The Swift Evolution of Virtual Wine Tasting Experiences
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
A couple of years ago, Brian Allard didn’t know what Zoom was. As the direct to consumer director at Bouchaine Vineyards, Allard feels fortunate to have stumbled across the software before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to adopt the virtual meeting software. After their new hospitality center opened last fall, Allard found just the right room with a perfect vineyard outlook, staked his claim, and set up a laptop by the window. As a result, virtual wine tastings with a view for Bouchaine club members were born well before it was in vogue. Today, the oldest continually operating winery in Carneros has the newest technology. Ballard has become a pro at producing high-quality meeting connections, toggling between cameras and enjoying his head start on the new opportunity for wineries that he suggested “is an absolute game- changer that’s transformative for the wine business.”
Unlike Bouchaine, some wineries were thrust into the practice of engaging with customers virtually as a survival strategy during the coronavirus pandemic, most of them new to the concept, not sure what to expect. Moving forward, even as they reopen to new safety protocols, many indicate that the virtual experiences they introduced by necessity are now enthusiastically adopted as a new route to market to capture new customers and to stay in touch with their club members.
Marcus Marquez, Brasswood Estate’s Vineyard Winery Estate General Manager, introduced virtual wine tastings within 24 hours of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, starting by word-of-mouth at the Estate and rapidly expanding across the nation. While Brasswood’s pivot to address the new market conditions unfolded quickly, the outcome had a very positive impact on their longer-term customer engagement strategies. “We get to see people enjoying our wines in their own home environment where we’ve noticed they generally feel comfortable asking us even more questions. Angelina Mondavi and our team all love that,” Marcus said.
Winery virtual experiences come in all shapes and sizes and can easily be adapted to all types of consumers. Different approaches include blending sessions, barrel tastings, blind tastings, seasonal releases, flights, cheese pairings, history and geography education, winemaking styles, food, and wine dinner pairings with a chef, and even celebrity guests.
Brasswood has hosted virtual team building sessions for larger groups of over 50 people for corporations like Google and Salesforce. “We’re designing these experiences for longevity,” said Kimberly Bothwell, Director of Marketing and Hospitality at Shadybrook Estate Winery. “People are having a really good time, no matter what level of wine consumer they are, which is just what we want. The virtual experience is here to stay.” Some people love experimenting with custom blending, and others have never held a pipette in their hands.
“We get to see people enjoying our wines in their own home environment where we’ve noticed they generally feel comfortable asking us even more questions. Angelina Mondavi and our team all love that,” said Marcus Marquez of Brasswood Estate
Shadybrook has found its “Virtual Blend Fest Experience” works well in its online iteration with an all-inclusive price, especially popular with corporate groups. Three wines straight from the barrel make their way to guests at home. Following the interactive 90 to 120 minute blending session guided by winemaker, Rudy Zuidema, each participant creates a personal favorite blend that they can have customized with their name and shipped from the winery.
And live—yet virtual—technology-assisted experiences aren’t confined to Zoom. Wineries are being creative using cell phones and Facebook Live to broadcast events, music, cooking sessions, and vineyard walks. They can clip a cluster for a closeup to allow far away wine club members to observe growth on the vines. Some guests are requesting one-to-one vineyard “previews” and “meet the winemaker” introductions before a future visit they’re planning for fall. Now that wineries have reopened, Brasswood has made their virtual tasting studio into a permanent feature on the property to enable hybrid sessions whereby an in-person guest may patch in someone to “join” them in Napa Valley.
As an alternative to live sessions with the winery or winemaker, many wineries are using apps such as YouTube to record experiences that can be viewed at one’s leisure. This way, tastings and discussions about varietals and vintages can be paced to suit an individual’s schedule if they miss the live event or to watch in increments giving them flexibility to uncork the bottles that accompany the session at more convenient times. Montagne Russe Wines developed a unique kit that included four bottles of their Pinot Noir plus a Coravin so that wines could be poured in sample increments during the virtual blending session, leaving the bottles preserved to be enjoyed or shared at a later time.
At first glance, it may seem ironic that deep emotional connections could be nurtured and made stronger despite distances, screens, and technology. Wineries say they’re especially enjoying hosting romantic and memorable milestones.
“It is not sterile, and it’s not a monologue. People in far-flung locations have cried over the joy of having the opportunity ‘see’ one another as they share a bottle of wine,” said Brian Allard of Bouchaine.
Inspired by her own daughter’s wedding disruption, Katherine Inman at Inman Family Wines created a bachelorette party solution. Kevin Patterson, Estate Sommelier and Wine Educator at Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, said he was delighted to join one-time sorority sisters based all over the country via a shared screen. Brasswood has hosted first dates, a bride’s rehearsal dinner, and wedding anniversaries. Marcus shared a touching message he received from a customer that read in part, “A huge thank you. For their 26th wedding anniversary, this was the best gift I could have offered my wine-loving parents.”
Suffice it to say, the phenomenon of virtual visits to wine country is here to stay. “It’s a breath of fresh air that has fulfilled all our visions,” said Brian Allard at Bouchaine. “It has not been boring at all. It is not sterile, and it’s not a monologue. People in far-flung locations have cried over the joy of having the opportunity ‘see’ one another as they share a bottle of wine.”
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Article By: Laurie Jo Miller & Laura Larson