The world is dramatically different today than it was 10 days ago. The new world is one of closed businesses, canceled events, work from home, serious hygiene and social distancing. Our collective health is the prime concern, as it must be. Governments and businesses are working round the clock to implement public health measures that will hopefully minimize the worst scenarios. Because we are in uncharted waters, however, we simply don't know what will actually happen ... and any look toward the future must be largely speculative. Nevertheless, I have attempted to catalogue some thoughts below regarding the business and legal implications of this new world for the wine industry. I hope that these are helpful.
How long will this last? We don't know. There are many differing estimates. However, news reports are currently indicating that it took China 3 months to "turn the corner" with severe restrictions. Barring a miracle cure or vaccine, the new world in North America will probably last at least that long and possibly much longer, since our restrictions are not as severe. In addition, public health experts are indicating that the maintenance of restrictions would likely be necessary in order to prevent a flare-up or resurgence, at least until a cure or vaccine is found. As a result, businesses, including those in the wine industry, must prepare and plan for the new world for the foreseeable future.
Generally, people continue to consume alcohol during stressful or uncertain times, although they may not do so in the same ways or to the same extent as they did previously. The experience of Prohibition shows that liquor consumption will continue even in the face of blanket restrictions to stop it. As a result, liquor manufacturers including wineries may be in a somewhat better position than other business sectors. Nevertheless, the consumption patterns have already changed and will stay that way for some time as customers switch en masse from on-premise (restaurant/bar/hotel) consumption to off-premise consumption (home consumption from retailers).
Hopefully, for most wineries, production will continue as normal. A welcome bit of good news was that the temporary foreign workers program will continue, although subject to self-isolation requirements (many wineries use this program for vineyard labour). There may be general shortages of skilled labour however.
The hospitality sector is experiencing a grave crisis. As a result of both mandatory measures and changed customer behaviour, most of these businesses are either closed or operating at tremendously reduced capacity (e.g. take out only). Their situation is dire. Unfortunately, this sector is likely to continue to experience the brunt of the negative effects and be at the front line for the duration. Wholesale winery sales to the hospitality sector will obviously go down dramatically. Hopefully, there will be a sufficient amount of fiscal and regulatory support for this sector so that it can survive. These are some of your best customers. Unfortunately, it seems certain that there will be many casualties. In contrast, the retail sector is already experiencing a large increase in sales. Wholesale winery sales to retailers will likely go up (although likely not enough to compensate for the downturn on the hospitality side). So far, the retail distribution supply chain continues to operate normally. This will be critically important in the weeks ahead.
Direct to Consumer (DTC)
Some jurisdictions have ordered winery tasting rooms to close while permitting DTC sales to continue either in-store or through e-commerce. While BC has not ordered tasting room closures, the current BC health orders would make it difficult to operate a normal tasting room environment (due to capacity and distance separation). Due to changes in consumer behaviour, opening is likely not desirable anyway and could potentially create legal liability if operated incorrectly (most BC wineries seem to have closed their tasting rooms). Current regulations continue to permit on-site sales (many wineries are offering curb-side pickup or loading for pre-paid orders) and e-commerce sales with delivery. Unfortunately, the post-Comeau regulatory environment continues to make it difficult to serve many out-of-province customers (see Shipping Update). It is likely wishful thinking to hope that the provincial governments will resolve this any time soon.
Marketing: Expand DTC & E-commerce
Many forms of traditional wine marketing are unfortunately on hold. BC's current restrictions make it impossible to hold traditional winemaker's dinners or to have large scale tasting events (e.g. sadly, Top Drop was just cancelled).
Wineries may wish to consider an evaluation and expansion of their marketing efforts (perhaps using tasting room staff) through DTC efforts, e-commerce and wine clubs. The changed consumer landscape has created a large increase in retail deliveries and a desire for products delivered to home. Reaching out to existing consumer lists and ramping up on-line advertising as well as social media are viable options although wineries should obtain advice on the marketing restrictions that relate to social media (and other advertising) if they are not clear on what those are. The expansion of wine clubs is also an option. Traditional wine club models can be promoted, particularly with "% off" promotions and/or free shipping. Less traditional club models might also be considered including working with other wineries, wine writers, wine experts and/or retailers. These latter options can provide additional marketing opportunities although they are subject to regulatory constraints on their structure. It is important to get proper advice in order to stay on-side.
Additional thoughts on the broader economic implications of the new world are in this Wine Economist article (the link at the end to the Rabobank report may be instructive).
Everyone is hoping that this new world will not last ... and that events will be brought under control to restore some semblance of normality. When that eventually happens, we will all breathe a huge sigh of relief. This new world is one that none of us wanted. Let's work together to try and make it short-lived.