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Tasting rooms left in the cold after state delays reopenings

By Kendra Caruso | Nov 16, 2020
Source: Lake St. Gorge Brewing Company's Facebook page Lake St. George Brewery, along with other brewers, is selling more of its product in packages, since it cannot offer indoor service right now.

Since the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States and closed much of the country down last March, winery and brewery tasting rooms have been closed. Tasting rooms and bars are in the same high-risk category in Maine’s reopening criteria, and one winery owner thinks that is based on a misconception.

Winterport Winery owner Michael Anderson held wine tastings on his building’s porch this summer. He said he had already experienced a drop in sales because of the coronavirus and thinks the governor’s mandate to delay reopening bars and tasting rooms is going to put further stress on his finances because people are not going to sit outside for tastings during the winter.

“Nobody wants to stand outside in a snowstorm and try to sip down six samples of wine or beer,” he said.

He is frustrated with the governor for putting wine tasting rooms in the same category as bars. For him, it feels like the state is blaming wineries for something they have not done and it is not listening to winery owners.

“It’s like we’re trapped,” he said. “I don’t know which way to turn and no one is talking to us.”

People tend to stay longer at bars, drink more heavily and mingle with people outside their party. In contrast, when people visit wineries they come with a small group or as a couple to sample wines, then leave, he said. Hardly anyone stays in his building for more than 20 minutes and his business closes by 5 p.m.

Distributors sell his wine at local stores around Bangor and Brewer, but most people like to visit his winery to sample the wine before they commit to a purchase, he said. But every time the state was supposed to allow tasting rooms to open, it waited until right before reopening day to extend the closure mandate.

“The beauty of it is you can come and taste things and find something you like,” he said. “... But the state has a history of pulling that rug out from under businesses at the last minute.”

This places an increased financial loss on businesses that cleaned their buildings, stocked shelves and prepared food in anticipation for reopening, Anderson said. “It’s nice to have a clean building, but it's for naught if nobody is coming in but to pay bills.”

The Maine Winery Guild issued a press release highlighting the difference between bars and winery tasting rooms. It is asking the state to give wineries the same opportunity restaurants and other businesses have to provide a safe environment for tastings.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused all businesses to adapt and innovate, it’s unfortunate that winery tasting rooms have been lumped with bars and their associated restrictions," the press release said.

Breweries feel pinch, too

Elizabeth Johnston and her family own Liberty-based Lake St. George Brewing Co. and have been holding tastings and gatherings outside since late last spring. She is concerned that revenues will significantly decrease as winter nears.

The brewery had a drop in revenue over the summer because of the coronavirus, but was still able to make some money during what is usually its busiest season, she said. It will continue to serve customers outside around fire pits, but she anticipates less business.

She only has limited space inside the brewery to accommodate social distancing, but is willing to serve a couple of groups of people at a time if tasting rooms are allowed to reopen this winter, she said.

The tap room was hit hardest because bars were not open so they were not buying kegs from the brewery. Instead, the business is shifting to a takeout beer model for people who still want to purchase their products to drink at home, but it incurs additional packaging costs, she said.

Breweries statewide have modified business plans to accommodate the state’s coronavirus guidelines, Maine Brewers Guild Executive Director Sean Sullivan said. The breweries that are struggling the most are the ones that sell beer only on tap and do not distribute their product.

Many of those breweries have started packaging or bottling their product to sell online or at curbside, he said. Other breweries have purchased restaurant licenses so they can open their buildings. Seeking a restaurant license is not a cheap undertaking, Sullivan said. It comes with increased costs for licenses, food, kitchen equipment and hiring new employees.

Most brewery owners understand the severity of the virus and the need to prevent its spread, he said. He hopes to work with the government to keep breweries open because their benefits, beyond selling beer, include revitalizing downtown areas, providing jobs and increasing tourism.

“They understand the balance that has to be drawn here, but we’re fully capable of serving in the same capacity as other businesses are right now and we’re looking forward to serving customers,” he said.

What sets Johnston’s tasting room apart from others is that it acts also as a community gathering place where events are hosted, she said. Public health is more important to Johnston than increasing her revenues. She sees the state’s mandates as necessary to stop the spread of the virus.

“While our business is at stake, we think it’s best to do what is needed for our community,” she said. “... Someday we will be able to think about hosting things like music that is loud and fun, but right now we need to focus on what is safe.”

For more information regarding Winterport Winery visit their website here.

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