By Mark Fisher
The coronavirus pandemic and the corresponding restrictions on large gatherings, as well as the social-distancing requirements in restaurants and tasting rooms, have created considerable hardship for the Ohio wine industry since early 2020.
But when faced with adversity, many Ohio winery owners responded as Ohioans do, with resilience and ingenuity. They found innovative ways to serve their customers and make new friends while keeping their dreams – and their wineries — alive.
They had some help, of course, from government agencies and other outside entities, including TheWineBuzz magazine, which organized an online sales blitz called Super Sipper Saturday in partnership with the Ohio Grape Industries Committee (more about that in a moment). But Ohio wineries also brainstormed their own creative solutions that have helped them turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade.
And there certainly was no shortage of lemons: Consider that high-profile festivals such as Vintage Ohio and Vintage Ohio South were forced to cancel in 2020, taking away sales and exposure for the dozens of Ohio wineries that were going to participate in those popular events. Winery tours were suspended, weddings were canceled and tasting rooms had to shut down, some for extended periods.
Ohio winery owners rolled up their sleeves and started exploring solutions. Many moved events outdoors, while still complying with social-distancing and face-mask orders, according to Christy Eckstein, executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee (OGIC). They expanded their carryout, delivery and shipping options. And as the weather turned cooler, they looked to maintain their outdoor seating as deep into fall and early winter as possible through the use of newly installed tents and heaters.
Some innovations that seemed small, perhaps even trivial at first, turned into a big hit with customers. Three Oaks Vineyard in Granville was searching for a way to reduce the amount of staff time required to pour samples and to make it easier to serve those samples to visitors sitting outside. The winery began pouring their tasting samples into small, airplane-sized bottles, which allowed for the samples to prepared in advance of the busy rush.
Since their winery’s biggest crowds occurred on Saturdays, they only offered the airline-sized sample bottles on Saturday afternoons. But guests on other days started requesting the cute and convenient “little-bottle” samples. They became a hit. Owners Pete and Diana Hooverman say the idea has allowed them to sell more wine to new visitors at the winery.
Other Ohio wineries started hosting RV camper guests to spend the night on the winery vineyard grounds, or even in the vineyards. Participating locations include RockSide Winery & Vineyards in Lancaster and Dalton Union Winery in Marysville, according to Eckstein.
Some wineries have expanded their outdoor seating options, including French Ridge Vineyards & Winery in Killbuck, which has added multiple covered patio areas in 2020.
Gervasi Vineyard in Canton reacted swiftly when the pandemic began, converting its distillery to make hand sanitizer for health-care workers and other essential employees to help alleviate a critical shortage.
Nichole Cardinale, marketing director for Gervasi Vineyards, said many concerts and events were canceled in the early days of the pandemic, but the winery has found ways to bring back some of the events in a safe way.
“Concerts that we used to sell 300 tickets for had to be cut back to 150 tickets, but we added table service,” Cardinale said. Instead of selling individual tickets, the winery sold tables of 8 to 10, at which families or small groups of close friends could sit together, distanced from other parties.
“It’s been very well-received by our guests,” Cardinale said. “We are looking for new ways to pivot and still offer events that will focus on the wines, spirits, food and hospitality that our guests love.”
Gervasi Vineyard was an enthusiastic participant in the Super Sipper Saturday promotion that was developed by TheWineBuzz in partnership with OGIC. And Gervasi wasn’t alone: 170 Ohio wineries were a part of the online wine sales push on May 2, at a time when a state-mandated shutdown of bars, tasting rooms and dine-in service was still in full effect.
Ohio wine enthusiasts were encouraged via social media and by stories in more than a dozen traditional media outlets to support their favorite Ohio wineries by purchasing wines via phone, email or web on May 2. It was the largest statewide direct-to-consumer initiative of its kind in the history of the Ohio wine industry, and 100 percent of the participating wineries that responded to a survey said they would participate again.
“Overall, it was a fantastic promotion,” Gervasi Vineyard’s Cardinale said. “The timing of it, right at the start of summer, was great, and it was needed at that time. It was simple, and it was well-received.”
Tony Kosicek, owner of Kosicek Vineyards in Harpersfield, also took full advantage of the promotion. He offered curbside pickup for Super Saturday orders, and for others who lived anywhere near the winery, delivery was available, in some cases by the founder and owner himself.
“We delivered their orders in person, and people were excited to see us, as owners, delivering right to their house,” Kosicek said. “It put a smile on their faces. And almost every person we hand-delivered wine to has come to visit the winery since then.”
COVID-19 will, of course, continue to present challenges to Ohio wineries, but we here at TheWineBuzz have a hunch those challenges will be no match for the Buckeye spirit of innovation.