With Tasting Rooms Closed, Local Wineries Move the Experience Online

With the closure of tasting rooms during the shelter-in-place order, local wineries are bringing guided wine tastings to people's living rooms.

For many wineries in Sonoma County, news of a regional shutdown and shelter-in-place order due to coronavirus triggered confusion, freak-outs and serious anxiety.

At Comstock Wines in Healdsburg, it sparked a stroke of creativity.

Instead of panicking about losses in tasting-room revenue, General Manager Kelly Ferris and her team hit the drawing board and fast-tracked a plan to deliver their tasting room to the world. Their idea, “S.I.P. Comstock,” (a nod to “shelter in place”) is a series of weekly video tastings over Facebook Live during which Winemaker Chris Russi and other members of the hospitality team walk customers through some of the label’s wines.

The videos, which air on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays starting March 20, correspond with three-bottle shipments customers can pre-order to receive the wines in time to drink along with the video.

The Comstock crew tastes through one wine in each video. Videos are free to access; shipments are $125 apiece with an extra $1 for shipping.

“There is something different about tasting and learning about wines with the people who make the wines, rather than buying a bottle off the shelf,” Ferris said. “Now that we are unable to host guests on property, we still feel that the final personal connection is just as important. We’ll just do it differently.”

Comstock isn’t the only winery embracing virtual wine-tasting. With all Bay Area wineries forced to shut down tasting room operations for the foreseeable future, several wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties have opted to move their hospitality efforts into the virtual space.

Much like the Comstock experience, these virtual tastings mix direct-to-consumer sales with online videos and input from wine educators. The goal is to connect with customers at a time when many of them wish to consume wine but no one can leave the house.

At last check, nearly two dozen wineries on either side of the Mayacamas Mountains had launched virtual tasting programs in some capacity. More were expected to come online by the end of the month.

“People are getting creative,” said Wendy Hilberman, executive director for the Russian River Valley Winegrowers. “Given the current state of the world, given how much uncertainty there is right now, people need to look at different ways of marketing their product.”

One of the first wine brands to think about virtual tastings was The Good Life Wine Collective in Napa. Even before COVID-19 made national headlines, executives with the Jessup Cellars and Handwritten Wines labels that are part of the collective were contemplating ways to bring the Yountville tasting room experience to customers around the world.

General Manager Tracy McArdle said the labels went live with the program when guests started canceling appointments last week.

“Whenever someone called to cancel, we gave them the opportunity to reschedule with a video tasting,” she said. A handful of those customers rebooked with a virtual tasting. In the days since, others have signed up for tastings on Skype, Zoom or Facetime.

According to McArdle, Jessup and Handwritten work with customers to customize the wine selection based on their personal wine preferences. Once the wine is selected, the brands ship the wine and tasting notes. The brands also work with the wine club member or customer to assist with any culinary pairings, such as cheese or charcuterie. Finally, McArdle and her staff schedule the virtual tasting, selecting the platform that works best for the customer.

Other Napa wineries that soon will be offering virtual tastings include Parallel Wines, St. Supery and Biale, to name a few.

Here in Sonoma County, in addition to Comstock, some wineries moving tastings into the virtual space include Portalupi and Ferrari-Carano in Healdsburg, Dirty and Rowdy Family Wines and Belden Barns in Santa Rosa. Rene Byck, vice president and co-owner of Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, said his winery is looking into the offerings, too.

Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg is trying a different approach, a one-two video punch.

This week, the winery sent to wine club members and previous customers an email touting a six-bottle selection of single-vineyard wines from around the Russian River Valley. The email featured tasting notes for each wine and an edited video about each of the source vineyards.

Customers who purchase the $380 half-case (with $10 shipping) also have an exclusive opportunity to schedule private Zoom tastings with estate sommeliers Tyffani Kuhn and Kevin Patterson.

“For a brand like Gary Farrell Winery, with members throughout the country, we are always looking for opportunities to innovate and bring the experience of tasting in our beautiful salon directly to our guests when they cannot join us in person,” said Brian Shapiro, business development manager. “This is no different.”

Customers said they were excited about the opportunity to bring a bit of Wine Country into their living rooms.

Ashley Strickland Freeman, a food stylist and author in Charleston, South Carolina, describes herself as a “big wine-drinker” and a fan of Sonoma County. She said she loves the idea of supporting local wineries while continuing her wine education.

“I know a little bit about wine but am always wanting to learn more,” she wrote in a recent email.

Strickland Freeman added that with her 4-year-old in tow, often it’s difficult for her and her partner to visit breweries and wineries and enjoy the experience. For this reason, she noted, even without the threat of a global pandemic, virtual tastings appeal to her.

“With virtual tastings, [my son] can play Legos and [the grown-ups] can drink,” she wrote. “Everybody wins.”

A number of local wineries are also offering curbside pickup and delivery. Check websites for more information.