Hunter Valley wineries adapt to COVID-19 challenges and restrictions

BUSY: Stephen and Tracy Drayton of Ivanhoe Wines, which has been at capacity most weekends since COVID-19 restrictions were partially lifted. Picture: Marina Neil
BUSY: Stephen and Tracy Drayton of Ivanhoe Wines, which has been at capacity most weekends since COVID-19 restrictions were partially lifted. Picture: Marina Neil

It's an industry that relies almost entirely on visitors, meaning the Hunter's wine region was rocked hard by the coronavirus.

Add to that the devastating effect of bushfires and smoke taint earlier in the year, and some Hunter Valley businesses were left on their knees.

But despite COVID-19 limitations, including state border closures, the valley is showing new signs of life thanks to a huge response from NSW visitors who are receiving a different experience than before the pandemic.

The Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association reported at the start of June COVID-19 had caused an $85 million loss to the Hunter Valley economy between March and May, with 80 per cent of businesses in the region's wine and tourism industry being forced to either fully or partially close.

In order to reopen, businesses have had to adapt to health restrictions introduced to reduce the risk of COVID-19, including seated tastings at cellar doors with capped group numbers and limited overall capacity at each venue, as well as additional cleaning and contact tracing.

Bookings have also been strongly encouraged due to the limitations.

Ivanhoe Wines owner Tracy Drayton said her cellar door had been at capacity Friday through Sunday most weeks and there were many times people without bookings had to be turned away.

Ms Drayton said while the approach was new for some people who have visited the region for years, it has meant a more intimate experience for the people who came in the door.

"Some people don't know they have to book," she said.

"It breaks my heart having to turn people away.

"But we have protocols to follow, so people really have to book so they aren't disappointed."

Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association CEO Amy Cooper said because of the booking requirements and seated tastings, people were visiting less places on a day out wine tasting but spending more time and money at the ones they do visit.

As proof of that, Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines said takings at his cellar door were up about 50 per cent despite visitation being down 25 per cent.

Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines said his sales had been strong since the cellar door had reopened.

Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines said his sales had been strong since the cellar door had reopened.

"Wine tasting now has become more of a one on one experience," Ms Cooper said.

"A lot of businesses have had to increase staff to cater for the restrictions so people are getting a better service.

"It's been positive having regional tourism reopen.

"It's been a really tough year, so that's been absolutely vital for us.

Ms Cooper said the July school holidays that just ended had been the region's busiest in years and were comparable to some Easter holidays which is one of the busiest periods on the Hunter Valley calendar.

Mr Tyrrell said there had been a lot of visitors in the area recently who would have been overseas if not for the international travel restrictions, including some who hadn't been to the vineyards before.

"A lot of people are discovering these places in their own backyard they didn't know existed," he said.

But the "new normal" hasn't been without its challenges for both businesses and customers.

Ms Cooper said there had been apprehension from some people to hand over their contact details for tracing as required by government legislation due to privacy concerns.

She said it had also been difficult for businesses and consumers to deal with the constantly changing restrictions - such as the recently lowered cap on group bookings.

Questions have also been raised about people visiting from hotspot areas such as Western Sydney.

Ms Drayton said she had a woman call the cellar door trying to book in a tasting for 12 people, which she had to decline as it was over the allowed cap of 10.

The woman then asked what the cellar door's policy was on accepting people from known hot spots.

Ms Cooper said it was at the discretion of each business who they accepted into their premises and hoped visitors were considerate and followed government advice when deciding whether to visit.

"It has been hard for some consumers to adjust," she said. "There's always going to be some outliers when there is any change.

"But we've been pleasantly surprised and pleased with people understanding why we're doing all of this. It's for their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the wider community.

"Businesses have been doing their utmost to adapt to this shifting environment.

"We're trying to make sure everybody is on board and understands what's at stake.

"We know it's our collective reputation at risk if we do end up with an outbreak. And if we do have a case, we will know we can deal with it."

Ms Cooper said to cater to privacy concerns the association had been working with a contact collecting provider which protects the privacy of users.

The association has also tried to get the message out through its marketing and tourism information that visitors should call ahead and book in to cellar doors before visiting.

This story Hunter Valley adapts to COVID-19 challenges first appeared on Newcastle Herald.