All posts by Amber LeBeau

Lifetime Vintage’s Blind Tasting Bundles – An Incredible Study Tool

Recently I moderated a virtual blind tasting sponsored by the California company, Lifetime Vintage. Being in Europe, I wasn’t able to sample the wines myself, so I got to play detective.  I listened to Kendeigh Worden of The Grape Grind, Noelle Harman of Outwines, Jeff Burrows of FoodWineClick, Lauren Walsh of The Swirling Dervish and Dylan Robbins, CEO of Lifetime Vintage, describe on Zoom–from across four different states and an ocean–the wines they were tasting.

Blind tasting set up

Photo courtesy of Jeff at foodwineclick.com

We broke it out into two sessions, which Lifetime Vintage recorded–the first covering two whites and the second on two reds. So you can watch the fun yourself, but I’ll give you a little spoiler–I sucked!

Well, kinda. I got 1 out of the 4 right and was in the ballpark for a few others. But I still learned a lot with the most significant takeaway being that if you’re a wine student in the US, you absolutely need to check out Lifetime Vintage’s Blind Tasting program.

Seriously.

Now I’ll note that even though Lifetime Vintage sponsored the Zoom tasting by hosting it and sending Kendeigh, Noelle, Jeff and Lauren their kits, this is a wholly full-throated and unbridled endorsement. The only compensation that I’ve received was a huge amount of FOMO and jealousy over not being able to use this service myself.

I’m not kidding.

If I were still in the US, I would be all over this because it is, by far, one of the best study tools for blind tasting that I’ve come across.

At the beginning of the first video on white wines, Dylan explained the concept behind the kits. But I’ll give you a little summary here and why I find this so awesome.

1.) They have a network of retailers in 44 states so they can coordinate sending the same wines to study groups across the country.

Lifetime Vintage blind tasting bottle

Photo courtesy of Lifetime Vintage

Sadly, the archaic wine laws of Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Alabama and Utah still have those states on the sideline. Though it sounds like maybe Illinois might be able to join the party eventually.

But think about this and what potential it opens up with your studies.

Nearly every Master Sommelier and Master of Wine will harp on the benefits of study groups. Even if you are only reaching for the CMS Advance or WSET Diploma level, you can’t overstate the value in sharing ideas and approaches with peers. However, time and distance will always be hurdles when it comes to getting a group together. But with digital platforms like Zoom and Lifetime Vintage doing the logistical legwork, you could set up a tasting group with folks almost anywhere in the US.

This is also a boon for wine educators as well. You could have an instructor in New York hosting a tasting with students in Washington, Colorado, Texas, etc. And everyone will have the same wine to taste and experience. As someone very familiar with how much of a colossal headache the American three-tier system is, I’m in awe at the amount of behind the scenes work that the Lifetime Vintage team had to put in to get this network together.

But it gets even better.

2.) They will curate the bundles based on what you want or need to study.

This was a jaw-dropper for me. I honestly don’t know how long they are willing to do this without eventually raising the price. But this is huge for wine students. Think of all the things that are usually trouble spots for blind tasting.

The evil dwarves of Albariño, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot gris and Chenin.
The numerous laterals of wines that show raisination–Syrah, Grenache, Corvina, Zinfandel.
Pinot noir vs. Gamay.
Brunello vs Barolo.
The strange way that all the red Bordeaux varieties can be so different yet so similar.

You could have Lifetime Vintage come up with a 4 or 6 bottle set for any of that–just email them before you place your order. For those studying for the WSET Diploma D3 Wines of the World exam, you could ask for wines covering the four kinds of flights you’ll get.

Photo courtesy of Jeff at FoodWineClick.com

Protip: You could make your own mock D3 exam with two of the 6 bottle sets. (And get free shipping too)

Three wines from the same grape variety. (Usually different regions.)

Three wines from the same country. (Usually different varieties or winemaking styles.)

Three wines from the same region. (Usually different quality levels or winemaking styles.)

Three unrelated wines. (Hodgepodge Free for All!)

