What BC Wineries Should be Doing During the COVID-19 Crisis

It occurred to me that many BC wineries were not in existence since our last major crisis–not the month long disruption caused by forest fires, SARS and Alberta boycotts but September 11, 2001. Even for wineries that were in business 19 years ago many may have forgotten how that impacted our industry. When tourism was disrupted as it was post 911, it not only resulted in fewer people walking into cellar doors but it also had a big impact on sales in the Lower mainland and beyond. People ate out less in restaurants, retail sales were mostly flat (in some cases slightly up) and events were non-existent.

With the COVID-19 virus the same thing is happening but on a much larger scale. We have been rather isolated where most wineries are located, the Okanagan Valley, because as I write this, the outbreak has not yet taken a foothold here–but it is only a matter of time. Tourism will be impacted to an even greater extent because during this crisis, even locals may start staying away from wine touring. In contrast, after 911 the locals seemed to still support our industry and it was mainly the international tourists that stayed away.

The other phenomenon that happened after 911 was the huge rebound that happened 9 months later when the crisis was over. Pent up demand to get back to traveling and spending took over and British Columbia had its largest tourism year still to date in the summer of 2002. Having just attended the BC Tourism Industry Conference in Victoria last week this was confirmed by Caroline Beteta, President and CEO of Visit California, who discussed the bounce back that happened after the multiple natural disasters that state has been plagued with. After the crises were over, there was an inevitable increase in visitations. BC wineries also need to be prepared for that once the COVID-19 virus fades away.

Below are my ideas for what wineries should be doing right now—and I mean now—to prepare for the crisis that is upon us:

  1. Find A Buddy Winery

If there is one thing that many BC wineries are good at, it’s their ability to isolate themselves from the rest of the industry. Now is not the time to do that. I suggest every winery seek out a buddy winery—one in their area—that can help them weather this storm. This can be a winery that you already have a relationship with or one you may have always wished to have a relationship with. It doesn’t matter if you’re the same size or not. It doesn’t matter if you are new to the industry and they have been around for decades. You can always learn from one another.

Buddying up with another winery will allow you to combine information that you are hearing from the marketplace, coming up with strategies on how to handle sick employees or ones that want to work from home and even to begin conversations on how you can share part time employees during this time. There are many part time employees that may not survive this crisis because they may be the first to go with cost savings measures. Before you tell that part time person that you don’t have hours for them, talk with your buddy winery to see if between the two of you there is capacity to share employment to keep that person in our industry. Once they are gone they may be gone forever so it’s time to start getting more flexible and creative and employee sharing is one strategy to do that.

  1. Do an Employee Inventory

If every employee, both part time and full time, seasonal and permanent, had to work from home, could they do that? The answer is probably “no” but often wineries stop there. “No, cellar, vineyard and hospitality employees cannot work from home” I can hear you say. Don’t discount this idea out of hand. Every employee has work that must be done at the winery, there is no doubt about that, but almost every employee also has work that can be done at home.

Your tasting room employee, if underutilized because the tourists aren’t walking in the door in their usual numbers, can update mailing lists from home. They an update credit card information for your wine club and they can look for innovative items for sale in your tasting room for when the flow of customers surge again. Cellar employees can get caught up on paperwork, inventory, bid equalization, capital purchases, packaging decisions and procedure writing from home. When they have to come in to do cellar work, they don’t necessarily need to be at the winery for a complete day. Vineyard employees may not be able to do much work from home but it is a great time to begin implementing a more rigorous health and safety program and maybe that can be done for a few hours in the afternoon once fieldwork is complete. Get good at using Google hangouts or Zoom or any of the various programs out there that help with video meetings. If you’ve never held a management meeting virtually, now is your time to learn. If you don’t learn now, you won’t be ready for the next crisis—and there will always be a next one.

Work from home will also help general managers and winery owners get better at another skill they often lack—trust in their employees. It’s hard to micromanage someone who’s not in the building, but learning how to better trust employees working off site is a skill that this industry needs to get much better at.

