Are online tastings the magic we’ve been missing?

Let me pour you a glass….

Stripped of all of your wine knowledge, if you were an ordinary shopper are nosing your trolley tentatively down the wine aisle looking for a bottle you can trust to give your family a glass or two of relaxation at the weekend, how likely is it that your eyes will stray to the top shelf?

I wrote an earlier blog piece about the experience that led me to this realisation – I helped make a wine in South Africa that won a lot of plaudits, but when it arrived on the shelves, it just sat there, and no-one saw it. Because it was a little too far outside the average shopper’s price range, and we gave them no good reasons to look up to the top shelf.

And this is wine’s problem. A category of dreams and romance that is sold on price.

Not enough of the romance and wonder of wine makes it to the shelf-edge, and most shoppers default to a name they recognise, and a price they can afford. What easily discernible reasons other than price do we give shoppers to trade up to a ‘better’ bottle? And how do they know they will like it more?

Many people in the wine trade say that what we need is education. If only people knew more about wine, they would automatically care more about it, choose it more carefully, spend more per bottle, and talk more about it to their friends.

This is proven to be true of the people who DO start down the path of education. They DO spend more per bottle. They DO become more engaged. They DO widen their repertoires.

But most people don’t go very far down that road if at all.

Most people don’t want to be ‘educated’, or to do anything that feels like work. Wine is meant to be fun.

What we really need is to bring wine alive. To inspire people.

And for that we need all five senses firing on all cylinders. Beautiful images to look at. The evocative sound of cicadas, the heady bouquet of a vintage captured in a bottle, released by the swirl of a glass. The texture of tannins gripping the cheeks, and the warming alcohol. The taste of deep succulent sun-ripened fruit woven through with garrigue herbs.

There is no doubt that this is very hard to do at the shelf edge. The best way to deliver this kind of rich experience is with a visit in person.

There is little substitute for a day spent with the wine producer touring the vines, and a tasting in the cool of the cellar. Everything you need to create deep and lasting memories is there. The 3D in-person sens-o-rama experience will worm its way deep into the consciousness of even the most well-traveled guest, and the wine producer will occupy a little corner of their visitor’s brain for YEARS to come.

This is why I am so keen, when thinking about the wine we make in the stunning Roussillon region of Southern France, to bring our Wine Club members to visit us.

And why last autumn, 16 of us spent a weekend picking a tiny block of vines and crushing the bunches underfoot in an open barrel (see blog post here).

These few minutes spent crushing grapes underfoot will form memories that last a lifetime.

And yet…..

2020 is not the best year to be promoting wine tourism

And this has forced us to scrabble around for other ways to reach people stuck inside their homes.

Zoom calls. Webinars. Meet the winemaker events. Online tastings.

All very much second best, right? No substitute for the real thing?

True – but…..

It has slowly dawned on me that we have hit on a brilliant way to reach MORE people. People who would never come to a wine tasting, but who like a good excuse to open a bottle. The kind of people who we have been trying to educate, but they ran away.

People who would never think about spitting a wine out (is it a symptom of our strange little industry that we have to remind ourselves that this is LITERALLY EVERYBODY EXCEPT US?)

People who may not have the budget, the time off work, or the health to take trips to wine regions on a regular basis.

And yet there they are, gathered around their screens. Sitting on their sofas. Making comments about what they are tasting (and often forgetting to mute themselves so that we overhear them as they chat amongst themselves.)

It is Gogglebox, for wine.

People of the wine trade, for the first time ever we are staring into the living rooms of the people actually drinking our wine, in their own habitat. David Attenborough would be getting very excited. This is an unrivalled chance to follow our bottles into the homes and lives of our customers.

And in turn, we are giving them a glimpse of our world.

Katie Jones is hosting DAILY vineyard walks from 7.30 – 8.00am, and pulling crowds of 50-100 people every day!

Ok, so her Mum, and a couple of Aunties are included in the number, but then so are some sommeliers, a couple of journos, a few wine students, and a load of actual wine drinkers. They are asking questions about mildew, because in this context it is FASCINATING. This is not a lecture or a text-book. Here is real life happening in front of your eyes.

And instead of being a stage-managed photoshoot on the sunniest day of spring, it is raining and all the more real because of it. Authenticity convinces more than polish.

When we put on our first Zoom call, we had no idea what we were doing, or why. And we didn’t have Pro Zoom and got cut off after 40 minutes. But our viewers URGED us to put on another one.

So we subscribed to Pro Zoom, and put on an event about English Sparkling Wine. Brad from Nyetimber and Charlie from Gusbourne kindly agreed to be guests, and Stephen Skelton and several other luminaries joined us. We had a great chat, with 40 people hanging on our every word, and asking questions. Sadly, we still hadn’t worked out how to record it, so that one is lost in the ether.

Nigel Greening tells about lockdown in Central Otago

But we recorded the next one – ‘Muck and Magic’ an exploration of sustainable farming techniques. Nigel Greening from Felton Road called in at 5.30am in Wanaka to tell us how lockdown was going in NZ, and how they were managing to harvest and make wine. Katie Jones told us about being organic in Fitou, and Nick Wenman talked about beekeeping and biodynamics at Albury Vineyard in the Surrey Hills.

Our wine goggleboxers told us they loved hearing from the horse’s mouth, and fired questions at everyone.

Then we put on our first event with tasting samples. The 12 sets of samples we had cautiously prepared sold out in 10 minutes. On tasting day, we treated our tasters to a virtual flight over out vineyards using google earth. Lots of photos and maps. Have a look at our 55 minute-long session here:

Since then the interest has ramped up, and our fortnightly program in June and July is well on the way to selling out too, with numbers of up to 42 per session. Have a look in the Domaine of the Bee shop, and scroll down to ‘Tasting Sample Packs’

Our customers are now inviting their friends.

One lady, who first heard us on Peter and Susie’s podcast 4 weeks ago, has invited ten of her friends to join our next tasting with her, and we’ve been sending mini-bottles of our wines all around the country.

Of course, this is happening now because of lockdown, and when lockdown is over, the demand will abate a little.

But the genie is out of the bottle. People who had never used Zoom three months ago are now hooked. And why pay to go to a scary wine tasting, when you can pay to have some wines delivered to your house, and you can sit on your own sofa to drink them with your family.

Online tastings are here to stay, and we’d better get used to them!

If you want some advice on how to run them, I’ll be happy to share what we’ve learned. Just give me a call.

(And well done to Amber from Spitbucket.com for creating the first directory of online tastings so you can find out who is doing what, when.)

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