This is the first instalment in a three-part series looking at how COVID-19 is affecting Ontario alcohol producers. Watch for Part 2 on Thursday.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought rapid change and challenges to Ontario’s thriving alcohol industry. In a new series, TVO.org is speaking with stakeholders to understand how different parts of the sector are reacting to the pandemic. Today: Magdalena Kaiser, of the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario.
Matt Gurney: So it’s mid-May now as we’re talking, around the Victoria Day holiday. What would normally be happening at Ontario wineries at this time? And I have to confess — sorry! — that I’m a beer guy, so you can very safely assume that I know nothing about wine. Is this a time of year when there’d be planting or harvesting?
Magdalena Kaiser: It takes several years for grape vines to start producing for harvest — as long as three years. So, at this time of year, workers would be returning to the vineyards. Pruning the vines, cutting them and tying them, would begin in late spring. Also, there is a lot of bottling at this time of year for some kinds of wine that are made in the fall and can be bottled, say, six to months after harvesting. So that kind of work is what we’d be doing around now.
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Gurney: Again, forgive my ignorance, but are you able to continue with most of that activity?
Kaiser: Most of it, yes. Physical distancing isn’t a challenge in the field. Workers can stay well away from each other. They don’t have to be within six feet of each other — they can be 20 or 30 metres apart. Most of our vineyard operations are like that. But we have a lot of guest workers that come from other countries, and they had to go into quarantine. The industry worked very quickly with the government to make sure the people would be allowed to come, but many of the wineries in Ontario that rely on them — many of them have been coming here for many, many years to work at the same place — had to scramble to figure out housing so the people could be quarantined for two weeks. That was expensive and took some time to arrange, but we haven’t heard of major challenges actually getting the people here. The challenge has been that a lot of the work at this time of year would be for tourism and events, and those aren’t happening now. The industry has worked very hard to adapt and innovate and keep people employed even as the business landscape has changed drastically.
Gurney: I’d like to talk to you specifically about the tourism side, but, while I’m still getting caught up, just to clarify — wine production itself has continued largely as normal? You can still produce it and sell it?
Kaiser: Ontario wineries can still produce it and bottle it. Sales have been a challenge. Our wineries sell through different channels: directly through their own retail, to restaurants, to the LCBO. The restaurants are closed. That’s a huge channel gone. The winery retail outlets have been closed. The LCBO is still buying, and many wineries are now transitioning their retail operations to online ordering and home delivery. We’ve had a huge response from customers, so wineries are very busy with delivery of online orders and curbside pickup.
Gurney: What about exports? With all the logistics challenges all over the world, has that been a challenge?
Kaiser: That’s a good question. Most Ontario wine is consumed in Ontario, but export is important for many wineries. Any new challenges around exporting are not yet understood. But if sales are lost in those channels, that, too, will create more sales opportunities lost.
Gurney: But, overall, the production is continuing.
Kaiser: It is, but it’s slow. Things take longer to do because of added safety measures and physical distancing. But, with respect to grape growing, Mother Nature has not stopped, so things are moving as normal. It’s just harder for wineries to keep up. But we are still able to do the work with the wine that was harvested and produced months or years ago. There might be inventory from the current year that can be bottled but, also, there may be inventory from past years, as some wines take longer to make. For example, some wines spend 12 months or longer in the barrel and are then bottled. Some wine also benefits from further aging in the bottle before it is released for sale. There’s always something happening at a winery.
Gurney: So let’s talk about the tourism side now. How important is tourism to the industry?
Kaiser: It’s huge. There are about 180 wineries in Ontario, and about half of them rely on sales to people who are coming to them directly. We call that cellar-door sales — people who are actually coming in and looking around and then making purchases. So, right now, those wineries are doing their best to move to online sales. But it’s hard to replace the 3 million visitors that come to Ontario wineries every year. Wine is very experiential. We have three main wine-producing regions in Ontario — the Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County, and what we call the North Shore — that’s the northern shore of Lake Erie, in southwestern Ontario. And we still haven’t even fully exposed Ontarians to these regions.
There’s still so much opportunity for us, just within Ontario, to be revealing these areas to the public and getting them interested in the local wine scene and the varieties. Tourism is how we do that. Wine is very much rooted in the land, in the soil. So we really do tell people the local history, the local story, of each wine. And many of these wineries also have restaurants onsite and venues to host weddings or business events. And, obviously, that’s all shut down now. When things are open again, wineries will work hard to find safe ways of bringing tourists back.
Gurney: You told me already about the production of wines and the seasonal factors there. What about the seasonal ebb and flow of tourism?
Kaiser: The industry is basically open 365 days a year. The stores are open; the restaurants are open. There are weddings and business events all year round. And, in the winter, we have the annual Niagara Ice Wines festival, which brings tens of thousands of people. That was in January this year, so it was able to go ahead as normal. But, of course, like any tourism business, the warm-weather months are the busiest. Starting at the Victoria Day long weekend and right into November is the busy season for wineries — for tourism and also for event bookings. And harvesting, which normally happens from September until November, is also very busy with tourists. They love to see what happens at wineries at that time.
Gurney: Obviously, everyone hopes this will be over soon — Ontario is beginning to reopen, and let’s hope all goes well and smoothly. But I’m curious. If you’re able to continue production, but you can’t do your normal tourism business and restaurants remain closed, what happens to the wine? We’ve already heard about Ontario dairy farmers dumping milk — demand from the restaurant sector went to zero, and you can’t shut off a cow, so there was milk being produced that had no one able to buy it. Since milk is perishable, it had to be dumped. Will grapes or wine go to waste?
Kaiser: Wine is not perishable in the same way as milk. It does have a shelf life, and it is different for every wine, but it’s measured in months and years. We don’t have quite the same problem, but if certain channels remain closed — restaurants, for example — then wineries might build up inventory that would normally be sold now through those closed channels.
Gurney: But consumers are still buying. The economic impact of this has been very uneven. Some people are struggling, but others are at home, still employed, saving money, and, for them, spending some of that cash on a nice bottle of wine from a local winery is not only a way to help support a local business — but also a luxury that makes the isolation and stress a little less miserable.
Kaiser: There’s a story behind every winemaker, and that means there’s a story in every bottle. We know that people are sharing their experiences — they’re having Zoom calls and opening a bottle together. Wine is a cultural experience, and we’re thrilled that people are finding new ways to connect and share that experience. And it matters. Every bottle of Ontario wine people are buying is helping the industry. So we want people to know that. We want to thank them. They’re helping, and it’s wonderful.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.