It's 6:15 p.m. in Chicago, and I'm frantically scurrying around the kitchen, slicing and buttering bread, cutting cheese, dishing out hummus, and opening two bottles of pinot noir, a pinot gris and a Chardonnay while my husband, Neil, washes and dries our nicer wine glasses.
My laptop is set up on our dinner table, as anticipation builds for our virtual wine tasting, scheduled to begin in 15 minutes. I had recently learned that wineries have been finding virtual ways to offer tastings in this time of coronavirus closures and social distancing, and I wanted to play along. So after narrowing down the options (there are many), I found a $99 deal I loved through Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa Valley that includes four bottles of wine and a 50-minute video call with a winery rep. In just a few minutes, we'll be looking at rolling vineyards and blue California skies (I'd checked the weather) as we taste the nectars of that very soil, which had arrived on my doorstep the day before. In a world that increasingly feels like Groundhog Day, tonight will be different. It will be an occasion. A reason to put on nonelastic pants and some lipstick.
Except the internet goes out.
There's a technical glitch at the winery, and my phone lights up, letting me know there will be a bit of a delay for our tasting. So I pour two glasses of the 2014 Crescendo pinot noir, and Neil and I take a much needed deep breath and a drink, as we laugh about how a delay certainly isn't the worst thing in the world, here in the comfort of our home, surrounded by food and wine.
About an hour later, and a glass-and-a-half in, we're ecstatic to see the image of Brian Allard, direct-to-consumer director with Bouchaine, come on the screen. He's looking dapper in a bow tie, sitting in front of those pastoral views, now softened by the evening's golden hour. We've never met before, and yet, we talk like old friends — after Neil figures out how to unmute us — about how, if nothing else, the global pandemic is making us all more patient and understanding when it comes to technology issues and unexpected changes.
As Neil and I continue sipping our wine, Allard tells us a bit about the beautiful vineyard that unfolds behind him, and describes how the sea breeze wafts in from the San Francisco Bay to the Carneros district, where the winery is. That cool air is perfect, he says, for growing thin-skin pinot noir grapes and making "ballerina-style" wines, rather than the bold, juicy, "sumo wrestler" kind of cabernet sauvignon that Napa is known for. (He's right, and the wines are fantastic.)
The conversation turns to virtual tastings — I've let Allard know I'm writing about this — and what they offer people in this strange and unsettling time. I tell him that I had selected this offering because of the reasonable price, the promised vineyard views and, honestly, the novelty of talking to someone we've never met. Under Illinois' stay-at-home orders, we're not encountering many strangers these days.
Allard says that these tastings have taken on a kind of life of their own in recent weeks. While wine geeks are certainly welcome to have a traditional guided tasting, he's finding more and more that customers are looking to throw virtual parties with their friends. In fact, he's hosting one soon that involves 11 college friends all living in different parts of the country who purchased the same wine package. The virtual tasting will kick off their reunion, and then Allard says he'll let the call unfold as the participants wish. "I tell them, 'You let me know when you want this virtual experience to devolve into a cocktail party for you.' I'll just leave and I'll go in my office or some other part of the tasting room while they talk to each other. Sometimes I'll come back, sometimes I won't."
As April drags on into forever, a little wine-fueled fun is something so many of us could use. A glass of chianti or bordeaux or riesling has always been a way to sample faraway places, and now that we're hunkered down, wine can still be a way to bring a little adventure and anticipation into our lives. The notion that we can also support independent businesses across the country hit hard by the pandemic? All the better.
Beltane Ranch, a small, working ranch, vineyard and inn in Sonoma County, California, has gotten cheeky with its virtual tasting, offering a Quarantine Shelter in Place Tasting Package, which includes four bottles of wine, a "Quarantine Strategy Guide" with notes about each wine, and a video call with someone at the winery (the package is $150, which includes shipping). In addition, the business has taken to social media to raise a glass - and stream it live — with the ranch's farm animals, which include chickens, donkeys, draft horses and sheep.
Lauren Benward, a fifth-generation family member and co-proprietor of the business, says that her family is trying to offer moments of levity during a stressful time. In the past, the winery might have suggested wines to pair with, say, oysters. Now, she says, it's more likely to suggest wines that go well with Common Core math homework, or leftovers. "We're all in this together, and life isn't the way it was," Benward says. "But there's still some fun ways to engage with each other and enjoy the wines. Because it's really all about enjoying the wines."
In Oregon's Willamette Valley, Project M Wines put together four virtual tasting packs, each with four bottles of wine, that range from $130 to $220 (shipping is $15 for the least expensive pack and free for the others) and include a Zoom call with Jerry Murray, the winemaker who owns the business with his wife, Meg. "We wanted to bring the winery visit experience to the home," Jerry says. "So if you can't come to the Willamette Valley now, we can bring the Willamette Valley to you."
