Promotion Amid Problems – N.C. Wine Month in the era of COVID-19

by | May 14, 2020

Red wine
Red wine

John Wright is delivering wine to doorsteps these days – a service his Sanctuary Vineyards has never offered in the past. It’s a direct result of the changes surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic response.

“We’re typically busy with customers in our tasting room and don’t have the staff to send on deliveries,” Wright said. “We have a little extra time on our hands now.”

Sanctuary Vineyards is the state’s most eastern winery. It’s in the northeastern corner of the state in Jarvisburg, on the peninsula in Currituck County that separates Currituck Sound from the North River and Albemarle Sound. His family started farming there after shipwrecking in nearby Duck in 1850. Corn, wheat and soybeans are still grown there.

The vineyard began in 2002, and the customers are usually tourists headed to the nearby Outer Banks. However, the stay-home order across the state (and other states) has stopped almost all leisure travel.

“We can’t open bottles of wine, and we can’t taste wine,” Wright said. “Without tourism we don’t have business.”

Wright’s delivery service is offered in Camden, Currituck and Dare Counties, and it requires a three-bottle minimum. In addition to delivery, Wright is also offering shipping and a drive-up option to buy wine.

It’s certainly not the way he envisioned April and May – May being N.C. Wine Month. He expected business to pick up around Easter and continue through the summer and fall to help him pay off the debt from the most recent wine bottling. In addition to visitors, that business also was supposed to include events such as weddings. All of the events at Sanctuary Vineyards have been canceled.

All the way across the state outside Murphy, it’s a similar situation for Steve Thompson at Nottely River Valley Vineyards. Thompson’s winery is the state’s most western winery. He started it in 2008 on land that’s been in his family since 1820.

Steve Thompson at Nottely River Valley Vineyards

He also depends on tourists stopping at his winery, but his tasting room is closed. So right now he’s seeing a 95 percent reduction in his normal sales. His only business has been a few people who have stopped by to buy some bottles of wine.

“It’s basically wiped out the sales,” Thompson said. “There have been zero tourists, which means zero sales.”

Technically, Nottely River Valley Vineyards, Sanctuary Vineyards and many other wineries across the state can now open their gift shops under the “phase 1” easing of stay-home restrictions in North Carolina. However, these small vineyards and wineries don’t have much of a shop beyond the tasting areas. It’s where people sit and stay a while before buying bottles of wine, but sitting down for a tasting still isn’t allowed. Also, even if they had a shop to open, there just aren’t very many people traveling anyway.

The N.C. Wine Guys – Joe Brock and Matt Kemberling – have seen a few larger wineries such as Childress Vineyards and Shelton Vineyards open their gift shops under “phase 1.” Their shops are much larger though, and wine sales are still restricted to closed bottles.

Joe Brock & Matt Kemberling

Brock and Kemberling started visiting North Carolina wineries in 2013, and by 2014 they’d started blogging and tweeting about the state’s wine industry. Their social media presence has expanded and so has their voice for promoting wineries that use fruit from their own vineyards/fields or other sources within the state.

They hosted an online wine tasting at the beginning of May to help promote N.C. Wine Month. On their website, they’ve also set up a searchable database to you find local wineries and see how they’re responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The listings include discounts, special purchasing options and other updates.

They’ve seen many wineries making adjustments – offering delivery and drive-up purchasing like Wright at Sanctuary Vineyards. They’ve also seen vineyards do their own online tastings with wine they shipped to customers. Some have simply shared informational videos on their social media channels.

“[They’re trying] whatever they can do just as a way to stay top of mind and engage when they can’t do it in person,” Brock said.

They expect that as wineries and vineyards are allowed to reopen to the public, they won’t be able to open at 100 percent.

“I would expect to see more creativity because we’re not going to be back to normal [immediately],” Kemberling said. “We may be back to a new normal.”

The new normal will likely be a topic of the N.C. Wine Guys’ rescheduled #NCWine Bloggers Summit. They’re working to move the summit online, and how to continue dealing with the changes from COVID-19 may become a new session during the summit.

For now, both guys say the best way to support North Carolina’s wine industry is to simply buy North Carolina wine. The experience of visiting a vineyard, however, will have to wait.

“Whatever you can do to help these folks in this difficult time, it’s keeping those dollars in the state.” Brock said. “Sure if you can go to the grocery store [to buy N.C. wine], that’s great, but if you can go and buy directly, that’s really going to make an impact.”

They recommend using their online database to find a winery to support. The N.C. Department of Agriculture’s also has a winery finding tool. (Be sure to click on “show all wineries” when using the map.) It’s the best thing people can do to support N.C. Wine Month, they said.

“And tell your friends and share on social media if you find something you like,” Kemberling said.

Of course, nothing will likely replace the economic impact of people visiting wineries though. Buying N.C. wine in any way right now is a needed band-aid, but the financial wound caused by the COVID-19 restrictions won’t truly heal until people like Wright and Thompson can see visitors in their tasting rooms again.

“We just need people feeling free to get out and go,” Thompson said. “I think they will, and then if they have any money they’ll spend it.”