In 2019, a group of senior tech executives gathered at the NoMad Los Angeles hotel for a four-course dinner. A Master of Wine blind-poured a pairing with each dish. Guests used the time between bites and sips to network. At the end of the repast, patrons took a pop quiz, vying to be crowned Chief Wine Officer (CWO).
Organized by Chief Nation, the event was one of 80 held throughout the U.S. and Europe in Michelin-starred restaurants, five-star hotels and member clubs. The business networking specialist sought to create “an evening of networking and industry discussion alongside a premium wine-tasting experience,” says Laura Porter, managing director of Chief Nation.
When the pandemic hit, the firm went virtual, as did many members of the wine industry, from marketers, writers and educators, to entrepreneurs, festival organizers and people planning holiday parties.
Time for Change
The loss of face-to-face socializing has been an obvious downside of the pandemic, but much has been gained by the growth of the virtual event industry. While they won’t fully replace physical gatherings, these online gatherings have staying power.
“We were quick to pivot,” says Porter. “We ran our first CWO digital event in April 2020 and now run 200 events per year. Rather than invite guests to dinner, we ship them three premium half bottles of wine— one sparkling, one white and one red—and run the tasting online. With location no longer a barrier, we can bring in a new audience and make it convenient for our guests in their homes.”
Many in the wine industry have adapted to the new world. Denise Clarke, a public relations professional who handles consumer, trade and media outreach for Texas Fine Wine, started hosting virtual tastings in 2020. Texas Fine Wine is a collaboration among four wineries—Bending Branch Winery, Duchman Family Winery, Pedernales Cellars and Spicewood Vineyards—in Texas Hill Country.
“Since the pandemic closed winery tasting rooms for months, virtual tastings were an opportunity for the wineries to stay in touch with consumers,” she says. “Wineries have also had great success with private virtual tastings for wine club members or businesses looking for employee activities and networking. They would ship the wines to consumers and then host a virtual tasting with the owner or winemaker.”
While virtual events helped build bridges to new clients and keep winemakers front of mind with loyal ones, endless screen time took its toll.
“Zoom fatigue is real, and once things started opening up in Texas, people were eager to get out and enjoy in-person winery experiences,” says Clarke.
Because people weren’t flying, Texans started exploring in their backyards.
An Industry Emerges
For people whose livelihood depends on event planning and hosting, going virtual was a necessity. Kurtis Kolt, a former sommelier turned wine consultant and writer based in Vancouver, works with a range of clients from restaurant and retail trade to corporate sector executives and casual wine enthusiasts. The pandemic spurred him to create events from wine and cheese pairings to “Around the World in 80 Minutes.”
For Kolt, going virtual has its benefits. “On the upside, being able to present to people when they’re in the comfort of their own home allows everyone to not be as precious or uptight,” he says. “Plus, no one has to drive afterwards.”
The experience, however, has further revealed how fractured alcohol sales and shipping logistics are across Canadian provinces, much like the United States.
“If your crowd is spread out in different cities, ensuring they all have the same wine can be difficult due to market availability and shipping laws,” he says. Kolt also noted missed deliveries, especially when a signature for alcohol is required, as well as disappearing packages, as impediments to seamless execution.
As hosts and guests grow more familiar with the format, the experiences become more refined and professional. One bit of feedback Kolt has incorporated in his presentations is to keep them succinct.
“In advance, many attendees think a two-hour tasting sounds like a great idea, but once an hour passes, people just want to sip and socialize with one another,” he says.
Kolt, like others, has found audience participation to be stronger virtually than in person. “I think people feel more comfortable asking questions virtually,” says Ben Fine, wine education manager at La Crema. “They know they are one click away from being off screen and can type in their questions if they prefer.”
Participation is paramount in a digital environment, where hosts can feel like talking heads. Virtual participation can also break down barriers to entry for anyone who may feel intimidated by the perceived erudition or snobbery of wine.
Jessica West, La Crema’s wine club director, says that members like having the opportunity to ask questions and chat with other participants.
