These Wineries Say Virtual Tastings Are Here to Stay

Businesses across the country have closed their doors for good due to hardships wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, with shut-down orders and battered consumer confidence proving to be insurmountable obstacles.

But for direct-to-consumer wineries with wine club members, this wasn’t the case. Apparently, if you give people who like wine disposable income, an abundance of free time and the inability to go anywhere, they’re probably going to buy wine.

Especially if you are able to successfully engage these loyal wine club members virtually and encourage them to send their friends and family their way.

Representatives of three wineries that spoke at January’s 2021 Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium said the creation of virtual tasting events had enabled them to do just that, and they intended to maintain a strong virtual presence going forward.

Andrea Myers, Director of Hospitality for medium-sized Round Pond Estate Winery in Napa County, said efforts to introduce private virtual tastings for small and large groups had given the winery a way to sell tasting packs consisting of three wines and an opportunity to upsell additional products such as olive oil, culinary pairings and cooking classes.

“We didn’t require a financial commitment for the tastings,” said Myers, who noted that wine club members who already owned the featured wines could opt to use those, instead. “But only 1% did that.”

From May-December, the virtual tastings resulted in sales of more than $110,000 for tasting packs and an additional $66,000 in post-tasting sales. These revenues were offset by a $15 per month subscription to Zoom and a $400 per session videographer cost for large group tastings.

Newsome-Harlow Winery in Murphy, California is a smaller operation than Round Pond, but Winemaker and Proprietor Scott Klann said the pandemic had also presented business opportunities that had been a clear success.

“Our tasting room closed March 16, and we announced our first virtual tasting on March 18,” Klann said. “We didn’t know how we were going to do this, but the gang that works at the winery is pretty fearless.”

They plugged the virtual tastings heavily via live Facebook posts and video embedded e-mails, moving to video for roughly 50 percent of promotional e-mail and video communications.

Their virtual tasting program income in 2020 totaled more than $70,000.

“It’s a big deal for a winery our size,” Klann said. “We had to replace our tasting room sales because our tasting room was completely closed. We did so at a 27%increase over 2019.”

They plan to be in the virtual space indefinitely, even when they’re able to fully reopen. It gave them the ability to gain a national audience and pull in new fans.

One key to a successful virtual tasting was making sure you had more than one person hosting, he noted.

“On Wednesdays, I held tastings with my daughter,” Klann explained. “It’s extremely important to have two people on screen. The dynamic is important — you can bounce thoughts off each other. Conversation seems much more fresh and fluid that way.”

Booker Vineyard and Winery in Paso Robles was the largest winery to participate in the discussion. Chelsea Sprague, DTC Director for Booker, said the virtual tastings — which Booker held on Tuesdays and Fridays — were much like TV programs that people could plan to watch.

“It reminded me of how people tune in to watch their favorite sitcoms,” Sprague said. “Hosting these wine tasting shows, guests could interact as much or as little as wanted. They could simply view or choose to engage. We uploaded them to YouTube so they were public and accessible, and people could access them whether they had a social media account or not.”

Sprague said word of mouth was part of the key to the success of the virtual tastings. Club signups increased by 58 in a two-month period despite the tasting room being closed.

“Customers were reordering every single week,” Sprague said. “It’s really cool watching these members become the greatest brand ambassadors for your wine club. They would introduce people who would sign up when you couldn’t hand sell memberships.”

Photo: Newsome-Harlow Winery

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