Foreboding clouds hang on the calcareous Santa Rita Hills of California’s Central Coast, having darkened the region’s primary economic sunbeam: a multibillion-dollar wine industry with a 300-year history. Tourism has been at a standstill for weeks, and stay-at-home orders are still the statewide mandate. The livelihoods of many growers, winemakers, and vintners (the people who actually sell the wine) hang in the balance, another potential casualty in a global pandemic and recession that has already hobbled retail giants and award-winning restaurants in cities across the country.
Some growers fear a large-scale default on grape contracts as the region rolls into harvest season, which is just months away. Many producers, particularly smaller, independent labels, have struggled to adapt to a new sales ecosystem that no longer includes weekend tourism bumps, random drop-ins, and in-person tasting-room sessions — all vital ingredients for securing new customers willing to buy bottles online while cooped up at home.
“It’s going to take time,” says winemaker James Sparks, “but people are going to want to come back here.” Sparks sees a post-pandemic renaissance for the area, practically visible from the green hills around his home in leafy Solvang, the Danish-themed hamlet off the 101 known for its ebelskivers (fried dough balls) and summertime tourism that nets some $200 million annually. The rural city, population 6,000, has been hit hard due to a lack of out-of-towners — it’s reportedly losing $500,000 a month in revenue, mostly from hotel room taxes — but Sparks’s warmth and encouragement beam through the phone, even as he tells me that he is slowing production on his already-small Kings Carey wine label.
Why are some people still so damn sunny up in Santa Barbara County?
The inviting, often cloudless year-round weather helps, of course. This portion of California coastline has always been seen as a backyard destination to more than half the state’s population between the Bay Area, Los Angeles basin, and Central Valley, each mere hours away, if not less. Add a growing wariness of long-distance travel (and the cratering of the airline industry), rock-bottom gas prices, and easy access from the 101 freeway, and suddenly Santa Barbara County seems like a getaway worth taking — particularly as Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses “regional variances” to the state’s stay-at-home order, which could open up the area in mere days, albeit with some modifications to dining rooms, tasting rooms, and other standard experiences within the county.
It helps, too, that the greater Santa Barbara area is a culinary destination all its own, packed with not only local suppliers of produce and proteins but with thoughtful restaurants that anchor small towns like Bell’s in minuscule Los Alamos, California — with Martian Ranch and Vineyard just minutes down the road, and organic farm boxes from Frecker Farms available for purchase in Carpinteria on the way back home. With Yosemite National Park still closed, Big Sur so isolated along winding Highway 1, and Napa far from the day-driving reaches of greater Los Angeles, the Central Coast is poised to profit in a way that almost no other area of the state is once things begin to open back up.
“People are dying to get in here, to taste, to go take a bottle to a park,” says Jeff Nelson of Liquid Farm in Lompoc. “I think the benefit we’re going to have is that Los Angeles is going to continue to be locked down somewhat, and we’re not, so everybody’s going to flock here.” Counties like Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo have been appealing the governor’s office in Sacramento for an easing of restrictions for weeks, something Newsom said he’s willing to negotiate. Nelson says that he believes business openings in Santa Barbara County, including tasting rooms, could come as soon as Friday. “It’s going to be a matter of trying to make sure that we’re following the proper guidelines as much as we can.”
Nelson acknowledges that his business model is shifting as a result of the pandemic, moving from a primary reliance on wholesaling to restaurants into direct-to-consumer sales. Liquid Farm is currently sold in 25 states and seven countries, and Nelson says that by next year the business will rest almost 80 percent on the consumer side, especially because the future of restaurants is still so uncertain. “You’re going to see a lot of homogenized wine lists out there,” says Nelson. “You’re not going to see as many sommeliers that are dedicated to a wine list. It’ll kind of go back to 2008, 2009, with a manager that buys all the wine, and so they’re dealing with just three wholesalers instead of 15 or 20.”
Meanwhile, the Liquid Farm tasting area sits at a robust 2,000 square feet, plenty of room for customers to socially distance or to stand at a single point-of-sale area for to-go bottles. Nelson says he and his small production team — including winemaker James Sparks, who pulls double duty here and with his own, smaller label — are ready to go, and soon. “We’re going to have to make a stand at some point, and for us the stand is to reopen.”
