everything we did in the wine industry, and with every great success, we needed a solid foundation – something made from brick and mortar. We’ve worked between six and seven days per week for the past nine years to build our winery into something that garners recognition not only here in California, which is no small feat battling for relevancy with over 10,000 other brands in Napa and Sonoma alone, but also throughout the United States and around the globe. That said, we’re still very small. My wife and I own and operate brick & mortar. We aren’t backed by a large bank. We boot strapped this entire endeavor from day one. We aren’t rich. We don’t come from money. We just work really hard to hopefully create something to hand to our kids and have them take the reins and make it their own.

In the first two months of 2020, we were laying the groundwork for our best sales year to date. We have noticed things really start picking up in the latter half of 2018, with increased recognition from wine writers, the sommelier community as a whole and as a result, increased sales; this trend only continued last year and through the first few months of this year.

When concerns of COVID-19 first started to surface in the US eight weeks ago, no one could have imagined the impact and devastation it has caused throughout the world. We’re so thankful to every doctor and nurse working tirelessly day in and day out right now to save our friends, our family and our colleagues. It almost feels tone deaf to write about how COVID-19 has impacted my life, as my wife, my three kids, and all of my family and friends are all healthy and have been spared.

Where I do feel this open letter (or whatever you want to call this) does have value is answering the question that we in the in the wine industry have been asked countless times in the past few weeks: “How are you doing in all of this chaos? How is all of this affecting you and your wineries?”

First off, it needs be mentioned that wineries are more fortunate than some in this situation and I think that should not be overlooked. We can still sell wine direct to customers, and have done so at a higher rate than we have ever done in the nine years of operation. Restaurants have been crippled due to the state mandated closures. While some have been able to operate take-out and as pseudo wine shops, I doubt this covers the operating costs, but rather mitigates the damage that a full closure would cause.

With the mass closure of restaurants, some wine shops, sport arenas, concert venues, the active outlets that have served our wines for the past nine years have vanished – and thus, so have the majority of our sales. With Alexis and I coming from the restaurant world – both of us worked at Michelin 3-Star The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, CA – brick & mortar, as well as delta, were build on the restaurant industry. We sell about 80-90% of our wine through restaurants and wine shops from here in California and New York to Norway and South Korea.

The lack of sales is only a tip of the iceberg, albeit it’s a large tip. The struggle all small businesses are facing now, including the wine industry, is the lack of clarity pertaining to how we access support by way of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). We’ve applied for any and all assistance possible for a small business like ourselves but the absence of any real guidance has all but extinguished the hope instilled but the CARES Act passed a few weeks back. While all is not lost with assistance from the federal government, every day that passes is another day closer to small business like our closing their doors.

We were recently interviewed for an upcoming story that will run in a local magazine and regional paper in May, during which time we were asked how we see the wine industry coming out of this post COVID-19. Honestly, no one has a crystal ball here. As with all tragedies and disasters, it has created a sense of ‘survival instinct’ within us all. Frankly, we’ve been more creative in the past month with regards to new ways to sell wine, than we have been in our nine year of existence. From visual tastings on Zoom and Instagram Live features with wine influencers to sponsoring podcasts in order to get our name our there more and creating specials on our website to drive more traffic, we have pulled out all of the stops to stir up more business – and it has worked thus far! My hope is that this creative light and ingenuity doesn’t become a dull glow when we get back to our new normal. Furthermore, we hope all new direct sales customers that taste our wine for the first time become long lasting customers – directly from us or by way of visiting local restaurants and buying our wine of the list.

In life, I’ve always been one to look for the silver linings in situations in order to stay positive; this pandemic has been no different. I’m not going to say I’ve been 100% positive and optimistic during the past month (and my wife can attest to that…), but I’ve always been someone who looks to distill a situation down to positivities and other things I need, throwing the rest away.

The camaraderie by everyone in the our small town of Healdsburg has been so inspiring. The number of people reaching out to us to check in and then those people purchasing wine from us has been overwhelming. You never really know the impact your have on people until you’re in a vulnerable, distressed situation – just trying to figure out how to survive – and you look up only to see the calvary coming over the hill of everyone that you’ve supported yourself over the years; everyone who you’ve donated wine to their school event or their little league fundraiser; everyone you’ve shared a glass or a conversation with in passing.

There is no script of how we all get through today, tomorrow or the coming months. But, together, we will prevail. That I can promise.

About Poor Robert

A simple man with many interests to share with all who wish my company and knowledge.
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2 Responses to Covid-19 and Small Wineries — A Personal Perspective From the Trenches

  1. Poor Robert says:

    Thanks Jurhee — I know you are big on Reds, but his Vin Clair and Rose’ are out of this world. His La Pearela Pinot is fabulous, but I am just starting to drink the stuff I bought two years ago. Aeration also works on days when I lack patience.

    Like

  2. jurhee says:

    Thanks for the great post, Robert, and the letter from Matt. In support of Matt and his family, I just signed up for his club membership. Every little bit help!!!

    Like

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