“They enjoy interactive elements like polling, games and sending recipes/pairings ahead of time,” she says. The downside? “Poor connections and delays.”
The pandemic has even spawned a new breed of business model based entirely on virtual events like Virtual With Us, founded by Alex Schrecengost, a former public relations professional.
“Our team has deep expertise in event planning, but our foundation is built on inclusivity with virtual and hybrid events, and that will always make up the majority of our programming,” she says.
Her core client base and new business prospects have largely adapted to a hybrid workforce.
“They will rely on companies like Virtual With Us and Culture With Us, our sister company, to help keep their employees and customers or prospects feeling appreciated, which translates to better retention and higher overall morale,” she says.
Pandemic aside, virtual events connect with the wine lovers or wine curious who may be light on time or resources, whether it be new parents, professionals with limited vacation time or those whose finances make it difficult to travel to wine country.
Dr. Rima Rusnak, a pediatrician in Mason, Ohio, joined a virtual tasting offered by the Society for Pediatric Urgent Care (SPUC) during its annual conference in September 2021. Before Covid-19, the conference included a social event. Once the conference went virtual, the organizers hired Bonne Cuvée for the festive component.
“It was fun,” says Rusnak. “I even won a drawing to host my own event the following month, so I invited some friends to join, and we did it outside by the fire, on Zoom, and had a great time.”
More than anything, Rusnak says the experience has left her eager to travel.
“We cannot wait to visit wineries in person again,” she says. “We get regular shipments from Schramsberg, my favorite bubbly; Caldwell, some of my husband’s favorite reds; and Elyse, a Napa winery for which we named my daughter. It would be great to get out there and find some more favorites.”
Where Virtual Can’t Go
While nimble individuals and companies have cultivated positive outcomes, the new virtual paradigm has presented insurmountable challenges to many working in the trade show and festival industry. These groups rely on a careful choreography of vendors and sponsors to execute their roles across multiple days, while engaging a large-scale audience in a physical space.
For example, Vinitaly, an Italian wine exhibition that attracts thousands of attendees annually, was canceled in 2020 and 2021, with organizers hoping for a better situation the following year.
Converting the energy of live Champagne tastings and socializing into multiple days of nationwide virtual experiences, while simultaneously navigating a different set of shipping and operating logistics, tested her resolve.
Ashley had to get creative. She devised 10 virtual events, from the Champagne Pol Roger Kick-Off Party to the Champagne Billecart-Salmon Mask-erade Ball for which people traded their medically safe masks for Victorian-era looks. Ashley also partnered with food delivery platform Goldbelly for the Fried Chicken and Champagne Bash, which featured La Caravelle Champagne and Marcus Samuelsson’s Streetbird fried chicken.
Because Ashley’s e-commerce partner could ship to 40 states and Goldbelly ships to all 50, she was able to reach a wide audience.
“The upside to virtual events is the global connectivity and inclusivity,” she says. “It costs less to produce a virtual event, making it win-win-win for the producer, the participating brands and vendors, and the consumer. The higher the overhead, the higher the point of entry for all involved.”
In November 2021, Ashley threw a hybrid fête with seven physical and six virtual events. For Ashley, the model is akin to developing two festivals, but it’s one she plans to keep.
“These hybrid festivals are a beast to pull off; they are simply a lot more work. In the future, I’m going to need a clone,” says Ashley.
Porter says CWO plans to offer a similar model in the future, a novelty unlikely conceived of but for the pandemic.
“We are launching a CWO hybrid option— running both a dinner and digital event in the same week,” says Porter. “That way the audience can decide whether to join us in person at a venue or virtually at home.”
Kolt also believes the virtual and hybrid experiences are here to stay.
“Through sensory experiences, virtual wine tastings connect people who aren’t physically together. You can have attendees from Boston to Baton Rouge, but when they bite into a piece of Comté and wash it down with a Chardonnay from the Jura, they’re in the exact same place,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: September 28, 2022