Rolf de Bruin and the rest of the team at the award-winning Fort Berens Estate Winery were, like a lot of destination businesses, expecting a downturn in visitation during the pandemic. But, as it turns out, British Columbians had other plans.
“Compared to last year, we’re about 20- to 30-per-cent busier. It’s been quite overwhelming,” said de Bruin, winery co-owner. “We anticipated that we’d have a very low level of activity and we’ve seen that with restaurants in Vancouver and Whistler, but starting the second week of July, I think that’s when people became more comfortable with travelling.”
The increase in visitor volume has introduced many first-time customers to the scenic, 15-hectare vineyard, a significant shift from the usual RV-driving European clientele the winery typically sees in good numbers during the summer.
“It’s sometimes more difficult to impress people from B.C. than people from Europe, because for people from Europe, everything is great and everything is new. People from B.C. are accustomed to many things, so when they travel in this direction, they’re not as easily impressed as foreign visitors,” noted de Bruin. “It’s a unique opportunity to show the province off or the winery off to people from British Columbia that might not necessarily come here in the summer because they may go off to foreign destinations.”
The influx has come with its own set of challenges, de Bruin said, chiefly around managing crowds—not to mention wildly differing views on COVID-19 safety protocols.
“Sometimes it can be a little bit difficult to get people to understand that those protocols are in place to protect our safety and their safety,” he added. “Some people walk in and follow our protocols to the letter … Then sometimes you have people that walk in like, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ There’s a big gap in the expectations of our visitors.”
Fort Berens has had to be nimble to adjust to the new COVID reality—as well as a slowdown in restaurant sales, a significant portion of the winery’s business, and major delays in shipments at Canada Post.
As online sales shot through the roof at the dawn of the pandemic, the winery even set up “drive-thru” orders in Whistler, Pemberton, Vancouver and Kamloops to allow customers to pick up their wine on the go in a physically distant manner.
At the winery, the culinary team has expanded its patio and created two new experiences that help facilitate distancing while still offering the elegant cuisine Executive Chef Bonnie Rounds is known for.
The new Vineyard Lunch program, available on Saturdays and Sundays through the summer, offers an intimate setting smack dab in the middle of the vineyard to enjoy a multi-course meal.
“There you have an hour and a half, two hours of private time in our pinot gris block,” de Bruin said. “It’s very private, it’s very intimate because you’re among the vines and see the grape clusters hanging and the views are stunning.”
Then there’s a new VIP tasting and tour led by sommelier Brett Cooper, who will take small groups through the vineyard and cellar, capped off by a sampling of some of Fort Berens’ renowned reserve wines. You might even get to try some other extra special offerings that aren’t usually available at the tasting bar.
“It’s in a private setting for those that wish to have a good experience at the winery without a lot of interaction with our other guests,” de Bruin said.
Even with the bump in guests and new experiences on offer, de Bruin was clear that it does not make up for the drop in business from international clientele.
“While it’s nice to see the number of visitors, we really hope that we can beat the pandemic and that we can welcome international travellers once again, because I think a lot of sectors are hurting without those travellers,” he said.
For more information, and to book your next trip to Fort Berens, visit fortberens.ca.