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Winery Marketers Discuss Tasting Room Re-opening, Online Wine Tastings

by W. Blake Gray
June 12, 2020

Online wine tastings may be boring, but online drinking games -- that's different.

This was one of many interesting tidbits that sprang from an online salon Thursday held by Larkmead Vineyards, featuring six wineries from four different states as they reopen tasting rooms.

Many tasting rooms need to be redesigned for social distancing, which makes this an opportune time to rethink your winery's approach.

"Before I started the tasting room, I drove around California looking at tasting rooms," said Greg Harrington, founder and winemaker of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash. "A lot of tasting rooms are basically bad art on the wall, classical music that nobody wants to listen to, and somebody working part-time who doesn't know anything about the wines. I looked at it as, "I'm running a restaurant, in slow motion. I'm throwing a party.' We focus on the guest experience in a different way. We're not going to educate people. We're going to focus on having a good time."

But that is more complicated now. All the panelists' wineries are now open only by appointment, and they will not allow different groups to mix together.

"I like this much better," said Janie Brooks Heuck, managing director of Brooks winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley. "You know who's coming. You can plan for them. You can look them up in your database if they're a club member and see what they like."

Things they've learned since the re-open?

Don't expect visits to be short. "It used to be two hours, now it's three hours," said Oscar Henquet, managing director of Rudd Estate in Oakville, Calif. "Everybody wants to tell their story. What they've been cooking, what they've been eating. It's all about personal contact, which they have been missing."

Several wineries have already had customers who refuse to wear masks. Heuck suggested that wineries use the same methods that they use on drunk patrons. "We are ready to bounce someone if we see somebody is being unsafe," Heuck said. "It's the same with overdrinking. We all know how to deal with that situation."

Harrington says all tastings at Gramercy are now pre-poured flights, and rather than have a staffer explain each wine, a tasting sheet has a QR code that leads to a video about the wine. "Our staff doesn't have to go around and talk to everyone about every wine," Harrington said.

Moving Online

Zoom tastings, and how to make them interesting, were a popular topic. The drinking game suggestion came from Lisa Mattson, director of marketing and communications for Jordan Vineyard & Winery.

"We did one where people brought their dogs," Mattson said. "And then we played drinking games, like, if your dog has a sweater, take a drink. People had a blast."

Several vintners said virtual wine dinners are much better than they expected."It's better than an actual wine dinner where you have to walk around and try to talk to everyone," Heuck said. "When you talk everybody can hear you."

Mattson said Jordan normally does not do winemaker dinners between August and October. "Now my winemaker says, I can probably do a wine dinner during harvest, as long as we're not crushing that day," Mattson said.

Heuck and Mattson both said that their wineries do customizable virtual tastings. In Brooks' case, it could be about a single variety (the winery is known for Riesling) or about biodynamics. In Jordan's case, sometimes customers want to open an older bottle from their cellar, and want someone from the winery to discuss it with.

"We think that Zoom is not going away," Mattson said. "We allow members of our loyalty program to have a private Zoom at any time, just to be flexible."

Mattson said Jordan is careful about the tone of its emails to customers.

"We looked at all those emails from other wineries that were coming out and saying, here's what we're doing about COVID-19, and they all said the same things," Mattson said. "So we tried to do something useful. We have our chef say, here's what to do with the spices in your spice rack. You have to understand in times like this that consumers need a friend. And don't forget that this is a hospitality business. We had people who literally cried because they were supposed to have their birthday in wine country. They couldn't have their birthday but we sent them a cake. In this business, relationships last a long time."

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