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New normal for B.C. wineries may not be a bad thing: industry expert

Changes to how tasting rooms at B.C. wineries do business are in the works as the industry prepares to reopen following the expected easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
Changes to how tasting rooms at B.C. wineries do business are in the works as the industry prepares to reopen following the expected easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
Image Credit: Sun Peaks Resort

It won’t be business as usual when the province’s wineries reopen for tastings and tours in the coming weeks, says an industry spokesperson.

B.C. Wine Institute president and CEO Miles Prodan said the institute, which oversees the wine industry in the province, has been working with provincial officials since the health crisis began.

"Government has been forthcoming and easy to deal with, and that’s been a good sign for us,” Prodan said.

The focus is now shifting to what the industry will look like coming out of this. An online members workshop will be conducted in the next week to refine key points before their recommendations go to government.

“We expect we won’t be conducting wine tastings like we did in the past. The post-COVID world is going to be different, especially when it comes to social distancing and group gathering, which is basically what happens in a winery tasting room, so that needs to be addressed,” Prodan said in a telephone interview May 5.

Prodan said tasting rooms have been closed since reaction to the pandemic began, although wineries have been permitted to sell wine, whether that has been through curbside pickup, online sales or home delivery through wine clubs.

“What you cannot do is go into a winery and taste the wine,” he said.

One of the industry recommendations to the province will involve allowing wineries to permit tasting in other parts of the winery instead of just the tasting room, which is the current regulation.

“We’ll need to ease the crowded nature of tasting rooms. We think allowing tasting to take place in other parts of the winery will allow us to maintain social distances,” he said.

Wineries are also looking at better ways to control the flow of customers into the winery, possibly through implementation of a reservation system. That is something done in other wine regions of the world.

Prodan envisions a system where a customer could plan a complete wine tasting outing through an app that would allow reservations to be made at more than one winery.

The changes, if they happen, may not even be a bad thing, he said.

“We’ve been looking at how to ‘up’ the wine tasting experience. In the past it was all about quantity, how many customers we could put into our tasting rooms. This will involve slowing it down, allowing the winery to tell the story about their wine, and improving the quality of the experience," he said. “It’s no longer going to be at a tasting bar where you’re standing three deep, holding your glass out waiting for a sample while the wine person tries to tell the story about the wine. We’ve been forced to look at what we’ve been doing.”

“This isn’t unusual, really, because other regions around the world conduct business this way. What this has really done is it has forced the wine industry to look at how they are managing their hospitality, how are they taking care of people coming up to the tasting rooms. It’s really a shift from the quantity issue of getting as many people as you can to just sitting down and  telling people the story.”

Prodan believes the new, ‘curated' experience could even apply to sales as well, saying the industry needs to look at how it displays wine for sale in tasting rooms, where everyone can handle the product.

"If we’re going to turn the tasting environment into more of a curated, or reservations type of system, then there is also going to be the opportunity to have that sales experience different than what it has in the past."

The B.C. wine industry is also looking at ways to better handle bus tours, stagettes and other large groups.

“We don’t want to make it reservation-only, but we have to think our way through how we will handle tours and groups,” he said.

The wine institute has been represented at discussions with the province surrounding restaurant openings.

“It’s important for us to be able to put wine-specific recommendations to government because of our tasting rooms.”

The wine industry recommendations are expected to be finalized within a couple of weeks.

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