Sommeliers live for interactions with guests, the chance to share both wine knowledge and hospitable service. But with their dining rooms closed due to the coronavirus crisis, somms and restaurateurs across the United States are looking for new ways to connect with customers. By now, most survivors have settled into new takeout and delivery models, and some are discovering another path forward when traditional methods of service are blocked: virtual wine tastings.
Through social media platforms and video-conferencing tools like Zoom, restaurants are hosting wine tastings to engage with guests and fulfill a yearning for community connection—the very basis of the hospitality industry.
"Those of us who are fortunate enough to still have stuff to do are incredibly busy, but the kind of busy that restaurateurs just don't like. We're not talking to people," said Dan Davis, wine director of Commander's Palace in New Orleans.
The Wine Spectator Grand Award winner debuted a weekly virtual "cocktail party" on Zoom this week, a group wine-and-cheese tasting. The first one sold out all 80 slots in two days. Each ticket costs $105, plus fees, and includes no-contact delivery of three bottles of wine and two cheeses from the same country as the wine. Cheeses are provided by local partner St. James Cheese Company.
For industry professionals like Davis, virtual tastings like these are totally new, so everyone's drawing their own blueprints. Davis is taking a fun, open approach, and making light of the unusual current climate through playful wine pairings.
"I feel like there's no rules anymore," he said, echoing the invitation's cheeky verbiage: "We might have red wine with Brie de Meaux. We might have white wine with Cantal. It's anarchy!"
Other tastings are more structured, like the free wine class from regional American restaurant Arden in Portland, Ore. Owner and sommelier Kelsey Glasser has been live-streaming hour-long sessions on Instagram and Facebook every Sunday at 3 p.m. since March 22, a week after they were forced to close their doors. "The most surprising thing for me is how excited people have been about it," Glasser said. "It's something that people can do with their friends from afar. It's something people look forward to."
Since most attendees are stuck at home, Glasser designed the sessions as "mini staycations," featuring a different region each time; last week's Spanish focus included an Albariño and a Rioja. Her first session had about 20 participants, and more people are tuning in each week. "And I don't necessarily think it has to do with me or my knowledge, I think people are really looking to connect in some way right now."
Arden sells each featured set of wines for $35 through pickup or no-contact delivery for $5 more, and about half of those customers add takeout dinner to their orders. But for Glasser, it's not as much about creating a revenue stream as it is about sowing community support.
"There's a lot to be said for adding value to people's lives right now without demanding anything in return. I think we've seen in the last couple of weeks that people, as a result, want to support us," she said. "When all this is over, hopefully we will have made a more prevalent space for ourselves in the community."
The team at Terra Terroir in Atlanta has a similar goal in mind for their new Zoom wine tastings, offered for two to eight people, starting at $95 per couple. "We're trying to stay alive as a neighborhood community where people come to drink wine," owner Tim Moore said.
The restaurant delivers three half-bottles, three cheeses and two charcuterie selections to each participant on the day of the session. Sommelier Chris Driollet guides the group through the tasting, stepping away from the screen in between each wine before checking back in, much like he would in a dining room. "It's surprisingly easier than I thought it would be," Driollet said. "People are very much adapting to this idea."
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Moore was initially hesitant about the mechanics and lending a key employee to the cause, but he had a quick change of heart. "I've been astounded at the success," he said. "I feel like opening a separate division called Social Distance Wine Tasting, Inc."
Terra Terroir has hosted five of these tastings so far, with another eight requests in the queue. Moore says it's looking like they'll be booked four out of seven nights a week, and that's before sending any major promotions to their newsletter subscribers.
Just weeks ago, none of these restaurants anticipated hosting wine events online. But even with diverse approaches, all three have seen quick and growing success with their virtual tastings, so they don't anticipate phasing them out anytime soon. On the contrary, they say they'll likely ramp up these efforts.
"It seems too popular just to let go," Moore said. "And I don't think we've actually hit our stride yet."