Coronavirus: Winemakers consider socially-distant tours to tempt back customers

The English wine industry is facing an uncertain future, with a loss of income from tours combined with a loss of sales to the hospitality sector.

But many vineyards across the country have adapted and found other ways to find new customers and keep in touch with existing clients, while also enjoying an increase in sales as more of us are drinking at home.

Ridgeview Wine Estate reveals online sales for the company are up nearly 2,000%

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Ridgeview Wine Estate reveals online sales for the company are up nearly 2,000%

Sparkling wine has fast become a valued English export, with vineyards decorating the countryside from Kent to Cornwall.

Nestled in the South Downs on the border of East and West Sussex lies acres of England’s most prized alcoholic asset.

For 25 years the Roberts family has been thriving on the success of English sparkling wine.

Ridgeview Wine Estate’s produce has been served at 10 Downing Street and presented before dignitaries at Buckingham Palace. But the pandemic has led to a complete overhaul of its business.

In some ways it’s been business as usual, as food and drink manufacturers are classed as key workers.

The grapes haven’t stopped growing, and the production line hasn’t stopped the bottling either, albeit the team is much smaller. But the biggest difference has been the effect felt from the shutting down of the hospitality sector.

Many wineries in the UK have collapsed because of the freeze in sales on airlines, cruise ships, restaurants, bars and hotels.

At Ridgeview, it has lost revenue from cancelled events. But its reputation is keeping them afloat.

Speaking to Sky News, Tamara Roberts, chief executive of Ridgeview, said she hopes it will be enough.

Tamara Roberts, CEO of the winery at Ridgeview Wine Estate

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Tamara Roberts, CEO of the winery at Ridgeview Wine Estate

“We’ve got a broad customer base which has made us more fortunate than some others in the industry to have both the off and on trade,” she said.

“Obviously what COVID-19 has done is stopped any of our tourism and retail on site activities, coming into our 25th anniversary we’ve had to cancel so many plans. But online sales have gone up dramatically.”

Online sales for the company are up nearly 2,000%. It’s a pleasant surprise for the team. They’re relieved much of the Great British Public seem to be raising a glass at home.

The winemakers are considering socially distant tours to help business in the future

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Winemakers are considering socially distant tours to help business in the future

Head winemaker Simon is as busy as ever. He said: “Sparkling wine is obviously associated with celebrating and I think even though people aren’t celebrating, and might be working from home – on a Friday they’re still saying, let’s have a glass of wine, or their gifting it to people.”

There might be an increase in home deliveries of wine to locked-down drinkers, but if English sparkling wine is to continue to compete against countries like France, then the industry must adapt.

For 25 years the Roberts family have been thriving on the success of English sparkling wine

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For 25 years the Roberts family has been thriving on the success of English sparkling wine

One way is by turning us all into connoisseurs from our own front rooms.

Kent-based Chapel Down has found virtual wine tasting sessions to be a creative lifeline.

Their head brewer hosts weekly virtual live tastings on social media which many are joining to learn about and sample new tipples.

Ridegview will also soon be launching a virtual vineyard tour that will be sold alongside bottles online.

It is exploring the option of re-hosting small tours on the estate where numbers are kept low to allow for social distancing.

It could be the lift needed to raise public morale, but safety is paramount for Ms Roberts.

“We’re fortunate we’ve got a lot of space outside, and we have a lot of activities that can be done outside like the tours,” she said.

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“We also do picnic hampers that people can consume on site, so we’re looking at ways we can adapt. We’re constantly looking at the guidelines and how they change, we’re definitely getting ourselves prepared.

“People have to feel confident to come back and you’ve got to offer that reassurance to people that it’s safe.”

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