And, of course, you could also use this for non-study fun. As Lauren noted in her write up, these are perfect for hosting a kick-ass, hassle-free tasting party. If you want to do something with friends and family from across the country, you could ask for easy well-known wine styles (NZ Sauv. blanc, Buttery Chard, Napa Cab, etc.) Or all red wines. All whites, rose, sweet wines, whatever.

I mean, if Lifetime Vintage is going to do the logistical legwork of getting these kits together, then why not?

3.) The wines come in half bottles and all are exam quality.

Now, this does yield some limitations since not every wine is offered in this format. But times are changing and wineries are getting smart to the idea that 375ml bottles provide a lot of value. Not only do they fit in with the move towards moderation, but they also limit waste and the need to have a Coravin.

Sure, if you’re doing the six-bottle set all at once, you may still want to Coravin. But resealing and consuming four half-bottles over 2 to 3 days is not going to be a challenge for many wine lovers. And if you’re doing something like what we did with 2 whites one night and 2 reds the next, it’s even easier to ensure that there is no waste.

So How Much?

Right now, the basic four bottle sets are $95 each and the six-bottle sets $135. That’s an average of $23.75 and $22.75 a bottle, respectively. There is also a premium four bottle bundle for $150 ($37.50 bottle ave). While they will curate for free with the basic sets a lot of different things, if you’re asking for something like a Sangio vs. Nebbiolo battle, you’re probably going to be in the premium range.

On top of the base cost, there is a $6.99 procurement fee (same for both 4 & 6 bottle sets). For orders over $195, it’s free shipping, but orders less than that there is a cost. I tested it with my old address in Washington and the shipping was $22.99.

Lifetime Vintage

The Nitty Gritty

Based on the wines for our Zoom event, the quality level more than lives up to the price. Jeff of FoodWineClick did the math and noted that the retail price for the four bottles we got in our set came out to $75. Of course, that’s across several different retailers since the odds of finding them all at the same shop are low.

So essentially for that extra cost, you’re paying for:

The curation and preparation of the sets for blind tasting.
The legal and technical logistics of the LV team working with multiple retailers in 44 states to procure the wines and send them to different locations.
The convenience of shipping and home delivery.

As a wine student, think of how much we’re spending already procuring and tasting wines. Think of how tough it is trying to blind taste wines by yourself. To have someone do a lot of that work for you is an immense benefit that is well worth the cost. In one of the videos, I told Dylan of Lifetime Vintage that I honestly think he’s undercharging for his service-especially when you think of what other services like SommSelect charge.

With SommSelect, it’s a monthly subscription locking you into $199 for six bottles.

And these are full 750ml bottles (3 whites, 3 reds). So you pretty much have to use a Coravin or you’re likely going to waste wine. Now, yes, you do get the tasting notes and tips from Master Sommelier Ian Cauble, but it’s still a substantial cost ($2400 a year). While I enjoyed using the SommSelect kits when I was in the States, I ultimately had to drop it because it was just too much.

For almost half of that $2400, I could get 10 of the four bottle Lifetime Vintage blind tasting bundles tailored to what I need to study. At this point in my journey, I don’t need to be blinded on New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, off-dry Mosel Riesling, Alsatian Gewurztraminer or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m nailing those pretty regularly.

But I still have tons of blind spots and laterals that keep biting me. If I was in the US, you better believe that I would be a frequent customer of Lifetime Vintage. It’s one of the best investments that any wine student could make for their studies.

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60 Second Wine Review — Chateau St-Jacques d’Albas Blanc

Note: This wine was a sample received from the Languedoc Outsiders.

A few quick thoughts on the 2019 Chateau St-Jacques d’Albas Blanc from the Pays d’Oc.

The Geekery
Albas blanc

In 2001, Englishman Graham Nutter purchased his 90-hectare estate in the Minervois region located in the hills around the famous walled city of Carcassonne.

Historically a notable stop along the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage trail, viticulture here dates back even further to pre-Roman times. During the 11th century, a chapel was erected on the estate which Nutter completed restorations of in 2014

Most of the property is left uncultivated to protect biodiversity with the Nutter family farming 26 hectares of vines organically under the Cousinié Protocol. In 2019, the vineyards were Ecocert certified.

