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With Virtual Tastings and Tours, Wine Country Comes to the People

As wine country adjusts to social distancing, producers have found new ways to reach out to wine lovers who can’t make it to tasting rooms.

“Wineries have been interacting with consumers virtually more and more, but right now, it is the fastest and best way to communicate during this crisis,” says Samantha Lau, director of consumer sales at The Great Oregon Wine Company in McMinnville, Oregon.

The wine business in California is responsible for about 81% of U.S. wine production, employs 786,000 nationwide and generated $114 billion in the U.S. in 2018. Direct-to-consumers (DTC) sales, meanwhile, have increased in importance to small and medium-scale wineries in recent years. In 2018, the DTC wine sales totaled $3 billion in the U.S., an increase of 12% from the previous year.

Of those sales, about 38% happen in the tasting room, according to VinQuest’s 2019 Consumer Direct report by Vinteractive, which translates to roughly $1.14 billion in annual sales.

The imaginativeness and immediacy of the response to changing circumstances in the wine world has been astounding. Your favorite producers are available to you, some more than ever.

Ken Wright Cellars virtual wine tasting with an iPad
Numerous wineries are holding virtual wine tastings./Photo courtesy of Ken Wright Cellars

Virtual Connections

“We are just about to launch The Stoller Wine Group Channel, a collection of videos and social meetups that will give guests a behind-the-scenes look at the winemaking and vineyard process,” says Michelle Kaufmann, communications director for Oregon’s Stoller Family Estate.

The winery had planned originally to launch the initiative in April to coincide with the opening of the Experience Center at Stoller Family Estate, but the novel coronavirus pandemic put its plans on fast-forward.

Even when life returns to normal, Kaufmann sees the program as a powerful mode of interaction.

“People want an experience, and this channel will give them that, even at home,” she says.

Other wineries have tapped their staff’s strengths to stand out of the virtual pack. Evesham Wood is utilizing the skills its advanced sommelier, Christopher Lindemann.

“We launched sampling packs that will bring the private tasting experience into a guest’s home,” says Lindemann. “We’re setting up private, virtual meetings on Skype, Google or FaceTime. Distance learning has been part of the cultural vernacular for some time, and though this will require an adjustment, we think that we can have real conversations, even over a distance.”

Ken Wright Cellars (KWC) offers one-on-one Zoom sessions with members of its winemaking team. The winery also helps collectors organize their cellars and provides in-depth information on vintage, vineyard, farming and production techniques for wines they own.

“The virtual tasting experience has been a long time coming, especially for a family-owned winery,” says Ivory McLaughlin, a KWC ambassador. “If anything, this crisis has just accelerated trends currently happening around the country and in our culture.”

Kathleen Inman at the tasting room wine bar with a laptop
Winemaker Kathleen Inman during a virtual tasting./Photo courtesy of Inman Family Wines

Others have found new ways to showcase the land that creates the wines their guests love.

In California, Inman Family Wines has long focused on its story of sustainability. It offers virtual vineyard tours and “Meet the Maker” happy hours tastings with the purchase of wine pack trios. Wine lovers are able to chat with each other on Zoom, and ask questions to winemaker Kathleen Inman. To help their local community, 5% from Inman Family’s wine packs will go toward Meals on Wheels San Francisco.

Tom and Ashley Darling, co-owners of Sonoma’s Darling Wines, built their business through a DTC mailing list. Amid this crisis, they are doubling down on their commitment to customers.

Ashley and Tom are also certified yoga teachers. They’re inviting members of their wine community into their living room for all-levels classes that utilize stretching, strengthening and breathing techniques.

“Being live is the key,” says Tom. “Even though it’s through a camera, it’s real humans gathering, connecting and showing up.”

In April, the winery plans to complement its yoga offerings to provide wine club members with a live virtual tasting and community discussion.

What’s Happening in Your Favorite Wine Region
Colorado
Finger Lakes, New York
Long Island, New York
Michigan
Napa Valley, California
New Mexico
Sonoma County, California
Texas Hill Country
Virginia
Walla Walla, Washington
Willamette Valley, Oregon
Yakima Valley, Washington

Other wineries, like Oregon’s Raptor Ridge, try to add a bit of joy and levity with interactive competitions.

On Instagram, those who use the hashtag #RaptorsatHome and tag @RaptorRidgeWinery on their most creative photos featuring the bottles at home will be entered to win gift cards or dinners at restaurants that carry their brand. Raptor Ridge also shares drone footage of their vineyard, and winegrower Scott Shull streams his educational seminars from the vineyard.

Randy Ullom, winemaster of Sonoma-based Kendall-Jackson, conducts virtual wine tastings, provides downloadable adult coloring pages that feature different varieties and offers food pairing advice on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Maggie Curry, Kendall-Jackson’s director of marketing, says the winery has adopted a “glass-half-full mentality.” It’s attempting to turn a time of isolation and social distancing into a positive for wine lovers and the brand.

In the coming days, the producer plans to expand tastings to include virtual cooking classes, cellar restocking tips, yoga seminars and virtual sip-and-paint classes.

Wine loving citizens are even taking matters into their own hands to help out. Wine writer and unofficial Virginia wine ambassador Frank Morgan modified his monthly Virginia Wine Chat to more aggressively promote the region’s wines.

