About 480 attend Cornell webinar to reopen tasting rooms

Returning to “business as usual” seems like just a dream these days, but members of New York state’s craft beverage industry are making plans for turning that dream into reality in the era of COVID-19.

Treleaven Wines, in King Ferry, New York, plans to open their tasting room on June 15. The winery strongly encourages reservations for parties no larger than six people, and the outdoor tables will be spaced at least six feet apart.

Nearly 480 industry representatives tuned into a webinar on June 2, hosted by Anna Katharine Mansfield, associate professor of enology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Chris Gerling, senior extension associate at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York. They served up best practices for when the indoor tasting rooms reopen under the state’s Phase 3 plans; the state has not yet announced when Phase 3 will begin.

In an unexpected move, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo added outdoor tastings at wineries, cideries, breweries and distilleries to the state’s Phase 2 reopening plans, which went into effect June 4.

But whether outside or indoors, in Phase 2 or 3, beverage tasting in a coronavirus world requires masking, social distancing and reservations.

Cornell impacting New York State

“The COVID-19 virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets,” said Mansfield, director of the Cornell Craft Beverage Institute, based at Cornell AgriTech. “Physical distance and limited-time exposure will decrease your risk of transmitting the disease, which is why we keep hearing about social distance and staying away from crowds in closed spaces.”

To stay current on COVID-19 details, Mansfield suggested that craft beverage businesses designate a coronavirus lead and “making this part of your culture.” She also suggested daily wellness checks for employees, and to keep records of those checks.

Gerling and Mansfield said staff should be trained to wash hands properly, and maintain clean bathrooms, which includes frequently sanitizing sinks and door handles. Glassware should be washed at 160 degrees and sanitized. To rate wines, guests should bring their own paper and pencil.

A “COVID concierge” could help guests feel comfortable with the safety policies and tasting options, they said, and to ensure that masks are worn and social distance is maintained.

Best management practices for craft beverage tastings during the COVID-19 pandemic is available on the CCBI website.

Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, said New York’s craft beverage businesses are usually family owned and operated – and that tasting rooms are a large part of the business. About 60% of wine sales in New York state are done on premises, a far greater rate than in other U.S. wine regions.

“The challenge of reopening is that COVID-19 is still a threat,” said Filler. “Our industry members need to know how they can maintain a high level of hospitality while creating a safe environment.”

The tasting-room experience will be reformatted at family-run Anthony Road Wine Company in Penn Yan, New York, tasting room manager Liz Castner said. “It will be an all-seated tasting, reducing the number of people in the tasting room,” she said, “and it will be by appointment only, so we can control that.”

Mazza Chautauqua Cellars, and Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing, of Westfield, New York, prepare for guests who will practice social distancing and will wear masks – until they sip craft beverages.

The winery has new tables, she said, and they will be at least six feet apart. “We have a large space outdoors, too, so we are trying to figure out the flow of traffic,” Castner said, “making sure that both guests and staff feel comfortable and safe.”

Mario Mazza, owner and general manager of Mazza Chautauqua Cellars in Westfield, New York, southwest of Buffalo along Lake Erie, said his business is doing a “soft opening” for Phase 2 as it prepares for Phase 3.

“Currently we are only going to offer craft beverages by the glass outdoors with single-use biodegradable cups during Phase 2 or by-the-bottle sales,” Mazza said. “We’ll offer samplings in Phase 3, but again in biodegradable ware.”

Castner said reopening preparations at Anthony Road have long been underway but that exchanging ideas in the institute’s webinar was helpful.

“There were good suggestions and questions,” she said. “It’s nice to be informed and reassured.”

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Lindsey Knewstub