The crushing effect of the COVID-19 pandemic—including recent rollbacks on reopening in California—is enough to make even the most seasoned of Temecula Valley vintners want to drown their sorrows.
“Do you have a bottle of tequila?” BJ Fazeli asked facetiously. “Give me something much stronger.”
As the president of Fazeli Cellars, he tries to stay in good humor. The mood among vintners is bitter-sweet right now. Online wine sales are soaring, but the surge is not nearly enough to offset the loss of main revenue sources: on-site wine sales and large events, such as weddings, concerts, and festivals.
Local wineries have lost tens of thousands of visitors, and the cancellation of this year’s Temecula Balloon and Wine Festival is another huge setback. The event normally draws upwards of 30,000 people, many of whom are tourists, to the region every year.
On May 18, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that some counties could reopen their economies, lifting stay-at-home orders that had been in place for about two months. But the good news was followed by a series of new mandates, safety protocols, and restrictions.
As COVID cases began to surge last month, Newsom ordered sweeping rollbacks on July 13. In 30 of the state’s 58 counties, the rollbacks included the immediate shutdown of indoor operations for wineries, among other types of businesses. Riverside County, where Temecula Valley is located, was among the 30 affected counties.
“Where do I start? I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my life—over half a century—and it’s the first time in my life when I cannot actually make a solid decision because I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Fazeli told The Epoch Times.
“What’s the local ordinance, what’s the state ordinance, or what’s the federal ordinance? I have no idea.”
He’s frustrated that state mandates were handed down just ahead of two long weekends—first, Memorial Day weekend, then again ahead of Independence Day weekend—throwing a wrench into food preparation and staffing plans.
“We were closed completely for almost 10 weeks. But then, since we have opened, I think we have changed three times with different new mandates,” Fazeli said. “Effective immediately, you can no longer blah blah blah.”
“And every time one of these mandates is announced, we get hundreds of phone calls: ‘Are you open?’”
To meet social distancing guidelines, weddings and large private events are still prohibited, but Fazeli is staying afloat by maximizing his outdoor seating. “I have good-sized outdoor patios, so we can deal with it,” he said.
In January and February, 2020’s business prospects were auspicious for him (along with many other vintners in the area), with revenue up substantially. But those hopes were shattered with the pandemic and statewide shutdown. He’s lost more than 70 percent of his overall business so far this year.
Fazeli’s online wine sales are up 50 to 60 percent since March, but he’s lost about half of the 5,000 visitors he normally sees in a month. Before COVID, some wineries—larger than his—could draw as many as 5,000 visitors in a week, he said. In-person business represents a lot more revenue than online business.
In March, Fazeli had to lay off most of his serving staff, keeping only a skeleton crew of essential workers. Since reopening, Fazeli has gradually brought back more than half of his staff. “We used to have in excess of 50, and now we are at about 30 to 32,” he said. “We’re not hiring anybody to staff events, because there are no events.”
Like most winery owners, Fazeli applied for, and received, federal relief under the Paycheck Protection Program. “It took a bit of time, but we got it,” he said.
Temecula Valley Wineries
Southern California’s wine country, situated between Los Angeles and San Diego and about an hour drive from either city, serves a local market of more than 23 million people.
Temecula Valley spans a 32-square-mile area between the Temescal Mountains to the west and the Santa Ana Mountains to the east. It extends from the shadows of Mount Palomar to the hills above Temecula and Murrieta.
The region has a unique microclimate, ideal for growing wine grapes, because of its 22-mile proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The Peninsular Mountain Range holds back the cool ocean air, releasing it in the afternoon to create delightful summer breezes. The 1,100- to 2,600-foot elevations also make for cool nights.
Temecula Valley is home to more than 40 wineries, 37 of which are members of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association (TVWA), spokeswoman Devin Parr said.
The local wineries saw more than 1.5 million visitors in 2018, with about 20 percent of the wineries reporting more than 100,000 annual visitors each. Just before the pandemic, visitation was off the charts, she said.
Only a handful of Temecula Valley vintners produce wines for wholesale distribution. While those wineries are reporting moderate sales, the rest rely heavily on visitors to tasting rooms, wine club memberships, and selling wine directly to consumers, restaurants, and hotels in the area.
Most of the wineries host weddings and events, unlike other wineries in the state where lodging, dining, weddings, and entertainment are not always permitted.
“Obviously, this makes the situation surrounding shelter-in-place orders understandably very difficult for us,” Parr said.
Vintners Get Creative
Though Parr has criticized the wine industry in general for its “stubborn lack of innovation” and lackluster efforts to reach new demographics, Parr is proud of the way regional winegrowers have adapted cleverly to overcome this year’s setbacks, shutdowns, and slowdowns.
