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Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
 
January 25, 2021 | Randy Caparoso

How Lodi wineries have adjusted to pandemic challenges and changes in how they do business

Does Acquiesce Winery's "Awaken" logo presage brighter days soon to come in Lodi wine country?

The good news as of today is that stay-at-home restrictions in California are being lifted re CNN report), albeit within the state's color-coded tier system. Again. 

Coronavirus infections may be leveling off, but let's not kid ourselves. As we speak, hospitals are still overrun, and death tolls in California alone are still over 500 a day, more than a quarter of the entire country's. There have been over 419,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. over the past year, and vaccinations are being distributed at a very, very slow pace.

This morning, though, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said, "There is light at the end of the tunnel." Let's hope it's not another train.

The ancient blue oak that is emblematic of the Heritage Oak Winery estate

That said, winery/visitor tasting rooms in California will soon begin to reopen; with, of course, the expected safety precautions. Lodi wineries, most of whom have always relied on sales at the door, have been as challenged as any wineries throughout the state. To get a feel on how they have been doing up until now, over the weekend I asked five of them to share some thoughts. Speaking for their respective businesses:

Liz Bokisch — Bokisch Vineyards, owner
Tom Hoffman — Heritage Oak Winery, owner/winemaker
Farrah Felten-Jolley — Klinker Brick Winery, VP of Marketing and Sales
David Phillips — Michael David Winery, President/owner
Sue Tipton — Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards, owner/grower/winemaker

Their responses...

What kind of message, thoughts and/or concerns would you like to share with wine lovers, in light of the ongoing health crisis?

Felten-Jolley: We'd like to thank all of our friends for their continued support throughout this past year! We look forward to seeing everyone again in the tasting room or at an event near you.

Farrah Felten-Jolley, the fifth generation of Lodi's Felten family, owner/growers behind Klinker Brick Winery

Phillips: At Michael David Winery we want to be part of the solution and not the problem. Our #1 priority was and is to keep our employees and customers safe. We follow all protocols for safety issues by our county and state. Masks are mandatory and most of our sales are touchless with product delivered directly to cars in our very successful drive-through program that we started last March, and is still ongoing. 

Bokisch: It has been a challenging year, but a byproduct of those challenges has been the immense creativity that has come out of it. Our incredible team has done a great job of continually pivoting our business model based upon the restrictions.

Tipton: Our Acquiesce Winery tasting room has been closed for tastings since mid-March 2020. Our #1 goal is to protect our customers and staff, and we understood it would take months before we could get a handle on this situation. Face to face interaction is the best way for us to share our wines and our story, and we miss interaction with our customers. It will be exhilarating to reopen when the risk to our guests is minimal, and we can't wait!

Michael David Winery's David Phillips, whose family has been farming in Lodi since 1869

What are some of the creative promotions that you have been employing to overcome restrictions?

Tipton: We started to brainstorm, asking ourselves what we'd like to be offered during the shut-down. Since we are known for our wine and food pairings at Acquiesce, we decided to offer several "experience packages" over the months, which included three specially selected wines with condiment pairings that would provide an educational and fun experience. We took this a step further and created virtual tastings to engage our customers and provide a platform for education and questions.

Bokisch: This year we provided a safe outdoor tasting environment featuring tableside bottle service, do-it-yourself tasting kits, online and digital tasting notes all while increasing our food offerings with an assortment of imported Spanish snacks. We are currently preparing more outdoor venues under our blue oaks and amongst the vines for guest to enjoy and experience when the restrictions are lifted. We expect an increased wave of business and we are ready for it!

Bokisch Vineyards' Liz Bokisch

How would you characterize your sales over the past year — lower, higher, or about the same as in previous years?

Hoffman: As long as we must remain closed for tasting, we must work harder to sell every bottle. Since customers want to taste the wine before they buy it, we stop gaining new clients during periods when we are limited to bottle sales and pick-up only. 2020 sales are about 10% off 2019; and considering what we’ve been through, I’m not complaining about this. The drop reflects the absence of local sales to restaurants and the lack of tasting room traffic.  And while we certainly sold more online, we spent more on shipping as we covered that expense to be more competitive. All things considered, we are surviving.

Phillips: Our shipping department broke all records with internet and phone orders going out to more than 40 states. Our wine club members and loyal customers have been fantastic, and we finished the year with DTC sales (i.e., direct-to-consumer) up 20%!  

