State wineries promote online sales, wine at home night

By Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

It’s a good time to buy Michigan wine.

While many Michigan wineries are closed or open with limited hours, they’re offering rare online deals and discounts for walk-ins and curbside pickup. Wineries are not open for tastings, wine by the glass, or snacks, per the governor’s executive order mandating the closure of certain types of businesses because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

Michigan-based Plum Markets have section featuring state wines.

Most Michigan wineries are small, family-owned operations. They rely on their tasting rooms to generate walk-in business and to engage with new and returning customers.

Online and other sales — they’re as varied as the wine selection in a tasting room — are being launched to make up for loss of in-store revenue and keep operations afloat.

Search (or pay attention to those email blasts or club newsletters) and you’ll find 1-cent, $1, flat-rate or free shipping for online sales. Discounts range from 10 percent to 30 percent, depending on the quantity of the purchase. Some wineries have expanded club member discounts to any purchase, eliminating any minimum bottle requirement.

“I’m hearing ‘Please come and support our wineries,’” said Jessica Youngblood, a Metro Detroit winery owner and a board member of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, a nonprofit organization created to sustain and promote the industry. “Some wineries have laid off tasting room staff or have skeleton crews working them. You’re seeing lots of shipping deals out there but not every winery is able to ship. Most of the small ones do not ship. They rely on tourists and people are not traveling right now. That really hurts a lot of them.”   

The Michigan Wine Collaborative is encouraging Michigan wine enthusiasts to participate in Open That Bottle of Local Wine Night on Saturday. Participants are asked to open a bottle of Michigan wine, share with family over a meal or takeout from your favorite restaurant and post pictures on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #openlocalwine.

Because this is the off season, many wineries have limited hours in early spring. Some have reduced hours even more, while others have simply closed until the governor’s executive closure order expires April 13. They’re also cleaning more aggressively, and heeding the governor’s mandate, limiting tasting room customers to five at a time and practicing social distancing.

“As the concerns surrounding COVID-19 heighten here in Michigan, we have made the difficult decision to limit access to our Tasting Room temporarily,” said Rick DeBlasio, general manager of Shady Lane Cellars near Suttons Bay. The Leelanau Peninsula winery is open Thursday through Monday.

“We’re a small independent winery and vineyard and are working to do all we can to protect our guests and employees at this difficult time,” he said.

Shady Lane launched an online sale immediately after the governor’s announcement last week. Shady Lane is offering a 1-cent shipping sale on all online wine orders, with no minimum purchase required to nab the deal. The response has almost made up for the loss of walk-in traffic.

“We’ve had a really positive reaction,” said DeBlasio, who is also president of the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail. “From what we’re seeing on social media, a lot of wineries are doing similar things -- they’re open for pickups and shipping wine out. We’re all trying to get by, trying to sell wine. There’s a lot of nervousness out there.”

Last weekend was an especially tough blow for Leelanau Peninsula wineries. The annual Sips, Chips and Dips, which draws about 600 people every March, was postponed -- before the governor’s directive -- because of concerns about the coronavirus. Individually, many wineries have canceled or postponed events, including club pickups, wine-and-food pairings and happy hours.

Youngblood, who, along with her husband, opened Youngblood Vineyard in Macomb County in the spring of 2019, has had to cancel private parties at the winery and decided to even forego planning for a 5K run in the vineyard this summer.

“Everyone is trying to stay positive,” she said, adding customers can also help wineries by purchasing gift cards, especially from those that do not offer shipping.

Online deals, sales increase

On any given Saturday in March, the tasting rooms at Black Star Farms on Old Mission and the Leelanau peninsulas would be buzzing with a steady parade of tourists. Last Saturday, only about a dozen passed through the Suttons Bay tasting room.

“We’ve had a huge surge in shipping orders, thankfully,” says Chris Lopez, retail sales manager at Black Star Farms, where a skeletal crew was working Saturday. “We’re seeing a lot of wine club members who want to get out and pick up their wine, maybe a couple bottles more on top of that. That’s why we’re seeing any walk-ins. Otherwise, it’s pretty quiet.”

Both the winery’s tasting rooms are open for retail sales only. Black Star is offering 20% off all in-store purchases of wine and merchandise. Additionally, the winery is offering free shipping on all online orders of six or more bottles.

“People are responding, thankfully,” Lopez says. “It’s helping us keep the lights on and people here busy.”

Elsewhere on the Leelanau Peninsula, wineries like Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor have temporarily closed their tasting rooms but are offering curbside pickup at Good Harbor for customers that email ahead of time. Aurora Cellars in Lake Leelanau is offering reduced rates and free shipping, depending on the quantity of wine purchase, said Taylor Simpson, co-owner of the wineries.

“Our cleaning regiments have definitely increased and our cellar staff is keeping up with standard sanitizing practices with increased cleaning of common surfaces such as keyboards, door handles, counters, etc.,” she said.

St. Julian Winery, the state’s oldest and largest winery, also has reduced its tasting room hours in Paw Paw and has been marketing online sales. The winery, which produces about 250,000 cases of wine a year, is offering 1-cent shipping for cases purchased online, as well as a 10 percent discount.

“Ideally, we’d like to run it indefinitely to get more wine in the hands of consumers,” said Nancie Oxley, St. Julian’s winemaker, adding the company plans to roll out more online deals. “So far, it’s been successful. There are lots of people taking advantage of getting wine delivered to their homes. We’ve seen a nice spike in sales.”

Wine tasting goes online

In southwestern Michigan, Hickory Creek Winery relies on sales from foot traffic in the tasting room for 99% of its revenue, said Adam McBride, owner and winemaker.

Looking to bolster sales, Hickory Creek immediately offered customers a $10-flat-shipping rate, no matter how many bottles ordered. The flat rate means the winery absorbs some of the shipping costs.

“We’ve had a good response,” McBride said. “We’ve seen more orders in the last week than we’ve seen since I’ve owned the winery. A lot of people have stepped up and supported us. We’re getting to the point where we’re running out of shipping materials. It’s a good problem to have.”

Beyond generating sales, McBride, who purchased the winery 2 1/2 years ago, also wanted to find a way to connect with his customers. Initially, he and his staff pondered offering customers the opportunity to interact virtually through Facetime or Skype about their purchases with McBride.

That idea evolved into something more, however. Last Friday, McBride hosted a virtual wine tasting live on the winery’s Facebook page. About 30 customers joined the live feed to hear McBride discuss his 2018 Cabernet Franc, a popular wine in the tasting room. He’ll host another virtual wine tasting at 5 p.m. Friday -- this time with his 2018 Pinot Gris.

“We’ve had a good response. I thought it was pretty cool,” McBride said. “People said they looked forward to it all day long. They couldn’t wait to start. We had people from all over -- Missouri, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana. We were all drinking wine at the same time. There was a feeling of connection.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer and works at a winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Open That Bottle of Local Wine Night

Get a bottle of local wine and open on Saturday, March 28.

Share the wine with your family with either home-cooked meal or takeout from your favorite local restaurant.

Post picture(s) of the wine or wines online – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter -- using hashtag #openlocalwine. Share why you picked that wine (or wines) and who you are sharing it with.

Participants also asked to @ mention the winery/winemaker as well as @MIWineCollab, @VMWineClub, @lennthompson on Twitter and/or Instagram as well as Frank Morgan at @drinkwhatulike. The Michigan Wine Collaborative will share your posts.