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Sep. 21, 2020 | Monday
Local News
NOTL wineries making most of a difficult season
A couple enjoys a seated, safely distanced wine tasting at Queenston Mile with Cameron McDougall. (Jill Troyer)

NOTL wineries lost time early in the tourist season when they were largely shut down, but they've made the most of the opportunities they've had since then.  

Wineries large and small have adapted to serve guests safely as the economy gradually reopened during the pandemic, and they're trying to maximize wine sales in this challenging and changing environment.  

The story at Queenston Mile Vineyard echoes that of other wineries in many respects, with the added wrinkle of being very new.

Queenston Mile opened in November 2018, so 2020 is just it’s second summer, and not at all the summer season it expected.

“We’re very new, and very small,” explained Alison Zalepa, the general manager there.“ We closed our doors mid-March, because of the pandemic, and laid off our five team members. We didn’t reopen until July 1,” she added. 

Like other wineries in NOTL, Queenston Mile moved to reservations for seated tastings, with greatly reduced volume to ensure space for physical distancing.

“Tastings are every hour, so we only have one to three groups per hour inside the winery, plus our outdoor patio space for guests who want to enjoy a glass of wine with a view of the vineyard,” said Zalepa.  

The lost time from mid-March to July, combined with reduced capacity for the rest of season mean that financial projections for the winery won’t be met.

“We did project growth of 20 per cent, as a new winery, but if we stay flat year over year, that’s a win, to be able to pull that off through a pandemic,” said Zalepa.

Online sales have been a big factor in helping most NOTL wineries, including Queenston Mile, stay afloat. 

“We leapt five years forward with the surge in online sales when the winery had to close. We only had a small database of customers, but they were very engaged in supporting us through that time.”

Andrew Peller Ltd. is a much larger and longer-established business. It owns three wineries in NOTL; Peller Estates, Trius Winery and Wayne Gretzky Estates, and it’s sales come from several streams.

“We have up elevators and down elevators,” said Greg Berti, Peller's vice-president of global markets, industry relations, business development.

On the down elevator "we have our restaurants, exports and wineries, where sales are now down 50 per cent.” 

On the up elevator, "we have LCBO, grocery stores, and e-commerce. Our e-commerce increase was substantial, many many many more times than before. We had systems and processes in place, so we repositioned people into pick, pack and shipping,” he said.

Peller also has moved to reservations and seated tastings at its properties. “The wineries are busy, but we can only accommodate so many people at a time,” Berti said.  

For now, he expects that “by the end of the tourist season, we hope to be just 25 to 30 per cent down for winery sales, if there are no sudden surprises.”

That resonates with the overview from Andrea Kaiser, chair of the Wineries of NOTL and director of marketing at Reif Estate Winery.

“Revenue will vary from winery to winery, but it’s probably running 25 to 50 per cent off for the season,” she said.

“Wineries have roughly one-third occupancy compared to the past, or even less, for tastings and tours, in order to maintain social distancing standards. We’re all still definitely very cautious and concerned for the safety of our customers and teammates,”  Kaiser said.

“Customers want to get out, but they also want to feel safe, so when they see the plexiglass, and the space, and the cleaning, they appreciate it,” she added.

Reduced capacity means reduced sales, but there’s a silver lining for guests.

“Visitors are getting more intimate experiences, they don’t have to fight crowds, and they get more one-on-one time with our wine consultants,” Kaiser said. “And they’re loving it. We see it at the wineries and they’re commenting on Tripadvisor, too."

Berti sums up the situation, saying, “We’re staying optimistic, and being really, really careful.”

 

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