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Michigan wineries adjust, prepare for tourists amid COVID-19

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Wineries across northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are gradually re-opening, but the tasting room experience this summer is going to be far different than what most of us have become accustomed to over the years.

The days of crowding at tasting room bars to sample your own choices of red and white wines, as well as other selections, while nibbling on crackers or other palate cleansers, are mostly gone — at least for now. Many seasonal events, including festivals and vineyard dinners, at least in early summer, have been canceled.

Expect a more structured, perhaps less casual visit, as wineries adhere to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state government.

Basically, you’ll be required to wear a face mask indoors, practical social distancing and follow any guidelines set by the winery. Like restaurants and bars in northern Michigan, wineries in the Traverse Wine Coast, Petoskey Wine Region and in the Upper Peninsula are allowed to operate at only 50% capacity.

Expect wine staff to be wearing masks, gloves and practicing social distancing as well. Not all wineries are open yet; some are serving wine only by the glass or offering limited tasting choices. Some have dispensed with glassware, either using disposable cups or take-home glasses. In many cases, food and crackers have been eliminated from tasting rooms.

Aurora Cellars tasting room manager Dawn Bardenhagen serves an order to Mt. Pleasant residents Eric and Dana Smith on Friday, May 29, 2020. Aurora Cellars in Lake Leelanau has reevaluated service for their customers, setting up four areas for proper safety measures.

“I think the number one thing for customers visiting wineries at this time is to be respectful,” said Tim Hanni, a West Coast-based wine industry consultant and lecturer. “We all have our opinions and what we feel is the truth or the best information available. More than ever, it’s a time to have respect for another person’s point of view and if that means masks are a requirement, simply get that. Don’t bring in any anger.”

Wineries, he said, can retain trust with consumers by following safety and health practices to ensure customers are safe and find ways to continue to connect with visitors during these “faceless, mask-wearing times.”

“Wineries, honor the customer. Customers, honor the producer, and everybody will get along,” he said.

At both Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor Vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula, near Traverse City, visitors are being welcomed by a full-time greeter, stationed outside the entrance of each winery. Seating and tasting options are explained and questions answered.

Aurora Cellars in Lake Leelanau has reevaluated service for their customers, setting up four areas for proper safety measures, including this covered seating area where only six to a table are allowed.

“We’ve spent a lot of time evaluating our systems in terms of protocols, but we’re still learning and trying to create a wonderful experience with a focus on the safety for our employees,” said Sam Simpson, whose family owns both wineries and has been farming on the peninsula for three generations. “This is a moving target.”

To accommodate customers, Good Harbor Vineyards, located south of Leland on Route 22, added a second bar outside; Simpson is considering adding a third bar inside the barrel room to continue to spread customers out. Currently, customers can only order wine by the glass; no traditional tastings are allowed.

Aurora Cellars, situated north of the village of Lake Leelanau, offers table service to guests, who can sit either inside the tasting room or on a tented patio. They can choose either glass pours or flights of three or five wines. The winery plans to move to reservations only beginning June 7.

Simpson plans to install plexiglass shields along the bars at both locations as another safety measure. Customers could receive tastings through an opening in the plexiglass; that measure would enable staff to engage in wine conversations.

“That’s the moving target on how we’re going to have that customer experience and have it be a good one. That’s kind of the tricky part,” Simpson said. “You want to make sure we have a safe experience for staff and customers but also balance a great experience. People are coming up here to relax and enjoy their tastings. They’ve had a traumatic isolation experience. We want to be a retreat. We want to elevate this to an exceptional experience for our guests.”

On Old Mission Peninsula, both Chateau Chantal and Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery have moved to reservations to accommodate weekend customers.

Aurora Cellars in Lake Leelanau has reevaluated service for their customers, setting up four areas for proper safety measures.

Brys Estate, a 111-acre farm and winery, is eschewing its traditional method of accommodating throngs of tourists in its expansive tasting room and indoor space. Instead, guests are welcomed by a host outside the building and directed to elevated outdoor decks overlooking vineyards, for table service. The maximum table seating is six people. A bottle of the winery’s homemade sanitizer is placed on each table. Customers can order a glass of wine, its popular frosé, a frozen wine slushie, and a cheese and charcuterie board.

