by Sahar Chmais
It starts with the grape and it ends with a healthy economy. The wine country in Texas invites people in from all around the world to enjoy themselves in the outdoor scenery, drinking the juice from fermented grapes, taking walks in nature and discovering large plots of green and purple land. But COVID-19 has begun taking down yet another beloved industry, and some believe that the restrictions implemented on vineyards are not done correctly.
“While I greatly appreciate the governor’s efforts to keep people safe during this COVID crisis, there is no reason we cannot operate safely under the same capacity rules that apply to restaurants,” said Dee Kelleher, co-owner of Dripping Springs Distilling and Chair of the Texas Craft Spirits PAC. “Absent that, without new sales options, many distillers will go out of business.”
Businesses functioning on revenue of 51% or greater from alcohol sales had to shut down multiple times during the pandemic and, most recently, that order came on June 26. For some alcohol sale business models, closing might have made sense in regards to social distancing. For instance, many bars tend to have small enclosed spaces, not a lot of ventilation, and they have people dancing and standing inside, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder. This is not an ideal condition for stopping the spread of the virus.
But for places like some vineyards, where there are acres of land baked in the sun and light drinking can occur outdoors, these restrictions did not make sense.
“If I was a restaurant, it would be okay to do tastings and serve alcohol,” said Graveyard Vineyards Texas manager Adam Campbell. “So, it doesn’t make sense how food is going to kill this virus. We have a big tasting room here. People are not at a bar spitting in each other’s faces and drunk; they are all spaced out. In June, we were allowed to be open up to 50%, things were great, no one got the virus around here. If we were able to be open, it’s the same thing, people will be at least six to 10 feet away from each other.”
In light of the struggle the alcohol industry is going through, on Aug. 26, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission decided to loosen its guidelines and created a type of loophole for these businesses. TABC has allowed businesses to apply to become qualified as restaurants, as long as they have two entrees on their menu, offer food services the entire time alcohol is on the table, and 51% of their gross receipts are not from alcohol.
For some bars, this came as good news because many already have some type of menu engrained in their business. This is not the case for vineyards and wine tasting rooms.
The chief wine maker at Dripping Springs’ Solaro Estate Winery, Robert Fritz, said he does not believe this new regulation works for the vineyard business model. Trying to turn the estate, which is based off of wine production, into a restaurant is not viable, Fritz said. He does not believe this is a good option for his work or any other vineyard.
It takes five or six years to take the grape off the vine, so turning one industry overnight to another industry, where it would need chefs and food items, does not make sense to Fritz. To ask his clients to come and spend more than half of their money on food which came from a store is not going to work either, he explained.
Reopening under these new regulations not only does not work for a vineyard, but according to Fritz, it does not make any safety sense.
“I don’t understand how it has anything to do with safety,” Fritz said about the new TABC rules. “If the rule is people are supposed to be six, or 10, or 20 feet apart, whatever is safe, it has nothing to do with the business of the industry. We have hair and nail salons open with people standing right next to you, then why don’t we have people enjoying the wide open spaces, sitting together, enjoying a glass of wine. I don’t know the answer, but I know selling packaged food is not it.”
Fritz and Campbell both do not understand how the shutdown of their business benefits anybody.
During the pandemic, sales have plummeted for the vineyards. Graveyard Vineyards Texas, located in Dripping Springs, is now down to 10% of its sales. Solaro Estate Winery is barely making any sales because people usually come by to try the wine, enjoy the nature, learn about the drink, then buy their bottle. Fritz said the wine bottles being bought do not really cover any costs.
Fritz worries, though, about the economic impact of this entire shutdown. For an established vineyard like Solaro Estate Winery, they might be able to push through the loss, but not everyone has that luxury.
According to the National Association of American Wineries, the total economic impact of wineries in Texas is $13.1 billion. It creates tens of thousands of jobs, brings in more than half a million tourists and funds state taxes at nearly $800 million.
This beverage that comes with an experience brings in tourists, feeds the hotel industry, grows the Texas culture and more, said Fritz, and that is another reason he is so worried about the impact of closing wineries.
But different vineyards will be affected in different ways, said Beverley Hadaway, owner of Henly Vineyards. Hadaway’s business is a mom and pop operation, run by a couple in their 70s. They decided to close at the beginning of the pandemic and do not plan to reopen until potentially in the fall due to safety reasons.
Their hosting services are very small and exclusive. They only take in clients by appointment and they do not bring in large parties – they want to keep it quiet and simple.
So while they have closed their tasting room, they continue to bottle and sell their wine in a local store, Arc De Texas. Hadaway approximates that 75% of their bottles are usually sent off to retailers, while 25% is sold on the premises.
As someone in the service industry, Hadaway said ensuring the safety of the public and employees is key.
“Eventually, this will go away,” Hadaway told the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch. “So you want people to come back and say ‘thank you for caring for us.’”
For a business like Henly Vineyards, closing down is not the end of the world, Hadaway explained, but for other folks, those who are just starting out, things will be tough.