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As wineries reopen for tastings, expect appointments, pre-poured glasses and plenty of sanitizer

Robert Graham and his wife, Janneil Graham, taste wine in 2011 at Afton Mountain Vineyards west of Charlottesville, Virginia.

The text message conveyed urgency and alarm, even without all caps and exclamation points.

“There’s a 6-foot snake in the Pavilion terrorizing guests.”

It was June 4, the first day in nearly two months that Virginia wineries were allowed to welcome customers after being shut down as part of the commonwealth’s efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus. At Afton Mountain Vineyards west of Charlottesville, co-owner Elizabeth Smith was struggling to adapt her usual hospitality to the new conditions while still offering guests a welcoming and safe environment. That’s a dilemma faced by wineries across the nation as business resumes – though mostly without snakes.

Reopening day at Afton Mountain, which Smith owns with her husband, Tony, went south from the beginning. Smith had advertised that the winery would not receive guests under age 21, but the first car to arrive spilled out three young children on their initial outing in weeks and two harried parents desperate for a drink. Smith decided to make an exception. Within minutes, she was herding the children away from the winery’s goats and electrified deer fence. A staff member, Jill Schildkamp, began chasing them around the glass-walled pavilion, sanitizing everything they touched. Smith pleaded with them to sit still at one table.

She had just stepped away for a breather when the text came from retail manager Michelle Kimmel. Smith rushed back to the pavilion to find Michelle and Jill using a broom to sweep the reptile into an empty wine box. As they were wrangling the snake, the children ran up and demanded, “Do you have ice cream?” The weary mother followed and asked Smith, “Do you have any other activities the children can do?”

Smith and Kimmel took the snake in the box, walked far out into the vineyard and let it go. “Black rat snake,” she wrote on Facebook, “a good kind.”

Smith’s story is a reminder, as we venture cautiously back into the “new normal,” that wineries are not playgrounds or day-care centers, as much as we might need a respite from our children after months of self-isolation. Winery staff are taking extra measures to keep themselves and their customers safe; we should respect their efforts by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and following guidelines set by wineries or local governments.

At Afton Mountain, the tasting room is closed for now, but guests are welcome in the pavilion, which can be opened for extra ventilation in fair weather, and at socially distanced outdoor tables. “Self-guided” tastings are presented in flights with written information about the wines. Smith told me this feature will probably continue even after the tasting room reopens, for people who would rather enjoy their wines at their own pace and not crowd around a tasting room bar.

At Inman Family Wines in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, precautions are quite elaborate. The winery reopened June 19, and is now open Thursday through Saturday, welcoming two groups or families at a time. “When they arrive, they are greeted by me, in mask, with a squirt of hand sanitizer for each guest,” co-owner and winemaker Kathleen Inman says. “We take all their details down so we have a contact tracing record, and we ask them to verify they have no symptoms. They have to sign a waiver of responsibility.” The winery’s two restrooms are assigned, one to each group. Everything – tables, chairs, restrooms, glasses and dump buckets – must be sanitized immediately after each group leaves, according to county requirements.

“I have to question if (reopening) is worth it,” Inman says, citing the health risk to herself and her new wine club manager, who has enabled her to expand to three days of tastings per week. She says she’s been doing more online tastings for corporations looking to connect with clients and employees.

California’s reopening seemed more upbeat for Alison Smith Story and her husband, Eric Story, when they began welcoming guests back to their Smith Story Wines tasting room in Philo, in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. The valley is less than three hours’ drive from San Francisco or Sacramento, making it a popular day-trip destination.

“I’ve never seen so many packed Suburus and RVs drive in,” Smith Story says. Tastings are by appointment only, starting on the hour and lasting 45 minutes to leave a quarter-hour scramble to sanitize everything. Guests are limited to six per party from the same social circle, and they must wear masks when walking around the tasting room. Temperatures are taken upon arrival, and bottles of hand sanitizer are deployed throughout the room. Tastings are pre-poured, each guest using just one glass. And guests are not allowed to pet Lord Sandwich, the couple’s adorable goldendoodle and winery mascot.

“It’s bittersweet to work this way,” she says. “We are grateful for a full schedule, but only allowing private reservations cuts our customer count to less than half of what we are used to in the summertime here.”

Back in Virginia, Elizabeth Smith said snakes reappeared at Afton Mountain Vineyards a couple times those first days after reopening, but the “activity and vibrations” of business have kept them away since. And after that first day, “No more kids,” she says. “No exceptions.”