What is it like to go wine tasting in the Napa Valley?

I made my first winery visit since March 1 to Charles Krug, the valley’s oldest family-owned and operated winery in St. Helena.

During my meeting with Jim Morris, vice president of Estate Management & Guest Relations, I experienced firsthand the new normal, a delicate balancing act of safety, security, hospitality and warmth.

In early June, the Wine Institute, with the assistance of medical and legal experts from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, issued protocol recommendations and an example of documentation to prepare wineries for reopening in conjunction with state, county, and local winery association policies.

The key points include tastings by advance reservation, hosting tastings outdoors, wearing face coverings except when tasting, and ensuring social distance of at least six feet between staff, guests, and different guest groups.

Such stringent protocols may also cause guests to feel nervous and anxious. How does a winery deliver a memorable tasting experience that is both safe and comfortable?

As Morris said during the winery’s opening day, “We are in the trust business. We have to regain people’s trust.”

To prepare for Krug’s reopening on June 9, Morris delivered three days of staff training. The winery also created a welcome video (https://vimeo.com/430748938), which shows guests what to expect, highlighting the winery’s policies such as nightly deep cleaning, reserved tables, its “spacious, socially distanced, outdoor tasting area,” and its “friendly and knowledgeable staff.”

When I arrived, a masked staff member greeted me outside of the main winery building where indoor tastings usually take place. He checked me in and let Morris know I had arrived. Morris took my temperature, which was 97.6. I signed the winery’s guest liability waiver. Morris led me to my table in the pizza garden and picnic grounds, whose creation was an employee’s winning idea selected during the winery’s recent “Juice Tank” (like Shark Tank) competition.

I asked Morris if the space had an official name and he said, “We haven’t named it yet. We were just about to have a naming contest when the world blew up.”

Morris pre-poured the five wines into separate glasses and brought them to my table on a tray. Instead of a paper tasting menu, the list of wines was displayed in a frame at the end of my table. Morris, despite being masked, delivered an outstanding tasting experience, including winery and Mondavi family history and details about each wine. The more he and I spoke, the more relaxed I became.

While there, the winery hosted an elopement. Morris explained that because the pandemic canceled or postponed this year’s large wedding events, the winery offers an elopement package that complies with COVID-19 restrictions while still allowing couples to marry.

Another heartwarming touch that may ease one’s tension is the day-to-day involvement of Gigi Mondavi, one of the fourth-generation family members, with whom I met and spoke during my visit. During the pandemic, she moved from her East Coast home to shelter in place in Napa. She works for her East Coast employer in the morning then joins the hospitality team in welcoming guests and hosting tastings in the afternoon.

Krug is open daily by appointment only from 10:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Guests should allow an hour for the tasting to ensure adequate spacing between group arrivals and departures, plus time for the staff to sanitize between appointments. Krug hosts groups of up to six people maximum and does not allow parties of more than four people from separate households.

Morris emphasized that Krug has zero tolerance for guests who do not comply with regulations, reiterating, “We want to be the standard.”

The Estate Tasting is $45 per person.

Charles Krug Winery is at 2800 Main St., St. Helena. For details, call (800) 682-5784, or visit charleskrug.com.

Elizabeth Smith is a local food and wine professional and freelance contributing writer. Reach her at elizabeth@elizabethsmithconsulting.com or visit her website at elizabethsmithconsulting.com.

Elizabeth Smith is a local food and wine professional and freelance contributing writer. Reach her at elizabeth@elizabethsmithconsulting.com or visit her website at elizabethsmithconsulting.com.