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A Wine Start-Up's Guide to Virtual Wine Tastings


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Given the choice, most of us would prefer to try something before buying it – how else do we know if it is any good? Wine is no exception. In fact, wine tasting has always been an integral part of the overall experience. It goes without saying that a well-conducted wine tasting does not only help consumers to identify the wines that taste good. It also enhances the overall experience by guiding, informing, and inspiring the drinking process. One does not need to be a wine connoisseur to appreciate expert commentary on where the wine comes from, how it was made, and how its history links to the sensory profile.


Traditionally, this commentary was offered by knowledgeable professionals inside wineries' tasting rooms. However, with COVID19 lockdowns continuing, most wineries in North America have had to halt this service. On top of the dramatic plunge in on-premise sales, wineries that cannot provide tasting opportunities risk being left behind by the consumer. Solution – virtual tasting!


Latest data from WineAmerica shows that 28% of wineries surveyed have run a virtual tasting session since the COVID closures began. In our self-isolation, the BarrelWise team has attended a number of these, hosted by producers of all sizes in the US and Canada. Styles, content and quality of these experiences varied substantially, which is why the team decided to summarise its key takeaways, and perhaps provide some considerations for wineries that are exploring the virtual tasting path. It is not unlikely that in the post-pandemic “new normal”, such online customer interactions will stick around, alongside increased focus by wineries on digital marketing and sales. This meas that getting the virtual tasting right will be an increasingly important challenge, and something to be pondered by the wineries' managers.

Source: Getty

1) Understand your target audience

Are you a small winery catering mostly to a local crowd? A major winery group with a global presence? Something in between? In all cases, it is absolutely key to consider the audience that each virtual event is targeted at, and what they would want to see. As usual, it is all about trade-offs. To strengthen the connection with its core customers, small wineries may be inclined to build on the ‘local’ vibe. The tastings may include lots of references to places, people and events that will be very familiar to customers in the neighborhood, but which the drinkers from further afield cannot relate to. A vertical tasting of some esoteric varietal may excite the connoisseurs, but be inaccessible to casual drinkers looking for basic tasting guidance. How do we find the balance? Well, why not do what the start ups do – experiment! Try different approaches to see what works best. Set consumer expectations in advance through honest session descriptions, and see what gets the highest attendance. Various tasting structures will work differently for different wineries – the key is find a strategy that works for you and your customers, and execute it very well.


A key ingredient to successful experimentation is data (something BarrelWise has learned all too well...). What Key Performance Indicators could you track? How many guests attended the tasting is an obvious one, but there is more. Live streaming platforms often provide video engagement data - how long guests stayed tuned in, how many commented, how often they clicked links in the description. Tracking online orders could also be interesting - are you seeing a spike around the time the tasting is scheduled? Something must be working! Collecting and tracking this data should provide a good indication of what your audiences like, what resonates the most, and what leads to increased sales.

2) Choose the right delivery platform

In our experience, the following platforms stood out as most frequently used to host virtual tastings:

- Instagram Live: perhaps the most popular approach. Being a well-used phone app, it is likely that your consumers already use it, so barriers to entry are low. Tastings are streamed live, and attendees can comment in real time and ask questions. Since live video only works on smartphones (and not in computer browsers), it does raise a question of convenience – do people want to taste wine while holding a phone in one hand? Is it convenient for groups of people watching the tasting together, say, over dinner? Will this work for the older generations of customers? Still, we found Instagram tastings by Sandhill and Black Market Wine very accessible, and well done. There is, however, one huge drawback – Instagram Live does not seem to allow recording live sessions for later use. We will get to why this is important in a bit.


- Facebook Live: A close alternative to Instagram Live, which may resonate better with the older customer base (according to user stats at least), it shares many of the same features.

Sandy Leier, Head Winemaker at Sandhill Wines,

hosting an Instagram tasting


Some of Facebook's the big differences from Instagram include the ability to view the video stream in computer browser, which could make for a better at-home, over-dinner family tasting experience. It also allows to record and re-use virtual tasting videos. St. Supery is one of the wineries that has successfully embraced this format, and makes use of its video engagement analytics that go a little deeper than Instagram’s.


- Zoom: there are two way to approach tastings over Zoom – as a group conference call, or as a webinar. The former works very well for private events, as it allows all call guests to participate and ask questions, which leads to a much more personal and interactive environment. Matthiasson Wines, for example, has used this effectively for one-to-one and small group tastings, available to its club members. Webinars are best for large, public events, where unmuted mics and various interruptions can make the presentation a nightmare. It does requires a little know-how to set up and manage, ideally with another person’s help in the background. But when done well, it works fantastically – a recent Zoom tasting even by Kendall-Jackson really ticked all the boxes for us, and now we cannot wait to visit the winery in person and taste their wines!


- YouTube Live: although we haven’t yet seen a winery host a virtual tasting exclusively on YouTube, this is where many of the recorded videos eventually end up, often linked to from the winery’s websites for their customers to review at their convenience. YouTube has most of the same features available to Instagram and Facebook hosts, such as follower notifications, live comments, ability to share, etc., and is a very viable alternative to the above.

