California Wine Country Is Bringing the Tasting Room to You

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And how this temporary solution could also become a new wine tasting trend. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has hit “pause” on any wine country vacations, many wineries in California are finding ways to bring the experience into your living room via virtual tastings.

Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines in Russian River Valley started thinking about offering an online experience when several appointments scheduled for February canceled. Wanting to find a way to bring the informal, fun vibe that takes place during her normal sit-down tastings to the small screen, she created a calendar for virtual tastings on Zoom, running April 1 through 10. To correlate with the tasting schedule, she’s offering a variety of 3-packs for purchase. “What has been interesting is how many people are giving them as gifts to their friends and saying in the gift card, ‘I hope you can join us,'” she says. She’s also donating 5% of proceeds to Meals on Wheels in lieu of the usual bottle donations she provides for charity events. Noting how the quarantine mandate may be particularly challenging for senior citizens, she hopes the funds provide some form of relief for those most at risk.

Courtesy Inman Family Wines

St. Supéry in Napa Valley also decided to create a 6-pack of their quintessential wines, called “Injoy@Home,” for guests to taste while they remain cozy on their couches. A weekly Thursday tasting session, planned out over the course of six weeks (March 19 through April 23), will focus on a single bottle per week, along with virtual vineyard tours and insights from people like St. Supéry’s winemaker Michael Scholz. For guests that aren’t able to join the conversation in real time, the winery records the sessions for later viewing on Facebook Live. 

What started as intimate online tastings evolved into a bigger web platform for Parallel Napa Valley. General Manager Adrienne D. Capps began hosting sessions for 8 guests or less via Zoom as a way to recreate the live experience. “We ship everything to you: how to set up the table, wine order form, wine club information, menu suggestions, and the tasting bottles,” she explains. Realizing the potential of online media, Capps is now releasing short videos that offers detailed information on different wines, and is planning a new free live tasting series, starting April 11, highlighting “last chance” bottles. At the other end of the spectrum, a VIP virtual tasting with winemaker Philippe Melka is set to launch at the end of the month. Capps thinks virtual outreach has legs. “I anticipate these are permanent offerings at this point,” says Capps. “There's no reason why I can't keep on continuing to engage with people and people continuing to engage with Parallel in this way going forward.”

Courtesy Inman Family Wines

Smith Story Wine Cellars, with tasting rooms in Anderson Valley and Sonoma, has always had a strong online presence, particularly through Instagram, so the move to virtual tastings seemed like a natural step. Their first edition of “Smith Story Saturday Night Live” brought fans together for a real-time tasting of their top wines. It was such a hit that owners Alison Smith-Story and Eric Story have another one planned for April 11—with a twist. The “Breakfast for Dinner” theme will highlight favorite morning dishes paired with the duo’s newest wine releases. 

And sometimes, you don’t even need a tasting room to bring in fans. Dirty and Rowdy, a 10-year-old label that sources from vineyards all over California, had been toying with the idea of virtual experiences for a while, originally planning to launch in 2021. However, given the current climate, they decided to fast-track their plans. “People feel disconnected, very anxious, stressed out, fearful for the future,” says winemaker Hardy Wallace. “If we can provide an experience that brings people together, makes them feel connected, and more than anything, makes them feel like they're going forward than versus going backwards, then that’s what I want to do right now.”

Music plays a big part in the Dirty and Rowdy tastings: various musicians live-stream performances as people log on, and later during the hour, musicians perform pieces they wrote specifically for the wines being tasted. In between, the Dirty and Rowdy team shows drone footage of vineyards, interviews vineyard owners, and open up the Zoom room to Q&A. Wallace sees these virtual tastings as an evolution in wine appreciation. “It's not the next best thing: it's the next thing,” he says. “It's not a temporary fix. We want to really reinvent the way people can experience wine.”