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New Mexico wineries caught in COVID-19 limbo

Sheehan Winery founder Sean Sheehan is hoping New Mexico wineries will be allowed to reopen soon. (Courtesy of New Mexico Wine)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Wines get better with age but time is not on New Mexico wineries side.

The clock continues to tick as to when New Mexico wineries can reopen to the public. The wineries, which were temporarily closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were not included in the governor’s recent public health order that allowed breweries to reopen at 50% capacity. Updates to the public health order are currently on hold.

“I thought the communication has been poor and we were caught in between,” said Chris Goblet, executive director of New Mexico Wine. “When breweries and distilleries were announced as closed they meant wineries as well but they never mentioned us (to reopen)… It just seems odd.”

Sheehan Winery is running out of storage room and online sales have dropped significantly since restaurants, breweries and distilleries have been allowed to reopen. The winery went from $1,000 a day in sales in April to currently $1,000 a week.

Sheehan Winery has a number of wines available for curbside pickup or to be shipped to your door. (Courtesy of New Mexico Wine)

“It’s just like falling off a cliff,” said Sean Sheehan, founder of Sheehan Winery. “… We have a bunch of wine that needs to be bottled. The thing is once it’s in a bottle it’s safe but if it’s sitting in a tank or in barrel it gets better for a while and then it gets worse. For me, I’ve got to pay for all this glass and corks and labels to be able to just protect it, which it’s going to take me a couple years to sell it probably given the current climate.”

Sheehan added that it is not only New Mexico wineries that are taking a hit but also the local growers many wineries get their grapes from.

“We’ve seen vineyard acreage on the decline in New Mexico over the last 10 years and a lot of these growers don’t have anywhere to sell their grapes this year because a winery like mine, we usually take 50 tons of grapes every year, in addition to what we farm ourselves, we generally buy like the better part of 50 tons of grapes from local growers,” he said. “We last year supported 12 different small growers from throughout the state and we expect maybe to buy 10 tons this year, maybe less. For us it’s a mixture of finances and legit square footage. There’s just nowhere to put the stuff. Everything is stacked to the ceiling here.”

Some wineries have reopened around the state. Casa Rondeña Winery has opened its patio to wine lovers and its 1629 Club to members.

“Our production center, located in the ancient village of Los Ranchos, has over 250,000 square feet of licensed area where our patrons and members can be safe and socially distanced while drinking the regions finest wines, and enjoying the efforts of our world class chef,” said John Calvin, Casa Rondeña owner and winemaker. “With space for over a thousand socially distanced wine lovers, we take pride in the cultural institution Casa Rondeña has become.”

Wineries with a small brewer license have been able to open as well as those that do more than 50% in food revenue.

“Businesses with a ‘small brewer’ license are those that are currently allowed to open, which primarily encapsulates breweries,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett. “The governor absolutely understands the ongoing frustrations and challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the state continues to make data-driven decisions that protect the lives of New Mexicans.”

Goblet said many other wineries do not have the ability to open under the current health order and are growing weary.

“We do think it’s strange no other state in the United States has separated their beer from their wine industry and we’re all craft producers and we’re in this with the distillers and some distillers have a small brewers license, some wine growers have a small brewers license, so there are people who are open legally and those are the ones that have multiple licenses or do more food prep,” Goblet said. “The rest of them are sort of out there floating.”

Relaxed business restrictions may occur in July depending on the state’s data on the spread of the disease.

“Certainly we hope to be able to allow more establishments to open as we continue to slow the spread of COVID-19 and move forward,” Meyers Sackett said. “Additional businesses are likely to be part of a next phase of reopening depending on New Mexico’s success at continuing to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ensure an available health care delivery system.​”

Goblet is concerned that reopening wineries might not be possible as more time passes.

“It seems to me we’re going to be continued to be caught in this situation and what’s going to happen is if they start to roll back closures because of spikes in COVID or because bars and breweries are willy nilly, doing whatever, we would have never gotten the chance to open and we won’t get the chance to open,” he said. “That’s my bigger fear is that somehow we’ve been categorized. We’ve been pushed into a corner that no one wants to acknowledge.”

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