Brenda Hetman-Craig’s winery on Vancouver Island saw a 50-per-cent drop in revenue as COVID-19 restrictions took effect in the spring. But something else happened at the same time: Online sales shot up 250 per cent.
Ms. Hetman-Craig’s 40 Knots Winery, located in the heart of the Comox Valley on a slope facing the Strait of Georgia used to be full of wine lovers from all over the world, so the winery didn’t see the necessity of growing a strong online presence. That changed when the pandemic hit.
“It was a revenue stream we didn’t bother pushing very hard before because we were full with customers; we were selling our wines,” said Ms. Hetman-Craig, who has co-owned the winery since 2014.
“But now that we don’t have the customers coming through the doors, then we have to find other revenue streams.”
The B.C. government ordered bars and restaurants to shut down as part of its COVID-19 measures in March, which hit the industry in two ways. Wholesale business dried up to restaurants and businesses that were forced to close. At the same time, wineries that are licensed to serve alcohol, including tastings, in their premises, were no longer permitted to do so.
Wineries on Vancouver Island, in the Okanagan and elsewhere in the province, which depend on a steady stream of tourists visiting their tasting rooms, were forced to quickly shift to direct sales, which include e-commerce and curbside pickup.
In late May, as the province entered the second phase of reopening, wineries were allowed to welcome visitors again, but business is far from normal. Canada’s borders remain closed to international visitors, including from the United States, and Canadians are still being urged to avoid interprovincial travel.
Even businesses that have been able to open must do so at a reduced capacity, further cutting into the wineries’ business. For instance, 40 Knots is using a reservation system to stagger visitors for wine tastings.
”So our costs have gone up substantially,” Ms. Hetman-Craig said. “Not being able to have the capacity, and yet you still need the same amount of people to operate.”
In the Okanagan, the province’s best-known wine-making region, the number of out-of-town visitors has plummeted between March and May but began to see a rise in June. In 2016, Kelowna received 1.9 million visitors and more than a quarter of them went winery touring.
Tourism Kelowna says the number of overnight visitors was down around 46 per cent on average between March and May compared with 2019, but in June, it increased by 25.3 per cent. In June, even though hotel occupancy in Kelowna stood at 36.5 per cent – much higher than 11.7 per cent in April and 18.9 per cent in May – it still dropped by more than 43 percentage point compared with last year.
People from B.C. and Alberta typically account for more than 60 per cent of Kelowna’s visitors. Right now, most winery visitors are from within the province.
And while wine sales have increased in B.C., the province’s wineries haven’t been the main beneficiary of that increase.
According to statistics from the BC Wine Institute, total sales of BC VQA Wine – the appellation of origin and quality standard for British Columbia wine – for the rolling 12-month periods ending in March, April and May hovered between 14,861,157 and 15,042,065 litres, all higher than the same periods in 2019. But the province’s market share for overall wine sales decreased by between 0.13 and 0.51 per cent.
Stephanie Mosley, marketing and communications manager at Tantalus Vineyards in the Kelowna region, said when her winery reopened its door to visitors at the end of May, reservations filled up very quickly. But visits are still down because of capacity limits and other pandemic protocols.
The vineyard is receiving less than half of its usual traffic. Customers can no longer just walk in and sidle up to the bar for a tasting.
“It’s a lot more steps for the team in terms of sanitizing every station once guests leave,” Ms. Mosley said.
“The busy sort of hectic dynamic is what we thrive on, being a bustling tourist destination, so making the adjustments to limiting the guests that we’re able to receive has been difficult.”
Miles Prodan, president and chief executive of the BC Wine Institute, said physical-distancing rules and other safety measures have meant wineries are shifting their focus from quantity to quality, enabling wineries to spend more time with each visitor and explain their wines.
“Not just tasting the wine, but [explaining] where the wine comes from, what they’re farming and what their winemaking practices are,” he said.
“Maybe slowing that down and having a chance to do that will be a benefit for us in the end.”
Mr. Prodan said the industry is picking up steam after restaurants and tastings rooms reopened, but that hasn’t offset the losses.
Some other winemakers, such as Great Estates Okanagan, are trying to be creative in attracting domestic visitors. The company is planning to offer a high-end package that wine lovers would normally experience in Europe.
Danielle D’Agostino of Arterra Wines Canada, which operates Great Estates Okanagan, said the company is putting together packages that will include accommodations, food, tastings at multiple wineries, spa or golf visits, and helicopter rides over the Okanagan Valley.
Not all vineyards are eschewing drop-in visits. Blasted Church Vineyards in Okanagan Falls is taking customers on a first-come, first-served basis.
“Everybody does something a little bit [differently], and I think that allows customers to relax, to feel good about the new normal,” said Evelyn Campbell, proprietor of the vineyards.
Blasted Church’s online sales have ballooned, with direct sales to wine drinkers more than making up for the loss of wholesale to hotels and restaurants, which typically accounts for half of the winery’s revenues.
Ms. Campbell said online sales have jumped by 10 times, leaving overall revenues about 20-per-cent higher than usual.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years and the industry did everything in a certain way, and then in a matter of three months, we changed everything,” Ms. Campbell said.
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