Virus Diaries: Winery Wilting as COVID-19 Pandemic Continues

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Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of short features on small businesses responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Audrey House, owner of Chateau Aux Arc in Altus (Franklin County) and chair of the Arkansas Wine Producers Council, says her winery is “kind of dead in the water.” Her tasting room is closed, and business is suffering from supply-chain issues as vendors she sources goods from have closed.

But she is also trying to stay positive, describing isolation as a “staycation” and telling Arkansans to stay home as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

There’s also a blessing in the fact that “Mother Nature doesn’t stop,” House said.

So her work outside as a farmer continues.  “And that’s the biggest money sucker there is, even if I maintain the vines and don’t produce a crop. I still have to maintain my vines.”

She said she hasn’t been able to find cleaning supplies that her business would normally use because they’ve been bought up. She’s also faced other supply-chain issues as key suppliers have shut down. For example, House has not been able to get corks, capsules, glass or labels. 

Fortunately, the tasting room jobs that have been temporarily lost were “fun jobs for extra money,” not a main source of income for her few employees, House said.

She acknowledged a few “wine emergencies,” where some regular customers have asked to buy a case over the phone and pick it up.

One disadvantage to her business pre-dates the pandemic: laws that govern how she can ship wine in or out of state.

“To be able to service my customers, just in my state, has been my biggest fight,” House said. “Being able to service my customers out of state, it’s now my hardest fight because we have so many different rules for each state.

“I think I can speak for any winery owner in the United States. This is a serious time. If you want us to survive, we have to be able to service our customers.”

One thing House hasn’t had to do is step up her cleaning as much as other businesses since producing wine already requires a sanitary environment. 

Despite her challenges, House said she’s taking a positive approach. “The only way we’re going to get through this is if everybody takes a breath and remembers to just be, not having to go-go-go and do-do-do. This is like a staycation. Try to be positive about it and support our health care workers.”