Rappahannock wineries have survived — and in some cases thrived — during the pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Rappahannock Cellars in March 2020, owner John Delmare initially thought the worst.
Instead, the year 2020 brought some of the highest revenues Rappahannock Cellars has ever seen.
After a short 24-hour period of confusion when the shutdown order was first announced, Delmare said they braced themselves for a flood of online orders that wouldn’t slow down for the remainder of the year.
“We couldn’t keep up with the orders going out the door,” Delmare said. “Pallets of wine going out every day. We had our biggest year ever.”
Unlike other businesses, wineries were well-equipped to handle the uncertainties of the pandemic. Wineries in Rappahannock County and across the state have vast outdoor seating and online shipping options, making them conducive to the new normal brought on by COVID-19. Many wineries in Rappahannock applied for financial assistance through the federal Paycheck Protection Program to stay afloat, allowing local businesses to hold onto full-time and part-time employees through some of the hardest months of the pandemic.
Delmare said they were shipping 30 to 40 cases of wine a day to customers all over the state and a small number to customers in surrounding states. Delmare had to furlough most of the company’s part-time workers in the tasting room for the first four weeks of the pandemic, and as a result, his two daughters took over packing boxes for online orders.
“They were here 10 hours a day packing boxes, it was like a gym membership,” Delmare said. “They were just worn out at the end of the day. And it was an all day effort of getting boxes lined up in the cellar and getting it packed and palletizing it for FedEx to pick up. And, you know, they were just working like crazy.”
After those four weeks, Rappahannock Cellars — which has about 30 acres of grape vines — received funds through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, and Delmare was able to hire back all of the workers who were furloughed.
Adapting to pandemic life
Rappahannock County is home to more than a dozen wineries and distilleries, and the state of Virginia has more than 300 wineries. Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing office, said wineries did bang-up business through the fall and winter months.
John Delmare, above, and other Rappahannock County winery owners discuss the impact of the COVID-19 shock on their businesses.
Boyd said overall, wine sales at wineries were down 2.9 percent for the year 2020, which she said is “really outstanding” considering most businesses had their doors closed from March through July 2020. As the state began to move into phase three of the governor’s reopening plan last summer, Boyd said some wineries were reporting a 20 percent increase in sales over the year 2019.
“I think all wineries just did gangbusters in the fall, realizing that they had to be creative to not tank their sales when the weather turned, and a lot of them did,” Boyd said.
The Virginia Wine Association held daily Zoom conference calls with wineries across the state to help answer questions about how they should be conducting business.
“Wineries were confused, but everyone just felt lost,” Boyd said. “Things were changing so fast, and wineries are heavily regulated. They’re regulated by the Department of Health. They’re regulated by OSHA, they’re regulated by Virginia ABC… and these are people who work very, very hard to stay within the lines of the many regulations that are bestowed on them, and still be able to stay alive and sell their product. And that was extremely hard to do during COVID.”
Gadino Cellars on Schoolhouse Road in Washington saw a 10-15 percent increase in revenue from the year 2019, according to owner Bill Gadino. Gadino said that some changes they made — like expanding outdoor seating and holding more self-guided wine tastings on the outdoor deck — will be sticking around even as the pandemic passes.
These changes were popular with some of their regular customers, Gadino said, and helped to attract new customers who were looking for safe outdoor activities.
“So far, we’re seeing the benefits that we got during the pandemic continue,” Gadino said. “I’m hoping because people had to go here in Virginia during the pandemic because they couldn't go on plane and fly, that they found something they liked in Virginia wineries.”
Tina Marchione, one of the owners at Magnolia Vineyards, said at the end of 2020, their revenue was slightly higher than what they saw in 2019. Marchione said they have about 300 wine club members, and in a typical year, they sell about 700 cases of wine. In 2020, they sold close to 1,000 cases.
“We actually closed our wine club to new members for a while because we would run out of wine, which is a good and bad problem to have,” Marchione said. “Right now, we’ve got production up, so we've opened it up again, and are really trying to market [the wine club].”
During the winter months, they enclosed their porch and installed heaters so people would be comfortable sitting outside. They also had customers use plastic cups and do self-guided wine tastings at their own tables.
“We just built a deck off the front of the tasting room, so we have a heck of a lot more outdoor seating than we did [before the pandemic],” Marchione said. “I’d say [business is] pretty steady and we’re probably doing better this year so far than we did last year.”
Carl and Donna Henrickson, owners of Little Washington Winery and Brewery, were pushed to try more creative ways of attracting customers when they saw their revenue plummet in the spring and summer of 2020 by about 28 percent. While they struggled through those first few months of being shut down, the fall and winter brought some of the best business the Henricksons ever had.
They said that their wine club was a salvation, and that they were able to sell nearly 900 cases of a new package that sourced wine made in different parts of the world. They also expanded their winery to a larger indoor venue, where they had room to hold educational classes on wine and their wine “bootcamp,” and they added a disc golf course to help attract people to their venue.
“We are surviving,” Carl Henrickson said. “We have pivoted a little bit. … It has expanded our operations to beer. And then as we got the beer license, my son said, ‘let’s do disc golf, dad.’ He said, ‘I’ll do all the work, you just give me your credit card.’ So I did, and now we have a new crowd that comes out.”
Sudha Patil, winemaker and owner of Narmada Winery, saw a 30-40 percent drop in sales for the first six months of the pandemic. On top of that — Narmada, which has 20 acres of vines, lost half of their crop last year to a harsh frost.
Patil said they just about broke even in 2020 thanks to members of their wine club buying packages and coming into the tasting room for socially-distanced drinks.
“The winery is not a profitable business because we are a small winery,” Patil said. “You work for keeping the staff and everything going here, more than anything else. So that’s disheartening in the wine industry, but we want to keep it small because I’m running it by myself.”
One thing Patil did gain from the pandemic was a close-knit group of about five to 10 wine lovers who met regularly for Zoom tastings, creating a sense of community that wasn’t there before. Those club members have remained loyal customers and close friends even coming out of the pandemic.
“It became like a family thing,” Patil said. “We checked what they were doing with their families and how they were doing, what they were able to do, how they’re spending their time, things like that, just like a support, you know, we were more or less for each other. So that was a really nice thing, I think, and the coolest thing we did.”
After what Patil called an emotional year, Narmada Winery is now seeing it’s usual steady flow of customers, and Patil said it’s been nice to finally be able to hug the people she’s been talking with virtually during the months of lockdown.
Other wineries in the area — like Rappahannock Cellars, Little Washington Winery, Magnolia Vineyards and Gadino Cellars — raved about their wine club members and their commitment to buying local instead of buying wine from commercial sellers.
“This goes for all the local businesses, I think they would all say the same story that it was incredible how people came to the aid of small businesses,” Delmare said.