Now is the second winter of the pandemic. What has the experience been for the local grape growing and winemaking community? I will attempt to answer, based upon my own business experience.
In our vineyard, the pandemic has been a concern, and has caused us to change some ways of working — but has not been a disaster. The majority of our vineyard crew are H2A guys, who came in late winter, isolated, and then got to work with our vineyard manager without incident. Because the work is done outdoors, fear of transmission — and actual transmission of the virus — is less than that for many workplaces. It is always the case the workers in vineyards can be effective and comfortable, remaining 6 or more feet apart for nearly all tasks.
In the winery, the situation is different. We had to make changes in work patterns to maintain physical distancing. During the early weeks of the pandemic, we simply did not do some activities at all (things like disgorging, which could be delayed), until we had better guidance from health authorities, and until we had assembled shields between workstations to enable a team of two or three or four people to work closely in safety.
Our cellar crew developed working systems that kept them safe. And, most importantly, kept them feeling safe and comfortable with working in the winery.
The situation in our tasting room was markedly different. We were closed to visitors for several weeks, and then re-opened with limited numbers of customers allowed inside. Our full-time staff developed systems that kept them feeling safe at work, and able to welcome our customers to a safe place.
We implemented a reservation system to control the number of people in the tasting room, and assure visitors that, with a reservation and a mask, they could enter and be welcomed by our staff, and enjoy their visit with us. The change to reservations was remarkably well received, by both customers and staff.
In our case, most of our tasting room staff work part-time. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we could only employ, on the busy days (Saturdays) a fraction of the number of staff we had in the past. This largely worked out, as staff either chose not to work at all (in this case, mostly because they did not wish to take the risks associated with working), or work fewer hours a week to allow other staff additional work hours.
Our staff has always been remarkable: a family of folks who enjoy working together, enthusiastically sharing the tasting room experience with customers. The past year has limited their ability to do so, but has not extinguished their enthusiasm.
Another difficulty that was always there, but got far worse during the pandemic, is child care for those of our staff who have young or school age children. In some cases, this was resolved, not without difficulty, by reducing work hours for affected parents. This meant difficult compromises on the part of working couples, involving two-job juggling; and on the part of single parents time-shifting work hours to accommodate child care. Our staff made it through the past year remarkably unscathed, I think.
I do not know, but I do hope that the experiences I have related here are similar to those of other local vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms: that we all — staff and customers alike — look forward to 2021.
Larry Mawby is CEO of L. Mawby Vineyards in Suttons Bay. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.