In the past month, I’ve had several writers reach out to me requesting an interview on how COVID has impacted small wineries this year. I’ve declined. Not because I don’t feel qualified to speak on the topic, but because I haven’t wanted to truly process it. Back in September I (foolishly) felt that we had turned the corner on COVID and were imminently heading towards normal times. Now, infection rates are back up to levels seen at the height of the pandemic. NYC restaurants have been shut down again. And every morning on my way to work I pass a line of people wrapped around the urgent care center in Cutchogue, waiting to be tested.
My chest tightens when I think about COVID. I worry about getting it, spreading it, Lieb shutting down, schools shutting down, and my kids getting scared. To avoid panic, I’ve become pretty adept at blocking it out. I don’t listen to the news, I don’t check Facebook and we don’t even utter the word in my house. Denial is likely not the healthiest coping mechanism, but it’s been working for me.
Yet as I sit here looking back on 2020, I realize that almost everything that has happened “behind the scenes” at Lieb this year has been, in one way or another, affected by COVID. It’d be disingenuous for me to write this blog without acknowledging it.
So, how has COVID impacted Lieb? Deep breaths. Let’s give this a shot. I’ll interview myself.
1) How have sales been affected by the pandemic?
In the US year to date, wine sales in general are up. People are drinking more, AS YOU WOULD EXPECT. Yet according to Wine-Searcher.com, “57% of US wineries who responded to an executive survey say their own sales are down.” How to explain this? My guess is that sales are up for a smaller group of large wineries (who, in wholesale, sell to grocery and chain retailers) and down for a greater handful of small wineries (who are more focused on selling to restaurants). Which camp are we? While small, Lieb Cellars is lucky to not be part of the 57%. Our wholesale sales are down significantly due to restaurant closures, but our growth in e-commerce, wine club and tasting room sales has more than made up for the loss. We’ll even, miraculously, meet our (pre-COVID) sales goal for the year. I’m proud of this, proud of our team.
2) What are the biggest COVID related challenges?
Modifying tasting room service to adhere to ever-changing NYS guidelines and keep staff and customers safe. This is the thing that keeps me up at night. If a Team Lieb member gets COVID at work and gets very sick, I’ll be devastated. Now that we’ve moved to indoor service for winter, we keep doors open, we’ve spaced out the tables even more than they need to be by law, we added more time for table turnover, we perform temperature checks and contact tracing, and the tasting room is professionally cleaned every week. All events and live music remain cancelled. It’s a heavy lift to stay safe but it’s paramount.
3) How have you innovated to address these challenges?
Immediately after the shut down in March, we implemented several strategies to protect our business and meet customers’ shifting needs: curbside pick-up, virtual tastings, e-commerce promotions and extended wine club discounts. When our tasting rooms reopened this summer, we discontinued curbside, virtual tastings and additional club discounts, but we doubled-down on e-comm. We invested in new websites, upgraded our analytics and launched our first social media ad campaign. E-commerce has gone from being an after-thought to representing our second largest sales channel this year and our greatest potential growth driver in the future. It’s exciting.
4) How are you adjusting plans and forecasts for next year in light of the pandemic extending into 2021?
We’re making some assumptions. The first one is that COVID will impact service through the first half of 2021 at the very least. Wine club and tasting room events are off until summer. The second is that NYC restaurant sales will be down for a while to come. NYC will bounce back, it always does, but we don’t expect wholesale sales in the city to fully recover until 2022 or beyond. In response, we’ll do what we can to shift our wholesale focus from restaurants to retailers, and to support our out-of-state markets which have been less impacted. The third is that we’ll sell the same amount of wine in 2021 as we did in 2020…because well, it’s hard to expect and plan for growth when so much is out of our control right now. For the first time in my 7 years at Lieb, I’ll be ok with flat next year if we all stay safe and healthy, mentally and physically. That’s all I can hope and plan for right now.
So there it is. That’s how I’d answer the interview questions. And now that I’ve completed this exercise and faced some hard realities — but also recognized some positive change on our business — perhaps I’ll politely accept the next interview request. This year was challenging. COVID still scares me. But we live, learn and forge ahead. With wine .
I wish you all health and happiness in the New Year.
General Manager & Certified Sommelier