Wineries facing challenges as COVID-19 landscape evolves

Doors open: Bruce Dukes of Domaine Naturaliste wines in Wilyabrup, where staff are ready to welcome visitors to the cellar door.

Doors open: Bruce Dukes of Domaine Naturaliste wines in Wilyabrup, where staff are ready to welcome visitors to the cellar door.

With harvest all but over for the Margaret River wine region, and cellar doors shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wineries across the South West are looking at ways to adapt to social distancing restrictions.

Sue Jackman, Sales and Marketing Manager at Domaine Naturaliste in Wilyabrup said the business had very little time in which to figure out a way to move forward.

"Sadly we had to close our cellar door initially which after only being open for 18 months and gathering momentum after winning the 2020 Halliday Best Winery in Australia Award, was not great," Ms Jackman said.

"The first few weeks were really challenging but with the support of the JobKeeper allowance we were able to re-allocate our permanent cellar door team to vineyard work, or fulfilling our on-line sales orders.

"They have been great in adapting to these changes."

The Domaine Naturaliste cellar door will offer food along with wine tastings to comply with social distancing restrictions.

The Domaine Naturaliste cellar door will offer food along with wine tastings to comply with social distancing restrictions.

Wineries are able to sell their products online and by mail order, but are not presently able to conduct wine tastings at cellar doors, limiting their ability to capture tourism trade.

Changes to WA social distancing restrictions and the reopening of regional borders has seen an influx of visitors to the region, and many restaurants have begun to open their doors with strict 20-person limits.

Cellar doors unable to provide a food service to customers are not able to open under the same rules, leading many wineries to think creatively to introduce meal options along with their wine tastings.

"We re-opened Monday May 18, as soon as we were able to," said Ms Jackman.

"We are fortunate to have a lovely large floor space, so are easily able to cater for the distance requirements, and that our food offerings are substantial enough to comply.

"We are now take bookings, which wasn't something we have done in the past.

"Our staff have all gained additional knowledge along the way having done their Hygiene Officer course and being part of the development and implementation of our COVID-19 Safety and Action plans."

Member for Warren-Blackwood Terry Redman said people visited the South West and Great Southern regions for the gourmet food and wine experiences, with many seeking out smaller boutique wineries.

""Without the opportunity to provide tastings, small wineries will miss out on visitors and income, at the very time they need it the most," Mr Redman said.

"Visiting a winery to buy wine, yet being banned from having a tasting, simply does not make sense. It appears to be an over-reaction when larger wineries with a restaurant are allowed to seat up to 20 people with wine and food.

"I now call on the Minister for Tourism to take up this case and allow small wineries to offer tastings, where they can demonstrate the capacity to adhere to high hygiene standards and social distancing requirements.

"Being open and functioning prior to the June long weekend will go a long way to assisting those businesses that have been heavily impacted by the lockdown to get some long awaited trade, and ensure a quality tourism experience for visitors."

Margaret River Wine Association chief executive Amanda Whiteland said the lifting of regional travel restrictions would be a boost to the region's wine industry.

"Unfortunately the lifting of some restrictions in Phase 2 does not provide cellar doors the green light to offering wine tastings yet but they can, and some are already are, open for take-away sales," Ms Whiteland said.

"We know that the Margaret River cellar doors are keen to re-open and offer wine tasting experiences to their customers.

"To ensure they can do this as soon as possible, they are preparing their COVID Safely Plans, training their staff and coming up with innovative ways they can offer tastings so they are ready, when they are permitted to do so.

A simple solution would be to offer wine tastings as a seated, as a bookable experience for limited numbers in the first instance.

This would offer a lovely experience for the visitor to the region, and also enable the Cellar Door to ensure they are following the restrictions on number of guests in the venue, social distancing, hygiene plans in place."

Given there is no evidence of community spread of COVID-19 and that we are in a better position to respond to the spread, there is public interest in ensuring our small businesses remain viable and survive into the summer.

Libby Mettam

Vasse MLA Libby Mettam echoed Mr Redman's comments, branding the food requirement "unnecessary".

"For some of the larger venues it is unviable to open for just 20 guests, given the size of these larger venues there needs to be consideration for the fact that social distancing can still be maintained with more than 20 people in a larger space," Ms Mettam said.

"Given there is no evidence of community spread of COVID-19 and that we are in a better position to respond to the spread, there is public interest in ensuring our small businesses remain viable and survive into the summer."

At Domaine Naturaliste, Sue Jackman said the team was ready to adapt as the COVID-19 pandemic evolved.

"We're really looking forward to welcoming food and wine lovers back into our cellar door to enjoy some of our great relaxed service and of course amazing wines.

"We already planning some fun events for later in the year and this current experience has certainly reminded us just how lucky we are to live where we do!"