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Napa Valley’s Groth Vineyards & Winery sharpens direct-to-consumer focus during coronavirus lockdown

Groth Vineyards & Winery reopens its tasting room under the new California and Napa County coronavirus safety protocols on Friday. But CEO Suzanne Groth remembers when Napa Valley’s wine business wasn’t so much about visitation.

Her parents, Dennis, a former Silicon Valley top executive, and Judy Groth, started the wine brand in 1982 and opened the winery in Napa Valley’s Oakville winegrowing region in 1990. The winery makes 70,000–80,000 cases annually. About 90% of Groth’s sales are wholesale, managed by Wilson Daniels through 30 distributors nationwide since the vintner’s early days.

“For the past three months, it’s been like 1982 all over again,” Groth said about traffic on Napa Valley roadways since the mid-March coronavirus shelter-at-home county order.

Now that the winery could reopen, the first three days of appointments are sold out. There will be 50% the previous number of guests planned for the first week to adjust to virus safety protocols, which include prefilled glasses, mask use and sanitation between visitors.

More direct-to-consumer sales and a virtual Wine Country experience may be a lasting result of the pandemic, Groth said.

“We’ve resisted it for decades,” she said. “My family and I have remained very laser focused on wholesale, but we’re finally saying, ‘You know, with the power of email and outreach and the customer’s curiosity, we could get them an experience on the website and on their computers at home. They don’t necessarily have to visit.’ In Wine Country and in California, we’re all saying to ourselves, ‘How many more visitors can we actually entertain?’”

But last year, Groth family and executives wrapped 14 months strategic planning that included more direct-to-consumer marketing. That led to the hiring of a full-time marketing specialist with more emphasis on social media outreach to millennials, a streamlined e-commerce experience launched in February and new labels, the first additions to the Groth lineup in decades: Oak Cross estate red blend launching next year and wine club-focused Oakville Neighbors with cabernet sauvignon grapes from two surrounding growers.

“We’ve agreed that we should plant a little bit of petite verdot that we’ll use in our Oak Cross next year, but we will stay laser focused on what the estate is excellent at producing,” Groth said. “However, we need to start listening to the consumer, so we started looking at our hospitality and the outreach that we can do through digital means. I think that the millennial buyer is hungry for story. We’re not the new shiny winery on the block making orange wine or red sweet wine. Trends come and go, and we have to stay true to who we are.”

The winery had acquired tasting kits to use with virtual tastings for distributors and trade buyers before the pandemic, but the success with such meetings during the large-scale shutdown of restaurants nationwide is leading to creation of a winery “Zoom room” with soil samples from the vineyards and other tools to teach about the brand.

This year in the vineyards appears to be a “typical crop,” with the season about 10 days ahead of the historical average, thanks to warm and relatively dry spring weather, Groth said.