Summertime usually sees crowds at Missouri wineries. Many have small tasting rooms with expansive patios, comfortable outdoor seating and often sweeping views of the Missouri River, making them day-trip destinations for groups of wine novices and aficionados alike. But this summer has not been like any before it.
With the new normal repeatedly being redefined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, chairman and CEO of St. James Winery in St. James, Missouri, Dr. Peter Hofherr, had to change the way he does business. As chairman of the Missouri Wine & Grape Board, he also had to address this year’s record number of frosts and its effect on Missouri wine.
What has the Missouri Wine & Grape Board done to help Missouri wineries during the COVID-19 pandemic? We talk frequently about this, and we’ve been working hard to develop relief packages at the state and federal levels for the wine industry and our vineyards. It’s almost a day-by-day, week-by-week review because of just how fast the environment’s changing. It [was] quite a complex matrix to work through to decide how [we were] going to reopen. Wine usually brings people together, and then the pandemic says we can’t be together as much as we’d like to be. So it’s a little tough. It’s [been] kind of a slow start, and I think the wineries are really looking to continue to offer experiences.
Many restaurants, bars and breweries have pivoted to offering curbside pickup, but considering their location, does that solution work for Missouri wineries? The ones that can do curbside. Plus the ones that have access to e-commerce, they’ve been shipping quite a few cases out to those that can’t visit the winery. So that’s been a good thing for the wine industry in Missouri. We think consumer behavior has changed … [the pandemic] has probably moved up adoption [of online ordering] by three to five years. That’s been good, but those that sell exclusively to restaurants are having all kinds of problems. It’s a mixed bag, almost like everything, but the [wine] consumption per capita has gone up.
Has that been the case at your winery, St. James? We’re the third largest winery east of the Rockies with distribution in the U.S., but the [lack of] tourism has impacted our retail sales quite a bit – they’re down more than 50 percent. On the wine side, though, e-commerce has more than made up for it – it’s up more than 300 percent, so it’s made up for the losses that we had on the retail side in May. … It’s been a tough challenge for our management team, but we’re going to be able to work through this.
How do you foresee the Missouri wine industry getting through this and coming out intact on the other side? I think the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] has been helpful for those that were able to take advantage of it; that’s one factor that’s going to help. The other is that we’re seeing consumers start to come back to our places. Although it’s not like normal, hopefully it’s enough to keep the wineries alive as we go through this. But there’s no doubt that this has hurt the wineries financially. Those that run a good business will be able to get through, and those that have heavy debt loads will have problems. Right now we’re not seeing any closures or bankruptcies at this point, so it just depends on how we do going through the fall – in September, October, November, we [usually] see a lot of winery visits.
Do you foresee anything affecting this year’s harvest? We’ve had weather events on top of the COVID-19 situation. [As an industry], I don’t think that we’re going to sell as much wine this summer as we normally do, so we anticipate that there’s going to be excess grapes around the state, but we’re not sure of the extent of the damages to our vineyards [from the weather]. Here at St. James, we set a record with seven frosts this year – that’s the most in recorded history. … Those two things may equal out so that we have the grapes that we need. We just don’t know right now. The weather that we have during harvest will impact the [flavor of the] grapes more than the frost. If we have really good weather during harvest, that’s when those flavor profiles really develop well in the grapes – that’s probably the most important determinant.
What else does St. James Winery have planned for this year? We’re going to celebrate our 50th year in November. What we’ve seen since the end of March is that consumers have really reached out for those heritage brands that have been around a long time, which they have a lot of trust in. We’ve greatly benefited from that trend.
St. James Winery, 540 State Route B, St. James, Missouri, 800.280.9463, stjameswinery.com
Missouri Wines, missouriwine.org