No sector of the hospitality industry was left untouched by COVID-19. Wineries across the Inland Northwest faced a range of issues related to the pandemic, from figuring out how to sample and sell wine when tasting rooms were ordered closed to navigating special rules on outdoor seating and requirements that all alcohol-serving establishments offer food.
Since passing the pandemic's one-year anniversary, however, the future's looking brighter and wineries are eager to make a comeback. For the 17 members of the Spokane Winery Association, that road to recovery is symbolized by the return of the annual Spring Release Weekend, happening May 7-9.
After last year's event was canceled, as well as the association's annual holiday tasting festival and many other events its members are involved with, a lot's been missed, says Spokane Winery Association board President Natalie Barnes, who's also co-owner of Latah Creek Winery in Spokane Valley.
"I think the most difficult part of COVID is that Spokane has such a wonderful wine community, and you really weren't able to see any of it, because people weren't coming in because we couldn't have them in," Barnes says. "You just missed connecting with and seeing everyone and being able to chat about the latest releases and anything else."
Now that businesses are well-equipped to host safe, socially distanced events, this year's Spring Release Weekend will mark the first time many wine lovers in the region have been out to their favorite spots since the pandemic hit.
This year's event format will feel a little different, Barnes says. At Latah Creek, which she operates with her parents Mike and Ellena Conway, for example, tables will be spaced throughout the winery's tasting room, patio, gift shop and even among its wine tanks and cases. Instead of customers being able to mingle while sampling wine and food from a buffet, all service will be tableside, she adds.
With these details in mind, Barnes suggests guests call ahead to wineries they plan to visit during the three-day event to check if they're at capacity or not. Some wineries are also open earlier or later than the event's designated hours of noon to 5 pm.
"All the wineries are really excited to get back out there and taste their wines and get excitement going for the new wines coming out of the region," Barnes says.
Despite the many challenges wineries have faced throughout the pandemic, unwavering support from the community has been a major boon, says Barrister Winery co-owner and winemaker Greg Lipsker.
"The support from the community has just been overwhelming," Lipsker says. "And you know, the retail sales [of wine] locally have also picked up because so many people are at home now, and they're able to go to the store and pick up some Barrister wine and enjoy a bottle at home."
Spring Release Weekend's Participating Wineries
Arbor Crest Wine Cellars
Bridge Press Cellars
Cougar Crest Winery
Latah Creek Wine Cellars
Liberty Lake Wine Cellars
Robert Karl Cellars
Thomas Clare Cellars
Event map and details at SpokaneWineries.com
Starting last spring, Barrister began offering local home delivery for customers who place orders by phone or online. Since the option has proven so popular with its customers, Lipsker says it'll now be a permanent feature.
For Spring Release Weekend, Barrister is debuting two new wines, a 2017 merlot and 2017 petit verdot. It's also showcasing its recent double gold and best of class-winning cabernet franc, which took the honors at the recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
For wineries like Barrister in the downtown Spokane core, along with several smaller, satellite tasting rooms for Central Washington-based wineries, warmer weather and a return to patio service have helped bring back customers.
Tri-Cities-based Terra Blanca Winery's downtown tasting room in the Chronicle Building, for example, struggled to keep up with changing statewide regulations last winter, and largely relied on virtual wine tastings and offering specials to wine club members to make sales, says its manager Autumn Barnett. Open-air dining was unsustainable during freezing temperatures, but now the tasting room's large patio is open again.
"We've seen an increase in people coming out, and we brought our patio furniture back out early because some people still only feel comfortable sitting outside," Barnett says. "As vaccine rates have increased, we've had people who haven't been out of their house in a year. People are so excited to be out, they always let you know if they've been vaccinated."
Barnett and fellow winery leaders are hopeful that Spring Release Weekend's return helps boost the upcoming summer season for all of the region's wineries after a year of highs and lows.
"This is our coming-out-of-hibernation event," she says. "We're encouraging people to come out and taste." ♦
Spring Release Weekend • Fri, May 7 through Sun, May 9 from 12-5 pm each day (some wineries offer extended hours) • Free to attend; tasting costs vary • spokanewineries.com