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Spacious but scaled back, local vineyards reopen and adapt

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Local vineyards reopened two weeks ago as part of Connecticut's first phase of reopening businesses that had been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. They're pleased to offer guests a spacious place, but are struggling with wedding cancellations and mulling how to offer smaller events this summer.

They've stopped offering tastings but let people purchase wine to drink outside, where tables and chairs are spaced at least 6 feet apart, and staff members wear masks.

"We're fortunate, being a farm winery, that we have a lot of space versus some other folks, so that's worked out in our favor," Jonathan Edwards, of the eponymous North Stonington winery, said last week. He added, "It's more expensive to do business this way, unfortunately, with increased spacing and all the personal protective stuff and a ton of sanitizers and all of that, so it's certainly not what I would call a gravy train, but we're thrilled to be open and be part of phase one."

Instead of applying for the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, a federal loan that is forgivable if staff members are kept on, the winery joined the Shared Work Program through the Connecticut Department of Labor. This meant employees' hours were reduced but they could collect partial unemployment benefits for lost hours.

He typically would be hiring seasonal employees now but isn't doing that.

Jonathan Edwards Winery had to cancel the spring festival that would have taken place this weekend, as well as summer musical acts such as Donovan Frankenreiter and Blues Traveler, which Edwards said might have attracted 600 to 800 people. He isn't sure yet whether the fall festival in October will happen.

"I'm really having to rethink my event side of the business and what that means going forward, and obviously there's uncharted territory," he said.

Edwards said the bright spot is that online wine sales have "really taken off, versus pre-pandemic levels."

Food and music

Saltwater Farm Vineyard in Stonington is in a different position, considering it has only offered on-site purchases for the past 10 years and just now is looking into shipping wine, tasting room manager Jess Maloney said. The vineyard usually closes in December and reopens in mid-April, so Maloney said it was pushed back several weeks but wasn't as impacted as other places.

Maloney said one "silver lining" is that with weddings canceled, Saltwater Farm can stay open later in the day on weekends. It has started having food trucks on the property, and Maloney hopes to continue the Thursday afternoon music series.

Preston Ridge Vineyard has canceled live music until June 20 but hopes to bring music back after that, owner Cara Sawyer said. She's playing it by ear when it comes to the usual events, such as the lobster bake, barbecue chicken night and dinner under the vines.

Sawyer said of leaving the house to go to a vineyard, "If you are nervous, it's a good spot to start because there's so much space, and you can really be in your own little area and not interact with anyone if you don't want to."

Preston Ridge typically is open from mid-March until December, and the vineyard started offering curbside pickup in March. With one full-time employee and the rest part-time, Sawyer went the PPP route.

Stonington Vineyards also went with the PPP, with director of operations Rachel Edwards explaining she figured the eight-week timeline would be close to when the vineyard could reopen, which is what happened. The vineyard kept field staff on full time, she said, but reduced the hours of tasting room staff.

The vineyard has started offering food from Gourmet Galley for purchase. Edwards said this is one way it is trying to help people and businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic, along with offering live music from local musicians who have had gigs in less spacious venues canceled.

Stonington Vineyards has been offering virtual craft workshops with Painted by the Shore, and Edwards said that will continue even though the vineyard is open now.

As for one in-person event, the vineyard is modifying its Kickoff to Summer Party by requiring people to make reservations in advance, to control capacity.


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