The 2019 Albas is a 50/50 blend of Roussanne and Vermentino, with only 760 bottles produced.

The Wine

Vanilla orchid photo by Michael Doss from Santa Ana, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The lovely vanilla orchid scent adds a lot of depth to this wine.

Medium-plus intensity nose–apricots and golden delicious apples with some citrus notes around the edge. There is a very fresh floral vanilla note–more like the blossoms rather than Chard-like vanilla bean.

On the palate, the wine does feel very Chardonnay-like, though, with creamy medium-plus bodied weight and tree fruits. But no butter. This is much more textural and reminiscent of a white CdP. However, medium-plus acidity and a burst of citrus lemon keeps it very lively and fresh. Mouthwatering. Long finish introduces some herbal notes like mint and lemongrass.

The Verdict

Delicious wine. Its only sin is being so drinkable that the bottle gets finished off way too quickly. For around $20 USD, this wine would be an excellent value. However, you’re likely going to find it for much less. While Wine-Searcher currently doesn’t have this particular wine listed, the vast majority of Chateau St-Jacques d’Albas wines retail for less than $15–which is, frankly, insane for how good these are.

This may be a tough wine for Americans to find, though Chateau St-Jacques d’Albas does export around 20% of their production to the US. Still, it’s well worth the hunt.

Bonus Geekery

Here’s Graham Nutter talking about the Cousinié Protocol & his estate.

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The Booming Popularity of Instagram Live Wine Events

I call them the “Witching Hours.”

IG Live events

Every day starting at 5 pm, my smartphone buzzes alive with notifications. Someone is going LIVE on Instagram! Then another and another! 6 pm, 7 pm until they finally start to die off around eight.

And that’s just the first round of Witching Hours for IG events in Europe and South Africa. Like clockwork, if I forget to shut off my phone, I’m sure to be awakened at 2 am (CET) when the 5 pm Witching Hour on the US West Coast springs to life.

Of course, it’s not just wineries who are rushing to this platform. Pretty much everyone is hopping on the IG LIVE train from celebrities to chefs and musicians to regular folks just wanting to chat.

Eventually the avalanche of events will abate, but they’re not going to go away completely. As I’ve noted before, new habits are being forged and, for the 800 million daily users of Instagram, IG Lives will always be some part of their consumption. To that extent, I fully endorse wineries dipping their toes in this digital ocean.

But after months of watching numerous IG Live wine events, I do have a few suggestions.

1.) Realize that this is a competition for eyeballs

In short, don’t suck.

Every winery knows the challenges of competing amidst the “Wall of Wine” at a wine shop. However, on Instagram, you’re not just competing with a swell of other wineries and wine folks hosting events. You’re also competing for attention with Cardi B, Justin Bieber and Carmelo Anthony.

You obviously shouldn’t expect 10,000+ viewers, but even if you only manage to pull in a few dozen, you have to understand that those eyeballs are precious. There are so many other things that they could be doing or watching. But they’re here, watching you. So make the most of it.

The first thing you should do is understand the platform and what you can do on IG Live. Instagram has posted a playbook recently with links and tips. Be creative and, above all, be social.

Don’t fall into the trap of so many virtual wine tastings. No one wants to watch you drone on and on about wines that we likely don’t have at the moment. Even people that do have the wine often get bored to tears listening to that. These events should be more about featuring you–your personality and passion–than they are necessarily about selling wine. If people like you, they’re going to seek out your wines.

Two ways to get people to like you is to entertain or engage them.

Baby goats photo by Pinoydiscus. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

And if you have adorable baby goats, by all means, show us those adorable baby goats!!!!

Show them something different. Right now, a lot of folks are craving the outdoors like never before. So show them some of the beauty and diversity of your vineyards. Give them a behind the scenes view of the winery that they ordinarily wouldn’t get on a regular winery visit. Everyone sees the manicured lawns and beautiful barrel rooms. Show us the reality and not the mirage.

Feature a guest. It could be someone else in wine or a musician, comedian, chef, etc. If you’re a family winery, hammer that point home by showing us Grandma Jean or Uncle Roger. Even if they’re not directly involved in the winery, they’re part of your story and what makes you different. Bonus points for featuring embarrassing childhood photos of the winemaker.

