by Kevin M. Smith
The ability of businesses to adapt to new and changing situations can go a long way towards the ability of a business to survive. Certainly there are situations that have been insurmountable, but a long-established business that can pivot is more likely to survive. For winemaker Rachel Lipman and Loew Vineyards, that meant being proactive this past spring.
“It’s interesting, we were one of the first wineries that I know of to close before the quarantine order dropped,” explained Lipman. “Our winery is an estate vineyard and winery—so my grandparents live on the property. The virus had and still has many unknowns so as a family we decided about two weeks before [the quarantine order] that it was safest for my grandparents that we close the tasting room. We didn’t offer curbside at that point either.
“My grandfather has often said, ‘if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.’ Ensuring the health of those we hold dear as well as limiting any potential exposure was the more important thing to us. As a young entrepreneurial spirit, and seeing how other wineries reacted to the order, I realized that there were safe alternatives to stay relevant, engage customers, and promote sales. It’s interesting because I work under the direction of my grandparents. Although, I definitely have a leading voice in the operation as a fifth generation winemaker, I still have to respect the history of the business my grandparents have preserved for the past 38 years.”
For many of the county’s craft beverage producers, the Comptroller declaring them essential was a ray of hope – a possible way forward through the new CoVID world. According to Lipman, the “essential” declaration wasn’t an issue for them. “I don’t think being deemed essential made a difference for us. I’m the only full time employee at the vineyard. My grandparents were and are essentially quarantined in their house so even if we were closed to the public and or only open for curbside pickup, my work didn’t change. If anything, it gave me more interrupted time in the vineyard and winery. I also started working close to 7 days a week to accommodate customers for pickup and stay on track with all aspects of the business. I was basically running the vineyard, winery, tasting room, social media, etc…well, I still am.”
Lipman has been busy during her time running the winery, shifting the business dynamic. “Before we were able to have customers enjoy on our property, I created an outlet for online sales, curbside pickup, launched a wine club, donated wine to a distillery to be processed into disinfectant, increased our social media presence, connected a wine we produced to a charity to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, spent long laborious hours in the vineyard and winery, redesigned our wine label, changed our barrel program, and more,” she said. “I realized, the old business model my grandparents created was no longer valid. It’s tough, in a business that has become less European over the years and more experiential, we weren’t allowed to operate under any parameter. Because my focus was heavily on operational changes, wholesale was also tough. Stores, although some are exceptions, were not bringing new products into their stores, even if it was local. That was the hardest for me. I reached out to over 100 stores, some that I know of or had mutual connections with from my previous job distributing wines. I totally understood the reasoning for not bringing in new products but I found it hard that stores were generally not willing to meet or were too busy to respond, and frequently said ‘after the pandemic.’ It didn’t happen with stores I was already selling to, just new ones. Thankfully, A store called Locavino in Silver Spring helped us out by carrying our whole wine list and did deliveries through their outlet for us. Online sales picked up and we had customers stopping by each day of the week to pick up wine from our tasting room.”
More recently the winery has been open in a similar capacity to other wineries and breweries – keeping sales and consumption outdoors. “To accommodate, we increased our outdoor seating with plans to add more. We’ve always gone off-site at Chartreuse & Co. They’re great. We’ve been going for a few years now and it’s great exposure for us and such a great demographic to sell wine to. We’ve also started tasting flights – [with] which we have become more creative. First we were offering all plastic cups of a flight of four wines. We don’t have a commercial dishwasher so we are limited to disposable cups. After a while, I figured we could put them in sealable condiment cups and then provide our glassware with our logo so customers got a souvenir glass to take home. So now customers get to sample 5 wines of their choosing with a souvenir glass to take home for $12.00. Oh, and when customers come, they receive an infographic as a self-guided tour through our family history of producing wine for over 150 years and through our vineyard. Customers can also follow a guided tasting through YouTube videos I connected to our website.”
Like other craft producers, 2020 has led Loew to unexpected changes in their business model. It has also brought Lipman to coordinate the winery’s first onsite event in about two decades. “It was widely successful and many customers applauded us for being so organized and safe. So, we’re going to continue to find ways to safely have guests in an inviting and experiential environment,” she said. “I want guests to come, learn about our legacy in the wine industry, enjoy the wines, and have a great time so they’ll come again or join our wine club. I have music planned for September 5th, a yoga event on Sept. 26th, and a mead, honey and cheese workshop for early October. Although, I don’t have a food truck coming for September 5th, we have upgraded our food/snack options as of this week, so I’m excited to share that.”
As the seasons move into Autumn, Lipman is looking forward to the harvest. “Vineyard wise, this has been a phenomenal growing season for grapes. I finally feel like I have a handle on the vineyard. There’s very little disease pressure from the dry July. As long as the rain holds out for the next few weeks, we’re going to have an iconic vintage. There are a lot of new wines and fun things coming for us. I think like anyone in this business during this time, it’s been a roller coaster. But, I know when I open a 2020 vintage wine, I’m going to look back on all of the hard work I managed to accomplish and remember how hard it was for many people – especially my grandparents, and know that something incredible can come out of any challenging situation. You know, not trying to compare the pandemic to WWII the year the allies won the war, many French winemakers wrote “Victory!” on the corks of that vintage. Unleashing a cork is a sign of celebration. Once you drink the wine, it brings introspection and nostalgia of the events that occurred in that vintage or year. I’ll definitely be keeping extra 2020 wines aside as a reminder.”
Loew Vineyards is located at 14001 Liberty Rd, Mt Airy, MD 21771 and more information on the vineyard can be found at https://www.loewvineyards.net/