  1. Time to Up Your Game

A possible slow down in business allows every person who works at a winery to do those activities that they often put off during the year because they are running at breakneck speed. When was the last time you took a look at your updating your business plan? When was the last time you had a strategic planning session? What was the last innovation you put in action? Right now the BC wine industry is launching the new sustainability certification program—is that something you can now tackle? Do you have all the human resource programs in place at your winery? Have you renewed your marketing plan? Do you have a social media-planning calendar? Have you put in place a preventative maintenance program or updated your WHMIS sheets or started Health and Safety workplace inspections? When was the last time that you had heart to heart conversations with your employees outside of a performance review? Do you even do performance reviews?

When times are tough it is not time to pull back and withdraw. It’s time to leap frog over your old self and reinvent your new self. Grow the pie. Up your game. I can guarantee that your smart competitors will be doing this.

  1. Find Efficiencies

There are two ways to make money—increase your revenues and decrease your expenses. Now is the time to figure out ways to do the later. At the winery I used to run we called this a “rock list”.  In other words, what rocks could we look under and find cost savings. You may be thinking you are already running lean, and that may be true, but this time get all your employees in a room and brainstorm. They are the ones working the front lines and often know areas of fat that can be reduced without an appreciable loss to your image or business. The very last place to look for cost savings, in my opinion, should be with your employees but often wineries start there. In 2001 after 911 happened our winery was in the middle of digging a huge pit for our barrel cellar. We knew there would be a big disruption to tourism and revenues and we started looking at ways to save significant money. We opted to order flat bottom glass rather than the deep punted glass that we usually used and at our volumes, that was a $40,000 savings in that one year. Because of that decision, we did not have to let one of our employees go. I can say in all of the 23 years we ran our winery, we never one time let an employee go for cost saving reasons. A statistic I am most proud of to this day.

Get your employees in a room and come up with ways to shave costs. Put a dollar amount next to each and you will be surprised how small savings add up. Remember, there are two ways to make money and raising your prices or expecting bigger sales during the time of COVID-19 is just not a logical expectation. Do it by finding efficiencies and who knows, you may get into the habit making a “rock list” even when times get better.

  1. Prepare for Growth

As stated at the beginning, a period of increased tourism and growth will follow this downturn and you want to make sure your winery is positioned properly for when that comes. You will need to ramp up tasting room employees—where are you going to find them? Are you keeping prospective employees in the loop as to when you will need them again? If you aren’t, your neighbor winery might be, and you will be struggling to get people in place at the same time that many other wineries will be looking to do the same thing. Have you planned for events that can be rolled out at any time of the year to take advantage of this increase in travelers? Are you producing marketing materials for your sales agents to utilize when restaurant orders pick up? There are a million ways to get your business ready for growth but you need to know that growth will inevitably come.

Is your winery going to be ready to pivot and be prepared to capitalize on the increased sales opportunities or is it going to be caught flat-footed?

I hope this has given you some things to think about in preparation for this upcoming drop in business. Imagine in a few months your winery has formed a new friendship with another winery, has learned to trust employees and given them the flexibility they need to thrive, become more innovative and efficient and become more proactive rather than reactive. Can your winery take the challenges and make them into something meaningful? It is not the crisis that defines us but how we deal with it.

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We are defined by others and ourselves out of convenience, the love of categorizing and maybe just out because it makes relationships easier.  For years I made wine so I was a winemaker and for many, that was not only what I did but who I was.  Then I became a CEO and it took a long time for people to fully understand that, yes, I was a winemaker but now a winemaker that ran a company.  Media would get confused or find it quaint that I was now a CEO, like I couldn’t be that if I was a previously defined as a winemaker–but I was both–and much more.

A year and a half ago I became a consultant to the BC beverage industries from ciders to spirits, beer and yes, wine.  I am not the same person I was when I made wine or ran a company but I am still as complex a person as I was back then. Complexity is what we like to shorthand for others.  We strip away their many loves, layers, hangups, hobbies, desires and fears and replace them with words like “winemaker” and “CEO” or “divorced”, “single”, “real estate agent”, “retired”, “accountant”, “widow”, “father” (insert any overly simplistic term here). Our world wants to make every one and every thing simplified, to be defined by their job or their status, but I yearn for more complexity, not less.

In June I will explore a love I’ve had for many years, the American Civil War.  I can hear you asking “Seriously? How can that be?” (spoiler alert: humans are complex). I’ll wander through history from Arlington to Bull Run, across the Shenandoah Valley campaign to Charlottesville and Lexington.  Around Richmond to the siege of Petersburg and the Seven Days battles, then up to Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. North again to Ball’s Bluff,  Harper’s Ferry and Antietam and finish with a five-day civil war course at Gettysburg college.

