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Telecommuting: Wineries Dealing with the Coronavirus

by Dan Berger
April 07, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic now facing America is traumatic for many of the nation’s businesses, but it also may prove to be an opportunity with long-term paybacks for the wine industry.

Making wine is a hands-on activity, calling for skilled in-place workers to handle crucial tasks.

When a tank of Pinot Noir must be punched down, a cellar worker must be on-site; when a bottling line breakdown calls for an expert to change parts, an expert in that arcane chore has to be there, wrench at the ready. For such workers, during times that entail health risks – such as now with the threat of coronavirus infection – managers must employ caution to protect on-site workers.

However, other winery employees, such as those who work in label design, public relations, hospitality, and website management, can work from home, which entails far less risk of viral contact and transmission.

Most business managers have long considered work-from-home schemes, but feared a loss of productivity. As a result, it was slow to be adopted.

Telecommuting first became a term of interest to many businesses in the mid-1980s to give some in-workplace, nine-to-five workers an easier way to perform.

Trammel-Crow, a huge Dallas-based commercial real estate corporation, was one of the pioneers in tele-commuting some 30+ years ago.

However, despite that company’s early successes with the practice, some corporate managers believed telecommuting was too risky. Without managerial oversight, they believed, some employees’ performance might be negatively affected. As a result, work-from-home policies often were never even attempted widely until a decade later.

A recent Gallup study showed that in 2019, 43% of the nation’s employees work remotely, up from 39% in 2012. And that 60% of the nation’s companies now offer their employees telecommuting opportunities, up more than 100% from 1996.

One reason for this movement toward work-at-home strategies is that many companies knew that in-office positions often entailed time-wasting face-to-face meetings, coffee breaks, water cooler chats, and other now risk-averse activities.

With the pandemic growing and the need to separate employees, several large north coast wineries are seeing benefits from a re-imagining of how certain aspects of their businesses can operate at least as efficiently by keeping employees out of the workplace.

Corey Beck, chief executive officer and winemaking chief at the multi-facility Francis Ford Coppola (headquartered in Geyserville), told me in an interview last week that work-from-home tactics for several of his company’s departments seem to be working extremely well, something he and others at the winery thought might be effective before the pandemic forced their hands.

“We used to have important quarterly meetings” with several key employees from a number of widely separated facilities around the country, who would attend in person, he said.

“It wasn’t easy to do for some of us. Some people had to get on planes, others had to drive for hours, there were hotel rooms involved…”

He said setting up such meeting was logistically complex and wasn’t always very cost-efficient.

Once it became obvious that the threat posed by the coronavirus was deadly, he said, “we started to realize that teleconferencing could be the solution, and so far, it’s worked out well.”

He said the company began to use one of the industry leaders in teleconferencing, Zoom, which has ultimately been not only efficient in terms of saved travel time, but economical. “We thought, ‘If we can use Zoom, it would get people back to their desks faster.’ And it has.”

Randy Ullom, chief winemaker for Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, said social distancing has allowed the company’s public relations people, website developers, and grape buyers to function while at home.

“We’ve been doing Skype-ing to a whole new level,” said Ullom. “We’re using Microsoft Teams (for video-conferencing). And you should see our offices on Skylane. There are only four or five people here. Most of the buildings are empty.

“Most of our people took their computers home -- life must go on… The procurement folks are working like never before. The PR folks are doing (Sunday) video broadcasts, it’s amazing what you can do.”

One Sonoma County winery president (who asked to speak anonymously) said, “We knew about work-from-home for years, but we also heard that productivity would suffer. So we didn’t think it would work here. But now that it’s sort of been forced on us, we’re seeing that it can be a good way to deal with the health threats.”

For one thing, he said, telecommuting has real benefits for workers -- no commuting time wasted; savings on gas and car maintenance; savings on dress clothing. (Teleconferencing participants need only be presentable from the waist up!)

Both Beck of Coppola and Ullom of Jackson Family said they’ve been pleased with how most of their employees are reacting to the changes.

Said Ullom, “When this is all over with, I’m sure there will be some long-term benefits from how we’re all dealing with it.”

by Dan Berger  

Dan Berger has been a wine columnist since 1976 and has resided in Sonoma County since 1986. Today, in addition to his privately published weekly wine commentary, Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences, Dan writes a nationally syndicated wine column as well as articles for many publications.

Mr. Berger was the full-time wine columnist and reporter for the Los Angeles Times from 1988 to 1996. His Los Angeles Times column was carried nationally by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. During that time, he commuted from Sonoma County to Los Angeles, so he could maintain his residence and affiliations in wine country.

He is a judge at many wine competitions, including numerous shows in Australia, as well as competitions in Slovenia, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and across the United States, judging in at least a dozen competitions each year

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