Testarossa Winery started 2020 on a high. The Los Gatos winery saw its highest sales to date the year prior. It won winery of the year from Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine. The owners were excitedly planning the largest renovation to the winery in 70 years, hoping to open a sparkling new 10,000-square-foot private event space on March 1.
We all know what happened next: the arrival of the coronavirus and mid-March shutdown that upended virtually every aspect of our lives, including how we drink and buy wine. Testarossa not only saw private events and weddings canceled overnight but had to refund hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits. They had to shut down their popular tasting room. Profits plummeted by 80%. The winery went from a robust 152 employees to just 22.
"We've been through 9-11. We've been through the dot com bubble. We went through the Great Recession. This was the worst of all of those," said Rob Jensen, who owns Testarossa with his wife Diana. "The most important thing is you've got to get your ship through the other side of the storm and then you can assess the damage."
Testarossa is among many wineries on the Peninsula still grappling with the losses brought on by the pandemic, compounded by a devastating fire season that for some wineries meant losing entire crops due to smoke damage. Many have adapted to their new normal by reinventing the wine tasting experience to comply with constantly shifting public health restrictions, hosting virtual events, offering COVID-19 discounts (one winery gave a cheeky 19% off at the start of the shutdown) and even putting wine bottles on DoorDash for the first time. More than ever, they're thinking creatively about how to draw in more support for small, local wineries at a dire time for the industry.
For independent wineries, tasting rooms and events are the best way to bring in new — and hopefully repeat — customers. Wineries were closed for months until COVID-19 rates improved enough in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to allow them to reopen outdoors with some modifications. Wineries can't operate indoors until their counties return to the state's orange, or "moderate," COVID tier, and even then capacity is limited to 25% or 100 people. (On Thursday, Dec. 3, after this story's publication, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new stay-at-home order that will require wineries to temporarily close in regions where ICU capacity drops below 15%.)
Testarossa was lucky to have 8,000 square feet outside to repurpose for outdoor tastings. Dubbed Wine Bar 107, the outdoor patio is set with tables that are separated by at least 10 feet and set with QR code menus (no more communal wine spittoons). Reservations are now required for tastings, which are limited to 45 minutes. Communal bathrooms were converted to only allow one person at a time and equipped with lights outside that turn red when occupied, like on an airplane, to prevent crowding.
"Of course hand washing is one of the most important things other than wearing a mask that you can do to keep healthy and safe," Jensen says as he turns on a faucet attached to the top of a wine barrel during a 4-minute video tour of the new, socially distanced set-up. "If you haven't washed your hands in a wine barrel lately, next time you come to Wine Bar 107 that would be a great time to do it."
When Santa Clara County moved into the less restrictive yellow tier several weeks ago, allowing wineries to resume indoor operations, Jensen weighed his chances and decided against doing so.
"Out of an abundance of caution we decided to not hire additional staff and reopen indoors due to the risk of having to shut these spaces down again, which is exactly what happened," he said.
At Kings Mountain Vineyards in Woodside, which is only open by appointment, the winery pivoted to offering private, seated tastings capped at six people. Only two staff members are now working at the winery and only one usually at the tastings, said Kristi Bowers, Kings Mountain Vineyards' director of sales and marketing (she's often that one person). They pour fewer wines and, in accordance with state COVID-19 guidance, if a bottle touches a glass that someone drank from, they dump that bottle. They now put an order form on every table so customers can fill out their name, car make, model and license plate and have any wine they purchase delivered to the trunk of their car by the time they leave. (On the back of the order form? Tasting notes.)
"Tastings are extremely important because for us, besides a few outlets, our club and our online sales — that's it," Bowers said. "Coming to the vineyard is a special thing."
It's hard to imagine tasting wine while taking a mask on and off, but winery owners are trying to emphasize safety while not policing customers.
"I'm not the law," said Nicolas Vonderheyden of Chaine d'Or Vineyards, a tiny, three-decade-old winery in Woodside. "I try to emphasize the fact that we all have to do our part. I think everyone knows it will take a lot of individual efforts to try to get rid of this virus and I don't see the need to argue with anyone about wearing a mask during tastings."
Wearing masks during tastings can feel awkward — "you don't know if people are smiling but at least you can hear it in the tone of their voice," Vonderheyden said — but like most pandemic adjustments, "it's something that we easily get used to."
In a time when we're being told to stay home and stay apart, Vonderheyden still feels attached to the in-person experience of wine tasting. He'd rather convince someone to come to the winery for a safe, in-person tasting than hold one on Zoom.
"I'm not old by any means but I'm this old school thinker and believer that you need to see and touch and feel wine to really enjoy it. I've seen a huge difference in people tasting the wine without having been on site and people tasting the wine while they're on site," he said. "The experience is really, really different. It's almost like the wine doesn't taste the same."
For months, Waxwing Cellars in Belmont was only open for curbside pickup of its limited-production pinot noir, Syrah, riesling and Chardonnay. With revenue down 50%, the winery started offering free delivery between Burlingame and Palo Alto. Waxwing usually hosts tastings inside on Fridays; instead, owner Scott Sisemore recently experimented with outdoor tastings in the parking lot.
It's wine club season, so money is coming in, Sisemore said, but uncertainty hangs heavy over the next few months.
"Once there's some sort of a vaccine and I feel safe again, I'll be excited to go back to what I usually do, which is indoor, Friday night tastings," he said, "but who knows when that's going to be."
Pre-pandemic, many local wineries relied heavily on private events — weddings and corporate events made up nearly 60% of Testarossa's profits in 2019 — many of which were booked by the tech companies whose offices are now indefinitely shuttered. So wineries are experimenting with new kinds of events.
Neely Wine, a small Portola Valley winery, just launched an online cooking series with wine pairings. In August, Portola Vineyards in Palo Alto tried out "yoga in the vineyard," carving out circles for people to get into downward dog and meditate among the vines.
Kings Mountain has started hosting philanthropic events, which Bowers described as a win-win to support local causes while exposing more people to their wines. They've included a Zoom tasting in partnership with the 49ers Foundation (Bowers is on the organization's board) and a fundraiser for Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School held at the winery, with socially distanced tables set with individually packaged antipasto skewers and hand sanitizer.
"I'm always an optimist. I believe things will get better. But they probably won't be the same," Bowers said. "You have to observe the new world order, or whatever you want to call it, and you need to pivot. That's what I'm trying to do."
One silver lining of the shutdown for Silicon Valley wineries, owners said, is that people who live in the area but would have typically driven to Napa and Sonoma for wine tastings are now looking to the wineries in their own backyards. They hope this will create a sustained allegiance to drinking local wine, just like the heightened calls of the last few months to support local restaurants.
The Peninsula's wineries are "not the kind of tourist destinations as those in Napa," said Len Lehmann of Portola Vineyards. "No big tour buses pull up. They're authentic. They're intimate. They're on windy roads that may be hard to locate. But they're the wineries of the neighborhoods where your readers live."
At Testarossa Winery, Jensen is still working to get the permits necessary for the renovation. They're expanding local retail sales, which is helping to offset the major losses from restaurants that, struggling themselves, haven't been able to purchase as much wine. He urged customers to think of local, independent winery owners like him, who have no investors and are fueled in many cases by a lifelong passion for winemaking and community.
"The big corps, they'll live or die without you," Jensen said. "We need you."
For a list of wineries on the Peninsula, go to winesofthesantacruzmountains.com.