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Napa Valley’s Trefethen Family Vineyards taps lessons from 2014 quake in reopening tasting room from coronavirus restrictions

Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll appellation reopened its tasting room Wednesday under the new protocols for the industry during the coronavirus pandemic.

CEO Jon Ruel has been concerned about making staff and visitors feel safe while still keeping the Wine County experience fun, and part of that is communicating the need for a change in attitude toward face coverings to prevent disease.

From the email confirmation of reservations to attend tastings to signage at the entry to the property, visitors are informed that masks will be required when they’re not seated at a table for tasting.

“We’re trying to get the basic guidelines that allow them to really become a habit for people,” Ruel said, getting inspiration from seeing wide adoption of coverings during flu season in a recent trip to Japan. “We need to think of it as another piece of clothing: Put on your pants; put on your shirt; put on your mask. That’s what you do when you get out of a house.”

The winery has been rethinking other places to host guests on the property for several years.

The 2014 Napa quake severely damaged the historic winery building, and renovations of that were recently completed, and the use permit was adjusted to match these new uses. Then the wildfires in the past couple of years also has created anxiety among visitors.

“The opportunities that we have taken advantage of through previous crises are helping us get through this,” Ruel said.

Trefethen sales for its production of 70,000–80,000 cases a year is about evenly split between direct to consumer and wholesale, with more than half of the latter going to restaurants and other on-premise settings.

“We’re very much a restaurant brand,” Ruel said. “We have a history of working closely with restaurants throughout the country, and that’s been our path for many years. It’s been a real strength of ours in many times, but that certainly has presented real challenges as restaurants around the country closed down.”

Prohibitions of dining in restaurants was a common feature of helter-at-home orders that went into place starting in mid-March across the nation to slow the spread of the virus. Restaurants often were allowed to remain open for take-out or delivery, but many fine-dining establishments opted not to reopen because of challenges with such food in that format.

“I’ve missed the tasting room, not only for the volume of sales but also because it’s our front door, a way to meet new customers and make new connections,” Ruel said. “And so I don’t think it’d been sustainable for us to keep the tasting rooms closed forever.”

The winery redirected tasting room staff to virtual tastings and calling club members. And the surge in online sales bodes well for the future, he said.

“Wine a sector was really underperforming when it comes to e-commerce, compared with other kinds of products,” Ruel said. “And this was a real catalyst for people to get more comfortable with it. We put a shipping (discount) special into to lower that barrier. So many people took to cooking at home and with home delivery, they may be taking fewer trips to the grocery store.”