Wineries offer virtual tastings amid coronavirus shutdown

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — In stark contrast to the normal hustle and bustle of tourists and enophiles, the grounds sit empty at California’s oldest commercial winery — the historic Buena Vista.

Tasting rooms statewide shut down last month after the governor ordered businesses to close to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. So Buena Vista and other wineries that want to stay viable and connected to their customers during the pandemic are harnessing technology and platforms such as Facebook Live to offer virtual wine experiences.

Actor George Webber, dressed in period clothing as “The Count” Agoston Haraszthy — the founder of Buena Vista in 1857 — takes online viewers back in time, broadcasting several days a week inside the oldest wine cave dug in the state and offering a “virtual tasting."

“While it’s certainly an interesting phenomenon — a different world now without throngs of people visiting our tasting room — this is a remarkable opportunity to present the wines, the history behind the wines, the flavors and aromas of each wine in a format that provides plenty of time to talk about the wines and share my perceptions with people around the world who can comment live,” Webber said. “It is a fun and unique way to keep commerce going in these difficult times.”

Among the many other wineries doing online experiences are Clos du Val, Far Niente, Groth, St. Supery, Kendall-Jackson, Quintessa, Plumpjack, Wente and Bouchaine Vineyards.

At Bouchaine, a premier producer of estate chardonnay and pinot noir in Napa’s Carneros region, a virtual online experience that had been in the planning for months was launched in mid-March at a crucial time. Those who want to take part in the tasting program order a winemaker tasting kit, which is delivered to their home. Bouchaine’s host leads the virtual tasting with a view of scenic rolling vineyards in the background.

Taking part in one of the first hour-long wine tastings last month were Don and Mardel Overly, who were self-quarantined in their home near Reno, Nevada.

“Participating in this virtual wine tasting has been a great distraction, and I really enjoy it. It’s super creative and a great way to bring a personalization to people out there,” Mardel said. “We’ve been lucky to be in Napa Valley but we have a lot of friends who have not. This is a great way to bring the valley to someone who can’t go there.”

Bouchaine also just added another virtual experience inviting top Napa Valley and California chefs to come into the kitchen at the winery’s new visitor center to share their skills and recipes with online guests.

“This is a fantastic way to connect with our fans, to check in on our club members,” said Bouchaine winemaker and general manager Chris Kajani. “To share a smile, share a glass of wine and recognize that we are all here for each other and add a little bit of levity to the day.”