Sniff, swirl and... click? Sonoma wine tasting goes online
With tasting rooms temporarily shuttered due to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place orders, wineries across Sonoma Valley are adjusting to the times.
'Our wineries are at this point trying to do whatever they can, and to be creative to drive sales,' said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance.
They are crafting ways to keep employees working by hosting virtual tours and tastings, offering discounts on wine and shipping, curbside pickup and hand deliveries to locals.
And without sales through tasting rooms, a lot of orders are coming through wineries' websites.
'I never thought I'd be selling wine in my underwear,' Tony Moll, proprietor of Three Fat Guys said with a laugh about the shelter-in-place restrictions.
Wineries are embracing the acronym for shelter-in-place – SIP — and using it in marketing as a play on words referring to how one sips wine.
Virtual tours and tastings are taking place in a variety of fashion. Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Buena Vista Winery and other wineries, has been holding daily happy hours on Facebook Live, collecting between 3,500 and more than 5,000 page views at a time.
He features a different wine at a different venue at one of his wineries each time, and viewers comment online while he is talking, allowing him to interact with them no matter where they are.
George Webber, who plays Agoston Haraszthy at the winery — donning full 19th century garb of its founder, aka 'the Count of Buena Vista' — is also holding Facebook Live events Wednesdays through Fridays from noon to 1 p.m. where he features two wines and shares history of Buena Vista and Sonoma.
'I'll be moving around,' showing off the Buena Vista property, Webber said.
Enthusiasm from consumers for virtual tastings has been strong, leading some wineries to consider adding them as an option on a permanent basis.
'I think it's going to change the way the industry is doing business,' said Tricia Denci, spokesperson for Imagery Estate Winery and Benziger Family Winery.
Virtual visits can 'help us keep in consistent contact with the people we care about and like to talk to,' said Chris Benziger. People can participate from anywhere in the world.
'Not everyone has the means to get to wine country, but we still want to connect with them,' said Jamie Benziger.
They have conducted virtual tastings before the COVID-19 pandemic, but mostly with distributors and their own sales teams. Both Chris and Jamie held an Instagram live tasting this week and said they are finding the new form of connection with consumers to be 'valuable.'
'As much as we try, Chris and I don't get the opportunity to speak with everyone that visits the winery properties,' said Jamie. 'I think virtual tastings will continue in the sense that they offer both sides value. We get to communicate with you, you get to communicate with us, and we all enjoy, have fun, and connect in the process.'
Three Sticks Winery is using the Zoom platform for tastings and holding them at the same times as they would if people were visiting in person at the Spain Street tasting room, said Maral Papakhian, public relations manager.
'Our virtual tour experience is really fun,' Papakhian said. 'We've integrated a piece of software given to us by the historical society.'
When the historic Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe located off the Plaza in downtown Sonoma was being redesigned, a nonprofit, CyArk, documented the project on video, and gifted the software to Three Sticks when it was complete. It allows someone to walk through the entire Adobe, from the front door and out into the back patio, Papakhian said. Founded in 2003 CyArk digitally records significant historic and cultural places.
During the virtual tasting experience, a tasting room host will 'sit' with up to eight guests, share the history of the Adobe and discuss the wines just as if the guests were in the downtown Sonoma tasting room.
The tasting kits – which typically include five bottles of wine, tasting notes and other material such as vineyard maps — are available for purchase online, and while it is recommended that guests have the wine in front of them to fully enjoy the experience, it isn't a requirement. Two-day delivery for $10 is offered or direct delivery if local.
'For anyone in the Bay Area, VinDelivery picks up the wine from the Adobe and drops them off at your door,' Papakhian said. Three Sticks' most recent release, a rose, 'has been flying out the door.'
Just like in the tasting room where the wines on the pouring menu change, so too will the tasting kits.
Scribe Winery put together a 'Hacienda Kitchen Kit' that includes wine and estate-grown kitchen essentials, recipes, and the 'Scribe Vibe,' which is a playlist to go with the wines and recipes, Cottingham said.
Moll hosted a trivia night and virtual tasting last week, and with each purchase of wine from Three Fat Guys, Moll said they follow up and schedule a free virtual tasting 'with one of the fat guys.' He's done a 'handful' so far, with most scheduled to take place in April.
Similarly, Landmark Vineyards is offering complementary virtual tastings with its certified wine educator and sommelier, Jim Gerakaris, with any wine order, and free delivery to customers in Kenwood or Santa Rosa.
Three Sticks is working on other ways to connect with their club members and other consumers, Papakhian said. There will likely be more videos of the Adobe and their vineyards, and she is working on setting up Facebook Live events with the winemaker and vineyard manager so people can see what they do and where they work.
'And we're doing a (virtual) cocktail hour at 5:01 p.m. on Fridays,' she said.
Looking for ways to help the greater Valley community, Three Sticks partnered with Single Thread Farm restaurant to donate meals through Sonoma Family Meals, and create menus for to-go meals that can be purchased that pair with their wine.
Editor's note: The nonprofit that digitally recorded the Three Sticks' Adobe was misidentified. The organization that gave the video to Three Sticks is CyArk. We apologize for any confusion.
'We want to highlight our community, and we're looking at ways we can prop them up,' Papakhian said.
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