But remember that one of the charms of IG Live is the real-time feedback and interaction. Ask questions of your audience and pay attention to their responses. Make them feel like they’re part of the event.

2.) Make sure that people know that you are having an event–and cast a wide net

The biggest limitation of Instagram Live is that often people don’t know when they’re happening. Oh sure, if you’re like me and following lots of wineries and wine people, you can’t escape them. But most wine consumers aren’t following that many brands–especially on Instagram where years of boring bottle porn have turned off a lot of folks from following wineries.

The beauty of IG LIVE is that you can use engaging events to bring more people back to your Instagram feeds and encourage them to follow you. But you have to reach them first.

Overcoming this obstacle was one of the reasons why I developed VirtualWineEvents.com. With digital platforms, you can reach a global audience and don’t have to be limited to only folks who already know and follow your brand.

VWE Screenshots

Once we realized how often people were searching for “Instagram” and “IG” on the site, we created a separate page just to highlight IG Lives.

There’s no reason why a winery in California hosting an IG Live at 1 pm can’t reach a consumer in Chicago, Dallas (3 pm), Toronto, New York (4 pm), Buenos Aires (5 pm), London (9 pm), Paris, Capetown (10 pm) or even Auckland (8 am).

Even if your wines aren’t available in those markets (yet!), people travel and talk.  Tourism will eventually return. So why not be part of the global conversations that are happening everywhere online?

3.) Remember, it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere

The most practical advice I can give wineries is to listen to the wisdom of Jimmy Buffet and Alan Jackson. We don’t need to launch these events all at the same time. Especially with that global reach, there is an audience for exciting and engaging online wine content almost any time. It’s undoubtedly advantageous to have your event when there is less eyeball competition.

The vast majority of IG Lives get launched at the top of an hour. So even a simple offset of starting at half-past (when many events have ended) or quarter-till (before the next batch starts) is a smart move. But if I had a winery in the US, I would particularly think about doing a late-evening event between 8-10 pm (PST).  I’ve been seeing things on VirtualWineEvents.com that suggest this time slot could be very promising.

Though, a caveat. With the Virtual Wine Events site only being live for a couple of weeks, I don’t want to read too much here. But, so far, we’ve seen a fairly consistent traffic pattern with a jump of users checking out the site and clicking on events at 8 pm (PST). Below I have a document read chart (i.e., events seen and clicked) from a typical day.

Document reads chart

PST – West Coast US
CET – Central European Time (Paris, Rome)
AEST – Australia East Coast (Sydney, Melbourne)

Again, a small sample size but intriguing. If you think of it from a consumer’s POV, what do we usually do after dinner when we’re bored? We hop on our phone and look for something to entertain us.

But at that time, you might not want to commit to a full master class or hour-plus event. Folks are more likely to be looking for something easy and fun–a distraction. Dropping in on a short IG Live event (most last around 25 to 45 minutes) doesn’t feel like that much of a commitment.

If the topic is interesting (i.e., not “Hey, watch me drink and swirl a Chardonnay for 20 minutes!”), then it’s an easy click of the button for someone to join from the comforts of their couch or bed.

VWE Tweet about IG Live events

To leverage that impulsive, looking for something to do nature, I set up schedule tweets with the VWE Twitter account to steer people towards interesting IG Live events happening soon.

This is definitely (at the moment) an untapped time period for US wineries. It also works great for Australian wineries that are eying the US market as this witching hour falls smack in the middle of the day for you. Maybe even catch some early rising Europeans as well.

Again, this is the advantage of using these digital tools.

Thanks to platforms like Instagram Live, when wine consumers are looking for something to do, they can usually find it. Even when things return to semi-normalcy, we’re not going to abandon these habits completely. The urge to ward off boredom is always present.  And the dopamine high of a notification buzz is potent.

Thankfully, it also pairs well with wine.

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Wine Shopping in the Age of Social Distancing

I just had an intensely uncomfortable experience.

