As the quarantine wore on, the team at Red Mountain’s Frichette Winery started entertaining friends and customers with blind tastings over Zoom. Now a regular event, their Mystery Wine Challenge creates a fun way for participants to identify a different featured wine each time. In Prosser, Gary Vegar, who owns the Horse Heaven Saloon, has added “delivery driver” to his job title. And in Woodinville, DeLille Cellars has found a way to scratch the itch for couples seeking an easy wine-paired dinner for date night. Amid the pain of the pandemic, wine country businesses are finding creative ways to overcome the challenges. I’ll share more about these inspiring people in the second half of this post. But first, here’s a look at wine tasting across the Northwest in the age of social distancing.
[Top photo: Shae Frichette, courtesy of Frichette Winery]
The Peace of Mind Pledge
With equal parts anticipation and apprehension, wineries and tasting rooms in several Oregon counties reopened on May 15, with distancing guidelines in place. Technically, they were never closed. Just not allowed to host in-person tastings. Washington state’s wineries and tasting rooms expect to start welcoming visitors back, with limitations, at the start of June. And north of the border, officials in British Columbia are finalizing their protocols for safely allowing visitors to return to their tasting rooms.
Most people I’ve spoken with have conflicting emotions about travel, or even visiting restaurants and wineries. Sure, everyone is looking forward to the return of a semblance of normalcy. But the risks of being exposed—or exposing others—to coronavirus are never far from anyone’s mind.
Recognizing these concerns, Visit Walla Walla recently unveiled its Peace of Mind Pledge. The region’s travel industry leaders are encouraging businesses to prioritize the safety of their guests and employees by exceeding state mandates and national guidelines for health and safety.
The Peace of Mind Pledge is voluntary. Travelers can visit the website to find participating businesses—and learn about the measures they are taking to reduce the risk of exposure. “As a community that is widely recognized for its wine, friendliness and hospitality, we want to add safe and healthy to the list of qualities that come to mind when they hear the name Walla Walla,” said Visit Walla Walla board member Terra Luthi (above), general manager of Eritage Resort, in a press release. And if you’re wondering what you can do to keep safe when you travel this summer, these tips from the Centers for Disease Control are a good place to start.
The Auction of Washington Wines Goes Virtual
The pandemic has already wiped out a full slate of spring and summer wine celebrations. And most fall events are on the bubble, too. But the show will go on for the Auction of Washington Wines, albeit in an online format. Auction’s main summer events have been consolidated into a virtual gala on Aug. 15. Organizers are still finalizing details. But the plan is to host an online auction, with live bidding. Organizers also plan to host virtual tastings of Washington wines with wine educator and writer Karen MacNeil, this year’s honorary chair. (MacNeil is the author of The Wine Bible.)
Wine Country Creativity
They say necessity is the mother of invention. And this pandemic has been a mother of a different kind. But amid the chaos and uncertainty, many are finding creative new ways to do business.
One example is Frichette’s Mystery Wine Challenge, which winery owners Greg and Shae Frichette plan on keeping around after their tasting room reopens. And Shae Frichette speaks of the challenges facing the industry in optimistic terms. “I’m excited about looking at how we can still provide stellar experiences in a different way,” she said, in a recent Zoom chat with Tri-Cities–area winemakers. “This does challenge us to look at how we can provide amazing experiences using the resources that we have.”
As they gear up to reopen, the Frichettes plan to offer more outdoor seating and add flights and glass pours to their tasting menu. Other plans are in the works, and they will also continue offering curbside pickup.
Gizzards to Go
I caught up with Gary Vegar (above) by phone a few days ago, right before dinner service at the Horse Heaven Saloon. Vegar and his wife, Carol, opened their Western-themed gastropub in downtown Prosser in 2013. It sits in a 1912 building that the Vegars spent several months restoring prior to opening. I had last seen them on March 11. I remember snacking on a delicious plate of gourmet gizzards at the bar before dinner. The Vegars’ chef braises the gizzards for several hours before coating them in a beer batter, finishing them off in the fryer and topping them with ribbons of Sriracha mayo. Each bite released glorious bursts of umami, crunch, salt and spice. Later that night, I learned that the NBA had suspended its season. And a few days after that, Washington restaurants were ordered to stop offering on-site dining.
Like many others, the Vegars began offering takeout and delivery service. Rather than risk having an employee exposed to the virus, Gary took on delivery driving duties himself, using the company van. (The Vegars also operate a microbrewery in a building behind the pub.) Comfort foods from the scratch kitchen, including house-smoked brisket and cheesesteak sandwiches, have proved to be top sellers. And the staff is busy keeping up with demand for cocktail kits. The whiskey kit includes fixings for (several pours of) three different cocktails. And you can get the gizzards to-go.
“This is basically sustaining us,” Gary said. “It’s keeping six people here in the saloon employed. We’re burning the lights and paying the bills.”
He didn’t hesitate when I asked if he’ll continue offering takeout and delivery when people can start dining inside his restaurant again. “Without a doubt,” he said.
Date Night Re-Imagined
In Woodinville, DeLille Cellars has seen a flood of demand for its now weekly DeLille Date Night takeout meals. Each week features an oven-ready meal, usually for two, with a choice of wines. For Memorial Day weekend, the winery and its partner, chef Michael Toni of A Platinum Event catering, created a special barbecue-themed cookout for four. The menu includes smoked chicken flatbread, slow-cooked baked beans, braised brisket bites and s’more-style chocolate chip cookies.
“We have been pleasantly overwhelmed by the response,” said Keri Tawney, Delille’s director of marketing, by email. “We have tried to offer these date night meals at affordable prices to give everyone a little something to look forward to.”
Tawny says the winery is considering keeping these takeout meals available through summer, even after its tasting room reopens. The winery is also collaborating with several Puget Sound–area restaurants on wine-paired takeout meals.
Wine Tasting Etiquette
As Oregon counties reopen for business, tasting rooms need to maintain 6 feet between parties and cap group sizes at 10. And bar and almost all counter service has been banned. Washington state is also banning bar service in the initial phases of reopening. In addition to a 6-foot rule, Washington tasting rooms need to cap group sizes at five and operate at 50 percent or less of maximum capacity. BC officials are considering requirements that would resume on-site wine tasting by appointment only. The good news: many tasting rooms are expected to expand their outdoor seating capacity.
This is where I offer my unsolicited editorial opinion about wine tasting in this new era: In addition to following health and safety guidelines, be courteous. When you can, make reservations for tasting rooms and restaurants, which are also subject to limitations. Bring a mask along for when you are not tasting, such as when you are walking to or from your car or the restroom. And maintain distance from others in common areas. Remember, most people are beginners at social distancing. So cut them some slack. And show your appreciation to the staff.
Also, be mindful of the boutique qualities that make Northwest wineries so special. Most are small artisan operations that survive on tasting-room and wine-club sales. It’s easy to find wine from “the big guys” when you stock up in grocery stores and large retail locations. But even if you don’t feel comfortable traveling to tasting rooms or competing for the limited space inside, you can still support Northwest wineries—while treating yourself to exceptional wine. Just visit their websites. And shop.