Virtual tastings have boosted sales at Sonoma and Napa wineries. (iStock)
When the coronavirus and shelter-in-place first hit, Wine Country was faced with a huge challenge: What does Wine Country look like if you can’t visit the tasting room?
"With [the wildfires] in 2017, you knew at some point that the fires would end, and whether or not you'd have a winery standing," says Katie Bundschu of Gundlach Bundschu and Abbot's Passage in Sonoma County. "The difference with this is the uncertainty and the unknown that comes with it. Adapting and changing will be the name of the game for a while."
Wineries' ability to adapt and change was made easier on March 19, when the California Alcoholic Beverage Control temporarily relaxed regulations to allow for, among other things, to-go wine sales at restaurants with takeout orders and alcoholic delivery to customers.
Suddenly, virtual wine tastings and events started to appear, especially among wineries that ordinarily rely on foot traffic to drive direct-to-consumer sales and promote memberships. With most people at home on Zoom for everything from concerts to board meetings, virtual tastings allow wineries to ship bottles and provide a tasting room experience direct to one's living room.
In the past two months, more and more wineries have turned to these livestreamed experiences to retain the customers they currently have as well as expand their reach. Virtual tastings and events have filled the void in what one winery executive calls an "absolutely essential part of the wine industry," and even after wineries reopen, it looks like they might be here to stay.
After the Fires, Wine Country Wants Tourists
For Mark Hanson, co-founder of the newer boutique Windsor winery Bricoleur, virtual events offered a chance to reach a national audience. The winery had planned to open its public-facing tasting room in May, and hired chef Shane McAnelly, formerly of Chalkboard, and a sous chef for food and wine tasting experiences.
That all changed with the pandemic. In order to keep people employed, the winery began hosting Quarantine Kitchen Live, a Zoom cook-along. What started small now has about 80-100 people tuning in every week and asking questions via chat.
On any given Saturday at 4pm PST across the nation, 80 different Zoom squares fry, stir and sauté alongside McAnelly without having to pre-purchase bottles. For Hanson, these events are about the soft sell and building relationships rather than direct bottle sales. Hopefully, he says, those participating will eventually visit the winery once it's possible.
“We believe, right or wrong, in having a fun experience, on our property or virtually,” says Hanson. “People are going to want to join, so we’ve never really been a hard-sell type of business.”
Unlike some other larger or more historic wineries, at Bricoleur virtually all the sales are direct-to-consumer: from the tasting room, internet sales and the wine club. Last year, 10% of Bricoleur's sales came from e-commerce. This year, that figure has jumped to about 40%.
Hanson says that being a newer winery without distribution deals to grocers and restaurants comes with the good and the bad. The winery may lack name recognition, but it's also not hit too hard by restaurants not selling as much wine during shelter-in-place. Hanson's also been able to offset losses through virtual wine tastings to wine club members and virtual happy hours.
“The greatest fear during the pandemic has been attrition in the wine club,” says Hanson. With people getting furloughed or losing their jobs, he'd worried members would no longer be able to purchase wine. Instead, Hanson says, membership has actually grown by 20 people in the last six weeks.
Trying to Stand Out
Other wineries, like Three Sticks in Sonoma, have seen relative success through virtual tastings. When the winery began hosting communal tastings to its wine club members for their new releases, instead of coming in to pick up a wine shipment and get a tasting hosted by a team member, 40-70 members hopped on a Zoom call with the owner and winemaker, says public relations manager Maral Papakhian. “The wine industry has been slow to get into the online game and get its feet wet,” says Papakhian. “We’re finding that collaborating with chefs and various partners online has been fun and beneficial for us.”
The trick, Papakhian says, is trying to stand out and adapt with technology. “Forty percent of our new club members and visitors are people who actually come in and taste at the physical location,” she says. “We had to shift immediately to virtual. It’s hard to cut through the noise. But we try to bring in outside elements that they wouldn’t normally get. The goal isn’t to replace the tasting room, but to take the label outside of the [tasting room] walls.”
Like in-person tasting rooms, each virtual tasting room has its own nuances. Some charge full-price for their bottles and waive delivery fees. Others offer complimentary tastings and a percentage off of their bottles. Still, others don't charge tasting fees and opt for charging a slightly below-retail price for their wine.
The Donum Estate in Carneros, famous for its sculpture garden, is just starting out in the virtual tasting space. Participants must buy a full lineup of bottles in order to join the tasting with winemaker Dan Fishman. The kits ($325–$600) all feature a virtual tour through the sculpture garden.
Though the price tag may seem daunting to some, Donum's vice president of sales and hospitality Michael McNeil says it actually makes Donum more accessible. “It’s about being realistic,” says McNeil. “It’s not realistic to say 'For $1,000, you can come taste with us.'” On a regular basis, tastings at Donum start at $95 per person, and the winery didn’t ever anticipate having a digital experience. But, according to McNeil, he anticipates it will be a reward; the winery has seen very little attrition.
“Being in the wine industry for 21 years, direct-to-consumer is an absolutely essential part of the wine industry,” says McNeil. “It’s the most profitable. [Coronavirus] will have an impact from the direct-to-consumer perspective. Even though you’re doing this virtually, you’re not collecting tasting fees and still spending on labor. So, how do we create a foundation to say ‘thank you’ and have accessible experiences to keep building loyalty?”
A Permanent Feature
Even with Napa and Sonoma eager to reopen to public visitors, virtual tasting and drive-thru pickups appear to be here to stay. Three Sticks and Bricoleur both plan on continuing online experiences after the pandemic. Napa-based Ashes & Diamonds recently launched a pick-up service and contact-free delivery to several Bay Area counties, and owner Kashy Khaledi says it’s not going anywhere because of its success.
As for the prospects of Ashes & Diamonds reopening its doors during what’s normally high tourism season, “My guess is that there will be significant visitation due to the limitations of general activities,” says Khaledi. “There’s just less to do. From our end, we have stringent safety measures ready, high use of our outdoor space with modified seating charts, etc. But a few bad actors could spoil the whole lot. I hope that doesn’t happen.”
Then there's the question of how Wine Country as a whole opens back up. The California Wine Insitute, Napa Valley Vintners and Sonoma County Vintners associations recently released guidelines for wineries. Wineries can’t expect to host major events like concerts until September at the earliest, but as for tasting rooms, many are looking at county regulations to find ways to open safely.
“What does the future of Wine Country look like? I get that question every day,” says Sonoma County Vintners Association executive director Michael Haney. “The one thing I’ve learned to predict is that it’s unpredictable.” He anticipates that virtual programs are here to stay, but they can’t ever replace tourism outright.
“Nothing beats the human element or interaction," Haney says. "Tasting rooms are adapting to make sure they’re giving customer experiences to develop that relationship. There are truly inspirational stories from an industry standpoint. California wine regions are incredibly resilient and able to pivot.”