April 29, 2020

Can Virtual Wine Tastings Ever Really Substitute for Real-Life Interaction?

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On a typical spring weekend, Sextant Wines would welcome 400 guests in its Paso Robles facility. That changed on March 16 when California Governor Gavin Newsom  ordered the state’s wineries to close to guests in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since then, other states have followed suit, resigning wine lovers to sipping at home in yoga pants instead of overlooking the vineyard from a patio.

But the same way grafted vines adapt to suit their new terroir, wineries are pivoting to accommodate a new reality. Sextant Wines is among the increasing number of producers reaching consumers through an innovative method: the virtual tasting.

“Wine is about gathering people, pulling a cork and enjoying the company,” says Chris Blake, director of sales for Sextant. “We missed that interaction and began to brainstorm ways to create that feeling.” Each week they offer a three-bottle kit, and host a live tasting of the wines on Zoom. Everyone is invited, regardless if they’ve purchased the kit or just want to follow along. Blake hopes it provides much-needed connectivity and escapism.

While virtual tastings don’t carry the logistical considerations like allowing for enough elbow room at the tasting bar, they also don’t replace the nuances of an in-person interaction. As Blake says, “it only takes one small technology issue to derail the whole thing.”

Still, platforms like Zoom encourage free-flowing conversation, says Ryan Hughes, estate manager at The Spire Collection Estate in Napa Valley, even if guests “don’t have that ‘moment of awe’ when they first see the vineyards and the inspiring view of Mount Saint Helena.”

Spire usually holds 1,000 small, appointment-only in-person tastings per year. Its newly-formed virtual sessions reflect this highly personalized format. Hosts help guests curate a selection of bottles from South Africa’s Western Cape, the Willamette Valley, Bordeaux and other regions, then schedule a personal guided tasting.

“Wine is unique in its ability to connect us with our senses, the present moment and community,” says Kathleen Inman, owner and winemaker at Sonoma’s Inman Family Wines. The producer invites guests to order wine and virtually “Meet the Maker,” with 5% of proceeds donated to Meals on Wheels San Francisco.

While Inman sees social media as a double-edged sword, she believes it’s an incredibly useful tool right now. “It provides our greatest opportunity to combat the feelings of isolation,” she says.

Napa Valley’s Parallel Wines is offering private 90-minute video tasting sessions daily, accessible through FaceTime, Skype or Zoom. Its $95 per person fee includes wine and shipping.

“It’s all about creating authentic, connected experiences that stay true to the winery and their fans,” says Adrienne Capps, Parallel’s general manager. The winery soon plans on offering free on-demand tasting videos and weekly live tastings.

Chris Cobb, co-founder of Kuhlman Cellars in Texas Hill Country, likens these new events to the way schools around the country are reworking their plans.

“Our tastings are very educational and immersive and we thought if schools can figure out how to push their curriculums online, why can’t we?” he says. The alternative to the 250 guests they would host daily at the winery are now webinars held Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons, included with the purchase of a wine bundle. Cobb describes it as “a way to enjoy wine with friends from a safe social distance.” They also stream via Facebook Live tours of the property’s vines, wildflowers and animal life.

Washington’s Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance posts links to live and pre-recorded virtual experiences on the organization’s website. “Wine brands are redesigning what it looks like to connect with their customers,” says Robert Hansen, the Alliance’s executive director, though he admits that the vibe can sometimes veer into seminar territory.

It also remains to be seen if the virtual concept is a sustainable long-term substitute, as the allure of being among the vines or in a tasting room can be hard to replace with a webcam. Tertulia Cellars’ weekly Facebook Live events feature four wines from the Walla Walla producer’s portfolio, and General Manager Kristine Bono hopes those who watch glean “a feeling of connection and brevity.” However, she concedes the project is subject to change in the coming weeks based on whether sales of the wines can support the initiative.

After sommelier Cha McCoy met up on LinkedIn with Filipe Carvalho, a fellow wine student in Portugal, the duo was inspired to create the virtual global tasting group United We Taste. McCoy, a Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree, describes it as a grassroots idea in response to social distancing, with sessions streaming on YouTube and open to everyone. The first installment covered Italy, where McCoy lived while earning her MBA. She’s also researching ways to raise funds for those in the wine industry who are unemployed.

“The goal is to inspire connection, promote peer wine education and provide hope to the wine community near and far,” says McCoy.

One thing’s for certain, life will be indelibly altered in our post-coronavirus world. But that might not be all that bad when it comes to wine, according to Hughes.

“The industry has been able to adapt in an incredible way,” he says. “Hopefully it opens the door for more open lines of communication virtually and a little more often, even when the world isn’t turned upside down.”

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