“I spoke to one winemaker in mid-March who told that the financial losses his winery had sustained in recent weeks would sink them if something wasn’t done,” says Morgan. “So I launched nightly virtual winemaker interviews, called Virtual Virginia Wine Chat.”

The response has been positive. “Each of the chats have had more than 600 viewers, and Casanel Vineyards and Afton Mountain Vineyards tell me they sold far more packs than they were expecting to,” says Morgan.

Buoyed by the initial success, he reached out to the Virginia Wine Board and Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, Bettina Ring, to launch an Open That Bottle of Virginia Wine Night on March 28. They put together a virtual panel on Zoom and Facebook, which garnered more than 4,000 views.

Two women with gloves on putting wines in bottles
Prepping wine to ship/Photo courtesy of Cellar 503

Helping Out at Home

Many wineries are committed to keep as many staff members on the payroll as possible through the crisis.

“All of Winderlea’s employees are working their regular hours and splitting their time working from home and in the office on customer service, outreach and education,” says Donna Morris, co-founder of Winderlea in Dundee, Oregon. “We’re also training employees to work with Winemaker Bill Sweat on his biodynamic preps and sprays, and they’re doing deliveries.”

Morris and Sweat also hosted a forum for members of the restaurant, hotel and limo-driving industry. They shared employment openings at wineries for bottling, as well as delivery opportunities at Amazon and more.

Others have launched initiatives to help struggling members of the hospitality industry.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and every day brings a new opportunity and project for us,” says Carrie Wynkoop, owner of Cellar 503, a wine club dedicated to Oregon producers that make 10,000 bottles or less. “I’m in a unique situation because I built my business online, and I’ve been able to quickly mobilize a virtual response.”

Wynkoop offers mixed four- and six-packs, with $5 from each purchase going to the Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit that provides health care to migrant workers.

“These are the people who make wine country happen, and yet they can’t afford to take their temperatures,” says Wynkoop. “We’re hoping to raise $10,000 so every person who relies on the [Garcia Memorial Foundation] can get a thermometer and monitor their health during this crisis.”

Man taking barrel samples with a face mask on
Willamette Valley Vineyards Winemaker Joe Ibrahim in the cellar/Photo by Will Hawkins

Beyond the Bottle

Wineries are also trying to entice wine lovers with shipments that go beyond the bottle.

In California, the Russian River Valley’s Balletto Vineyards is trying to acknowledge these “atypical times with an atypical response,” says founder John Balletto.

“We wanted to inject some fun and playful humor back into people’s lives, while giving them a great deal,” he says. “We’re offering a 12-bottle Mystery Case, and while the contents are secret, we’ll say that some are single-vineyard wines. Winemaker Anthony Beckman will walk recipients through them in a video tasting where he’ll divulge secrets behind making and picking the case.”

There are even drive-thru options popping up. Take Wölffer Estate, in Sagaponack, New York. It’s keeping the rosé and cider flowing via contact-free curbside service. Purchases are made through Apple Pay, and gloved employees load up trunks. Wölffer also offers free delivery nationwide for orders over $50.

In Paso Robles, Hope Family Wines offers one-cent shipping on orders of three bottles or more, plus home delivery and pickup. Every tasting flight will include a video that features winemaker and president Austin Hope and other key members of the cellar team, as well as a curated playlist to pair with the wine.

Employees will also be checking in with food pairing ideas, and wine games to play at home through email and social media.

“This crisis has made us feel more connected than ever to our community,” says Hope. “The response has been incredible, but I have to say our favorite comment so far is that we ranked second only to toilet paper as one of life’s great necessities.”

Vineyard worker wears a face mask while tending to grape vines
Tying canes at Willamette Valley Vineyards/Photo by Will Hawkins

In New York’s Finger Lakes region, wineries like Heron Hill are using the time away from the tasting room to upgrade their vines.

“Our vineyard teams are focused on pruning, trellis repair, maintenance and tying vines,” says Eric Frarey, managing partner of Heron Hill Winery.

In addition, Heron Hill is offering three- and five-bottle tasting kits, with glasses, a tasting mat and a wine aroma wheel. Personalized, guided tastings are in the works.

Wineries in Virginia are launching new wines to entice current club members and attract new ones. Aimee Henckle, owner of The Vineyards & Winery at Lost Creek in Loudoun County, is offering three new wines in a tasting pack, along with a virtual tasting with their winemaker every Sunday evening.

New Normal?

Many winemakers are wondering: Is this the new normal? Has this pandemic permanently reshaped the way we conduct business, live, travel and drink wine?

“Like it or not, the way brands, and specifically wineries, operate will change forever due to Covid-19,” says Kendall-Jackson’s Curry.

Balletto predicts “we will see more video content become standard, with new insights into wines, life in wine country. It will also enable us to connect with people across the globe.”

This time of isolation and solitude will not be the “new normal,” says Hope. “We can’t imagine life without the one-on-one connection with our guests, many of whom have become our friends and family. The human connection is what our hospitality team lives for. It’s why we do what we do.”

Ken Wright Cellar’s McLaughlin says that while “virtual tastings are an incredible opportunity to start establishing a relationship with a customer, they will never be a complete substitute for the boots on the ground experience.”

America’s wineries will return. Until then, they’ll see you on Instagram.