While sheltering in place, California wineries rush to offer virtual wine tastings. Are they fun or just awkward?
by Esther Mobley
March 26, 2020 Updated: March 26, 2020 1:11 p.m.
California’s shelter-in-place orders have spawned a new form of drinking: the virtual wine tasting.
With their tasting rooms closed, wineries have been forced to get creative to keep sales moving — quick. The average small California winery, according to Silicon Valley Bank, generates 30% of its income from tasting-room sales. People will buy wine, the logic goes, if they visit your winery in person, make connections with the winemakers and take in the vineyard views.
And so, like everything from high school classes to office meetings, wine tastings have moved digital en masse, with dozens of California wineries launching series over the past two weeks.
It’s a nice idea. But I had to wonder: Can a wine tasting be successfully transposed to the digital plane? Wine is about place. It’s about sharing a bottle with others. And, let’s face it, video calls are awkward, even under ideal circumstances. Everyone can see how messy your home is. Lag causes us to interrupt each other, which then leads to long silences. Who even knows if everyone is wearing pants?
Yet on Monday night, I found myself among several participants in a Zoom call with winemaker Kathleen Inman, and I was completely charmed.
Inman, who owns Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa, began the hour-long session with her phone held up to a grapevine. “Now we’re just starting to get a little bit of budbreak,” she said, showing the little tuft of green poking out, destined to become a cluster of Pinot Noir grapes. She then moved inside to her tasting room — empty save for her cat, Stella — where she began taking participants through the Chardonnay, rosé and Pinot wines that we were all supposed to have on hand.
Hardy Wallace, owner of Dirty & Rowdy Family Wines in Napa, adopted a far less conventional format for his first virtual wine tasting on March 21, which brought about 80 people together on Zoom. “We didn’t want to just replicate that analog experience,” he says. He hired trumpet player Eric Benny Bloom (of the band Lettuce) and keyboardist Borahm Lee (of Break Science) to play music throughout the tasting — including improvisational pieces based on the wine’s aromas and flavors.
Not only did the music add an extra dimension to the wine, Wallace says, but it also allowed him to pay two working musicians. “The idea of going to a big concert right now sounds about as fun as getting on a cruise ship,” Wallace says. “If you’re a touring musician, you might not have any gigs for a year.”
Still, the nascent genre has had its share of awkward moments. Smith Story Wines’ virtual-tasting debut, on March 21, “was a hot mess, quite honestly,” laughs co-owner Ali Smith Story. She and her husband, Eric Story, were running on little sleep and high anxiety, and they kept experiencing technical glitches. They had to switch from a video conference to Instagram Live halfway through. Despite it all, they received lots of positive feedback from viewers. “They all laughed with us,” says Smith Story.
It all helped them formulate a new and improved plan for the following virtual tasting, which will have a “breakfast for dinner” theme. Eric and Ali Smith Story will pair their wines with breakfast foods and encourage viewers to join in their pajamas.
The couple aren’t asking viewers to order a specific Smith Story wine in advance. “We didn’t feel comfortable making this a big sales pitch,” says Ali Smith Story. Most of their loyal customers have already been buying lots of wine since the shelter-in-place orders came down.
Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy, though, felt it was important for everyone in his tasting to have the same thing in their glass — in the case of the March 21 tasting, his 2018 Shake Ridge Ranch Mourvedre — but he wasn’t going to kick anyone out of the call.
“People are cooped up in their houses right now, feeling frustrated,” Wallace says. “Wine enabled this experience, but the experience is far more important than that bottle of 2018 Shake Ridge.”
Due to UPS delays, my shipment of Inman’s wines was still en route when I tuned in to Monday’s tasting, and I was salivating at the rest of the group’s descriptions of the minerally Endless Crush rosé and the Russian River Valley Chardonnay. I listened as Inman explained how the 2017 Pinot Noir was a wine born of unhappy circumstance: Her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, again, and Inman didn’t have enough time to determine separate blends for her various Pinot Noir lots. So she just combined them into a single blend.
When my wine finally arrived, later in the evening, I opened the Pinot and thought of Inman putting it together in a hurry. The rush job didn’t show: The wine was seamless, exuberantly floral on the nose, with flavors that recalled strawberry-rhubarb pie.
The most memorable part of the tasting, though, didn’t have anything to do with the wines. It had to do with meeting the other attendees. Several of us had lived in Boston. Two attendees turned out to have Maine Coon cats and brought them on camera. Inman stood quietly, smiling, as the connections were forged.
She was used to it, she said. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time among strangers when people visit her winery.
Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Esther_mobley Instagram: @esthermob