Additionally, for the first time, the family-owned winery is offering a “tasting tower,” a black metal rack that holds five glass of wine in a spiral formation. Each glass contains a one and one-half ounce pour. Guests can make their own wine selections; the wines are accompanied by tasting notes.

“People love them,” said Patrick Brys, the winery’s president and CEO. “We sold more tasting towers than frozés last weekend. They were hit. People were saying we should keep these when things are safe and back to normal. People can enjoy the tasting experience but in a different way.”

Currently, Brys is open for reservations Friday through Sunday, with plans to add Thursdays in June. The winery is also setting up an outdoor, walk-up lawn bar, just off the parking lot. Guests will be able order wine by the glass or a frozé. Neither tasting towers nor food will be available on the lawn.

“We don’t want to use the inside if we don’t have to,” Brys said. “We would rather keep people outside. I think people are looking to be outside. They’re not as comfortable being inside. We have a lot of space; we’re different from being a wine bar in a downtown with limited space. We’re lucky.”

Dana and Eric Smith of Mt. Pleasant check in with Ava Brown, a greeter at Aurora Cellars in Lake Leelanau ,Friday, May 29, 2020.

Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn has taken a similar approach, with reservations preferred and available any day of the week but required on weekends.

Like other wineries, Chateau Chantal has a host stationed outside the main entrance. Guests are steered to the tasting room to pick up a flight of three wines or wine by the glass and then directed to one of the outdoor patios. The winery can accommodate about 200 people, indoors and outdoors, at this time.

“The whole point is to monitor our capacity as well as take payments before people enter the building, so there are no payment transactions with bartenders,” said Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of the winery and inn. “We want to mitigate the amount of time individuals spend inside. Our main focus is to get people outside.”

Ninety-nine percent of the people are thrilled to be out and happy we’re open,” Dalese said. “Having reservations is one of the best front-line tools. It helps us handle capacity and helps everyone have the opportunity to come into the winery and not experience overcrowding.”

New measures

Wineries in southern Michigan are not allowed to open yet, but many are making plans to do so and watching the measures being implemented up north.

“We are anxiously planning for when we are allowed tastings,” said Nancie Oxley, vice president and winemaker at St. Julian Wine Co., based in Paw Paw. St. Julian is the state’s oldest and largest winery. “We will be offering limited flights and glasses of wine. Social distancing will also be in place.”

St. Julian, which also has tasting rooms in Dundee, Union Pier, Rockford, Frankenmuth and Troy, will maximize space at each to accommodate customers and maintain social distancing. The winery plans to use any licensed space to spread people out. The normal capacity at each tasting room is between 125 and 175 people and the winery expects to begin operations at 50% capacity. Paw Paw and some of others have outdoor space as well.

“We are looking at getting outdoor space licensed in Frankenmuth,” said Joel Szakaly, who is the winery’s director of Direct to Consumer sales.

A six pack of wine-to-go is delivered to a table. Aurora Cellars in Lake Leelanau has reevaluated service for their customers, delivering orders to go at one of four outdoor sites for safe conditions for customers.

Dablon Winery and Vineyard near Baroda is also anxious to reopen, especially as the summer tourist season begins.

“We know the guidelines put in place in the north part of the state, and we’re ready to do that,” said William Schopf, who owns the winery. “I was happy to see the north could open at 50% capacity. I’d be happy to do that or open just outdoors to start.”

The 75-acre winery has plenty of licensed outdoor space and patio to accommodate guests and maintain social distancing. The space is as big as half a football field and could handle plenty of people at 10 feet apart, he said.

Schopf has been lobbying local politicians and media to encourage the governor to allow wineries to use their outdoor space.

“We all have outdoor space we can use, and so do the breweries. People are happy to be outside as long as it’s not raining,” he said. “While we would prefer to be able to operate inside and out, we’d be fine to operate outside to get started.”

What you should know

Call ahead: Some wineries offer only retail sales or curbside serves at this time; others have limited hours. Some require reservations. Service varies by winery.

Wear masks

Practice social distancing

Use hand sanitizer