You can still enjoy a glass of Northern Michigan wine, thanks to online shopping and virtual wine tasting events. Read on for a look at how local wineries are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Spring at a Northern Michigan winery can be a crucial time. By April, farming and pruning tend to be in full swing in the vineyard, filtering and bottling begins and retail and restaurant sales march on.

At Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay, it’s time to staff up the tasting room, connect with wholesalers to lock in wine sales and plan for events and an influx of visitors. Once the COVID-19 health crisis hit the state of Michigan in mid-March, though, the scene in tasting rooms like this one began to look quite different.

“Often, this time of year, we have a lot of the teams working on projects, spring cleaning, landscaping, prep work for the season,” says General Manager Rick DeBlasio. “Almost none of that can be done. In addition, we can’t serve guests in our tasting room, which is a large piece of our business.”

To address these changes, the staff at Shady Lane Cellars moved quickly to put extra precautions in place, limit the staff on-site at any given time, and to offer a penny shipping incentive that has driven online sales higher than they’ve seen before.

“The tasting room has basically become a fulfillment center,” DeBlasio says. “It has really worked so far, and hopefully can become a solid bridge for us.”

But challenges are mounting, according to Shady Lane Cellars Winemaker Kasey Wierzba.

“All of our bottling has been pushed back,” she explains. ”Our label supplier is backlogged with work after dealing with measures to keep their employees safe. We have slowed down in the winery because everything is time-sensitive. We can’t finish our filtering because it needs to be done closer to bottling. But we are holding off on bottling because we don’t have labels. The flow of the year is so important in winemaking. When tasks get pushed and the schedule is delayed it is like a domino effect. Come fall, the grapes won’t wait. We have to make room for them.”

Other Northern Michigan wineries are feeling the same pressure and time constraints.

Winemaking still goes on at Mari Vineyards, just within the state’s stay-at-home directives.

“My cellar master drops off wine samples for me (while I am in self-quarantine) and we’re planning to bottle some wines soon so that they’re ready for summer and fall,” says Mari Vineyards Winemaker Sean O’Keefe. “Vineyard work is proceeding along at a good clip even with the COVID-19 protocols. Our tasting room managers are still coming in to pack orders for wine shipments; that side of the business is going well.”

Charles Edson, a founder of Bel Lago Vineyard, Winery & Cidery, says the staff there is fulfilling both shipping orders and pre-paid curbside pick-up orders.

“We were fortunate enough to have launched a new website with expanded shipping into 41 states in the fall,” Edson says. “While we were already driving traffic to the online space, the closure of the tasting room and cancellation of Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association events amplified its importance.”

Photo by Christy Kandel

Winemakers Blake (left) and Charlie (right) sample at a distance at Bel Lago // Photo by Christy Kandel

Marie-Chantal Dalese, certified sommelier, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal, says April online sales actually doubled, thanks to a solid online store.

The same is true at Shady Lane Cellars.

“We have seen a major spike,” DeBlasio says. “It’s great to have the support of our customers, capture new customers and have a business outlet during these times.”

But those online sales don’t reveal the whole story. Northern Michigan wineries are working with reduced staffing and are limited to online sales and shipping for the time being.

“Most of Mari’s wines are primarily sold to restaurants, so that has slowed orders to a standstill,” O’Keefe says. “I’m very concerned for my restaurant colleagues, and hope that we—as an industry—can do something to benefit them when things begin to open up again.”

Dalese says nearly every staff member at Chateau Chantal is on a different program. Some are laid-off, others are experimenting with workshare. Some are keeping the winery and cellar running while others are working full time from home.

“It’s a massive challenge,” she says. “Adding youngsters to the home environment for most of us adds to it.”

Andy Fles at Shady Lane Cellars says he hopes this uncertain time becomes one of reflection on the importance of supporting local and regional farmers.

“We cannot walk away from our crops,” Fles says. “Nature marches on regardless of our goals or rules. If we miss out on crucial tasks at any point in the game—spring, summer or fall or even winter—that can affect the food and beverage supply in the future.”

Through it all, wineries like these in Northern Michigan are doing everything possible to stay connected to their community, visitors and customers.

The staff at Shady Lane Cellars set out to purchase gift cards from local restaurants and establishments in the Traverse City area, in a show of support, spending hundreds of dollars each in the community.

Dalese says that Chateau Chantal has made stay-at-home packs available and staff are offering virtual tastings, virtual cooking classes and discounts. They’re also thinking of others.

“Each week in April, we are donating 15 percent of our sales to a local nonprofit that is helping the community,” Dalese says, such as The Grand Traverse Area Hospitality Relief Fund; NWMI Health Service, which is offering COVID-19 testing; Meals on Wheels and a local musician’s fund.

Edson noted that, at Bel Lago, they are continuing a longtime partnership with Kingsley-based Boss Mouse Cheese. The winery is offering a half-pound or pound of this local favorite with orders of 6 or 12 bottles of wine, respectively.

“We’ve carried Sue’s fabulous artisan cheeses in our tasting room for years, so it made perfect sense to team up again,” Edson says. “It makes us so happy to be able to help support another small business and we’ve heard it makes our customers happy too.”

Still, winery owners and staff agree that the outlook feels uncertain.

“We can’t wait to see our guests return and look forward to creating a safe environment for them to return to,” Dalese says.

Photo(s) by Angela Brown