On a recent Friday, my wife and I took a drive to “exercise the car” and escape the friendly confines of our house and neighborhood. Halfway to nowhere, we decided on a whim to check out Windridge Vineyards in Darnestown, Md., which won a few gold medals in the recent Governor’s Cup competition. Appropriately enough, the winery sits atop a windy ridge near Seneca Creek with sweeping vistas of the Virginia Blue Ridge to the west and Sugarloaf Mountain to the north. A few small groups of customers huddled at appropriately spaced picnic tables, shivering in the cold spring wind. Inside the glass-walled tasting room, clipboards invited us to provide information for contact tracing. Two lines were marked out by ropes as in a theater lobby — one for restrooms, the other for the tasting bar. There were fewer tables than might fit in normal times, but nearly all were occupied. The staff wore masks. Customers did not.
We didn’t have time to stay for a tasting. Besides, it was cold outside and crowded inside. At the bar, I purchased a bottle of the 2019 Encampment, a gold medal Bordeaux-style red wine named in honor of Union troops who set up a reconnaissance post on the property during the Civil War. (I’m a sucker for local history.) The Encampment turned out to be a delicious partner to grilled steak back home.
As pandemic restrictions ease and we venture out with more confidence, winery tasting rooms are bound to become more crowded. How will our post-covid experience compare with 2019? Wineries across the country suffered through several months of total shutdown when the pandemic hit, then adapted to ever-changing rules and occupancy limits as coronavirus cases waned and surged. Dedicated customers who visited or bought wines for delivery helped keep many wineries alive through this time. But what can we expect going forward? Some pandemic pivots may become permanent fixtures of our winery experiences.
“Free tastings are on the outs, and paid tasting flights will become the norm,” predicts Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association and founder of Grow & Fortify, a beverage industry consulting firm. “Reservations have become standard at many of our wineries.”
So we’ll need to do a little more research and call ahead, or reserve a time slot online to make sure we can have a good winery experience. Physical distancing is likely to continue. We can expect to sit at tables instead of crowding around a bar and waving to get a server’s attention for another splash of merlot.
“It has been a little bit of normalcy” in California, even as tastings are restricted to outdoors with people seated and distanced, says Jason Haas, partner and general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard in the Paso Robles region. “We really like the new tasting experience, with reservations, people seated and enjoying pre-poured flights” of wines, he said in an email, adding that this model will continue even as restrictions ease and tastings can once again be held inside.
“Other wineries will go back to bar tastings as they can, and it looks like wine tasting events will resume around midyear,” he said.
Haas sparked a minor tempest in a spit bucket in early April with a Twitter thread advising winery visitors not to rinse their glasses with water between tastes. Even a tiny bit of residual H2O in the glass can skew the flavor of a one-ounce pour of wine, he argued. If you’re at home and pouring a full glass, a drop of water won’t matter, but the best rinse for a wine glass is always a small pour of the next wine. Swirl it around, pour it out and then pour a healthy taste.
This may seem like a First World problem for oenogeeks, but it struck me as a sign of optimism that we are indeed returning to some form of normalcy. We just may need a refresher on tasting room etiquette.
As we drove away from Windridge Vineyards that Friday, a food truck pulled into the parking lot, advertising paella for those willing to brave the chilly evening air.
“Paella,” my wife said wistfully. “Let’s come back when it’s warmer, and when we’re fully vaccinated.”
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