Nicolas in Paris

Since France started easing Covid restrictions on May 11th, I’ve been itching to get out of the house. So today I took the plunge and walked to my local wine shop to pick up a few bottles. When I got there, I made a note of the shop’s safety precautions posted outside.

Everyone must wear a mask.
Only two customers allowed in the store at once.
Maintain at least 1-meter distance from other people.

Once inside, I noticed the tape delineating the one-way race track that we were to take as well as a new precaution. Customers could not touch any of the bottles-only clerks. While this all made sense and I understood fully why it had to be this way, I still have to confess that seeing that sign made my heart sink.

One of my great joys as a wine lover is browsing the shelves, picking up bottles that catch my eye to take a closer look. Sometimes I want to read the back label (particularly with blends) to find out more details. Other times I want to see if it is a fat ass heavy bottle that I can promptly put back on the shelf.

But even if I had disposable gloves, no way was going to happen.

signs outside Nicolas

The signs outside the shop where we waited our turn to enter.
Which was fine to do on a lovely May day, but can easily get quite unpleasant during poorer weather.

It’s clear that in the age of Covid and social distancing, you do not browse. Everything is “Get in. Get out. Go.” There was no way to not be keenly aware of the customers outside and the one lingering just a meter inside, waiting for me to get done. And I certainly wasn’t going to be that asshole.

There was no time for decisions, so I just told the clerk what I was broadly looking for; an AOC Chablis, an Alsatian Pinot gris and a white Bordeaux with (hopefully) a high percentage of Semillon. Then I took whatever the clerk pointed to. No quibbling over the dryness of the Pinot gris or what the cépage of the white Bordeaux was. Just go.

And while I did it and I accepted what I got, it was still a thoroughly terrible shopping experience that I’m loathe to repeat.

This isn’t about the tired joke of French customer service but rather the realities of the new world that we’re living in. It’s not hard to picture similar scenarios playing out in small wine shops in the US or elsewhere. While the staff may have the best of intentions to offer excellent service, they’re going to be restrained by space and time limitations. Restaurants too. If a place can only serve a fraction of the customers they had before, it’s going to be more imperative to get those customers quickly in and out so you can move on to the next one.

The days of browsing the shelves and having friendly, relationship-building chats are going to be on hold–for who knows how long.

And, damn, does that suck hardcore.

I couldn’t wait to get out of that wine shop. It had nothing to do with worrying about getting sick or the service. I’m sure the wines that the clerk picked will be fine. But rather it was the complete absence of joy in shopping for something that is usually quite joyful.

I honestly don’t know when I’ll be back–to that or any other wine shop. I’m comfortable with shopping online so it’s easy to turn that.

But wine shopping online is often not that joyful either.

While there are good online wine shops out there, quite a few are seven shades of “Ugh.” Especially the ones run by traditional brick & mortars who are quickly trying to cobble together an online presence. Among my biggest pet peeves:

Out of date info–especially with blends and vintages.
No label pic or, just as bad, an old label picture from 7 years ago.
Lack of info about the wine beyond a bland, generic tasting note.
Poor user interface for completing the sale.

But even for the well-designed sites, it’s hard to mimic the in-person experience. Just like our socially distant shop, I can’t pick up the bottles to get a better look. Scrolling through a parade of bottle pics doesn’t have the same effect as looking at wine shelves or bumping into a case stack when it comes to highlighting new and unexpected wines.

Instead, online wine shops almost always play it safe, featuring prominently on the front page and at the top of all searches their bread and butter wines. The sites that focus on crowdsourced user ratings are often the worst at this. You have to wade through a lot of “blah” before finding any “oooh.”

Wine.com chat

Of course, this could just be what the AI wants me to think….

Then there is the lack of interaction with other wine folks. While I rarely need help picking out a wine, sometimes I do want to hear about what’s new and exciting at the shop. That’s another thing that is hard to duplicate online. Some websites, like Wine.com, utilize chat boxes. While they may be real people on the other end (as I tested recently), it’s hard to build a virtual relationship with a screen name.

They could be delightful and know their stuff, but I can’t hear the enthusiasm in their voice or pick up body language clues that paint a deeper picture. It’s hard to read sincerity via text.

