Long Island wineries face the most daunting challenge in the region’s near-50-year history as new state restrictions on alcohol sales tied to the coronavirus threaten to unravel tasting-room businesses just as the spring season gets underway.
More than a dozen vineyard and winery owners in the newly named Long Island Wine Country released a statement Monday laying out individual plans for tasting room closures and winery sales in the coronavirus era. Those plans were soon overshadowed by an edict from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration calling for a ban on all on-premises alcohol sales by 8 p.m. Monday.
"The reality is just beginning to sink in for people, including myself," said Kareem Massoud, president of Long Island Wine Country and winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. “We're trying to adapt to a new reality."
The region’s more than three dozen wineries are working to operate in a business that largely depends on patrons venturing to the North Fork to taste the wines they want to buy. Many host weddings, bachelorette parties and corporate events to supplement their tasting room business. With those events banned, all are scrambling to ramp up online sales, bottled sales from the wineries, and even expand local deliveries.
Paumanok is selling to in-person and online customers.
“If someone walks in I’ll sell them a bottle,” Massoud said. The company is offering a discount on cases of wine beyond the usual case discount, and free shipping. It will even ship free for same-day delivery to Eastern Suffolk.
But even with those incentives, Massoud and others are under no illusions about what the tasting room shutdown can mean to their businesses in an industry that already operates on thin profit margins and makes up for a winter of expenses by brisk sales from spring to the fall.
“This is an economic atomic bomb,” Massoud said. “It doesn’t get worse than this.”
Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the State Liquor Authority, said wineries in the state, like other establishments that serve liquor, can’t open a bottle of their wine and serve it for consumption at the winery. They may still sell bottles-to-go at the winery, and ship it for sale. The rules, which went into effect at 8 p.m. Monday, will remain in place until April 15, though that’s subject to change.
“My stomach turns with all this uncertainty,” said Ron Goerler Jr., owner of Jamesport Vineyards, which last year opened a bistro at its winery. He said the daunting challenge of closing tasting rooms will require new levels of creativity for businesses that routinely rely on credit to run their seasonal operations. Goerler is preparing by planning a new service that will offer a reasonably priced brick-oven pizza with a bottle of wine for pickup at the winery. Patrons can call in advance, and the package can be brought out to their car.
“You have to be creative to get through difficult times and good times," he said. "Hopefully it’s not a long-term situation.”
One reality of the wine business is that even as they cut back on tasting room staff and try to lower costs, vineyard owners must continue to groom the more than 3,000 acres that make up Long Island’s wine region. That means paying workers who just last year won new rights to overtime pay. Goerler and Massoud said there’s no compromising on keeping their farms in top shape.
“You still have to run a vineyard,” Goerler said. “I still have to have men in the field working. I need the men. If I don’t have them I can’t do the job.”
At Paumanok, “Our vineyard crew is the largest part of our payroll now,” said Massoud. “If we cut back there we’ll save financially but we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot on the crop later. We’re between a rock and a hard place. There are no good options.”