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Wineries raise a glass to new health order

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Cody Jones organizes bottles of wine at the Noisy Water Winery in Ruidoso in July. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

A small tweak in New Mexico’s latest health order could provide a large boost for struggling alcohol producers.

The state’s new public health order, announced Thursday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, keeps the statewide ban on indoor dining in place through at least Aug. 28 following a recent spike in cases.

However, the order also reclassifies wineries and distilleries – previously left out of the standing health order – to allow them to operate the same way as bar and restaurant establishments. This change allows these businesses to reopen tasting rooms for outdoor service, a change that industry leaders have been calling for.

“This couldn’t have come at a more critical time,” said Christopher Goblet, executive director of New Mexico Wine.

Wine industry hurt

Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Mexico in March, the state’s wineries have largely been stuck in neutral. When breweries were allowed to reopen at partial capacity in June, the order did not extend to wineries and distilleries – an omission that Goblet described as arbitrary.

With no ability to sell wine through their tasting rooms, Jasper Riddle, founder and winemaker of Alto-based Noisy Water Winery, said wine sales have plummeted during what would normally be a very lucrative time of year. He said up to one-fourth of winemakers may not buy fruit from vineyards this year, due to the volume of unsold wine and continued economic uncertainty.

Riddle said he’s concerned that this, in turn, could cause small vineyards to fail, creating a cycle that sets New Mexico’s wine industry back years.

“We’re approaching that point of no return for some of these businesses,” Riddle said.

Goblet noted the industry association has worked with state and local officials to raise awareness about the severity of the issue.

“One of your heritage industries is dying on the vine,” Goblet said.

Customers sit on the patio at Broken Trail Spirits & Brew on Friday. The governor’s new health order allows wineries and distilleries to operate like restaurants and breweries, meaning they are now allowed to open at limited capacity.

Still, Goblet was “ecstatic” that the industry was included in the recent health order. Goblet said August, designated New Mexico Wine Month by former Gov. Susana Martinez, is among the most lucrative months for wine sales. The industry is launching a website, Grape Aid, aimed at helping New Mexicans support their local wineries.

However, Goblet acknowledged that the industry will have to make up ground to stay afloat.

“It is essential that over the next 31 days, we sell three months of wine,” Goblet said.

Riddle agreed the industry isn’t out of the woods yet.

“That had to feel like a drink of water to a man in a desert,” said Riddle of the governor’s new order. “But we didn’t find the oasis.”

Distillers’ issues

The shutdown has been hard on distilleries, too. Matt Simonds, owner of Broken Trail Spirits + Brew, said his company has a brewery license, as well, which has allowed it to continue its operations. Still, he said his sales are down more than 70% since the start of the pandemic and the company has permanently closed its taproom at Green Jeans Farmery.

Santa Fe Spirits owner Colin Keegan added that the distillery will not be opening its downtown Santa Fe tasting room in August, due to the lack of suitable outdoor space. While he hopes to open by Labor Day, he said a closure that lasts into the fall would be devastating for his business.

“Those who have the might will survive this, and their competition will go by the wayside,” Keegan said.

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