Developing Virtual Tastings for 2020
During this strange and restrictive Coronavirus shutdown of winery tasting rooms, several new approaches, including on-line purchases, direct shipping, and curbside pickup, have been taken to keep businesses operating and provide Texas wines to fans, interested customers, and loyal wine club members. After a couple of starts and stops that allowed limited customer tasting opportunities, the most recent TABC (Governor Abbott) edict has clamped down to eliminate any on-premise consumption on a winery’s property. Even though we are all capable of managing a clean, healthy environment and social distancing requirements, the shutdown restrictions remain despite our most fervent protests.
The introduction of virtual, on-line tastings is an approach many Texas wineries have adopted to connect with folks and maintain wine sales to help businesses stay afloat. A large number of these virtual tastings are now scheduled on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, far more than I have time to watch. However, it is fun to tune in and listen to presentations and the discussions that develop when listeners send in questions or comments to the winery representatives hosting the virtual tasting.
Do you know what it takes to actually arrange, schedule, and present one of these virtual tastings? I have now participated in several on-line sessions and it has been enlightening to learn what goes into preparing and presenting such an event. The first thing is to decide on a topic or subject that will relate to a wine or wines that can be supplied to customers. Chilled white or rosé wines for the hot Texas summer, new release wines, special selection library wines, and particular grape varieties of interest to the presenters, and hopefully the participants, are all good subjects.
Of course, the subject for a virtual tasting must be backed up by wines available at the winery that can be packaged for curbside pick-up or shipment to participants who choose to purchase the wines. It seems that for most virtual tastings three wines are packaged and tasted together, or one at a time in closely scheduled sessions. The potential number of participants a winery expects for a virtual tasting is important when deciding which wines are available in inventory to supply those participants. A few recent tastings have offered library selections in limited quantity, but most seem to offer more recent bottlings that are in ample supply.
Consideration of food items to accompany a virtual tasting appears to be more important these days. Cheeses, breads, cured meats, and other ingredients common to charcuterie boards that once could be purchased and enjoyed at the tasting room can be packaged, sold, and shipped along with the wines. A different take on food has been arranging pairings to go along with the wine selections and providing either chef-prepared bites or recipes for participants to prepare themselves in advance of the virtual event. Some virtual tastings even present guest chefs demonstrating how to cook a preferred food pairing. Such arrangements require a lot of thought, preparation, and advance planning by the winery.
Packing and shipping requirements for virtual tasting packages are not trivial. Appropriate containers need to be ordered and on hand. And, now with summer heat, shipping packages with wine and food typically require frozen cold-packs to eliminate spoilage in transit. Another requirement is to determine the amount of lead time needed to get packages delivered to participants, and make sure appropriate shipper pick-up and delivery arrangements are scheduled.
The cost of all this is a consideration each winery must ponder. How much of a discount should be offered for the wines? Should shipping charges be discounted or waived? These decisions will impact the overall value of these virtual tasting packages to the winery – in other words, does the tasting make money, break even, or lose money. Thus, pricing decisions are certainly not trivial.
Making sure the winery staff has sound knowledge of and the necessary experience with the technology required to present the virtual tasting is quite important, too. It is frustrating to sign into a virtual tasting only to discover that the video or audio is not working properly, or that connections with the winery required to actually participate cannot be made.
The winery must also decide who will host the virtual tasting. A host that speaks well and can guide the overall program is certainly a benefit. Sometimes an owner or manager is featured. Often the winemaker is involved to help guide discussion of grape varieties and sources, along with winemaking styles and procedures. Growers that supply fruit to the winery and bloggers/reporters that support the winery are fairly common guest hosts. It is important to schedule each host participant well in advance and provide some guidance so that the virtual tasting can start on time, proceed smoothly, and end when appropriate.
When all of the above is done well, these virtual tastings can be a lot of fun and provide value to the winery, the hosts, and the participants. I have enjoyed a number of these and even participated in several for Brennan Vineyards and Lost Oak Winery, two of the 4.0 Cellars owner/partners. And now, 4.0 Cellars is hosting their own virtual tastings with Martin Kuykendall and Caroline Eidson as hosts. Make sure to purchase the tasting packages and tune in when scheduled.
Virtual tastings have been of significant value to wineries during this Coronavirus shutdown, and it is likely they will continue as part of whatever the “new normal” looks like after we are once again allowed to open our doors and host guest tastings face-to-face. That will happen someday, right?????