The sun shines down on the rolling hills of Forest Grove, beaming from the clear blue sky. A light breeze winds its way through the valley, picking up cherry blossoms and sending the petals dancing in the air. It’s a perfect day for wine tasting at Montinore Estate.
Wineries and vineyards are one of Washington County’s most popular sources of income and represent an industry forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are 32 wineries throughout the county, marking it as one of the most popular areas for connoisseurs in the state.
In years past, consumers would grab a map of the surrounding area and plan the perfect day of wine tasting, hitting as many different vineyards as they could in the span of one day. That’s no longer possible. Most of the wineries in the area now are shifting from drop-ins, and moving to reservations only for safety reasons.
“The culture is very rushed now,” said Ben Martin, owner, and winemaker at Dauntless Wine in downtown Forest Grove, Ore. “I feel like the sensory enjoyment is diminished, which might lead to a loss of sales and a loss of revenue because consumers don’t feel as catered to as they used to be.” With bottles ranging from $30 to $90, each one provides a unique and authentic story that is told to the consumer as the wine is being poured. Now, the middle man has been removed and Dauntless is unable to translate the same experience to their customers.
But as the weather gets nicer and temperatures begin to rise, more and more people are looking for outdoor activities to try and gain a sense of normalcy again. Wineries in the Forest Grove and surrounding areas have had to shift their business models and the way that they run their tasting rooms to accommodate the constantly changing restrictions in the state of Oregon.
In terms of retail, wine sales have been soaring since the beginning of the pandemic, while bars, hotels, and restaurants suffer, according to a Forbes article on wine trends during COVID-19. Tasting rooms and wineries have had to pivot from mostly in-person, face-to-face interactions to entirely virtual and online events to keep their business afloat.
“Our online sales over the past year have increased exponentially, like 200 percent,” said Sarah Horner, the director of consumer experience at Montinore Estate in Forest Grove, Ore. “The sales are robust because more and more people are getting their regular things online and delivered.”
Online sales have been growing as retail businesses try to adjust to purely online sales, and interact with customers while still social distancing.
The shift to online events has followed a trend seen in essentially every industry across the board since the beginning of the pandemic. With so many restrictions on gathering within the foodservice industry, many wineries and vineyards have opted to continue using the online format for many of their events. The shift to social media has had an unexpected benefit for wineries though. Now, it’s become easier to communicate with consumers, and makes the experience more engaging and entertaining for everyone involved.
Not only did Horner see an increase in her sales at Montinore since the shift to online, but the jump has been seen in other vineyards as well. Jon Platt from Helvetia Winery in Hillsboro, Ore., saw a 32% increase in sales,
“I think that we’ve learned that the digital world can be very impactful for our industry,” said Horner. “While we had to lean on it out of necessity, many of us will continue to use it because we can reach more people.”
In-person events are still important for connecting people, but it’s also possible, and easier sometimes, to connect over the Internet. Fostering that loyalty with consumers is paramount in this industry, considering wine clubs were one of the sole reasons many wineries didn’t go under when the pandemic hit.
“Our income has been okay and that’s just been because our wine club has been great and they’ve come out and supported us,” said Beth Klinger, winemaker at DION Vineyards in Cornelius, Ore. “ I think people are buying more, that’s what I’m seeing and we’ve had a year of not traveling, of not spending money, and they’re buying wine, which is good for us.”
Ben Martin noticed that trend for his business, Dauntless Wine Co., as well. Being a boutique wine shop in downtown Forest Grove, direct consumer sales out of his tasting room was how his business functioned.
“We do have a wine club and our wine club came to our rescue, more or less both times,” said Martin. “We were probably only able to survive COVID because we had a wine club and a release already planned for April. We have two releases a year, in the spring and in the fall and that just happened to coincide with the lockdowns.”
Dauntless’s wine club release in the spring of 2020 was what saved Martin and the rest of his business. When he had no sales inside of his tasting room, his wine club fulfilled and ordered more for pickup than in previous years.
Surprisingly enough, despite reports, on the contrary, global wine consumption has hit an all-time low. According to findings released on Tuesday, April 19 by OIV, the International Organization of Wine and Vine, worldwide wine consumption dropped 2.8 percent in 2020, after optimistic reports of people stocking up on wines. This is the third year in a row worldwide consumption has dropped. Despite general population growth, worldwide consumption is now at its lowest level since 2002. So while local businesses may be doing just fine, or in some cases, better than normal since the pandemic started, it’s not a common occurrence across the board.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed trends inside of the wine industry that was already starting to slowly shift: they just needed that extra push.
“The culture of wine tasting has been changing for ten years,” said Klinger. “It used to be to go out and hit as many wineries as you can and get tipsy and that wasn’t a very good culture anyway. I think people are looking for more quality experiences now, and that’s good. We like that.”
Pacific University student Julia Senestraro turned 21 in 2020 and has recognized the difference in wine tasting over the past year. When she turned 22 this year, she went to Ardiri Winery in Cornelius, Ore., with a group of friends.
“The biggest difference is when you order food, charcuterie and cheese boards don’t come freshly prepared,” said Senestraro. “In terms of wine tasting, they gave us a flight with four different wines to drink from. That was standard from pre-COVID, where they bring out wine glasses and you taste each one.”
As the summer months and warmer weather quickly approach, local wineries and vineyards have seen an explosion of consumers coming out to visit the sites in person. Consumers are desperate to get back out and socialize with each other after a year of quarantines, lockdowns, and restrictions. Looking to the future, this bodes well for potential sales and gives local businesses the opportunity to stabilize as things slowly but surely return to normal.
“It feels weird,” said Klinger. “I get nervous on the weekends for sure because it’s like, what’s going to happen, but it’s also really nice to see people again, see their faces, pour them some wine and make them happy.” — Ella Cutter
Photo: Wineries have seen a shift in the culture of wine tasting in the past few years, and the changes have been exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic (Ella Cutter)