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The Spill: Wineries explore new ways to sell wine during the pandemic

When tasting rooms shuttered for the first time last March following the initial shelter-in-place orders, wineries were forced to reach into the recesses of their imagination and develop a new playbook. Some in the industry, such as panelists in the State of the Wine Industry webcast, believe lockdown practices pushed forward the industry’s need to modernize its approach to selling wine.

“I’ve been saying for a very long time, the tasting-room model was broken. The whole notion that we had to have people come to the tasting room in order to sell to them” doesn’t work anymore, said Rob McMillan, executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division. “If we’re going to buy a car, nobody expects us to go to Detroit to buy it.”

McMillan delivered Part One of the annual “State of the Wine Industry” report in a virtual room accompanied by a handful of experts in the wine industry on Jan. 13. Part Two was held Thursday, Jan. 21.

McMillan said he was amazed at the resiliency the industry demonstrated and the shifts made to find customers.

Some turned to Zoom or other digital platforms to get faces in front of customers. Some of those faces belonged to sales staff— also called wine educators, tasting room hosts and the like — and other times the winemaker or proprietor might join in on the virtual tasting.

“There are many wineries that have done an incredible job at pivoting and developing programs that are true to their brand while allowing them to continue to keep their staff and continue operating their business,” Maureen Cottingham, executive director of Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, told the Index-Tribune.

Wineries offered curbside pick-up, free or low-cost shipping, and some, such as Talisman Winery, offered door-to-door delivery by the winery owners. Viansa Winery developed a virtual team building/wine tasting program for corporations. Three Sticks Winery partnered with Girl & the Fig for a food and wine pairing, and later held a concert at the tasting room and live-streamed it. Jean-Charles Boisset, of the Boisset Collection that includes Buena Vista Winery, started live-streaming on Facebook for “happy hours” and has grown his presence there to include celebrity appearances including his wife, Gina Gallo, and their twin daughters in their home doing anything from cooking to decorating.

The digital platform and presence by wineries such as Three Sticks, Gundlach Bundschu and Scribe are examples of what panel speakers said is the future of selling wine, building relationships, interacting and engaging customers, and growing direct-to-consumer sales on ecommerce.

Sending out creative emails, offering promotions, virtual tours of vineyards and wineries all help to build, or reinforce, a winery’s brand and give a taste of what a customer can experience when they are able to physically visit the winery. And there are some wineries that found shelter-in-place practices such as virtual tastings are things they will continue after the pandemic ends because it offers them an opportunity to connect to people across the globe who might not be able to travel here.

While people are staying at home, wineries are finding ways to connect with them there, and that’s the “macro trend,” said Paul Mabry, CEO of Pix.wine. “Zoom is the tool du jour.”

Mabry said “the genie is out of the bottle” when it comes to ecommerce, and the industry is “entering the golden age of wine online.”

Devin Joshua, managing director of Merryvale Vineyards, said innovative products like Coravin — a wine preservation device — will support virtual tasting programs and that’s a “silver lining” to bringing Wine Country to doors across the world. The Coravin device allows wine drinkers to sample from a bottle without popping the cork, meaning that a bottle of wine doesn’t have to be consumed within hours, it can conceivably be sampled and stored as if never opened.

When tasting rooms open up again, one thing learned from the shutdown is likely to persuade wineries to shift the way they operate. Appointment-only tastings, which was one of the requirements to operating a tasting room, may become the norm.

McMillan said appointment-only tastings capture customer contact information such as a cell phone number or an email, ways in which a winery can stay in touch and potentially sell more wine.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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