“We acted pretty quickly and proactively from the get-go, putting together a region-wide Sip From Home program, where we encouraged wineries to create packages and discounts on wine and shipping for consumers to sip from home,” she said.
Many wineries are hosting virtual tastings and Q&A sessions with winemakers. Others have partnered with restaurants and small businesses to host events, such as Paint & Sip nights, where participants get wine and art supplies and are guided to paint their own masterpiece.
One has hosted Yoga Among the Vines and is launching a series of drive-in movie nights. Another has donated bulk wine to make hand sanitizers.
“We’ve had to roll up our sleeves and get really creative. … Obviously we have seen a huge negative financial impact as a result of COVID-19, but I’m hearing wineries are still hanging in—some even doing pre-COVID numbers,” Parr said.
Some vintners are worried that if the overall demand for wine continues to decrease, acres of local grapes may be left to wither on the vine.
“Most wineries are looking at cutting back production, and there will be a depression in grape pricing and lots of fruit left on the vine,” Parr said.
“We are already meeting with most of the large producers to get a feel for what fruit they’ll need to purchase, and how much, so that we can share with our local farm-management companies.”
Last fall, local growers produced bumper yields. “It was cooler, there was rain, [and] we produced a lot of wine,” she said. “Given the substantial amounts of rain we have seen this year, we are looking at really exuberant growth again.”
The ideal weather will mean another great vintage and high-quality grapes, so the association is encouraging all wineries to buy locally grown grapes this year.
Growers with larger operations “are talking about the need for more fruit drop, pruning, and scaling back, with the goal of about six to eight pounds per vine,” Parr said.
Rolling With the Punches
Damian Doffo, CEO and winemaker at Doffo Wines in Temecula Valley, said that keeping up with technology has been a saving grace for his online wine sales.
Wineries that reacted more slowly to the news of the pandemic—those not offering a full online shopping experience or that lagged behind on social media and email marketing campaigns—were the hardest hit, he said.
“It has just been a rollercoaster since March. It has really forced reevaluation of what you’re doing and how, but it also created a lot of opportunity and change—the opportunity to break out of your comfort zone a little bit and change the business model rapidly. And I think the people that were able to do so have weathered the storm better than others,” Doffo said.
“Before COVID, there were many things that you should have been doing, so I think that if you weren’t doing them, you really paid the penalty,” he said. “I saw that the people who were already doing the right things weathered the storm.”
At the onset of the COVID crisis, his winery couldn’t pay any money to laid-off workers because it would affect their unemployment claims, so Doffo packaged up weekly grocery boxes to help feed them and their families instead.
“We were spending about $2,000 a week in groceries,” Doffo said.
Doffo hasn’t rushed employees who don’t yet feel comfortable coming back to work, and expects most of them will eventually return.
“We did reopen with a lighter crew, but … I still have the same team,” he said.
“You’ve just got to roll with the punches. Everything is extremely fluid, and I feel like we’re still in this world of moving targets.”
Valerie Andrews co-founded Oak Mountain Winery in Temecula Valley with her husband, Steve Andrews, in 2001. To keep serving their wine club members amid shutdowns, they’ve hosted virtual wine club parties.
“They have food to-go that they pick up and we do a Zoom party. And we still have our raffles and giveaways, games, prizes. … It’s virtual, but they seem to really love it,” Andrews said.
“Then we have our out-of-staters that normally can’t make it to the parties. Now they can join in from their own home.” Oak Mountain ships out the wine to those members.
When the stay-at-home order was imposed, the winery was forced to lay off all but three employees. But with the gradual reopening of outdoor seating and with innovation in offering new services, “we’re back to 38 people on staff,” she said.
“Our motto through the all of the COVID has been ‘improvise, adapt, and overcome.’”
Andrews is hoping the COVID crisis will subside by Thanksgiving, so the winery can resume hosting weddings and holiday parties.
“Somewhere around November or December, I’ll start getting worried if I can’t be creative and do the online business and everything else to pick up what we’ve lost in events, parties, and larger crowds coming out,” she said.
“Every day is a changing, evolving world now, so … you can’t project what you’re going to do. All you can do is project scenarios—worst-case, best-case, and we’ll have plans for all of those things.”
Echoing Fazeli’s sentiments, she said it doesn’t help when new state guidelines are announced just ahead of weekends. “That’s usually what happens. It hits on a Friday when you’ve just ordered all the food from the cafe and they say, ‘Oh, no, you’re closed.’”
Live Music Banned
Another common complaint among winery owners is the statewide ban on live music performances.
Not only is it bad for her business, but Andrews empathizes with out-of-work musicians.
“We are not allowed to have any live music, period. Not even a harpist. I feel horrible for the musicians,” she said. “They’re independent contractors. I don’t even know if they can get unemployment or anything—probably not,” she said.
