The pandemic’s physical distancing rules have meant severe restrictions everywhere for wineries, cider producers and craft brewers – and there’s an extra burden on businesses that just expanded their visitor-friendly commercial properties.
“We’re seeing a lot of repurposing of spaces,” says Andrea Kaiser, chair of the umbrella group Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which represents about 20 of the 50 wineries dotted through the entire Niagara Region.
Ms. Kaiser, who is also marketing director for one of the group’s members, Reif Estate Winery, says the COVID-19 changes have been hard for all the facilities that depend on tourists and drop-in purchasers, but especially so for those who just put up new buildings. Several wineries expanded, anticipating more tasting parties, bigger areas to serve food and more weddings and large gatherings – all curtailed by COVID-19.
“Everyone has had to adapt fast,” Ms. Kaiser says. “It’s a matter of how to make the best use of what you have in place.”
Wineries in the area report a decline in drop-in traffic by about 50 per cent from prepandemic levels. Some of this has been made up with a boost in online sales, Ms. Kaiser says.
This spring, Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery, which produces fruit wine and cider, was just about to open a $4-million, 10,000-square-foot addition next to its picturesque apple orchard. The new building was 98-per-cent complete when the lockdowns came into effect.
“We decided in 2015 to expand,” says Richard Liu, Sunnybrook’s proprietor. “In March, we were about two months away from opening. It made sense because cider is a booming category [for beverages] and craft cider is really popular.”
“A new building would resolve two issues. It gives us room for future growth – our production capacity was constrained, and with the new building we can produce five times more cider,” he says. The company markets its popular Ironwood cider through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, some large grocery chains and many restaurants.
When Mr. Liu and his wife, Roslyn, bought Sunnybrook in 2013, it was producing 500 cases of cider and 500 cases of fruit wine a year; by late 2019, they were selling 20,000 cases, of which 18,000 were cider.
With the growing popularity of cider, Mr. Liu also wanted his commercial property to serve a second purpose – to be visitor-friendly.
“We wanted to expand our retail capacity to be more open to the public, show how cider is made and the history of cider,” Mr. Liu says.
The new visitor facility, about 15 per cent of the total structure, has large floor space, floor-to-ceiling glass and a mezzanine, with a commanding view of Sunnybrook’s orchard and the capacity to hold 80 people, suitable for corporate meetings, parties and weddings.
Since Sept. 19, though, Ontario has limited indoor gatherings to 10 people. It’s a deal-breaker for many weddings, with many couples postponing until late 2021 or 2022.
The inability to serve larger groups is especially vexing for facilities such as Sunnybrook, which were ready to swing open just as the pandemic restrictions hit.
At Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery in St. David’s, Ont., proprietor Paul Harber says they had their busiest years ever lined up and opened a new event facility last October.
The winery had expected to book as many as 80 weddings for the new 4,000-square-foot building, which featured a 2,500-square-foot terrace and a commanding view of wine country from the Niagara Escarpment.
Most of the booked weddings have been postponed until 2021, Mr. Harber says. However, he adds, “We’ve managed to hold a few smaller, socially distant events.
“We moved our retail operations into the new building,” he says. “Normally we do our tastings in several small rooms in a 200-year-old heritage home adjacent to it, but it’s not set up for social distancing. The new building let us shift gears; we can conduct tastings on our terrace, which is covered, and we can serve wine by the glass, and also handle our retail sales in the larger new space.”
Mr. Harber says Ravine also closed its indoor restaurant and switched to patio dining and take-out, and has no plans to move indoor dining into the new, larger facility as long as pandemic conditions persist.
According to Ms. Kaiser, wineries in other regions, such as Ontario’s Prince Edward County and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, are grappling with similar situations. One B.C. winery, Phantom Creek Estates, has put off the grand opening of a 78,000-square-foot showcase facility that took three years to build, opting instead for visits by reservation and an online video series highlighting the project and its wines.
“Some proprietors had plans for expansion and simply put them on hold until this is all over,” Ms. Kaiser says.