Felten-Jolley: That depends on the area of sales. Tasting room sales are down, but website sales have been through-the-roof. Distribution sales are flat. 

Tipton: Thanks to our loyal wine club members and customers, our sales in 2020 were in line with our 2019 sales.

Acquiesce owner/grower/winemaker Sue Tipton with her estate grown Grenache, which she turns into a fragrant, bone-dry rosé

Bokisch: This year we have seen huge increase in traffic and sales via our website and ecommerce platforms. We had already been shifting our focus in that direction as we designed a new website in 2019, and it has really paid off. Our Direct-to-Consumer program continues to have strong sales. Our distribution sales are down via the pandemic in some areas, as restaurants are closed or only open for curbside pickup.

In what ways are you making it more convenient for customers to purchase wine?

Felten-Jolley: We added a curbside option, and people can call or go on our website to purchase and the order will be ready for them to pick up.

Hoffman: The place of wine in many homes across the country strengthened during the pandemic, and we found that people were willing to experiment a little with what they buy when we would offer a little incentive. One thing we found that received a positive reaction was to bundle groups of 6 wines, and offer a discount on the bottle price and shipping fees. The pre-selected bundles were well received, and while we weren’t making the same amount of revenue we would off single-bottle sales, we had cash flow and we were able to pay the bills.

Bokisch: We've implemented several partnerships with vendors and restaurants to give incentives for our customers to make the drive into a drive-through date night. We have offered our guests the convenience of having our wine delivered directly through door by offering incredible shipping deals and continued promotions on our website.

Phillips: When we had outside service (at Michael David Winery's Farm Café) we successfully served many happy customers with bottle and food service in private pods of 6 or less. Our patrons were very complimentary about our safe service. We hope to start outside service again soon, once restrictions in our region are lifted.  

Tipton: We are encouraging shipping with shipping incentives of $15 per order and free shipping on a case of wine  Several of our "experience packages" also had free shipping.  We are offering drive-through pickups at the winery Thursday-through-Sunday from 11:00 to 3:00 each week.

Carmela and Tom Hoffman, owners of Heritage Oak Winery

In what ways have you increased your online or social media presence?

Bokisch: We launched "Liz's Kitchen" on Instagram and created a Tapas and More book of my recipes from my lifestyle blog (lizbokisch.com) to pair with our wines. We realize that so many people are doing more cooking at home and this has been a great way to plug into that desire for fun, approachable foodie ideas. We have also done several virtual tastings via Instagram and Facebook Live.

Tipton: We created a new user-friendly website to provide more information about our wines and to make ordering online easier. Our in-house sommelier, Norma Poole, has provided our followers with several "Somm Thursday" videos of wine education. During harvest, we posted "Harvest 2020" videos in the vineyard and cellar. We've been sharing wine articles from wine writers (who are also homebound) who have written about our unique wines, including Michelle Williams of Forbes. We've partnered with industry professionals who love our wines, and co-hosted webinars to introduce them to our wine community.

Phillips: Our marketing team has been busy reaching out to our members with special offers, reduced shipping and offering new small production wines that are not available in their local stores.

Phillips Farms sign marking the location of Michael David Winery's tasting room and Farm Café

Hoffman: Social media works. For example, during the early part of the pandemic I read an announcement in the press that the state government in Pennsylvania was shutting down the state operated liquor stores to limit people's exposure to the virus. I knew folks in PA like wines, so we put together a Facebook ad for wine targeting that state mentioning free shipping, and ran it for a couple of weeks. We got a good response and picked up a few regular customers there who joined our wine club and have continued to buy. 

Have you been conducting more virtual tastings, and if so, how often?

Felten-Jolley: We have been doing virtual tastings about two to three times a month. We have been teaming up with our retailers and restaurant partners across the country to put on these tastings and wine dinners.

Phillips: Our family and sales team have become experts at doing Zoom meetings and virtual tastings. I recently did a virtual wine dinner in Florida and virtual tastings in Wisconsin, Santa Fe, and Moscow!  

Tipton: Yes! We have conducted several private virtual tastings (including 12 wonderful doctors) and 5 large virtual tastings in 2020. On February 6, 2021 we will hold the 2nd virtual tasting in a new series called “Cook, Drink, Learn 2,” in conjunction with Susan Manfull of ProvenceWineZine and David Scott Allen of Cocoa & Lavender. This upcoming event will include a cooking demo and a wine pairing and education class.

