At the start of 2020, Papapietro Perry Winery in Dry Creek Valley operated a typical tasting room, with a belly-up bar inside and a covered patio outside for sunny days, overflow crowds and private pinot noir and cheese pairings.
That was B.C., before coronavirus. Then tasting rooms closed in mid-March by county order, later reopening to outdoor-only, physically distanced visitor experiences and shuttering again on Dec. 12 and until at least Jan. 9, 2021. Except for online sales, order shipments and curbside pickups, Sonoma tasting rooms are currently limited to virtual means to reach customers.
What’s a winery owner to do to sell wine and stay in business? “Get creative,” said Renae Perry, partner, CEO and general manager of Papapietro Perry. “We’d introduced ‘Pinot on the Patio’ and cheese pairings before the pandemic and had already expanded the patio. But how many times can you ask people to buy your wine? We had to do more.”
“More” for Perry has included virtual tastings on Zoom and FaceTime; online bingo nights; “Wine & Whatever” — freewheeling virtual happy hours with partner and winemaker Ben Papapietro and wine club manager Kristen Greenberg; cooking demonstrations with winery chef Jim May; caviar, chocolate and cheese pairing sessions; cellar videos that demonstrate how wine is made and “Paint & Sip,” a live painting lesson with wine and a finished piece at the end.
Unable to physically host their traditional parties for wine club members, Perry and Greenberg converse with them online when wine shipments go out. “As they unbox and uncork the wines, we tell our members about each one,” Perry said. “They can taste along or just listen. We’ve learned that our club members want the same information we give our staff about each wine and have the same questions. Our ‘Vino at Home’ Zoom tasting sessions let us to share that information with people across the country. We’re now in their living room, tasting with them, since they can’t come to the winery.”
Perry’s efforts are a snapshot of what so many other small- to medium-sized Sonoma wineries have done since March and plan to continuing doing into 2021, in order to keep their heads above water, financially. Virtually delivered “edu-tainment” has become a crucial marketing component, evolving from throw-it-against-the-wall experimentation at the start of the pandemic to why-didn’t-we-do-this-before queries once staff got the hang of it.
Merriam-Webster’s word for 2020 is “pandemic;” No. 2 for the wine industry could very well be “pivot.” As Perry said, maintaining customer loyalty is paramount. To do so, and to welcome new customers, nontraditional outreach is necessary. Wineries must continually offer new experiences that resonate with wine lovers, likely for the long term.
Here are some of the many wineries whose innovations and approaches to staying in contact with current and potential wine buyers have been successful. In most cases, costs vary.
Gearheads, start your engines. This tasting room at the Great Petaluma Mill (a new riverside venue is under construction) is all about the matchup of motor sports and fine wine. CEO and sports car driver Kevin Buckler heads the Racing Group, which has won such prestigious races as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Buckler and winemaker Garrett Martin bring the whine their virtual tastings, with endless options for guests to customize their own events. Name your budget, choose your topic and wines and the hospitality staff does the rest. Virtual celebrity guests in 2020 included Texas star chef Dean Fearing, Napa grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer, professional drivers Lyn St. James and Derek DeBoer and “Cars Yeah” podcaster Mark Greene. Talk cars while enjoying the Racing Series tasting of four red blends (Redline, Shift, The 24 and Apex) named for elements of Buckler’s career.
Not an automotive enthusiast? Not to worry, because Adobe Road also offers several other virtual tastings, including wine and food pairings, wine education and barrel sampling. Bordeaux varietals, chardonnay, pinot noir and grenache are among the best bottles, exceptionally made and definitely not gimmicks.
6 Petaluma Blvd. N, Petaluma, 707-774-6699
Leave it to the always-inventive, effervescent Jean Charles Boisset to turn wine sales in a pandemic into a three-ring circus of fun and infotainment for his Sonoma brands Buena Vista, DeLoach and Lyeth and Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley. Boisset hosts numerous multi-week virtual happy hours in which pair his wines with a broad cast of characters and subjects. Most virtual events are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5 p.m. and Saturdays at 4 p.m. They’re free to watch on Facebook Live, and wine kits can be ordered in advance to taste along. A recent session, “The Legacy of Prohibition with Carla de Luca Worfolk,” explored, with the filmmaker, how California’s fine-wine industry (including Buena Vista founder Agoston Haraszthy, of course) was shaped by Prohibition. Buena Vista Jovita’s Selection Chardonnay and Buena Vista Alexander Valley Zinfandel were tasted during the session.
On Jan. 6, 2021, the guest will be British Master of Wine Tim Aikin, who will discuss New World classic wines while tasting Chateau Buena Vista Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and DeLoach Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Private virtual tastings are also available on Zoom by appointment.
Buena Vista Winery, 18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma, 800-926-1266
With their Kenwood tasting room closed and Moon Mountain estate cave visits on hold, Brion and Ronda Wise have introduced the tool Corovin to their virtual tastings. One of the drawbacks of tasting wine online is that it usually requires the purchase of full bottles to play along (though a handful of wineries, among them Passalacqua in Dry Creek Valley, sell tasting kits with 2-ounce mini bottles). Once opened, those 750-ml standard bottles can oxidize in a couple days, even when stoppered.
Corovin solves that problem, and the Wises sell tasting kits equipped with the tool so the cork does not need to be removed to access the wine. Corovin has an extracting needle that draws wine from the bottle through the cork and a spout that dispenses the wine into the glass, leaving a blanket of argon gas in the bottle as a preservative. The B. Wise wines are exceptional, with the Moon Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon selling for $95 and the difficult-to-acquire BRION proprietary red going for whatever one is willing to pay. Chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and zinfandel also are produced. Corovin, which sells for $150 and up at retail, lets aficionados enjoy every drop of B. Wise wines whenever they want, and the virtual tastings include instruction on the use and care of your Corovin. Tasting kits also are available without Corovin, and estate-grown olive oils are other options.
9077 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 707-282-9169
This Dry Creek Valley winery, which specializes in pinot noir and also offers a silky, seductive zinfandel, has rotated several successful virtual experiences in and out of its offerings since the initial March 2020 shutdown of its tasting room. On Jan. 21, 2021, Bay Area artist Sonya Paz will join a winery host in a step-by-step interactive lesson, “Paint & Sip,” on painting a private masterpiece on an oak-barrel stave. Order in advance the stave, paint, brush and one bottle of Peters Vineyard Pinot Noir, then log on to find your inner Van Gogh. Order more bottles and become Jackson Pollack. 5-6:30 p.m. $100 per kit, includes wine. Additional painting kits are $35, without wine.
4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-0422
Where else but in Sonoma can one taste a crunchy Marin County riesling alongside a single-vineyard Russian River Valley chardonnay, a Green Valley Fox Den Pinot Noir and perhaps an old-vine Morelli Lane Russian River Valley Zinfandel from the comfort of one’s home? Dutton-Goldfield affords this opportunity, with hospitality manager Greg Johnson hosting one-on-one Zoom tastings of flights offered in the Sebastopol tasting room and creating groupings of wines grown in Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, per customer request.
Grapegrower Steve Dutton and winemaker Dan Goldfield produce elegant, fresh-tasting yet rewarding wines at their Sebastopol winery, with gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, rosé and syrah joining the lineup. Russian River Valley is the baseline for Dutton-Goldfield wines, yet Marin and Mendocino’s Anderson Valley chime in to create a robustly varied tasting experience that expands on the RRV chardonnay-pinot noir theme. Email Johnson at [email protected] to order the wines and schedule a tasting.
3100 Gravenstein Hwy N., Sebastopol, 707-823-3887
By: Linda Murphy