Optimism is a requirement for winery owners, who must wait years after starting a vineyard to harvest grapes and make wine.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has strained even the most optimistic owners. And it has helped put at least one out of business.
Flight of Five Winery in Lockport closed for good last week. Founder Jackie Smith Connelly blamed the pandemic.
At Arrowhead Spring Vineyards in Cambria, meanwhile, revenue plummeted 75% in two months, with the state’s restrictions on economic activity delivering one blow after another to the business.
Wine tastings are gone.
Restaurants are closed for sit-down meals, so they do not need to buy as much wine.
And it is tough for any small winery to compete with industry goliaths in grocery stores.
“We might make a few hundred cases of chardonnay, but we’re competing with brand recognition for things like Kendall Jackson that make a million cases of chardonnay,” said Robin Ross, who owns the Cambria winery with her husband, Duncan Ross. “When people walk into a store to buy chardonnay, especially in a time like this, they’re in a hurry. They just buy a brand they recognize.”
“All of the tasting business is gone,” Duncan Ross said. “Restaurant business — obviously, they’re closed, so we’re not selling into restaurants, and restaurants were a big part of our business.”
Wineries are allowed to sell at retail, but not in such a way that they would make anywhere near the usual money. It’s become largely a business of online purchases.
“They can’t have people in to do wine tastings,” said Elizabeth Rose Maute, spokeswoman for the Niagara Wine Trail. “A lot of people will come and do that and make their purchases based off the tastings.”
The reopening of wine tasting rooms won’t occur until restaurants reopen for sit-down business, which is part of the fourth and final phase of New York’s gradual reopening from the state’s coronavirus shutdown order. In the meantime, the wineries are looking for ways to resume tastings.
“We might be in a situation where for some wineries, it’s going to have to be by reservation only,” Maute said. “Certainly no large groups. We’re used to at this time of year having lots and lots of tour buses come, arranged tours, groups coming over for day trips. Summer’s going to look a lot different.”
She has posted an online survey to gauge customer input on their comfort level with making reservations or even going into a tasting room at all.
Meanwhile, wineries have to keep going, because it’s impossible to take a year off from grape-growing. Arrowhead Spring is pushing forward with an expansion plan that has been in the works for a couple of years.
This week, Arrowhead planted about 6 acres of land with 6,000 new vines: syrah, viognier and more chardonnay.
Duncan Ross said Cornell University estimates that a vineyard owner has to invest about $18,000 an acre before selling a drop of wine.
“We had to buy those vines two, 2½ years ago. We had to prep the land over the last two years, we had to install drainage, and all this while you’re investing, investing, investing,” Duncan Ross said.
“Three years from now we’ll get a full crop. We will have had to invest in trellis and wire and all the vine care between now and then before we get a crop, and then two years later, that crop will be bottled,” he said. “So five years from this year, 2025, is when the first vintages will hit the bottle from the planting that we’re doing this year. So that’s an extraordinarily long investment cycle.”
Flight of Five Winery opened in 2013 in Lockport’s Old City Hall, 2 Pine St., with help including a $50,000 grant from the city and a five-year Niagara County Industrial Development Agency tax break for the winery’s landlord.
It bought Niagara County grapes and specialized in blended wines, named Lock 67 through Lock 71 after the five 19th century Erie Canal locks.
As the only urban winery in Niagara County, and the only one that leased its space, it was hard for Flight of Five to “hunker down” during the pandemic, Connelly said. The loss of sales because of the economic shutdown came as the final blow.
“It was a big part of it,” Connelly said. “We were in the process of trying to relocate and with the shutdown of construction and all of it, it sort of compounded the situation. It definitely put a halt to future plans.”