Wine and spirits tastings have come a long way in a very short time period this year. Beverage alcohol retailers are tapping virtual tastings to connect with consumers looking to quench their thirst for new products, experimentation, knowledge, and experience. “The events have contributed to sales, but just as importantly they’ve allowed our customers to be entertained and educated by world-class winemakers and industry personalities with a median which provides the industry great scale,” says Mike Osborne, founder and executive vice president of Wine.com.
Pre-pandemic, virtual tastings simply weren’t on the radar for most retailers, who are experienced in holding in-store tastings. Now that retailers and consumers are experiencing virtual tastings, they are quickly gaining traction. “Prior to the pandemic we only had in-person tastings at our weekend wine, beer, and spirits tasting bars, and in-person classes for wine, cheese, beer, cider, spirits/cocktails, meat/butchering,” says Karina Roe, wine specialist at France 44 in Minneapolis.
France 44’s virtual tasting program has quickly evolved. “We’ve run the gamut in terms of technology and outreach, from Instagram and Facebook Live events to Zoom events that are both live and recorded,” Roe says. “The demand hasn’t slowed down at all; the colder months have shut people inside even more and has them looking for fun things to do.”
Wine.com’s virtual tastings—which are free unless attendees want to buy the wines featured—are extremely popular with its customers. “Within the first four weeks of launching the twice-weekly live streamed tastings, our events had been attended by more than 30,000 households,” Osborne says. “We opted for a weekly schedule during August and September, and this fall have returned to our twice weekly pace.”
Wine.com has used the platform to make new product introductions, including Mary J. Blige’s 2019 Sun Goddess release ($20 a 750-ml.) and Cameron Diaz’s 2019 Avaline ($20). A tasting with Jon Bon Jovi, his son Jesse Bongiovi, and winemaker Gérard Bertrand featuring their 2019 Hampton Water rosé ($20) is among Wine.com’s most highly attended events, along with a tasting hosted with Jean-Charles Boisset and John Legend in the spring.
France 44 started with one virtual class every three to four weeks with the pace accelerating and greater frequency anticipated in 2021. “We also do a lot of private virtual corporate events, where we’re hired by a company to facilitate events like a 20 minute ‘Happy Hour’ or an hour-long guided tasting class—with topics that include anything from Wine 101 to Oktoberfest to cocktail building,” Roe says.
Charging $15 for a Zoom event, with the option to buy featured wines and cheeses, France 44 focuses on what has worked best and been successful. “Our customers respond well to introductory classes, region-specific or style-specific wine classes, or special guest appearances from winemakers or cheese makers,” Roe says. “We’re sensitive to peoples’ time, so our classes are limited to an hour.”
The bottom line is virtual tastings drive sales. “Much like our in-person tastings and classes, the more we do them, the more wine we sell because customers are educated and exposed to new products,” says Roe.
Live-stream tastings at Wine.com and elsewhere will inevitably continue post-pandemic. “Our customers, all over the U.S., now have the opportunity to participate in tastings which in the past have been only available in the largest cities,” Osborne says. “Virtual tastings, done well, have permanently changed the way consumers will engage in wine tastings.”
At France 44, the belief is that virtual tastings at the retail tier will continue to grow. “Even long after we’re able to get together again for in-person classes and tastings, we see virtual events as a great way to connect even more with customers and fellow beverage enthusiasts,” Roe says.