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On reopening, Napa Valley’s Whitehall Lane Winery discovers coronavirus-era workarounds help with ‘developing and maintaining relationships with our clients’

Whitehall Lane Winery on Highway 29 near St. Helena in Napa Valley reopened for tasting on its back terrace last Saturday. The winery staff had spent three weeks cleansing the property and preparing for the new way of greeting and serving guests.

The winery was started in 1979, and the Leonardini family purchased it in 1993. Because it has a use permit that was grandfathered into the 1990 county Winery Definition Ordinance, Whitehall Lane can accept drop-in visitors, unlike the by-appointment-only requirement put on wineries the county has approved since.

But the new state and county guidelines for winery reopening call for visits to be by appointment to stage the number of people arriving and allow for contact tracing for infections.

“That’s actually refreshing, because it’s about developing and maintaining relationships with our clients,” said Katie Leonardini, head of operations. “The first day we opened, our conversion rate was 100%. Wine club members bought more than they normally would, and every non-wine-club person that came in joined our wine club. What does that tell us? Sit them down, just talk, give them that one-on-one attention, and it’s a win win.”

When the tasting room was closed to visitors in mid-March with the first shelter-at-home order, Whitehall Lane shifted its six tasting room staff and one marketing specialist to start calling wine club members and get the story out on social media to help drive and maintain direct-to-consumer sales volume. Tasting fees paid for the tasting staff, and tips supplemented that pay, but those staff were left with commissions on wine sold to consumers, Leonardini said.

The shutdown of the tasting room has been a “nice reset” of a sort for the business, she said.

“I wish it wasn’t as long, and I hope that it doesn’t take too long to get back to where we were,” Leonardini said. “But I don’t know if we’ll go back to where we were, even if we had a choice.”

That may be an indication that appointments may be the better way to go when the pandemic protocols are lifted, she said.

On Saturdays during the height of tourism season, a couple hundred visitors could arrive at Whitehall Lane before the pandemic. Because of the typical tour pattern of going up the valley via Silverado Trail in the morning then coming down Highway 29 in the afternoon, many showed up around the same time of day.

But Whitehall Lane also took a hit on the wholesale side of the revenue stack. About 65% sales for the 45,000 cases a year produced went to wholesale, and 35% of sales were direct. But most of the wholesale volume is to off-premises accounts, such as wine shops and stores, with the rest going to restaurants, which nationally have been hard-hit by the shelter orders that allowed only take-out and delivery.

Whitehall Lane didn’t see the need to shift the wholesale accounts to more off-premises venues, Leonardini said.

“If we had gone another couple of months without opening up, then you would have had to look at it, but as soon as some states started opening, in the last three weeks orders for on-premise came in pretty quickly,” she said.