At Signorello Estate in California’s Napa Valley, the welcome looks a little different than it did a few months ago. When each guest arrives, a masked and gloved staff member holds a small wireless thermometer a few inches from their forehead to verify they don’t have a fever. This is wine tasting in the age of coronavirus.

After being shut down for three months, Napa’s wineries reopened for tastings in mid-June with a slew of new safety procedures to help mitigate risks to guests and staff. For many wineries, particularly the family-owned wineries that make up the majority in Napa, staying open for visitors is critical to survival. 

“Economically the last three months have been very difficult for us, as they have been for many other family-owned wineries,” says Ray Signorello, of Signorello Estate. “Even as restaurants gradually reopen, most haven’t been ordering wine. We depend on the personal relationships we develop with consumers when they visit the property.”

Forming those personal relationships takes a slightly different approach these days, though. Here’s what it’s like to go wine tasting in Napa Valley right now.

Merlot grapes on the vine in vineyard © Sherri R. Camp / Shutterstock

Spontaneity and large groups are out; masks and sanitization are in 

Gone are the days when you could show up unannounced at dozens of different wineries. Reservations are now required. With tables spaced at least six-feet apart, many wineries can only accommodate a small portion of their usual capacity, and with the extra time required for proper sanitation, they’re staggering visits or reducing the number of timeslots available.

All of this means that your chances of snagging a last-minute reservation have greatly decreased, and it’s better to plan ahead to avoid disappointment. Additionally, the large birthday and bachelorette gatherings once common in Napa are also no longer allowed. Most wineries are capping party size at four to six people.

Staff interaction is minimized, too. To help keep six feet between staff and guests, many wineries are pre-pouring the wines or serving wine in small decanters for guests to pour themselves. At other establishments, the wines are poured one by one, but staff take great care not to touch guests’ glasses in the process.

Perhaps most importantly, no mask means no service. Staff wear masks at all times, and guests are required to wear masks at all times aside from when they’re seated for their tasting, such as when arriving and departing, on property tours, and when using the restroom.

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Masks and social distancing are part of the wine tasting experience at California wineries © Katie Hammel / Lonely Planet

Private tastings and outdoor experiences are the norm

Despite all the above, wine tasting – particularly indoors or around multiple strangers – still carries some risks. While many larger wineries are still hosting multiple parties on-site at once, many have opted to move to private tastings where there’s only one group per time slot to help reduce the risk of transmission between groups. Outdoor visits are also standard now. Indoor tastings were allowed at reopening, but on July 6, Napa County announced that all indoor wine tasting and indoor dining would be prohibited again starting July 9, pending a reduction in cases.

Where to go wine tasting now

While some wineries have needed to get creative to accommodate the new rules, others have always been set up for this kind of socially distanced experience. Here are some of the wineries offering exceptional low-contact, private experiences perfectly suited for this new normal.

Signorello Estate
Signorello’s tasting room was tragically destroyed in a 2017 fire but tastings have continued outdoors on a hill overlooking the valley. There are only two private tastings held each day (with a max group size of four people) and the experience includes a tour of the sloping vineyards via golf cart before guests settle into cozy, shaded seats for a tasting of the winery’s small production wines paired with light bites for $50 per person.

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The candle-lit Twilight at Trefethen experience includes a private tasting and a tour of the historic property © Courtesy of Trefethen Family Vineyards

Trefethen Family Vineyards
At Trefethen Family Vineyards, Guests can choose from a variety of tastings that range from $30 to $90 per person, but the ultimate in privacy is the Twilight at Trefethen experience ($150 per person) which includes an after-hours tour of the 1886 property followed by an exclusive seated tasting served of their reserve and small lot wines – which run the gamut from sauvignon blanc to malbec – with small bites like caramelized spring onion and wild mushroom tartlet. There’s only one table available per evening.

Amici Cellars
Surrounded by trees in the foothills of the Palisades on the north end of the valley, Amici Cellars is a hidden gem with heart. Through July 31, Amici is donating 100% of its tasting fees ($30 per person) to the Napa Valley Community COVID-19 Relief Fund and offering a 15% discount on wine purchases for medical professionals. The winery welcomes groups of up to six people for private, outdoor tastings of its impressive lineup of cabernets on a sprawling lawn surrounded by trees. They’ve also partnered with nearby wineries Saint Helena Winery and Cimarossa to offer a full-day experience that includes private outdoor tastings at all three spots for $75 per person.

This Howell Mountain winery offers tastes of its certified organic and biodynamic wines in one of the most unique settings in Napa. ADAMVS' private tastings take place in a three-walled room that may as well be outdoors; it’s fully open in the front and has a retractable roof for even more fresh air. The winery’s two flagship cabernets are served with cheese, charcuterie, and views of lavender and fig trees. Only two private tastings are hosted each day; the cost is $125 per person.

Gandona Estate
Set on Pritchard Hill, Gandona conducts its outdoor tastings on a large deck with sweeping views of Lake Hennessey and the hills below. A reference to the owner’s grandfather, Gandona translates to “humble man” in Portuguese and the country’s influence continues both in the traditional Portuguese tilework decorating the deck and in the wine. In addition to cabernet, the winery makes the valley’s only Touriga Nacional, a Portuguese red wine varietal. Gandona offers two tastings per day and tastings cost $125 per person (fee waived with purchase of three bottles).

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TOR's 12-acre property is being utilized for private, outdoor tastings © Courtesy of TOR

TOR’s Al Fresco Wines Experience takes place at the 12-acre Wheeler Farm, a historic estate in St Helena that dates back to 1871. The experience starts with a walk around the gardens and winery before a private tasting of five wines, including the winery’s splurge-worthy single vineyard cabernets and chardonnays made from some of the most coveted grapes in Napa Valley. It’s all paired with a cheese and charcuterie platter, and a spectacular view of Mount St. Helena. The cost is $125 per person.

While reopening status is precarious, winery owners are hoping for a slow – and safe – return to something resembling normal.

"Our main concern is for the safety of our community, employees and their families, and our guests,” says John Harris, owner of Amici Cellars. “Napa has weathered crises in the past and what we have learned from those hard times is that if we work together for the greater good, we'll come through it. Some of our neighbors are more impacted than others, but it's our goal to be a part of the solution in safely supporting our local small businesses and community.”

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