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LI wineries adapt to COVID, capitalize on busy summer, innovative marketing

Owners at Pindar Vineyards, one of Long Island's oldest vineyards, say customers continued to visit the North Fork despite the pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

Maria Rivero Gonzalez had just signed on with a distributor to bring her newly branded RG|NY wines to regional restaurants when COVID-19 hit three months later in March. The body blow locked down not only her tasting room but also access to the hundreds of restaurants she’d hoped would give her North Fork-made wines a big new boost.

Now, as 2020 draws to a close, Rivero Gonzalez is looking back on a year that saw her company and dozens of others adapt to difficult circumstances, offering drive-through sales, home tasting and blending kits, even special COVID-spaced tasting areas for the flood of customers that flocked to the East End when restrictions were lifted in June. RG|NY is based in the former Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead, which her family bought in 2018.

"We all had to pivot, and do what we could," she said in late November, as another potential lockdown loomed. "It will definitely be remembered as a hard year. In crisis, it just makes everyone become more efficient and you have no choice" but to adapt. "That helped us to understand who we are as a brand," Rivero Gonzalez said.

The 2020 year will go down as an exceptional vintage for Long Island wine makers, and not just because the grapes — and the flood of new visitors — had exceptional weather all the way into November. For many of the 50 or so wineries and vineyards that comprise the region of 3,000 acres and sales of 500,000 cases annually, valued at around $100 million, 2020 was about making the best of a difficult situation.

It will be remembered as the year wineries that have long adjusted to the idiosyncrasies of weather and Mother Nature were thrown a new curve: trying to sell wine with their tasting rooms, and many of their client businesses, closed.

"Clearly, we were being handed lemons," said Kareem Massoud, president of Long Island Wine Country, a regional industry group, and wine maker for family-owned Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. "How do we make lemonade? Move inventory, generate cash flow, do curbside pickup, all while keeping people safe."

But just like the weather, the worst of COVID-19 held a silver lining for wine makers, most of whom are based on the North Fork. Crowds turned out in record numbers once wineries were given the green light to reopen at the end of June. Most benefited from newly captive audiences who flocked to the East End for staycations, or who bought new homes there.

Paumanok, which still operates on a reservations-only basis during the weekends as part of its COVID protocol, was fully booked from August through mid-October, Massoud said. Many days the winery was forced to turn away up to 100 people a day, he said. He attributes higher volume to the fact that Long Islanders, New York City residents and others from surrounding areas were choosing to vacation on Long Island’s East End, if only for day trips, with money they might have spent out of state, or out of the country. Most of the wineries centered their activities on outdoor areas.

"It was a very, very strong retail business, as strong as we’ve ever seen it," said Massoud, whose family also owns nearby Palmer Vineyards.

Massoud said the gains during the later summer helped offset the declines from the spring closures and losses in the restaurant end of the business, which he said was "basically a disaster." While Paumanok has a more developed restaurant clientele than most wineries, many of the region’s restaurants have suffered in the pandemic — sharply limiting indoor dining, focusing on takeout or closing. That didn't leave many opportunities for restaurants to sell wine, local or otherwise.

And now, wineries are facing the traditionally difficult winter, a time to hunker down in the cellar, prune the vines, and prepare for the spring. Massoud said he’s already beginning to see the impacts of renewed customer caution with fewer reservations as infections spike and winter nears.

The challenge now for the cluster of 50 or so wine makers is to navigate any impacts from an increase in COVID cases. While business tends to fall off in the colder fall and winter months, the least active months for wineries are January and February. Many fear another resurgence could shut them down in December, when some wineries see an uptick for the gift-giving and holiday party season.

For that reason, lessons learned and new business approaches begun in the spring during the first lockdown will come in handy as wineries seek to keep their business pumps primed. The increase in summer business helped most make up for the springtime losses, and they manicured the vines through a summer of good weather with the hopes that a good 2020 vintage could be a harbinger for better fortunes to come in 2021.

Pindar Damianos, part of the owning family of Pindar Vineyards of Peconic, which also owns Duck Walk Vineyard and Jason’s Vineyard, acknowledged that while the region’s largest winery and vineyard owner saw declines in the restaurant sector, the fact that wine shops and liquor stores were considered essential businesses early in the pandemic helped. Pindar even has its own shop in Port Jefferson, which has stayed open all year.

The company also has a lot of land at its Peconic headquarters, and it was able to maximize it to provide thousands of customers ample space to spread out under the summer and fall sun to taste wines and put the pandemic behind them, for a while.

"We saw growth from the day we opened in late June all the way through October," Damianos said. "We have a lot of property so we were able to socially distance and bring more people in. People felt comfortable. Everybody was very compliant and glad to be out of their houses."

Some days saw so much traffic that cars on the two main roads of the North Fork barely moved. Pindar kept in touch with customers via social media, advising them to leave early to beat the traffic, Damianos said.

Out in the vineyard, Pindar like other Long Island wineries, saw yields on grapes generally increase from 2019, partly because of the better weather, and despite a cool, slightly wetter early spring. "It was a really dry hot summer," Damianos said. "Tonnage is up." All the grapes have been harvested and whites are looking "very good," he said. Sugars on the red wines are slightly lower than 2019, but Damianos predicts "a really great 2020 vintage."

The big question is how the pandemic will impact business next year.

"Looking ahead, I think we’ll stay the course that we did this year, thinking that maybe there is a third wave," Damianos said. The company is ready to re-rev online sales and other COVID-era business tactics, while planning for 2021.

"We’re hoping that the same crowds come next year," he said. Either way, customers should expect to see "really great 2020 wines. We’re projecting more growth, the same wines, different vintages, and more of it."

For the Long Island wineries that had planned for a banner 2020, the year was a lesson in taking a quick assessment and changing course quickly.

Anthony Sannino and his family had less than a year under their belt with a new Cutchogue tasting room and winery at Sannino Vineyard when the COVID lockdown hit in March. He'd been planning for a banner first full year of operations and had plenty of wine to sell. He had also hired and trained a new staff to supplement his prior workforce.

Suddenly in mid-March, Sannino found himself having to lay off those workers and find new ways to get his wines to market. He created a pickup service in the winery parking lot, marketed aggressively to his wine club and on social media, and put family members to work helping to move inventory. To help boost outdoor traffic, his grown children worked tents on the property to supplement wine sales with locally grown products such as oysters, North Fork potato chips, even sunflowers. Wines were discounted to keep the sales pump primed.

"We had just finished bottling in the spring and had piles and piles of wine and we felt we weren't going to move it," he said. But his work managed not only to move a lot of wine but have the operation newly ready when lockdowns began to throttle back in late June.

Suddenly, traffic flooded the North Fork, and his winery thrived, Sannino said. "The season turned out to be really great." Even better, he said, "the 2020 grapes are pretty stellar."

As for 2021, Sannino said he doesn't know what to expect. Operating with limited spacing this year was "really difficult," especially when the weather turned inclement. As he prepares to sell Sannino's first 2020 white wines in December, Sannino said he's hoping for the best.

What did 2020 teach him?

"I don't know that I learned a damn thing," Sannino said. But he thought a moment, then added, "I learned to deal with restrictions and do the best we could."

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