Woman drinking red wine at the restaurant and using special app in her smartphoneLast summer, it was hard to get a reservation at Wolffer’s Vineyard in Long Island, NY. As this summer approaches, the tasting room remains empty because of COVID-19, but the party is still going on.

Wolffer’s winemaker Roman Roth, whom The Wine Industry Advisor named as one of wine’s most inspiring people, now hosts virtual wine tastings for the Hamptons’ elite and beyond. It’s a trend that’s picking up across the wine industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s take a look.

Bringing the tasting experience home

Customers can choose to join a public virtual tasting or host a private one. Wolffer’s arranges shipping or pick up from its Hamptons location. A private tasting costs between $150 to $175 for three to 30 tasting groups. Like most meetings during the pandemic, the tastings take place on Zoom.

Wolffer’s new business model represents a trend happening across the country for vineyards whose doors have been forced closed to adhere to state stay-at-home orders. While Americans are home, they’re also drinking more than ever, so the virtual tastings are entertaining customers and offering a way for them to still try new products without having to enter a store or restaurants. Brands have adapted quickly to add virtual tasting packs and updating their websites to sell them.

Customers purchasing the tasting sets are contributing to the massive increase in online sales. Online alcoholic beverage sales increased 387% for the week ending April 11th, according to CNN. The week prior, sales were up a staggering 441%.

How to virtually taste

Brands offering virtual wine and spirit tastings have been advertising on their Instagram or Facebook pages and websites. The vineyard pre-selects the wine batch for the tasting and gives customers a curbside pickup option or ships the bottles directly to the customers’ homes.

Once customers receive the wine, the vineyard staff running the tasting sends out a Zoom link for everyone to join.

At home, customers can lay out multiple glasses for tastings, a cheese board, and learn about wine, just like they did in the past at the vineyards.

Cheers with the stars

To attract customers to these virtual events, Wine.com offers tastings with celebrities. Many celebrities have partnered with wine and spirits brands to support their favorite product or to create their favorite drink.

For example, Sarah Jessica Parker will host Sips In The City on May 26th to promote her partnership with INVIVO X BY SARAH JESSICA PARKER. Along with Parker, the chief winemaker and founder of Invivo will join to taste its inaugural New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Provençal Rosé with customers. Patrons need to buy the wine, but the event itself is free.

For the spirits lover, Breaking Bad stars Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, creators of Dos Hombres, are hosting a free tasting of their Espadin Mezcal on May 21st.

Earlier in May, Wine.com had singer John Legend hosting a tasting for his sparkling French rosé, and rock star Jon Bon Jovi hosted a tasting for his rosé, Hampton Water.

How brands can use virtual tastings

While alcohol sales have been skyrocketing, many brands still want to engage customers on a more personal level to ensure long term brand loyalty and motivation to come back to their tasting room after the pandemic ends.

Vineyard or spirit brands wanting to plan their own virtual tastings can do so by creating a tasting package. The package can mirror that of a usual tasting that happened on-premise but would need to be re-priced to sell the full bottles to customers. If you’re looking for inspiration, Napa Valley Vineyard Amizetta has four different virtual wine packs, ranging from two to three bottles, and ranging in price from $120 to $168.

Next, pick an engaging speaker, celebrity, or the top winemaker to attract customers to the event.

Then, advertise the event via social media and add an option to purchase the tasting set on your website. Some brands are hosting both public and private events to attract an array of customers and help make events such as Mother’s Day, birthdays, and anniversaries special during the summer of social distancing.

The day before the event, set up a Zoom account for businesses. The Zoom business account will allow for more attendees and unlimited time for the event. Finally, host the event and encourage participants to share thoughts, experiences, and their tasting notes.

Hosting a virtual event will motivate customers to buy an exclusive pack of wine, increasing sales and customer engagement with your brand.

Meredith Galante