When the news of COVID-19’s full impacts started spreading, the family-run Black Widow Winery was in the midst of their springtime bottling.
“Fortunately, we have a big wine club,” says founder and winemaker Dick Lancaster.
His son and fellow wearer-of-all-hats James Lancaster concurs. “During the month of April, we are only open Saturdays and Sundays. We don’t open our tasting room until Easter Sunday, so our wine club and our online orders have always been a big part of our approach. We are open more days in May and every day through the summer months.”
At any rate, the spring release went out to Black Widow’s wine club members without a hitch. And then it was time to strategize how this Naramata Bench-based winery, known for its single-vineyard pressings, could continue to best serve its customers.
The Lancasters extended free shipping to non-wine-club-members, which gave online orders a boost. They also instituted curbside ordering, which allows customers to pick up the wine, and save 10% off their order.
James explains how it works: “People can stay in their car and we run the sanitized order down to a table where they can pick it up without having any contact with us.”
However, if the tasting room needs to remain closed over the entire summer season, the Lancasters will somewhat tighten up operations. That will entail heavier crop thinning, buying fewer grapes, and avoiding an excess of inventory.
Not that Black Widow has ever been big on inventory. Dick explains that “we’re unusual in the industry because we sell out of everything almost every year. Most wineries keep four to five years of inventory. But we feel better about our approach.”
It’s not the only way Black Widow deviates from the norm. When the Lancasters first acquired their 7-acre Naramata Bench property, they gave the place a thorough viticultural makeover. Their winery would be low-intervention, utilizing the natural advantages of their land to make a superior product.
“We practice something called Scott Henry trellising which is more labour intensive,” says Dick. “It results in more canopy and more exposure to sunlight so we have naturally higher ripeness. We have a 10 to 15-degree slope, loamy soil, and a position in the higher levels of the Naramata Bench, where there is less frost. That means we have a stable production of very high-quality grapes.”
The Lancasters are the definition of a family business with Dick, his son James, and his daughter Shannon immersed in every aspect of the winery. Dick is a self-trained winemaker with a science background. His two children are following that tradition: both schooled in business, they learned winemaking by their father’s side.
“To run this business,” says Dick, “they need to know how to do everything. That means running the tractor, running the press, running an online business.”
James laughs. “People often ask me, ‘What aspect of the business are you involved with?” And the only honest answer is: ‘Everything.’ Shannon and I both took a full deep dive into this work.”
The ideal for Black Widow, Dick says, is not to scale up. Their vision is to keep the winery focused on quality and maintaining production to the point where the family can handle everything.
The Lancasters are prepared, together, to withstand whatever the pandemic throws in their path. One thing they are feeling especially grateful for in uncertain times is a label supplier (GLBC) that’s close to home.
“We were working with a US-based digital printer previously,” says Dick, “but we found the cross-border issues difficult. Then we found Great Little Box Company (GLBC), where the quality was great, the prices were competitive, and they were very helpful with ideas.
James adds: “I think one of the things this pandemic has shone a light on is how strong your supply chain is. To have something produced nearby by a reliable partner has been really helpful for us.”
What can we say? We love Canadian businesses like Black Widow Winery, who are working through this crisis with creativity and customer-first solutions. Do check out their highly customizable wine club—joining is often the only way to access certain wines because members always get first dibs!