A dream vacation for me that will also include plenty of art, photography, food, drink and poetry because how can I leave behind that which is a part of me?

My days of defining myself are over.  It has always been a job for those around me anyway so carry on.  I’m just not going to make it so easy for you from here on out.

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Women and BC Wineries

Recently I was sitting across the table from a young, energetic and impassioned female who wanted to work at a BC winery and asked me if the wine industry is male dominated or is it an industry that she could break into and have success? I didn’t know what to say to her. Should I tell her to go “all in” and pursue her dreams? Should I tell her to step carefully and make sure she works for the “right” winery, one that has a good hiring record and develops their employees? Or should I tell her to run the other way? A few years ago I would have told that her gender wouldn’t matter at all and just to do what she wanted to, go for anything that appealed to her. Today, I found myself not able to answer her question.

If you own a winery or are someone in senior management, how would you answer her question at your winery? Let’s say she wanted to work in the vineyard at floor level doing pruning, suckering, harvesting and general operations. How about if she’s worked many years in vineyards and has taken viticulture classes and is looking for a vineyard manager job, would you consider her? Let’s say she is looking for a cellar job, or is qualified to be an assistant winemaker or winemaker. Would you consider her?   How about if she wants to be a hospitality worker or a hospitality manager? How about if she runs your tasting room already—would you ever consider grooming her for taking over sales and marketing? Now let’s say you’re growing large enough in production that you need someone to be your company’s CFO, CEO, GM or Director of Sales. Would you consider hiring or promoting a female? What about if you’re looking for another board member? Have you considered women?

I bet a lot of you, if not all of you have said “Yes! Of course I’d hire a female for all of those positions—as long as she’s experienced, was in the right salary range and was a good fit for our winery”. So now let me ask you, HAVE you hired women in those positions?

What percentage of the people who work at your winery are women? How many are in senior positions? If you have a board of directors, how what is the male/female ratio (the same question for your investors)? If you calculate your total payroll, how much goes to men versus women employees?  Have you ever calculated the average salary for a woman at your winery versus the same number for a man? Are there certain areas of your winery that are male dominated or female dominated? If yours is a small winery you don’t escape these questions. With over 300 wineries in BC and the overwhelming majority of them being under 5,000 cases you may not hire more than 2-4 people a year but the same questions apply. If you have never asked any of these questions then this topic is not front-of-mind for you. I would also say that you may tend to fall back to the easy, old ways of hiring. “Men are physically stronger” therefore they get more vineyard and cellar positions. “Women are good with people” so they get more tasting room and administration positions but often will never move up from these roles. Senior management at BC wineries is male dominated. If, however, you have made an effort to promote and hire women in this industry and you do care about pay equity, you think about how you personally can give women a leg-up in this industry then why aren’t you tooting your horn more? There are seriously talented women out there who want to work at your winery but they need to know you exist, that you care about such things.

The day is fast approaching, if it is not here already, when BC winery owners will not have enough skilled labour to fill positions. Competition for the really tuned-in workers will be fierce and you cannot afford to ignore more than half of the population. More importantly, the workers already know about this shortage and they will not take the first job offered to them but they will be in the driver’s seat. They will be asking you at interviews what your turnover rate is. What is your record for gender pay equity? They will ask you how many women have senior positions at your winery? They will ask you what your board or ownership or investor gender mix is. As a winery owner or GM you are going to have to know the answer to these questions or that person will move on to the next winery who will have the answers. The wineries that can answer these questions may not have parity but they are way ahead of those wineries that never think about it at all.

And why is it so important that we think about women in this industry, their roles, their salaries, and their seniority other than just because it’s the right thing to do? It’s because the most successful businesses foster diversity. Diversity in thought allows for a truly dynamic work environment—one with innovation, high revenues, engagement with the consumer and empathy. The biggest tool you have in your toolbox as a winery owner to get you closer to a diverse and dynamic workforce is gender, in my opinion.   This is not just having more women overall but in particular, hiring more women in senior and management positions and hiring more women in traditionally male dominated areas of your winery.

I ask you–if you were sitting across from this young, promising talented woman the way I was, how would you have answered her? Is the BC wine industry one she should throw herself into whole-heartedly, should she step cautiously or should she run in the other direction?