“The reason that you can’t have any music at your winery just for ambiance is because there are people who take advantage of it. They make it a concert, there’s a gathering, and then we have problems. So, because the bad people can’t be trusted to follow the rules … none of us can have it.”
The problem, she says, is enforcement. She doesn’t believe all businesses should be punished because some won’t comply with state-mandated safety guidelines.
Business Models Matter
Robert Renzoni Vineyards is an exception to the rule in Temecula Valley, says owner Robert Renzoni. His winery has been able to cope with the pandemic better than most because it has a different business model.
“I never built my winery for events. I never built it to do weddings. I built it to be a winemaker,” he said. “I want to be a winery. I want people, when they think of our winery … to think quality winery, quality wine, killer restaurant.”
The wedding scene is not for everyone. He has seen episodes of the reality TV series “Bridezilla”—“I’ve heard the stories of bridezillas. I didn’t want to deal with stuff like that,” he said.
He wants his customers to know his winery is never going to close early because of a wedding. He said it was a gutsy move breaking from common practice in the area, but it has worked for him.
“This whole thing hasn’t really hit me personally, or as a company, as hard as others that I’ve heard,” he said. “I have 9,000 square feet of patio space. Our restaurant is fully outdoors, and always has been, so we were able to adjust.”
During the shutdown, Renzoni made use of his time for renovations and other “rainy day” projects that would have been more difficult with the winery fully open.
To ensure continued satisfaction among his wine club members, Renzoni doubled his discounts.
“We’re still selling a ton of wine, whether it be in the restaurant or [to] people coming to enjoy tastings on the front patio, or people ordering online, or just calling in wine to go. We’ve fared fairly well, surprisingly,” he said.
When Renzoni had to reduce tasting room capacity to meet social distancing guidelines, he discovered that even with fewer customers, he was selling the same volume of wine.
The more intimate setting, and a reservation system, meant that wine consultants were able to spend more quality time with visitors, and those visitors ended up buying more wine.
“I discovered that with 25 percent of the staff and 25 percent of the clientele, I was doing the same numbers [in sales],” Renzoni said.
In 2008, a widely circulated newspaper article had portrayed Temecula’s wineries as a “Disneyland for adults,” best known for drunken bachelorette parties, Renzoni said. The story also suggested Temecula Valley wine was subpar, leaving local vintners more than a tad sour.
The reviews were unkind, he said. “They politely said the wine sucked and ‘I’d rather go to Napa where the wine is serious.’”
“I was born and raised in the wine business, so I’m a wino. I really have wine in my veins. My family has been in the wine industry for 134 years. I’ve been making wine on and off since I was 6 years old … so for me, I almost took it personally,” he said.
In the early 2000s, Renzoni admits, “the landscape was more developed than the wine.”
Today, he says, local vintners have mastered the climate, the soil, and the finer points of wine-making. They have earned respect among wine connoisseurs, and their competitors in Napa Valley.
In recent years, many Temecula Valley wines, including Renzoni’s, have received consecutive 90-point or higher ratings in Wine Enthusiast magazine, a major benchmark in the industry.
The Younger Crowd
As a vintner, Renzoni is excited that the younger crowd has developed a taste for wine. “It’s really caught on with the American culture and the youth of today—the millennials,” he said. “It’s very hip to drink wine.”
But he’s not as thrilled with the trend of young people renting limos and party buses and showing up noticeably drunk to go winery hopping. It’s not the kind of atmosphere he wants.
He is grateful for locally based Grapeline Tours, which shuttles thousands of visitors to enjoy the wine country experience, and TVWA’s Responsible Partners Program, designed to encourage limousine and party bus companies to help curb irresponsible drinking.
In 2010, reality TV show “Real Housewives of Orange County” brought glitz and glam to the Temecula Valley wineries when it filmed on site.
But behind the glamorous image is the reality of running a farm, Renzoni said, which sometimes means waking up at 3 a.m. to tend the vineyard. Most people don’t see the painstaking process of crushing, barreling and bottling, and aging.
“They don’t see the blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes. They only see the luxury of the wine being poured into a glass,” he said.
It’s that hard work that many vintners are now worried will be for naught if the industry is hit too hard.
Grapes of Wrath
Many vintners, including Renzoni, were chagrined that Newsom’s three Plumpjack wineries in Napa Valley were still open in early July when he ordered other wineries in the state to stop indoor service.
At the time, Napa County was not on the state’s list of counties subject to closures. Newsom did, however, later close indoor service at his wineries.
Several restaurant owners Renzoni has talked to are almost ready to revolt against the rollbacks and fully reopen, he said.
“Let’s say you’re completely terrified of COVID, well, here’s a piece of advice: Stay home,” he said. “I think it should be at the point where the governor should have made a statement saying we are not shutting down again, but if you are fearful of the disease, then stay home. And, for you folks who don’t [care] … God bless ya. Good luck.”