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California Wineries Wary Of Pandemic's Long-Term Impact


Now to California, which is home to a multi-billion-dollar wine industry. But like other sectors of the economy, it's taken a big hit from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting business shutdowns. Saul Gonzalez from member station KQED has more.

SAUL GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Tablas Creek winery is located on California's central coast, about three hours north of Los Angeles. Manager and co-owner Jason Haas really likes showing off his vineyard.

JASON HAAS: But we're fairly early in the growing season. The berries are smaller than peas right now. We'll probably be picking this sometime in the beginning of October.

GONZALEZ: But instead of focusing on future grape harvests, Haas, like other California vintners and winery owners, has spent the last few months dealing with the damage done to his business by the coronavirus pandemic.

HAAS: I mean, I've been doing this for 18 years, and there's been nothing like this. I mean, we had to have our tasting room closed for three months. So this is a whole different order of magnitude in terms of challenges that we've had to overcome.

GONZALEZ: Haas says he lost about a quarter of his sales with the closure of his winery and more when you factor in a fall in restaurant orders. And he's not alone. The Wine Institute, a trade group, says California's wine industry will likely lose more than $4 billion this year because of the pandemic. And a new study by Sonoma State University projects a loss of more than 40,000 wine-related jobs in the state.

But many California wineries got some good news last month when the state allowed them to partially reopen if they follow coronavirus guidelines. So the serving staff at Tablas has come back to work.

HAAS: Grenache blanc - again, bright acidity. You'll taste a lot of different fruit. But I pick up a lot of tart green apple on it. It's just a nice, refreshing wine.

GONZALEZ: And visitors here can only come if they make reservations first, drink outside and maintain social distancing. The staff wears masks and face shields and gloves as they serve the wine.

Although California has again shut down wineries and bars in some parts of the state to help stop an uptick in coronavirus cases, big parts of wine country have been spared. Haas argues the precautions his industry has taken make visiting a winery or vineyard safer than other activities.

HAAS: Safer than going to a movie theater, safer than going to an indoor restaurant, safer than going to get a pedicure or going to a gym.

GONZALEZ: Tablas customer Dorothy Schultz says she feels safe and is elated wine country is partially reopened. She and a friend made a more than five-hour drive from San Diego to sip wine flights and soak in the scenery.

DOROTHY SCHULTZ: It's nice to be able to get away from the house and just enjoy beautiful atmosphere and something different.

GONZALEZ: And wine is part of that process.

SCHULTZ: Wine is always part of that. Of course.

GONZALEZ: The size of Tablas Winery gives it an advantage in surviving the pandemic. Meanwhile, smaller wine tasting rooms across the state are having to make their own changes. Bodegas Paso Robles can only fit a couple of customers in its shop while maintaining social distancing, so co-owner Heather Gray says they've moved to the sidewalk with a homespun solution.

HEATHER GRAY: We made an ironing board into a table, and we have that out front. They're doing it in Europe. It looks super cute, and we are super excited so that we can have the opportunity to make money so we don't go out of business.

GONZALEZ: But co-owner Dorothy Schuler says this is only a temporary fix and worries many small California wine businesses won't survive the pandemic.

DOROTHY SCHULER: No, we could not sustain it long-term. I mean, it's a miracle we've gotten this far, as far as I'm concerned. Other people are going out of business that are small like us.

GONZALEZ: Along with the ironing board solution, Shuler and Gray say they hope to survive the coming weeks by relying more on mail-order deliveries to loyal customers across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Saul Gonzalez in Paso Robles, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Saul Gonzalez
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