This month, we’re heading outdoors with the best drinks for the backyard, beach, and beyond. In Take It Outside, we’re exploring our favorite local spots and far-flung destinations that make summer the ultimate season for elevated drinking.
Erin Ambrose, events manager at RGNY, a winery and vineyard in Riverhead, N.Y., has been busy. She’s receiving three times as many inquiries for weddings at the Long Island wine country property than usual.
The demand is so high that Ambrose is in the process of creating more event space opportunities to keep up. She’s expanding her team by hiring an assistant to help field the emails and phone calls as well as manage smaller events. And to make working the many events more attractive to service staff, with a severe shortage right now, she increased the compensation.
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Ambrose is experiencing the so-called wedding boom, as couples rush to book their venues everywhere, including wineries and vineyards with event spaces. The pandemic shifted approximately 1.6 million weddings due to coronavirus restrictions on social gathering, according to the Wedding Report, and many of those couples, plus the couples who already intended to wed this year and next, are all clamoring to put their big days on the schedule as soon as possible.
Calendars are going bonkers. The Knot tracked a 48 percent increase in wedding websites published on the platform in June, year-over-year, and gift purchases on its registries doubled in just a few months. It signals that couples are increasingly confident they can celebrate safely.
For wineries and vineyards across the country, that’s meant hectic days for staff but also a refreshing change from a year-plus of no events. It’s a much-needed boost in revenue to recoup some of the losses from 2020. (The Wedding Report estimates the wedding industry as a whole lost $47 billion in sales due to pandemic restrictions.)
“We’ve been joking that the boom has been like a fire hydrant in our faces, where we periodically get short breaths of air to survive,” says Stephanie Cole, principal planner and co-founder of Cole Drake Events, based in Napa, Calif. “But it’s been welcome. We are beyond thrilled to see our industry come back strong.”
Cole and her business partner Sarah Drake are the go-to planners for couples seeking out wedding venues in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Many of the chosen venues are wineries, vineyards, and hotel properties that butt up against the iconic rows of vines. From March 2020 until April 2021, social gatherings such as weddings were not allowed anywhere in California. Even when Gov. Gavin Newsom gave wedding receptions the green light, there were caps on the headcount. Only recently have weddings looked like some version of their former selves.
To that end, Cole is seeing nearly two years of events crammed into the upcoming six months; 2022 is full of events for new clients who got engaged during the pandemic. Couples still vie for the traditional Saturday, but Sunday and weekday weddings are on the rise, too.
The real stress, though, comes from the “last-minute” clients requesting dates — and planned, full-scale weddings — in four months or less. These couples realize that a version of their original dream wedding is possible, but want it to happen immediately. By comparison, couples, pre-pandemic, booked their wedding dates 14 months in advance, on average.
“Our winery partners are working just as hard, if not harder, than us with juggling all the demands of the weddings,” Cole says. “We’ve managed to stay on track, and maybe with the occasional glass of wine during the process.”
Emily Forrest Skurnik, director of communications at Zola, a wedding planning and registry company, explained that wineries and vineyards have experienced a surge in popularity thanks to the simple fact they are outdoors. A recent poll by Zola found that 67 percent of wedding vendors expect that outdoor venues will continue to be a top wedding trend through at least 2022 — if not beyond. Zola has tracked winery event bookings two years out, Skurnik says.
Gloria Ferrer Winery in Sonoma, Calif., is 50 percent scheduled for weddings in 2022, with the books closed for all of 2021 as of this writing. The team fields 40 inquiries each week for dinners and weddings. General manager Mayacamas Olds explains that they have actually had to be more selective about the events they take on due to the staffing issues, a challenge the hospitality industry as a whole is facing.
“While we’re working through high staffing shortages, many of our preferred vendors are offering limited services, too,” Olds says. “When a rental company is short staffed, that in turn affects our setup and breakdown.”
Booking off-peak times has been helpful, as well as capping the number of wedding event guests at 75 people. It has helped ensure her team has sufficient planning time, as well as the staff necessary for prep and execution.
Cole adds that even though wine country wedding professionals are working with fewer staff, they are still putting on the same high-quality events — those employed are just working twice as hard to achieve them. It’s not sustainable in the long term.
A unique hurdle for California wine country is also the loss of two of top venues, a result of the 2020 wildfires: Meadowood Napa Valley and Calistoga Ranch. Cole calls it “devastating.” While the properties are set to rebuild, their weddings not only had to be rescheduled due to the pandemic, but moved to nearby locations for the celebrations.
Wineries and vineyards are far from the most requested venue for weddings — that award goes to banquet halls and farms and ranches — but in saturated areas of wine production like California, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and New York, wineries are an extremely popular choice for a couple’s nuptials. As more couples seek beautiful, exclusive, and personalized outdoor spaces for alfresco events, wedding insiders believe that wineries may grow in popularity. After all, wine is made in every state.
“The weather is great, the backdrop is incredible, and we’ve got wineries, resorts and estates that each have something unique to offer their guests,” Cole adds of the future for winery weddings. “Why wouldn’t you want to host a wedding in wine country?”