With lockdown orders still in place, some wineries have already gotten creative with their customer outreach, including Instagram ad buys and virtual tastings conducted over Zoom. “Online sales have gone up dramatically” for more than a few Central Coast wineries, says Wine Enthusiast writer Matt Kettmann, who lives in the area. “I’ve heard from some wineries that wouldn’t want to be named that they’ve actually had pretty good months.” Kettmann worries about smaller producers that were not able to pivot away from restaurants in time, as Liquid Farm did, but he says that, particularly once tasting rooms reopen (even at a reduced capacity), the pull of the open air and salty sea will bring people back up the coast — and that means revenue for everyone. “I think there’s a sense that in-state tourism will be pretty strong,” Kettman says, “because people aren’t going to want to travel that far. People are going to be cautious about airplanes for quite a while.” Simply put: “Regions are going to be recovering at different rates than we are,” and that could make wine country an attractive place to patiently wait out the second half of the pandemic.
Even if one tasting room sees a confirmed case of COVID-19 as things come back, the open space between different drinking facilities (and between different towns, for that matter) could mean that flare-ups are treated individually, instead of industry-wide, though no confirmed protocol exists as of yet. And by adding virtual tastings, expanding the roster of mailing lists, and otherwise keeping drinkers engaged now, it’s possible that a future temporary shutdown could have less of an impact.
The longevity of the region helps too, says Walter Levicki of Buellton-based vineyard management company Coastal Vineyard Care Associates. Vines have been cultivated in the area as far back as the 1700s, and while the current coronavirus outbreak has few historical antecedents, the endurance of the wine industry (and the necessary forecasting) helps to iron out some economic wrinkles over time, even big ones. “Overall, production is proceeding as is” right now, says Levicki. “Once you start pruning those vines, you want to continue to maintain them for years to come. It’s not like a vegetable crop where you just go through and harvest every plant. Depending on the varietal, these vines last for many years.”
Indeed, a patient sense of endurance is baked into the wine industry, where even deep-pocketed winemakers must wait years to grow or buy grapes, then to produce the wines in any manner of time-consuming ways, and then to bottle and label, all before setting up a feasible system to put that wine out into the world. Levicki’s team handles roughly a dozen vineyards and ranches at any given time, totaling over 300 acres, and says that so far, none of his grape-buying clients have called to cancel contracts for any of it. “It’s variable right now,” Levicki knows, “but I don’t have a bad feeling about it, and I know that a lot of my colleagues don’t either.”
One ongoing concern in the region’s wine scene is price. Simply put, boutique California wine tends to be relatively expensive, a product of the labor and the land, even in more rural areas like the Central Coast. “Alcohol sales are still booming, even as the hoarding has slowed,” says Kettmann, “but my sense is that a lot of that is lower-end stuff.” Indeed, the Los Angeles-based Riboli family behind affordable labels like the imported Stella Rosa have seen their business grow 200 percent during the pandemic. Nobody in the Santa Ynez Valley is doing that well, and with economic uncertainty dimming the future, it’s hard to know how much locals and out-of-towners are going to be willing to continue to shell out for quality wine — or whether or not winemakers can reduce their prices while still remaining profitable. “When you’re talking about Santa Barbara County,” Kettmann says, “we still offer a great value for what is being made, but it’s not cheap.”
The city of Solvang has been trying to give tasting rooms and other small businesses a fighting chance by offering microloans of $5,000 to anyone with a corporate license, paid out through the city’s general reserve fund. And with many anticipating a mid-May partial reopening, the city is even considering a rejiggering of its colorful downtown area, complete with a pedestrian-only main drag to better allow for physical distancing. Employees will be kitted out with personal protective equipment, and customers can rotate through the various businesses in a safe, slow wave. There could even be a move to allow more outdoor dining and parklets over the following months as restaurants continue to come back online with reduced capacity.
“We’re trying to be as nimble as possible,” says Scott Shuemake, president of IDK Events, which oversees Solvang’s tourism marketing arm. Despite foreboding signs in the travel industry, Shuemake says that the Central Coast is “well-positioned” to take advantage of the money that is out there in cities such as San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. “The same people that were planning trips to Europe,” he says, “they now want to turn that money toward staycations, or regional road trips.” With a surfeit of hotel rooms, open-air wineries, and discoverable backroads, Shuemake may be right long-term.
“It’s going to be a slow burn,” admits Shuemake. “You can’t take 30 million people out of the workforce and expect that discretionary spending is going to be the same as it was pre-pandemic.” Uncertainty abounds in the short-term, but as vineyard manager Levicki noted, winemaking is a long-term business. For Liquid Farm owner Jeff Nelson, the last piece of the puzzle is the customers themselves.
“As long as people feel safe, they’re going to come in,” says Nelson. “It’s really going to be on the customer and how safe they feel. If somebody’s sitting in front of CNN all day watching the news, they may not feel like it’s okay to come in. But others might not be as afraid.”