What is the answer at your winery?

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Photographer’s Statement

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One Picture. Two Scraps of Paper.

One Picture

The Kind and Gentle Souls of Tinhorn Creek

I took this picture of Tinhorn Creek employees on Monday, September 11, 2017 at 9:00AM. It was the hardest and the greatest picture I have ever taken.  The shutter clicked just before I shared the news with them that Andrew Peller Limited had purchased the winery. I share it today with you because it has come to embody everything that is at the centre of Tinhorn Creek and Miradoro as well. Yes we grow great grapes on great land, make exceptional premium wines, host concerts and events, offer an exceptional dining experience and sell our wine in fine retail outlets and restaurants. But found in this picture is why the grapes are great, why the wines have a sense of place, why the bills get paid on time, how the visitors are welcomed, how the cases sell out year after year, and how the food is prepared with love. THIS is Tinhorn Creek. It was Tinhorn Creek when I took the picture and it is still Tinhorn Creek today.

Andrew Peller has taken on big things when it purchased Tinhorn Creek. Their leadership has conveyed to me that they will keep the culture we have built, its sense of place, what makes it unique, its innovation and fierce independence and above all complete flexibility during the transition. I know Andrew Peller will do these things because these are the qualities that attracted them to us in the first place.  Tinhorn Creek can do nothing but continue to be those things because they are inherent in its DNA. These qualities are inherent in Tinhorn Creek’s DNA because they are inherent in every single employee that works there.

Every single employee.

I would suggest Andrew Peller purchased Tinhorn Creek and Miradoro for one more quality that is elusive but gets to the core of who every person is in the picture. A collective sense of Empathy. Empathy for coworkers, for customers and community. It is a shared sense of Empathy that has blossomed at Tinhorn Creek over these past 23 years. The people of Tinhorn Creek will help show Andrew Peller their unique brand of Empathy. I know they will because they are all exceptional mentors in this field and their Empathy is infectious.

Having spent the last 31 waking hours since the announcement meeting with 31 employees, I can say that Tinhorn Creek and Miradoro have a large number of Kind and Gentle Souls on staff. In fact there are a disproportionate number of Kind and Gentle Souls on this hill.  Compassion for their coworkers comes before wine or food because they know that anyone can go to a job every day but some get to go to a place that they love and are loved in return.  This has instilled a great sense of pride and ownership.  Person after person has sat down with me since Monday and intimated that they feel like THEY own Tinhorn Creek.

Andrew Peller must be prepared to share their new ownership with those who feel it is already theirs—the employees.

In the end what are people really remembered for? Winemakers are never memorialized for that one stellar wine they made. Viticulturalists never for that time they averted frost. CEOs never for that big sale or acquisition. We are remembered for the way we treated one another. How we empathize with one another, or tell a humorous joke that breaks the tension or give an extra long hug at the end of a very long day. The PEOPLE of Tinhorn Creek and Miradoro don’t just work there, they ARE Tinhorn Creek and Miradoro and they cannot be any other way. That is why this company was so attractive to Andrew Peller. That is why these people now need to get on with what they were hired to do. Grow great grapes. Make exceptional wines. Treat visitors like they’ve walked into their home. Welcome diners with a warm smile and an unparalleled food experience. Treat suppliers with respect. Hand-sell each case in the marketplace with care and dedication–whether it’s by a Tinhorn Creek employee or by one of our amazing, dedicated partners at Trialto. Get on with being Tinhorn Creek and Miradoro.

When you fall in love with a company, the way Kenn and I did many years ago, you can only pass that baton on to someone else when you know that they will sustain what you built, care for the resources you have amassed and then take those resources–people being top on the list–and grow from there to reach even bigger and better heights. With a foundation like Tinhorn Creek, Andrew Peller cannot do anything but soar.  From vineyard to cellar to hospitality to administration to sales and marketing, every last person has told me they are dedicated to seeing Tinhorn Creek and Andrew Peller thrive because they are so heavily invested in the culture we have built and don’t want to lose this collective sense of Empathy.  Remember, these are Kind and Gentle Souls.

Two Scraps of Paper

I kept two scraps of paper near my desk for the last seven years as Tinhorn Creek’s CEO. One was a long acronym written on paper and stuck to the base of my computer monitor—like some kind of daily devotional mantra it reads:


(How Can I Help TCV Employees Do Their Job Better?)