Jerry, who speaks poetically about wine and its history, says that the beverage has long been a source of inspiration to poets, artists and philosophers, bringing people together to enjoy one another's company and find inspiration. In everyday life, he says, many people have lost sight of the beauty and the story behind different wines, and he hopes that now, as the world changes before our eyes, they can find that appreciation again. "This is a real opportunity for wine to become something more than a beverage, and certainly something more than the details of its production," he says. "That's what I'm most excited about - and to be able to interact with people. Hopefully, they come away from the experience thinking about wine differently."
East Coast wineries are also joining the virtual party. In the Finger Lakes region of New York, Silver Thread Vineyard has kept busy through the shutdown so far thanks to its virtual tasting series. The winery is offering discounted wine packages that, in April, ranged in price from $65 for four bottles to $93 for six bottles with $10 flat-rate shipping. Anyone interested can tune in each week to a live virtual tasting on Facebook and type comments or questions for Shannon and Paul Brock, who own the winery.
Shannon says the tastings offer an "armchair travel experience" to the public. "Wine is liquid geography," Shannon says. "That's very cliche, but there are flavors that come out of our wine that are very distinctive and unique to the Finger Lakes region, and that's something you can't get if you're just going into the wine shop and buying the bulk wines with the cutesy labels."
Each bottle of Silver Thread wine has what Shannon describes as a "stony flavor" that comes from the soil of the glacial region, and that flavor imparts a sense of place, even when consumed in a living room far away. "It's not as good as being there yourself and tasting it at the source, but it's a nice alternative right now," she says.
She says she's been heartened to see both new and familiar customers participate in the tastings. Many are even using the weekly streaming event as a way to "meet up" with friends in the same place each week. "There's this whole group of people who live in State College, Pennsylvania, and they usually come up as a group of 12 and visit the winery," she says. "They're all doing this."
When the Brocks got into the winery business, they never expected they would be performing an entertainment-style role. Still, Shannon says they love that they can provide this kind of service. "I almost feel like I'm in the USO during World War II," she says, referring to the United Service Organizations, which provided entertainment for troops. "Everybody has good days and bad days, but everybody needs some good news, and something to look forward to and something to take their mind off all this. Because we can't just sit and watch the news all day."
At my house, the virtual tasting is a roaring success. We learn a few things about wine, enjoy the spirited conversation and relish the break from routine. I even develop a new appreciation for pinot noir, a red wine that, I tell Allard, I usually find wispy compared with my preferred cabernet sauvignon. "They can indeed be wispy," agrees Allard. "But they can also be silky and beguiling."
One day, I'd love to visit Bouchaine and taste the wine right there, where it's made. We'll certainly have memories to share about these times, maybe even a bit of a bond. But for now, we'll continue to enjoy our new bottles and imagine those beautiful vineyards, knowing we can always book more views in the future.
Allard assures us of that.
"Any time, day or night, we're going to have California sunshine to share," he says before bidding us good night.
About the Wineries
Three packages that include a 50-minute discussion led by a host overlooking the estate's vineyards are available: Winemaker 101 (three bottles of wine, namely a vin gris, chardonnay and pinot noir, $59); Winemaker 201 (four bottles of wine, namely a pinot gris, chardonnay and two pinot noirs, $99); Winemaker 301 (four clones of pinot noir or choose your own package, $250). Ground shipping $1.
Glen Ellen, California
This Sonoma Valley winery offers the Quarantine Shelter in Place Tasting package, which includes four wines (one bottle each 2017 and 2018 Drummond Block Estate sauvignon blanc and one bottle each 2016 and 2017 Heins Block Estate zinfandel), a "Quarantine Strategy Guide" with notes about the wines, and a Zoom virtual tasting experience with a winemaker; $150. Free shipping.
Project M Wines
Wine tasting packages include four wines and a virtual appointment with winemaker Jerry Murray. The four packages range from $130 to $220; three feature pinot noirs (Taste the Place, $220; Vineyards and Vintages, $220; Formative Forces, $216). The Portfolio, $130, has a variety of wines, including a riesling, sparkling rosé, chardonnay and pinot noir. Shipping included except for Portfolio Pack, $15 flat rate.
Silver Thread Vineyard
Lodi, New York
Throughout April, Silver Thread Vineyard is hosting weekly virtual tastings and selling corresponding wine packs ranging from $65 for four bottles (Good Earth white, Blackbird red Wine, gewurztraminer and chardonnay) to $93 for six (a variety that includes riesling, rosé, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, Good Earth white and Blackbird red), with $10 flat-rate shipping. Tastings stream live on the winery's Facebook page Fridays at 5:30 p.m. EST and cover one bottle per week; anyone can watch, with or without purchase. Check back in May for new tasting packs focused on riesling. State regulations prohibit shipping to some states; check website for details.
A number of tourism sites are sharing virtual tasting opportunities in different wine-producing regions. They include:
Napa Valley Vintners (Napa Valley, California)
Sonoma Valley Wine (Sonoma Valley, California)
Paso Robles Wineries (Paso Robles, California)
Willamette Valley Wineries (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance (Walla Walla, Washington)