One of the greatest pleasures of drinking wine is the communal experience it provides. Grabbing a glass to celebrate with friends, packing a bottle for a group picnic, and traveling to vineyards to learn more about our favorite grapes has always been a well-loved pastime. It’s an activity that can also transport us to any moment or memory, no matter where we are physically. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has affected these traditions, it’s also introduced a new experience: virtual wine tastings.
When vineyards suddenly found themselves adjusting to shuttered doors and limited tastings, the internet became a whole new channel to deliver camaraderie and education straight to the comfort of people’s homes. And though some wineries are slowly beginning to open their doors again, virtual tastings are here to stay. “With travel taking some time before returning to normal, we foresee more virtual experiences being offered throughout Napa Valley and evolving with time. Imagine guests who come out to visit, but their friends or family back home are unable to go with them. We now have the avenue created to be able to include these guests virtually so they don’t miss out on the fun!” says AXR Napa Valley operations manager Deven Paniagua.
The accessibility to virtual wine tastings has a ton of perks: You don’t need a plane ticket, you can experience curated bottles from world-class sommeliers, and you still get to be social. The Supper Share, for example, is a concierge service that connects private groups to sommeliers, bartenders, and chefs for a virtual celebration of food and drink. After filling out a form online, the service directs participants to their host sommelier or chef, as well as a link to purchase wine or food ingredients, as well as a full guide to show you step by step how to host your virtual experience. The idea is particularly timely as it supports food and beverage professionals who are still closed for business, with 100 percent of payment going to the host of the virtual party. During the month of June—to stand in solidarity with all those fighting for justice and equal rights in the U.S.‚ The Supper Share donated 10 percent of every virtual tasting fee to The Okra Project, an organization that supports the Black trans community with home-cooked and culturally-specific meals and resources.
“The Supper Share is different from other virtual wine tastings because it is totally bespoke; it can be customized based on the guest’s preferences for style of wine, budget, date, time and more,” says creator Julia Colangelo. To pull off a great virtual wine tasting, she suggests choosing a fun theme for guests. One of the themed tastings that Supper Share offers includes “So You Love Napa? 3 Wines to Mix it Up in Your Cellar,” with an emphasis on more affordable alternatives to Napa Valley Cabernet.
St. Supéry, a 100 percent estate-grown sustainable winery, has a newly-launched epicurean package that includes eight bottles of wine and six gourmet meals that are sent directly to participants’ homes. Helmed by the estate’s chef Tod Kawachi, viewers learn how to make dishes that include duck confit flatbread and truffle mascarpone pasta to pair with wine. The Donum Estate, a single vineyard, single appellation that creates Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, focuses on personal touches to last once their virtual tasting ends with a kit that includes their very own organic herbal tea, an art map, personalized tasting menu, personalized thank you card, and tasting notes for each of the wines. Long Meadow Ranch, a well-loved farm style vineyard known for its bustling patio and historic olive oil trees curates summer themed virtual tastings with their Red, White & Rose package, which includes a 2015 Cabernet, 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir. Long Meadow also hosts a free Instagram Live conversation every Monday.
This rise of virtual tastings has given participants the opportunity for not only immersive tasting experiences at home, but also a more in-depth education about what they’re drinking. With varieties that include the popular Black Girl Magic Rosé and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, McBride Sisters provides weekly lessons called McBride Certified: Wine 101 with Robin and Andréa. This free, virtual online course teaches participants the basic foundation of wine through eight modules that include the process of decanting and aging wine. Upon completion of the program, participants become “McBride certified” and can order wines at a special rate as well as do online tastings with the winery’s founders, Robin and Andréa.
Another component that is sure to set the foundation for an incredible virtual wine tasting is food pairings. Many wineries have enlisted award-winning chefs and menus to help take their virtual events with participants to the next level. Ahead of its private tastings, AXR sends guests a list of cheese recommendations to purchase, like Cowgirl Creamery’s creamy Mt. Tam and Cypress Grove’s tangy Truffle Tremor, as well as their famous chip and cheese recipe. While sipping varietals that include their silky, fruit-forward Proprietary Blend, a passionate sommelier explains how the taste of salt and chocolate can completely change the flavor profile of a wine.
And for the wanderlusters who still aren’t quite ready to travel, Three Sticks Wines offers a bit of voyeurism through their multi-media experiences. “We offer a virtual tour through our historic Adobe tasting room interspersed with high production videos, flying guests over our vineyards and listening to interviews with our winemakers, along with live participation from our team that is intended to bring our down to earth approach and our attention to detail and quality alive for people in their homes. People are craving connection and a little escapism and that’s what we aim to deliver, along with excellent wine,” said Three Sticks co-founder Prema Behan.
Though virtual tastings are not meant to replace winery visits, they can certainly evoke the same powerful emotions, as well as educate and connect people with just a few clicks of a keyboard. That’s a noteworthy development for an industry once heavily reliant on in-person experiences and an opportunity to reach a larger, more diverse demographic. “Wine has a tendency of stopping time. It’s a great tool to bring societies together,” says AXR Winemaker Jean Hoefliger.