Winery turns to Online to save them from COVID-19 lockdown

10 December 2020
Alistair and Catherine Hicks were forced to shut the cellar door for Blue Gables Vineyard during lockdown. They turned to the internet, social media and wine club to survive. Picture: Tim Carrafa.
Herald Sun - Bianca Carmona

Victorians are being encouraged to support local wine producers after they endured the “most challenging year on record”.

It comes as Australia’s allies flocked to its defence after China’s shock trade announcements, calling on people around the globe to buy an Australian-made bottle of wine.

Wine Gippsland president Alistair Hicks said wineries in the region had enjoyed a flood of bookings in the past weeks, and hoped this would continue in coming months as restrictions on seating capacity were further eased.

“It will be a much welcome boost for our wineries and their cellar doors and restaurants,” Mr Hicks said.

It comes as winemakers deal with the financial fallout of losses anywhere from 15-80 per cent during the lockdowns.

“It varies business to business, it really comes down to the businesses’ ability to adapt to change and hit the ground running,” he said.

Wine Victoria chairwoman Angie Bradbury confirmed growers had endured the perfect storm.

“It has definitely been the most challenging year on record,” Ms Bradbury said.

She said while usually there might be one significant event, this year there were several.

“They faced bushfires, which really killed the tourism industry, then the pandemic hit,” Ms Bradbury said.

“Most of our producers key sales are through their cellar doors, then the closure of hospitality was another major blow. Around 60-100 per cent of channels to market literally just disappeared overnight.”

Hopes pinned on exports were dashed as trade challenges with China put the handbrake on international sales.

Victorian Wine Industry Fights Back

The Victorian wine industry contributes an estimated $7.6 billion to the economy annually and directly employs about 13,000 people, mostly in regional areas.

Many winemakers are independent, family-owned operators who rely heavily on cellar door sales and being stocked in restaurants and cafes.

Ms Bradbury said one bottle of wine sold direct via cellar door or winery website was worth the equivalent to winemakers as three bottles through other means of sales.

Businesses that were able to focus on an online presence have come out the least affected.

“Buying direct has been an absolute godsend for the industry,” Ms Bradbury said. “It has been a lifeline for wineries.”

With 21 wine growing regions and more than 800 wineries in the state, Ms Bradbury urged Victorians to buy a local drop.

“We’re encouraging Victorians to explore their regions and connect with small wineries,” she said.

A global campaign has been launched encouraging people around the world to buy a bottle of Australian wine and take a stand against China slapping tariffs of up to 200 per cent on Aussie wines.


Small Wineries Pivots to Survive

A booming online e-commerce store, a subscriber-based wine club, clever social media and a sense of humour has helped a boutique Gippsland winery through its toughest year so far.

Catherine and Alistair Hicks opened their cellar door at Blue Gables Vineyard in Upper Maffra West in 2013.

After many years of continued business growth, Mrs Hicks said this year forced the small family-run business to “think outside the box”.

The business had been selling award-winning wines at the busy cellar door, doing a roaring trade in homemade pizzas and hosting destination events like Jazz in the Vines in the picturesque setting.

Then COVID-19 struck and they were forced to close the cellar door and stop events.

“We started doing takeaway pizza and wine from our cellar door to generate sales,” Mrs Hicks said.

But it wasn’t enough, so they turned to online.

Pre-COVID they had started a wine club and had e-commerce on their website through the expertise of Melbourne agency TEAPOT Digital.

When lockdown struck they quickly shifted their efforts to online trade including pop-up sales, discounts, direct mail campaigns and free delivery.

“The wine club and online sales very quickly became our focus. It has supported our business as the cellar door sales dropped away while being forced to close.” Mrs Hicks said.

The family also created funny videos and skits on social media, which TV presenter Karl Stefanovic played on breakfast television.

“We’re still down on the business 15-20 per cent, but we’ve fought our way through it with our business diversification,” Mrs Hicks said.

“The mindsets of our customer market have also changed, where people are more willing to support local businesses, even if it means paying a bit more for our beautiful wines.”



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