Now that the province has allowed patios to reopen on Friday, wineries are finally able to set up their outdoor tasting spaces, a welcome reprieve after a difficult year of restrictions and uncertainty.
“Luckily for us, alcohol was determined an essential service. If it wasn’t for that we would have been in extremely big trouble,” says Jamie Slingerland, director of viticulture at Pillitteri Estates Winery in Virgil.
Most of the wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake depend on tourism for a major portion of their sales revenue. When the pandemic broke out and everything went into lockdown, a lot of wineries had to reconsider key aspects of their business.
Greg Wertsch, owner of Between the Lines Winery on Four Mile Creek Road, says he managed to hold on to his retail staff by switching them over to the production department.
“They were helping out doing winemaking (and) harvesting vineyards,” said Wertsch.
“It was quite an eyeopener for a lot of the retail staff to see what goes on behind the scenes and how tough vineyard work can actually be.”
He said he hopes the experience will have given his retail staff newfound knowledge they will be able to apply when interacting with guests.
Some wineries took the opportunity to completely rethink their business model.
Says Slingerland: “The internet has become a major sales venue for wines so we invested very heavily into social media. We put these specials on and we started going from five to 10 cases a week up to 100 and 200 cases a week.”
Jane Langdon, owner of Strewn Winery, credits a visit to the Napa Valley in California, right before COVID-19 hit, as a pivotal moment that helped her reimagine what Strewn might look like during a pandemic.
“We began focusing on (the) outdoors, (which was) a totally new perspective for us. We kind of reimagined the Napa Valley (and) Sonoma Valley experience as it would be appropriate in Niagara.”
Strewn put in a patio right at the start of the first lockdown. “We turned it into a 45-minutes seated (specialized) tasting,” said Langdon. “My goodness, it was so popular.”
Pillitteri Estates Winery pivoted by opening an outdoor wood-fired pizza restaurant called BarrelHead.
The plan for the pizzeria had been long gestating but became a reality because of the pandemic.
“Through our social media advertising what we really found was that 80 per cent (of the people) were coming down from Toronto,” says Slingerland. “They were coming down for the day and they were looking to have food.”
Wertsch said he thinks it’s this influx of people from the GTA that helped keep his business going.
“One of the biggest positives, I think, is that we’ve actually managed to convince a lot of people out of the GTA to come down and they were blown away by what was available.”
At Strewn Winery, the average age of visitors dropped by 30 years, which Langdon credits to younger people feeling safer going out and having fun, noting it was “a wonderful opportunity to connect with your customer of the future.”
So in a way the pandemic has brought change and renewal to some wineries in the region.
“There’s two expressions that we say,” said Langdon. “ ‘Last year was a time of unprecedented change’ and ‘We all learned to pivot.’ I don’t think that ability to make decisions faster and changes quicker is going to go away. We learned because we had to learn.”
As for the reopening of the patios, Slingerland is excited to welcome people at the winery and pizzeria once again.
“We’re going full-steam ahead. We got our manpower in place, we are ready to go.”
Wertsch is hopeful it’s going to be a good season. “If the fall and early winter aren’t too terrible, I think we’re going to be busy all the way to January, for sure.”