Bokisch: We have done a whole bunch of virtual tastings. We did a least eight last year and mixed them up with Markus [owner/grower Markus Bokisch] in the vineyard, Elyse [winemaker Elyse Perry] in the cellar, and "Liz" in the kitchen. We offered two virtual winemaker dinners as well, which was a great way to partner with local restaurants. This year we are launching a new two-part educational series in February, which will be a Virtual Tour of Spain comparing four of our wines to their origins in the interior and coastal regions of Spain.

"Back-of-the-truck" tasting of Klinker Brick Winery in one of their ancient vine Lodi vineyards

Since restaurants have been closed across the country, have you have lost sales in on-premise markets; if so, what has been your plan to make up for it?

Phillips: We did see a 40% reduction in on-premise sales due to the pandemic, but we more than made up those cases in retail. Thank you to all the consumers enjoying Lodi wines in the comfort of their homes!

Felten-Jolley: On-premise is a big part of our business, but we are very lucky to have a good retail footprint across the country that has helped to make up for those losses. 

Tipton: We sell 95% of our wine direct to the consumer through our tasting room.  A few local restaurants carry our wines, but our wines are not available in any stores.

Hoffman: Tasting room sales are everything for us — about 95% of our business. It is my hope that as the weather warms and vaccinations become easier to find, we will be able to resume tastings at the winery, at least like what we were doing in the fall of last year.

Bokisch: Although the on-premise market has been affected by the pandemic this year, we are confident that we will bounce back as those markets open back up. Markus and I have always prided ourselves in making wine that pairs perfectly with food, so restaurant sales continue to be big part of our future moving forward.

Certified Green sign at the sustainably grown Acquiesce estate

Has the past year given you the opportunity to evaluate or make any changes in terms of wine styles, portfolio or approach to marketing?

Felten-Jolley: Yes, it has made us get more creative in marketing, thinking outside the box. This year has changed the wine industry forever when it comes to being different and standing out.

Tipton: As more people are exposed to Acquiesce Winery across the country, we've been shipping to 37 states and have many new club members who never visited us in Lodi. This is a definite shift, and we want to keep an open dialogue with them. When our tasting room reopens, we are planning tastings by reservation, to focus on more elevated tasting experiences. 

As crop load was down in 2020, we'll be making less wine this year and we won't be making our Belle Blanc blend in 2020 (we'll be releasing our 2019 Belle Blanc in April). The success of our Sparkling Grenache Blanc has encouraged us to create new sparkling wines in the coming years.

Hoffman: When we got the green light to reopen our tasting room out-of-doors back in July 2020, it took us several weeks to figure out how we were going to reopen safely. When we finally decided on an approach and implemented it in August, our customers expressed that they appreciated it very much. While they missed being able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar and talk to the winemaker, sitting in the open air with safe distance between tables, sampling from pre-poured one ounce bottles allowed people to enjoy the experience while not feel threatened by exposure. People really want to feel safe during these times. True, it was more work, but with planning and scheduling, it has proven to be very do-able. While we may someday go back to inside tasting, I think we may continue to offer this healthy, safe approach in the future.

Bokisch: This year we realized that we have a wide diversity of guests that are seeking a variety of different experiences. If guests love to enjoy our wine with food, they can enjoy recipes and lifestyle at lizbokisch.com. If they are wine lovers or connoisseurs, we can offer virtual tastings with our winemaker and let them really dive into winemaking and with Markus on vineyard techniques. Our goal is to make our wine experience friendly, enjoyable and to meet the level of experience our guests desire. 

Another thing I would mention is that we realize how important it has been to continue to push the envelope by giving customers more reasons to keep coming back. We released several new wines to our portfolio this year, which is a reflection of the creativity of our winemaker Elyse, our excellent grape growing in the vineyard with Markus, and the open-mindedness of our entire DTC team. We are still in the beginning of our journey as a winery and Lodi as a wine region. Stay tuned, there is more to come!

Phillips: I am very hopeful that things will be back to nearly normal by fall. In the meantime please stay safe, follow the health protocols for the next few months so we can get the vaccine out there and get all of our businesses back to normal soon. Thank you to everyone for supporting the local wine industry and please keep getting take-out from your favorite locally owned restaurants and tip big! It takes a community... #Lodistrong!

Winter fire at Bokisch Vineyards Terra Alta Vineyard estate

 

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