The Next Best Thing to Being There

Michigan wineries go virtual with tastings

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St. Julian winemaker Nancie Oxley in a guided tasting video. (Photo courtesy of St. Julian Winery by Amy Bobo)

In recent weeks, Michigan vintners have been experimenting more and more with virtual tastings to promote their wines and engage consumers during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Despite inevitable technological snafus and the learning curve associated with moving tastings online, what started as a remedy for temporary winery closures is quickly becoming standard industry practice.

“There’s nothing that will ever replace that connection of a face-to-face tasting in the tasting room, but I think this is definitely the next best thing,” says Nancie Oxley, vice president and winemaker at St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw.

Winemakers like Oxley have been trying out different video platforms to see which work best for them, from public social media livestreams to exclusive Zoom meetings for wine club members.

Going Virtual
To celebrate Michigan Wine Month, the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail has been hosting weekly Facebook Live tastings featuring trail members who try each other’s wines and discuss them. The live feeds give customers the opportunity to ask winemakers questions directly, which isn’t always possible during a physical visit to a larger operation’s tasting room, Oxley says. Plus, they get to see how winemakers interact with each other.

“That’s what customers don’t usually see is the collaboration that we as an industry have,” says Oxley, who participated in the May 13 livestream. “It’s so much fun to talk to customers, of course, but we love talking to each other, and so I’m hoping that will come through on these live tastings.”

Each tasting pack comes with six bottles of wine, two plastic tasting glasses, a corkscrew, a tasting menu and a link to a guided tasting video featuring winemaker Nancie Oxley. (Photo courtesy of St. Julian Winery by Amy Bobo)

At St. Julian, Oxley has been experimenting with other virtual tasting formats as well, including prerecorded YouTube videos incorporated into tasting kits for sale on the winery’s website.

Each kit comes with six bottles of wine, two plastic wine glasses, a corkscrew, a tasting menu and a link to Oxley’s guided tasting video, in which she adds “fun facts — things that our tasting room consultants may not know.”

“We talk a little bit about the wine, sometimes how it’s made, sometimes about the vineyards, sometimes about the growing season, sometimes about the aging process,” she says. “It just depends on each wine when we open it.”

Learning and Adapting
Of course, as winemakers around the state try out different virtual tasting formats, they’re learning and adapting as they go. Sean O’Keefe, winemaker at Mari Vineyards in Traverse City, ran into some technical difficulties when he hosted his first Facebook Live tastings, and he has ideas for improvements. For example, to strike a balance between sharing his knowledge and interacting with viewers, O’Keefe, who likes to explore wine-related topics in depth, might film a separate video to “answer all the questions” viewers submitted.

“We’re figuring that out so it doesn’t break the natural cadence of how I talk about things,” he says, noting that “the time lag” and trying to multitask also made it difficult to answer questions during the livestreams.

Jeff Lemon of Lemon Creek Winery in Berrien Springs learned firsthand that virtual tastings require special prep work when he participated in one of Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail’s collaborative Facebook Live events earlier this month.

“It’s really important to get people on ahead of time to do a sound check, do a lighting check,” he says. “I would have probably positioned myself a little differently. I was a little shadowed.”

Making sure viewers know which wines will be featured far enough in advance so they can buy bottles to taste along is another challenge, although drinking the same wine as the winemaker isn’t essential, O’Keefe says.

“In some cases, it doesn’t even matter if you have the same wine in the glass because I can tell you it smells like apples or chamomile or things like that,” O’Keefe says. “We’re so different. We tend to see and hear the same things, but taste and smell are very genetically different from one person to the next, let alone the words to describe it.”

Although virtual tastings come with their own challenges and aren’t perfect substitutes for winery visits, Michigan vintners don’t see them going away any time soon, even now that tasting rooms are gearing up to reopen. In fact, O’Keefe thinks they will become a standard part of winemakers’ jobs.

“I think it’s a natural extension of what we already do for our everyday interactions,” he says, noting that some winemakers, such as Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley, are getting creative with their videos. “A lot of the winemakers’ personalities are coming out in this, which I think is fun.”

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