Dean Hidalgo has made many road trips along Highway 101 from Los Angeles to San Jose, and each time he would blink and miss a gem of Monterey County.
“I always saw the signs for ‘Monterey County Wine,’” Hidalgo says. “Never once did I ever stop. I was on my way going somewhere else, and never thought about it.”
But Hidalgo, who is originally from Los Angeles and now lives in Marina with his wife, Julie, finally discovered the wine scene. And he’s deep in it: A little more than a year ago, he got a retirement job for Hahn Family Wines, headquartered just outside of Soledad.
“I had a lot of experience drinking wine, so I thought, why not start pouring wine?” Hidalgo says. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
Hidalgo, a former software marketing executive, made friends quickly with customers from all over the world while pouring at Hahn’s Carmel tasting room, sharing his knowledge about the wine-making process and the microclimates that make Monterey County’s nine American Viticultural Areas so unique. (Hahn’s 1,200 acres are split between the Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands AVAs.)
Hidalgo was pouring wine and making conversation for 30 hours a week, and his pay included benefits – not too shabby for a retirement gig.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and tasting rooms closed, although the production side can continue under agricultural exemptions to shelter-in-place orders.
Hahn has found a way to keep all employees on payroll by shifting job duties from the tasting room. “We are putting our employees in some of the vineyard blocks. It’s a bit unorthodox,” says Tony Baldini, president and CEO.
Others are now working in sales, making phone calls to wine club members and former customers.
Scheid Family Wines is using a similar direct-to-consumer sales tactic. They are linking up with online purveyors and seeing a surge in direct-to-consumer sales, increasing by almost 300 percent since pre-pandemic, says John Holder, Scheid’s vice president of sales. “You are seeing that [increase] across the board, it’s not just us,” Holder says.
The industry should brace for a loss of $267 million in sales.
Both Scheid and Hahn have seen sales to retail stores increase, by 20 to 45 percent, during the pandemic.
But those increases don’t necessarily mean people are buying more wine – it’s just that on-premises sales, in tasting rooms or in restaurants, is off-limits.
Normally, restaurants make up about 20 percent of Hahn’s sales. “People are sheltering at home and they are still putting wine on the table,” Baldini says. “It’s just not a restaurant table.”
Overall, that means sales have remained relatively stable.
But the future for Monterey County’s wine industry is not so rosy. According to an April 22 economic impact report by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, the industry should brace for an estimated loss of $267 million in sales due to Covid-19. There have already been an estimated 765 layoffs – about 12 percent of the workforce – due to tasting room closures.
Projected future losses are because the increase in those direct-to-consumer sales – an estimated $3 million – is not nearly enough to offset the loss of restaurant, bar and tasting room sales, according to the report.
And that’s on top of already declining sales (while beer and spirits have grown in popularity), MCVGA Executive Director Kim Stemler notes. “Although the data is still unfolding, we know that in Monterey County last year, several thousand of our 45,000 acres of grapes did not get harvested, or were harvested and not used because of a lack of demand, even though our grape value went up,” she says.
For his part, Baldini is happy he’s been able to keep everyone employed for now – and this time of year, the extra labor thinning vines is helpful.
For Hidalgo, it’s been a chance to keep occupied, plus he’s getting fresh air and sun in the vineyards, where he now spends 24 hours a week thinning shoots.
“I’ve developed a whole new appreciation learning another part of the winemaking business by actually getting my hands dirty,” he says.