Eager to keep members happy and engaged while the club was closed, Kulers contacted Kathleen Inman, owner and winemaker of Inman Family Wines in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, in California. Inman had “pivoted” her business — to use a trendy pandemic term — to virtual tastings for her customers over online platforms such as Zoom. She and Kulers adapted that format to arrange a tasting for Piedmont club members. Wines were shipped to the club for members to pick up, and at the appointed time some 30 members logged on to hear Inman, from the social distance of her California tasting room, introduce her wines. For added flair, Kulers opened the event from his backyard by sabering a bottle of Inman’s sparkling wine.
Virtual wine tastings are one way wineries and their clients and customers are adapting (pivoting) to the weird situation we find ourselves in today, where traditional business models have been upended by the pandemic. Inman usually regales customers about her wines face-to-face over the bar in her small tasting room. Today, under California’s reopening plan, she greets small groups outside, wearing a mask and offering hand sanitizer before sparkling wine. Or she logs onto her laptop computer and spreads the word to people across the country.
Businesses, law firms and private clubs, unable to entertain employees, clients and members in the usual manner with happy hours or expense-account dinners, are latching on to virtual events such as wine tastings to maintain a sense of community and togetherness in a time of social distancing.
Jen Lee contracted with Inman for a virtual tasting. Lee is a regional vice president for Salesforce, a San Francisco firm that sells “customer relationship” software the old-fashioned way, through travel, personal contacts and dinners with prospective clients. “After the pandemic hit, we realized we had to reinvent how we sell, quickly,” she says. But how do you build a rapport with a prospect over Zoom? “We got creative and pivoted”— there’s that word again — “to fun activities like wine and cheese tastings, yoga classes and pilates sessions. It’s about bringing some relaxation and stress relief during a hard time.”
When the pandemic struck New York City, Jennifer Eiseman saw her team members at MidOcean Partners, a Wall Street equity firm, disperse to telework from their homes throughout Manhattan, New Jersey and Connecticut, and from family refuges as far away as Virginia, Florida and Texas.
“Everyone was on phone call after call, day after day,” she says. So in mid-April, she decided to create a steam-valve release to substitute for the after-work happy hour no longer happening at the corner bar. Eiseman contacted several wineries on the North Fork of Long Island to see if they could accommodate a long-distance, online event.
“I wanted to support a local business,” Eiseman said in an interview. She found Gabriella Macari, who handles marketing for her family’s Macari Vineyards in Mattituck, on Long Island. The Macaris had closed their tasting room to visitors and were concentrating on shipping wines directly to consumers. Gabriela shipped three wines — a rosé, a white and a red — to about 85 MidOcean employees who had agreed to go online at a designated time. MidOcean paid for the wines and shipping. Macari told her family’s story, showed a video of the vineyard and winery, and talked her guests through a tasting of the wines.
Virtual tastings allow Macari to give online guests an expanded view of the winery compared with what actual visitors see, she told me. “Our vineyards are closed to visitors, but with a video I can show them our biodynamic viticulture and our compost field,” she said.
Yes, compost is exciting to wine people. And maybe even to people cooped up in pandemic isolation.
Since her initial tasting for MidOcean Partners, Macari has done several similar events, including a reunion weekend fundraiser for Fordham University, her alma mater. She views corporate tastings as a vehicle to expand Macari’s online sales by reaching new customers.
Winemakers and their clients I’ve spoken to generally agree that three wines over an hour are sufficient for a virtual tasting. And even though you aren’t actually in wine country, a virtual session with a winemaker or winery owner can offer some advantages over an in-person visit.
“It was unlike going into the actual winery,” says Noah Doyle, a financial adviser with Janney Montgomery Scott in New York City, who connected with Macari to do a tasting for several of his clients around the country. “The program was part tasting, part history about the family and her grandparents, and about winemaking on the North Fork,” he said.
When I asked whether he would consider doing such an event after the world returns to normal, Doyle paused. He mused about bringing clients together on a regional basis or reaching several around the country at once.
“Yeah, I’d be open to doing it again,” he said.
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