St. Supery's Michael Sholtz's tastings are available on YouTube. Source: BarrelWise


3) Plan the session in advance

Understandably, this may be harder than it sounds – amidst the staff layoffs, production uncertainty, and a very challenging business environment, winery managers already have a lot on their plates. However, by spending the time to plan and prepare for every tasting event, the likelihood of significant positive outcomes becomes that much greater. This means new customers, additional sales, and ultimately a stronger, more desirable brand.


The preparation begins with creating the tasting session structure. As mentioned above, it is helpful to understand the target audience, and come up with the information and messages that would resonate the most with them. If possible, sketch out the talking points, making sure that you have enough to fill the session, but not too much so as to not run over time.


Next comes the marketing. Some wineries make great use of the Events section on their websites, others use third party agents such as Wine.com advertise and assist with event planning. Social media, again, helps to spread the word. And this is key - your customers will not join virtual tastings if they don't know when and where the tastings are happening! At this point, it is also a good idea to set customer expectations. Are they joining a casual “neighbourhood” tasting, full of local banter and Dad jokes? Is it an in-depth analysis of a flagship label for the more sophisticated consumer? Can the customers prepare certain foods to go along with the wine, and further enhance the experience? Let your guests know what to expect and get them to look forward to the experience.


Virtual Wine tasting package by Black Market Wine Co. Source: blackmarketwine.ca


Another key, and often overlooked element – make sure that customers can easily purchase the wine for the tasting! Links to online store, or off-premise locations where the wines can be purchased will go a long way. Or take it a step further – come up with a tasting calendar, say 6 consecutive sessions over 6 weeks, and offer special Virtual Tasting wine cases made of these bottles. British Columbia wineries Black Hills Estates and Black Market Wine Co. are among those that have adopted this method with great success.


Virtual tastings offer an opportunity for owners, senior winemakers, chefs, vineyard managers and other experts to share their stories and passion for wine with lots customers in a way that live tastings cannot. Why not make the most of this opportunity? By including experts from different parts of the winegrowing business, the virtual tasting can become a truly unforgettable experience. This is why Kendall-Jackson’s tasting was so powerful for us: Winemaster Randy Ullom was joined by Executive Chef Justin Wangler to deliver a mouth-watering review of the wine, and examples of food pairings. We even got a virtual tour of the winery’s gardens! In some ways, this experience was actually better than if we, (or any regular person visiting K-J's tasting room near Santa Rosa, CA) would get live - we certainly wouldn't have been able to hear from Randy or Jason!

Kendall-Jackson's virtual tasting webinar was one of the best BarrelWise attended. Source: BarrelWise


4) Capitalize on the sales opportunity

Ultimately, wine tastings, both in-person and virtual, are a tool for wineries to increase sales. It is important to keep this notion in mind when hosting virtual tasting sessions, and to use every opportunity to drive new business. Offering special selection wine cases to go with the tasting calendar is one. Another is to leverage the sessions to differentiate and promote the winery’s brand. Winemakers may take the virtual gusts on a journey through the winery, and show them the magic of the winemaking process. From their living rooms, guests could marvel at the history and decors of the tasting rooms, the impressive views from the patio, the beautiful gardens. These positive associations could help your winery’s name stand out from the rest the next time the consumers are browsing through the wine isle at a store, or driving along a wine route. Virtual tastings could also help to build a close, loyal following through use of exclusive offers or discounts to those who attend the tasting. Once again, the right approach will depend on the type of winery, and the target audience it caters to.


Every virtual tasting session, once completed, becomes an asset in your marketing portfolio. By recording these, and uploading to the website and social media pages, the winery continues to generate customer value and engagement. Imagine a world, in which for each bottle that your winery sells, your customer could go to your website and learn about the wine from the experts who created it? Particularly for wines in the premium - luxury price range, this could be a great value-add. It is also where video platform selection becomes important, since Instagram (as one example) does not allow live streamed events to be recorded and reused. In other words, every live streaming that you conduct on Instagram is lost a after a couple of days. Don't let these go to waste! The resources that the winery had put into preparing for and running the virtual tastings can yields dividends for weeks to come, and at virtually no extra cost.

Preparing wine shipments. Photo courtesy of Cellar 503. Source: Wine Enthusiast


Conclusion

We at BarrelWise strongly believe in continuous innovation. As Charles Darwin probably never said, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Virtual tastings are proving to be a very pertinent adaptation in the current COVID19 environment, and may well remain an effective marketing tool for the winemaking industry even the opening of tasting rooms. Wineries would benefit from viewing virtual tastings as strategic sales and brand development opportunities, and allocate resources to good planning and execution.


As mentioned above, WineAmerica reports that 28% of wineries are already doing it. But to BarrelWise, the exciting news is that 72% are not! This leaves lots of room to figure out the best approach, and stand out from the crowd to win customers.


If you would like to discuss our virtual wine tasting experiences in more details - please do not hesitate to get in touch on hello@barrelwise.ca


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PS: Fun fact – Charles Darwin and Artem, a BarrelWise co-founder, attended the same British boarding school, only 182 years apart. Unlike Charles Darwin, Artem did not hate it. Also, the school has not (yet) built Artem a statue.


Something Charles Darwin actually did say. Source: iperceptive.com

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