It was there to remind me each time I turned on my computer and throughout the day that my role as CEO was to support them. Not for them to support me. Less leading, more assisting. The mantra also emphasizes how each employee does THEIR job. It was not my role to micromanage them but to give them the right tools, and enough encouragement so they could excel. In the end they take responsibility for what they do, they grow and evolve into new roles, they cross-train in other’s areas and they drive Tinhorn Creek to success. I was good at mentoring, but they were much better at learning and executing and what more could a CEO ask for?

This is why I am positive that the arrangement we have made with Andrew Peller for transition will end in success for everyone. I will no longer be working at Tinhorn Creek by the time this post goes out. My husband will be advising Andrew Peller for one year to ensure a smooth transition and to ensure that what we have built, and what they have purchased, is sustained into the future. If I did not feel that employees could already run their jobs with commitment and autonomy it would be very hard to leave.

Of course I am sad but I am also filled with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that I can hand over this company with a high-functioning and caring team to a Canadian company that will go to great places with them. If the winery wants to keep my legacy going forward  then maybe each employee who reads this can put HCIHTCVEDTJB? on some prominent place that they look at each day. That would warm my heart immensely.

The second scrap of paper came from my daughter in 2011, who was then six years old. I was new in my CEO role and still the Winemaker so I was abnormally busy. One afternoon she was in my office and frustrated because I had promised I would do something with her but instead I kept yapping on the phone and putting her off. Visibly frustrated, she grabbed a scrap of paper and a black Sharpie pen. After she carefully drew something she put it on my desk and waited for me to respond. It was this:

After years of desperately wanting a child, there she was–right in front of me telling me to go home and spend more time with  her. I later taped the paper to my desk, where only I could see it, in the hopes that it would remind me of what is really important in life. It worked. Many, many days since then I have glanced down at that drawing, turned off my computer and gone home. The problem, paperwork, calculation, phone call, repair job etc. would still be there waiting for me tomorrow. That piece of paper also taught me that each of our employees needed the exact same work-life balance and so it was always visible to me during conversations with them.

But the last couple of weeks when I have looked down on it, this scrap of paper has taken on a different meaning. Home for me now is wherever my husband and daughter are. I want and need to claim back some time with them that I feel I’ve earned. If you are a loyal Tinhorn Creek customer who is expecting me to be there when you come to visit, attend an event or be the “face” of Tinhorn–you need to give me permission to go home now. Tinhorn Creek, as already said, is still Tinhorn Creek because all the people who made it that way are still there—but I want to go home now.


This post would not be complete if I failed to mention what the future holds for me. Here is a list of what is NOT in my near, distant  or far off future:

1) Retirement

2) Own another winery

3) Politics

The comments on social media that I will be missed are not necessary because I am not going anywhere. In fact, if you thought I tweeted a lot before… (!) In the next year I will probably figure out what I want to be when I grow up, but here is a list of what I KNOW it will involve:

1) Champion BC and Canadian wines because why would I stop doing that now?

2) Shake things up.  Not for the sake of shaking things up but because they truly need to be

3) Kick some ass. See Point 2 above

Yes, I will still host #BCWineChat every Wednesday at 8pm on twitter (but will not do so again until October 11 as I will be on vacation between now and then). Yes, I will still chair the BCWGC Health and Safety Committee, still take part in the industry-changing initiatives driven by UBC-Kedge, still sit on the advisory panel for the CEO Safety Charter through the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC, still be an advisory panel of the Community Foundation of the South Okanagan and it is my hope to still remain on the board of the Tourism Industry Association of BC.

You may even spot me volunteering at some of my favourite wineries around British Columbia this year. I love them because I understand them and they have always been a big reason why I am a proud Canadian and why I love this place.

It’s not about the grapes, it’s about the people and until this industry gets that into its collective head its going to be a long, hard journey.

In summary, what are I going to be doing now? I will still live vicariously through me.

Posted in Personal Sandra, TInhorn Creek | 43 Comments

Sonnet 73 Reworked

A recent poetry class asked me to find a famous rhyming poem, keep all rhyming words from the end of the lines and rewrite a new poem of my own using those rhyming words in the same order.

I chose Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 and have remained true to its form–3 quatrains and a couplet in iambic pentameter.


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