NAPA, Calif. (CN) — Looking at the neatly arrayed rows of grape vines, Mike Hendry isn’t sure what he is going to do come Saturday.
“We’re talking about it, thinking about it,” Hendry said. “We’re starting to have those conversations about how people feel about coming back to work.”
Hendry is pointing to the chardonnay grapevines, noting how the shoots have been thinned recently and pointing to the other rows where the work still needs to be performed. Grapevines grow all sorts of shoots and suckers throughout the spring and into early summer, and the farmers must remove the shoots to ensure the proper spacing for the fruit to flourish.
Thinning also allows for the right amount of light to fall on the growing grapes.
It’s all a finely tuned science, and Mike Hendry who runs Hendry Ranch Wines with his uncle George O. Hendry, has it dialed. After all, his family has been farming grapes on 114 acres situated in the foothills of the Mayacama Mountains just northwest of Napa city limits for a little more than 81 years.
But in 2020, the Hendry Ranch Winery and hundreds of enterprises like it throughout California have been confronted with an unprecedented challenge in the form of Covid-19.
The pandemic hasn’t hurt the viticultural side of the business, as the grapevines continue to produce.
“The farming side is quiet,” Hendry said. “The rows are seven feet apart so it’s easy to social distance. You’re out there on a tractor in the open air and at least seven feet away from anyone else.”
But while farming continues apace, the wine business in California has been gutted by two other main factors — before June 5, when Governor Gavin Newsom allowed wineries to reopen to the public — no one had stepped into a tasting room in about three months.
The problem for the wine business was compounded by the vast legion of closed restaurants trying to make due without in-person customers. Those who have patronized restaurants via takeout and delivery are not often paying restaurant prices for wine.
“Many people prefer to drink wine in restaurants, particularly the fancy ones,” said Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist with UC Davis. “For some wineries, their primary business is providing a restaurant with the house Chardonnay, for instance.”
Supplying restaurants is a critical component for several California wineries, and even more have transformed themselves into restaurants, where they can ply customers with a sample of their wares alongside a satisfying repast.
“It’s a huge chunk of our business,” said Zac Robinson, owner of Husch Winery in Mendocino County. “But we’ve crossed off the money from our tasting room, crossed off our restaurant and we are hungry to make up that gap.”
Robinson isn’t alone.
“Tasting ended immediately with the shelter-in-place orders in March,” said Teresa Wall, with Napa Valley Vintners. “So there was an entire period of time when no one in the country or the state was allowed to visit.”
But as the summer matures, that’s changing.
“A handful opened over the weekend,” Wall said of the weekend beginning on Friday, June 5. “And more and more are trickling open every day.”
Many wineries in the Napa Valley have elected to open on a weekday to take advantage of less busy times to execute a trial run, Wall said.
How and when to open is the dilemma Hendry was working over in his mind as he checked up on the thinning project underway on various vines throughout the lot.
“My wife and I are both really unsure of where we are headed right now,” Mike Hendry said. “Napa recorded its highest case count in a single day last week. You can’t keep everything closed forever, but we are not going to have large groups of people through here anytime soon.”