Sheldrake Point sign

The sign at Sheldrake Point Winery in Ovid for curbside pickup.

Financial experts frequently say that small business is the engine that drives our economy, but small business also bears the brunt of economic downturns. Finger Lakes wineries, with very few exceptions, are family-run, small businesses. With the economy on a nosedive, they are getting slammed.

In the few weeks — yes, it seemed like months — since wineries in the Finger Lakes stopped in-person wine tastings in accordance with the “New York State on Pause” executive order, the negative impact is evident.

Unlike big Californian wineries that enjoy wide distribution, tastings and related sales constitute a large portion of Finger Lakes wineries’ revenue. A Cayuga Lake vintner told me last year that over 90% of his income came from on-premise sales. While that number may be extreme, wineries here typically derive 50% or more of their revenue from in-winery sales.

Besides the loss of tasting room revenue, wineries are also losing income due to canceled events and reduced restaurant and retail sales. The immediate effect is the loss of jobs. With tasting rooms closed and events canceled, all part-time seasonal workers that operate them have pretty much been furloughed.

To make up for some of the lost proceeds, wineries have turned to various promotions. Meaghan Frank, Dr. Frank’s VP, said, “Since the pandemic started, we have been offering free shipping on six bottles or more. We are also doing local deliveries and curbside pickups.”

Additionally, wineries are using innovative ideas to meet the challenge.

Shannon Brock, co-owner of Silver Thread Vineyard, explained, “Our Virtual Tastings on Facebook Live is something we never offered before. It’s been going so well that I think we will probably continue it to some extent even after the crisis is over.”

In a way, it’s fortuitous that the coronavirus struck at this time of the year. March and April are considered “shoulder” months, when traffic is relatively light at the wineries. But May and June mark the beginning of the tourist (and wedding) season. A continued shutdown would have a much more severe effect on the bottom line — something not sustainable for the long term.

In the week or two immediately after the shelter-in-place order, online and pickup orders jumped. But that was due to pantry stocking. Some of the winery owners reported that those sales have already leveled off. To get some much-needed help, the wineries I contacted expressed that they have either applied for or are considering assistance from the CARES act.

What could you do to help the Finger Lakes wineries? Purchasing wines from them would be an obvious answer. Send wines as gifts to friends and family — a sure way to brighten up their cloistered days. Join your favorite winery’s wine club. Loyal customers are a winery’s biggest asset. Buy Finger Lakes wines from your local wine stores. Don’t forget the retailers are hurting big time too.

The dark clouds ahead are aplenty and the future is uncertain, but our region’s vintners are showing a lot of pluck.

“In the Finger Lakes, we are used to severe challenges. Mentally, this should help us through these difficult times,” said Morten Hallgren, the owner and winemaker of Ravines Wine Cellars. “We will have to tough it out like other local businesses.”

Kim Aliperti, co-owner of Billsboro Winery, added, “I have been so struck by the support from our customers and others we do business with — through sales, kind words, and accommodations from vendors. It has been the silver lining here. It makes me optimistic about the future.”

In every crisis, there are opportunities. By being forced to pivot and innovate, the Finger Lakes wine industry may just emerge from the coronavirus crisis wiser and stronger.

After spending over 30 years running the day-to-day operations of media companies, Dave Sit moved to the Finger Lakes to pursue his many passions, of which wine and writing are two. His “Wine Ranger” column runs the first Sunday of every month. He can be reached at flxwineranger@gmail.com.

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