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From Oregon’s Willamette Valley to Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, wine tourism in the Pacific Northwest draws millions of visitors per year, not only for the region’s superb wines but also for the idyllic locales. But for an industry that relies on in-person experiences, regional tourism has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Most small wineries rely on tasting room sales and visits to add the personal touch [that comes with] learning about the winery and the people behind it,” said Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission (WSWC).
Facing empty tasting rooms, Washington and Oregon wine tourism professionals have had to pivot to continue connecting with guests.
“A crisis such as COVID-19 is an invitation to winemakers to have deeper, richer and more intimate, sustained relationships with their best customers,” said Sally Murdoch, communications manager of the Oregon Wine Board.
A crisis such as COVID-19 is an invitation to winemakers to have deeper, richer and more intimate, sustained relationships with their best customers.
After the initial shutdowns, many wineries jumped into the digital realm, hosting virtual tastings or — in the case of Raptor Ridge Winery in Newberg, Ore. — virtual tours accompanied by at-home wine flights; wine pick-up and delivery; and wine club engagement and deals. Neighboring Adelsheim Vineyard invented fun pairing options including Sip and Stream, which pairs wines with TV shows and films.
“It’s been a really good year to get creative and think outside the box,” said Elizabeth Clark, associate director of education and experiences at Adelsheim.
As restrictions eased over the summer, many wineries reopened their tasting rooms, albeit with significant changes such as requiring or strongly recommending reservations, eliminating spit buckets, restricting party size, ensuring frequent cleaning and sanitizing, enforcing social distancing, requiring masks and moving tastings outdoors.
Those with spacious outdoor patios — such as Adelsheim or Willamette Valley Vineyards — have been able to offer well-ventilated wine cabanas, tents or bubble domes, whereas smaller wineries that only have indoor tasting rooms have had to change their venue.
“We rented a space with a wall that opened up, and we were also able to set up an outdoor space on some nearby land,” said Hannah Sullivan, director of programming at Antica Terra in Dundee, Ore.
Previously known for its communal indoor tastings, the Willamette Valley winery switched to only hosting private tastings of no more than six people. They have sold out of every tasting.
“If anything, it feels even more intimate,” Sullivan said. “It feels nice to have a whole room to yourself.”
In fact, owners at many tasting rooms that now require reservations feel that it has improved the customer experience, and most say they’ve continued to be booked solid.
“It’s actually a smoother way to operate,” said Casey McClellan, winemaker and founder of Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, Wash. “It’s more personalized, and we can invest more time and preparation.”
It’s more personalized, and we can invest more time and preparation.
Wineries also report that most guests are happy to follow safety protocols and wear masks.
“People are respectful and following guidelines,” said WSWC’s Warner.
Those who have been visiting the wineries have been largely local residents, as out-of-state traffic has gone down.
Warner also highlighted the ways the overall wine tourism industry — from wineries to hotels and restaurants — has come together to support each other.
“It’s a collaborative industry,” Adelsheim’s Clark said. “We’re neighbors first; competitors so far last.”
While possible winter shutdowns and the continuing pandemic are still a cause of concern, many wineries remain optimistic, buoyed by supportive locals and ardent wine-lovers.
“This is the year we’re fully proving that you need to drink the good stuff,” Clark said.
Where to StayThe region’s seclusion and tranquil atmosphere make it ideal for socially distanced escapes.
If clients are wary of hotels, some wineries offer cabins or accommodations, such as the Silo Suites B&B at Abbey Road Farm in Carlton, Ore., and the well-appointed Walla Walla Guesthouse on the grounds of the Armstrong Family Winery’s estate near Walla Walla, Wash.