Story and photos by Miriam Raftery
Photo, left: Outdoor patio at Vineyard Grant James in Ramona provides ample social distancing for wine-tasting guests
June 29, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – East County’s once-thriving wine industry is struggling under COVID-19 restrictions – and some local wineries may die on the vine now that the county has once again shut down all bars effect July 1, including wineries and breweries.
Now, some winery owners are criticizing the shutdown as overly broad and unfair, since many rural wineries have outdoor patios or spacious tasting rooms and have been providing ample social distancing – unlike urban bars and crowded venues such as the Gaslamp District.
ECM visited Vineyard Grant James in Ramona on Sunday, where a spacious outdoor patio had just a handful of visitors, seated farther apart than the six-foot mandate. The winery had even set up a table in the vineyard shaded by an umbrella, to accommodate medically vulnerable guests who wanted even more separation from others. (Photo, right: tables amid the vines at Vineyard Grant James)
Wineries were reopened locally for only a couple of weeks before the new shutdown order was announced today.
Today, ECM spoke by phone Jacques Sapier, co-owner of Vineyard Grant James in Ramona, which was named second best winetasting room in America by Travel & Leisure Magazine. Sapier’s wife, Susanne, is the president of the Ramona Valley Vineyards Association.
“They’re lumping us together with every other bar and winery. We wish they could do it on a case by basis,” Jacques Sapier says of the county’s abrupt decision today to force wineries and bars to shut back down.
The winery had been reopened for scarcely two weeks, after investing significantly in changes to meet new health requirements due to COVID-19. “Our labor costs quadrupled,” Sapier says. During the three-month shutdown, wine club members’ purchases of bottles kept the winery afloat.
Despite the hardship, as an established winery with a loyal following, Sapier says, “We will endure."
But he predicts that 50% of the wineries locally may be forced to close down or consolidate “because there is no way they are going to make money” with the new social distancing requirements, even when they are eventually allowed to reopen again—and there’s currently no predicting when reopening will occur.
According to the 2019 San Diego County Economic Impact of Wineries published by the San Diego County Vintners Association, in 2018, San Diego County wineries contributed approximately $58.6 million to the local economy, generated about $41 million in gross sales (a 57.1% increase from 2017), and accounted for 611 industry jobs. More than 140 local wineries harvested a record-breaking 3,284 tons of wine grapes with a production value of $4.6 million.
The wineries are also economic drivers for rural communities,drawing visitors to local restaurants, gift shops and galleries.
Greg Maness is the owner of Casi Cielo Winery in Jamul, along with his wife, P.J. (Photo, left). He's also a viineyard consultant who has helped many winery owners along Highway 94 plant their vineyards.
His tasting room is located in an adobe building, where there is also a spacious patio with seating overlooking the vineyards beyond.
He notes that most local wineries are located in rural East County, and believes those areas should be exempted, since there have been very few COVID-19 cases here. There is ample room for social distancing, and wineries have complied with rules for mask-wearing, sanitation, and more.
Moreover, most wineries don’t draw large crowds. “On a weekend, there are probably a maximum of 20 to 30 people that visit a winery per day. Do that math,” says Maness, who like most local winery owners also has a full-time outside job. ”Tables are six feet apart. Everything is well distanced; there is no cramming in people at the wineries.”
Casi Cielo is now open by appointment only with reservations; guests must purchase a catered food box with wine-tasting. Seating is avaliable on an outdoor patio with shade.
Teri Kerns, co-owner at Ramona Ranch Winery (photo, left), also voiced frustration with the new shutdown order.
“As small businesses, we have worked hard to comply with all safeguards including moving our tastings to outdoors, throw away tasters, social distancing, increased cleanliness, and this caught us and our guests off-guard," she says. "Tasting rooms are not crowded experiences, and in rural San Diego the focus is in being outside. If food is required, I'd like to suggest an accommodation for [allowing guests to] bring their own food to the winery as well as requiring a catered purchase.”
The state of California did not require San Diego County to close bars or wineries, though six other counties were mandated to do so after large spikes in cases and positive test rates. San Diego did not even make the list of counties where such closures were recommended.
San Diego County offiicals made the decision based on nearly 500 new cases reported yesterday, an all-time high, and positive test rates at 7%. There is also a substantial increase in the percentage of cases among young adults in their 20s since the bars reopened.
But winery patrons tend to be more mature. Moreover, no reported outbreaks have been tied to local wineries.
The winery owners we spoke with don’t disagree with the county taking action to protect the public by closing crowded bars. But Maness, concerned over his future and that of fellow vintners, has this to say to local decisionmakers. “I can understand that bars are packing people in who are slamming shots and drinking beers," he conclude, "but we as winery owners do not feel that we should be included in the shutdown order."
As harvest season approaches and grapes begin to ripen, local vineyards and winemakers will need to expend substantial sums to pick and process grapes, then bottle the fruits of their labors. All will be hoping for a bountiful crop of visitors once they are allowed to reopen for tastings.
In the meantime, once the closure order takes effect starting July 1, most wineries will continue to sell bottles of wine for curbside pickup, delivery or shipping to your home. Some, such as Ramona Ranch Winery and San Pasqual Winery in La Mesa, will likely continue to offer virtual wine-parings and tasting tips to savor at home, while others may continue their prior shut-down tradition of teaming up with local restaurants to offer meals to go, along with bottles of wine.
Photo, left: San Pasqual Winery in La Mesa offers award-winning wines to go at "wine-in-place" discount rates, including specialty varities such as passionfruit and habanero wines.
If you would like to savor local wines and support local winemakers during the extended COVID-19 shutdown, you can find a directory of all local wineries in San Diego County in the winery section of East County Magazine's Local Farms Directory.
Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.
East County Magazine gratefully thanks the Facebook Journalism Project for support through its COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program to help make this reporting possible. #FacebookJournalismProject. You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.