Wine Junkets, COVID-19, Missed opportunities, and Pennsylvania Wine

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was planning to drive to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania tomorrow morning for the 2021 edition of Camp Pennawine, the Pennsylvania Winery Association’s (PWA) annual press tour/junket.

I’ve been wanting to get back to my home state for one of these events for years. The virtual version of the event in 2020 (which was one of the better virtual wine-tasting experiences I’ve had during the COVID-19 pandemic) only reinforced my desire to attend. I was excited about getting my feet on the ground in Pennsylvania vineyards again, visiting a few wineries for the first time.

I moved some meetings around at work, my wife and I figured out how we were going to get our kids where they needed to be without me at home and I was a full go.

Until September 22, when I wasn’t.

Why did I decline the invitation? According to my contact at the public relations agency organizing the event, the PWA’s board decided that they “did not feel comfortable with us requesting proof of vaccination.”

I was surprised – especially because an email from the same agency in early August informed attendees that “We will also be reaching out to all people involved in the Camp, including the incoming press/‘Campers’, to ensure they are fully vaccinated in advance of attendance.”

I responded to that email with a photograph of my vaccination card, by the way.

I didn’t want to overreact and the change in policy. Sure, all of the other press tours and wine competitions I’ve been invited to attend or to judge over the past several months required vaccines, but maybe that still – inexplicably – wasn’t the standard.

Turns out it actually is today’s standard, though. I’ve spoken to several of my wine writer friends across the country and in Europe and literally every such event has required proof of vaccination. Every. Single. One.

So why wouldn’t the Pennysylvania Winery Association, a “non-profit trade association and an advocate on behalf of the state’s growing multi-billion dollar wine industry” do the same? Why wouldn’t it want to protect the members of the press and trade that it’s hosting this week? What about the employees at the wineries and restaurants involved?

When I reached out to the three host wineries and the Pennsylvania Winery Association, only the PWA responded with a slightly changed message:

“Thank you for your email. The PWA Board does not believe it has the legal authority, in Pennsylvania, to require attendees to disclose their private medical information. We have, however, in the interest of full transparency disclosed to our guests our COVID mitigation strategies for this event. Each guest can then decide for themselves, based on their own health situation, whether or not to attend. We respect your decision to decline our invitation.”

October 11, 2021 Email from [email protected]

This isn’t a HIPAA situation and a quick Google search shows that many Pennsylvania establishments are already requiring proof of vaccination, however. Restaurants and bars in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg (where Camp Pennawine is centered) are doing it.

Editor’s Note: One of the host wineries did respond to my email after I wrote this post.

I’m not a lawyer. There could be intricacies at play that I don’t understand. But I’m still going to strongly suggest that the PWA’s official statement is bullshit. I don’t know anyone who is vaccinated who isn’t more than happy to prove it.

My guess? One of the owners of the three host wineries isn’t vaccinated or at least someone that attendees are going to come in contact with won’t be. Or maybe a member of the PWA board is in the anti-vaccination minority.

Either way, to potentially put attendees (not to mention employees) at risk – and knowingly at that – isn’t just irresponsible. It’s stupid. These types of events are important for still-under-the-radar regions to get broader attention with the press, trade, and consumers. Attendees should feel welcomed, valued, and safe. The basic concepts of hospitality apply here.

Look – I’m not some big-time writer. This is the first newsletter I’ve sent out since May. As far as I know, I’m the only attendee who has decided to back out of the event over this. They probably won’t miss me much.

I still want the event to be a success. I count at least a couple of the writers still going as friends. I hope they have a great time, learn a lot about Pennsylvania wine and stay healthy after they get home. I’ll read their stories about the trip with great interest.

But I can’t put a press trip ahead of my own health or the health of my family (including my unvaccinated daughter) and my co-workers with whom I share an office.

The Pennsylvania Winery Association shouldn’t be making me choose between the two. None of my communication with the PWA has come from an individual email account and they (to this point) have refused to tell me who I’m corresponding with. That tells me that the group knows they aren’t doing the right thing by not requiring vaccines for this event. They are probably embarrassed.

They should be.

I guess by publishing this story I’m forgoing future invitations to Camp Pennawine and that’s okay. The PWA and it’s members need to be held accountable for not doing everything they can to keep attendees and everyone involved in the event safe and healthy – even if I’m the only one who will do it.

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