Forced safety measures due to the coronavirus are prompting a new, more leisurely tasting model at Northern Michigan wineries. (And we kinda love it!)

Forget the days past when wine tasting meant fitting in as many stops as you could in a day, crowding up to a tasting room bar and working through a list of the day’s pours.

This summer—and perhaps beyond—state requirements for mask wearing and social distancing have forced creativity and changed the tasting model. Northern Michigan wine visits are now taking on the flavor of a vineyard picnic at some spots, at others, an in-demand wine bar at which a host will escort you to a pre-reserved table with a pretty vineyard or bay view. There’s also, at most spots, the option of a bottle of wine or wine-centered picnic to go.

“There’s an opportunity any time a business is forced to rethink what they’ve always done. That’s what I’ve tried to embrace,” says McKenzie Gallagher, owner of Rove Estate on M-72 in Traverse City. “It’s a chance to refocus, regroup and kind of change the game.”

If clean is the new hot travel amenity, so is the concept of social distancing at a vineyard and breezy spots like Rove’s patio perch atop Leelanau County’s highest point.

Here, a massive tent generally used for weddings will house two additional tasting bars, allowing the winery to offer tasting by appointment, spaced out enough that staff can sanitize between pours. To cut down on the handling of glassware, tasting costs will wrap in a souvenir glass to go. Most guests will be led by a greeter at a host stand to a table on a patio or under the tent for tasting by the glass or flight with an optional charcuterie board. Others might purchase a wine picnic to-go in a carrier with a two bottle, two tumbler deal, and charcuterie board served in a compostable container for enjoying on Rove’s trails or a local beach.

“There’s a whole spectrum of comfort levels within the people who are going to be visiting us,” Gallagher says. “We want to make sure we’re making everybody feel comfortable.”

At Petoskey Farms Vineyard & Winery, the completion of a new pizza truck with a wood-fired oven couldn’t have had better timing, nor could the enlargement of a deck (now with 3,600 square feet of space) overlooking one of the area’s prettiest hillside and vineyard views. Winemaker Josh Morgan says the tasting room will be open for wine sales only, with a host taking guests to a table for wine by the glass or flight and optional food—basically like a restaurant.

And if Petoskey Farms resembles an Italian bistro with a view, Brengman Brothers near Traverse City might feel more like a visit to a vineyard-owning friend—a friend who offers customized pizza bites and welcomes you to stroll or bike through vines or on vineyard trails. Guests will be encouraged to take a blanket and a bottle, and perhaps some food, and spread out between the vines.

“We want people to call and make a reservation, and we’ll have a questionnaire: What are their goals for the day? To do a tasting or stay for a glass pour? Have food? Are they bringing family or friends?” says event director and tasting room manager Lauren Fournier. The person answering the phone can be something of an experience concierge, she explains. “It’s nerve wracking, but it’s exciting.”

The new opportunities will also come with responsibility. Guests at most or all wineries will be asked to wear masks until they get to assigned tables, and to be extra patient. With capacity limited to 50 percent, waits are likely, and reservations will be advised. Newcomers to a given winery will take a bit more of a chance on what wine they’ll likely enjoy, since tasting room bars have been for the most part replaced by wines by the flight or glass.

Small wineries face a particularly daunting challenge since social distancing regulations might limit them to one or two people at a tasting bar, leaving little chance to spread out the seating. Look for creative ideas at these establishments as well.

Nathaniel Rose, owner of boutique winery Nathaniel Rose in Suttons Bay, plans to place signs along M-22 with the winery’s phone number for pre-ordering. People can pull up and honk, and he or a staffer will come out in gloves and mask with a disinfected menu of offered wines and deliver the purchase to the car. The tasting room will open only when he’s sure it can be done safely; in the meantime, wine club members who make an appointment will get VIP treatment at a single picnic table or two situated along Grand Traverse Bay.

In some ways, the changes being made for safety reasons have moved forward a trend some wineries had been moving toward already.

“One of our directions has been a more elevated experience, more reservation-based and hosted tastings,” says Rick DeBlasio, general manager of Shady Lane Cellars and president of the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association. “This environment will be really conducive for something like this—the ability to make reservations, spread out, sit in the vineyard on our huge patio and take advantage of opportunities to really slow the experience down. The silver lining is we can create a slower paced environment where people can be more present with the winery and wine and take the time to really enjoy it.”

Photo by Brys Estate

That’s echoed by Patrick Brys of Old Mission Peninsula’s Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery. The winery will eliminate its tasting room bar, but in exchange, offer seating at various spots within the 111 acres of vineyard. The winery will set up tables on the popular patio over the vines, the barrel room, cask room, a portion of the cellar and likely even its “secret” lavender garden. Reservations will give visitors 1.5 hours at their assigned table. A new tasting tower that holds a flight of five wines will be offered for a side-by-side sampling of wines that Brys hopes will elevate even the self-guided experience.

“At the end of it, we all might learn something” Brys says. “Things might change permanently on some level if we find people are really enjoying this type of experience. I know in Napa, when you go touring, they’ve moved to more appointment-style tastings where it’s not about hitting as many places as you can in one day. Here, too, I see people picking two or three, or just one vineyard stop, and enjoying a leisurely afternoon.”

If you go:

  • Call ahead. Wineries have differing open dates and hours and many require reservations for seating or tasting.
  • Bring a mask, required within enclosed spaces and at most wineries everywhere except when seated at an assigned table.
  • Prepare for a different tasting model. Most wineries are replacing the tasting bar experience with wine by the glass or flight, new food options and in most cases, curbside purchasing.
  • Be patient and flexible. Winery staff members are quickly changing operation methods in a relatively short timeframe.
  • Visit wineries with a friend or two, not a large party. Most table configurations can only handle up to six people and large groups will, for the most part, not be accommodated.

Photo(s) by Patrick Wellever