How the winegrape industry adjusted mid-pandemic

by Courtney Llewellyn

A lot of human life may have come to a halt over the past year, but plant life did what it always does, including grapevines and winegrapes. At the 2021 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, several producers spoke about what winegrape production was like during a global pandemic. As Lisa Asimont of Dot Wines LLC said, it was like “making lemonade out of lemons.”

Sadie Drury of North Slope Management (a partner of SeVein and Seven Hills vineyards in Oregon) noted immediate pandemic challenges were keeping their employees safe and healthy (via social distancing, mask wearing, ending van-sharing and keeping commonly touched surfaces disinfected – everything from bathrooms to tools to tractors). They started working on their harvest plan just as COVID-19 ramped up last March. To make things safer, they started working every other row so people were farther apart and didn’t have to wear their masks while working. There was also the potential for reduced labor, so they came up with a  game plan for essential members of the crew and started cross-training to create overlaps in positions.

“Our other challenge was education and stopping misinformation,” Drury said. For that, they held frequent meetings and utilized regular phone communications.

Another major challenge came when wineries started ordering less fruit from them – or canceling orders altogether. “We changed our approach when it was obvious we were not able to sell all the fruit. Farming on speculation is not profitable,” Drury said. So they made mutually agreed upon changes in their grape deals to get everything sold.

“We were successful because we were flexible, communicative, created a strong management team and practiced kindness and compassion,” she said.

Tony Bugica, the director of farming and business development at Atlas Vineyard Management in Napa, said that while he is a fourth-generation farmer, he was a surgical technician and an EMT in the 1990s. “Being a farmer and having knowledge of medical procedures, I was very nimble,” he said. Like Drury, he increased online training and encouraged employees to work from home when possible. He also provided extended payment terms to his clients.

“COVID plus fires reset the market,” Bugica stated. “We have had more inquires in past three months [for 2021 harvest] than we had in the previous year.” He said transparency between a winery and a grower is key. Both parties need to state their goals and see if they can achieve higher yields at lower prices. However, current market volatility means vineyards have to be ready to harvest before wineries change their minds. Vineyards need to be clear about the expectations of the wineries prior to harvesting (especially regarding the potential for later discussion regarding price reduction). “Relationships are everything,” he added.

Third generation grower Craig Ledbetter of Vino Farms LLC in Lodi reiterated, “This is agriculture. It is not one size fits all.” And when it comes to worker safety, he stressed the importance of contact tracing.

“In 2021, the pandemic is still here. We’re operating with all the same rules of 2020,” Drury said. “It’s going to be easier and more efficient this year, but crew availability is still unknown. We will probably forever change the way we manage people. Fruit sales are still unknown. Things seem to be rebounding but there’s still a lot up in the air.”

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