However, I’m not sure about the personal concierge services using Zoom and other platforms.

I haven’t experienced them yet. Mostly because all the ones I hear about are based in the US and UK. The idea certainly sounds promising. I just don’t know if I truly want that intense of a wine relationship.

I don’t need someone checking in on me every time I want to buy wine. As I said, most times I’m completely okay on my own. Rather what I would want is a more casual “Somm with Benefits” kind of relationship. Someone that is there–and consistently the same one or two people–when I need them, but aren’t that clingy and trying to pester me all the time with their latest offers and recommendations.

Essentially, I want a relationship like my local brick & mortar sales clerks. A relationship that I define on my own terms. Sometimes I want help; sometimes I don’t. But when I’m in the mood for a quickie wine recommendation or a geeky conversation, they’re my go-to’s.

But above all, with online shopping, I want some joy.

I want to be greeted with a front-page that surprises and intrigues me–not bores me to tears. If I have to accept cookies so that the site recognizes me to offer something more curated, so be it. That potentially could offer even more value than a brick & mortar experience.

I want something not so sterile and impersonal. The sites that are incorporating more video snippets about producers have been leading the way. Again, this enhances the experience and adds more value.

And I want interaction–but not too much interaction. No annoying “Can I help you” pop-ups and pestering emails. I don’t want the virtual equivalent of a car salesman.

I just want to enjoy shopping for wine.

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60 Second Wine Review — Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio

Note: This wine was sent as a sample.

A few quick thoughts on the 2018 Peter Zemmer Pinot grigio from the Alto Adige.

Peter Zemmer PG

The Geekery

I’ve been studying Northeast Italy for the D3 Wines of the World unit of the WSET Diploma and one stat about Alto Adige really took me by surprise. The area is hugely dominated by cooperatives, which make around 70% of all the wine from the region.

Now most of this is of decent quality with 98% of production reaching DOC level. (No DOCGs in the region.) However, it’s clear that small family wineries like Alois Lageder, Elena Walch and Peter Zemmer are fairly rare.

The original Peter Zemmer founded the estate in 1928, purchasing vineyards around Cortina sulla Strada del Vino in South Tyrol. His nephew, Helmut Zemmer, succeeded him with Helmet’s son, Peter, running the estate today.

Zemmer not only farms all his vineyards sustainably but also practices minimal intervention winemaking techniques. Of the 7,500 cases produced on average, around half are exported.

The Wine

orange blossoms photo by Ellen Levy Finch (en:User:Elf) March 23, 2004.. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

While the fruit is more lemony to my taste, the floral orange blossoms are certainly enticing.

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of apple and citrus with some floral orange blossom notes. I know that producers sometimes will blend a little Gewürztraminer, but I couldn’t find any confirmation that Zemmer does. Still, very aromatic for a Pinot grigio.

On the palate, the apple carries through, but the citrus jumps out the most. Very lemony with both the fruit and zest accentuated by medium-plus acidity. Medium body gives ample weight. Long finish introduces a slightly salty, minerally note.

The Verdict

In the US, Italian Pinot grigio doesn’t always enjoy the best reputation.  Sometimes it’s hard to look past the light, almost watery mass-produced styles you find in supermarkets and chain restaurants (cough Olive Garden cough).

However, this Zemmer PG doesn’t play to those stereotypes.  For around $14-17, it has the aromatics and weight to be both interesting by itself and as a versatile food pairing wine.

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Now is the time for wineries to think BIG with online wine events

Since the launch of VirtualWineEvents.com, I’ve been stunned by the response. Even though the site has only been live for a few days, we’re going to hit more than 100,000 pages read by the end of today. We’ve haven’t even climbed to the top of Google search rankings yet. So nearly all of this is coming from word of mouth. However, the big driver behind the “pages read” number is that once users are on the site, they’re spending several minutes visiting multiple pages and clicking on events.
Chum salmon leaping photo by Photo: K. Mueller, USFWS. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Now, of course, there is some novelty at play. But as I noted in my last post, there’s no reason to think that audiences for online wine events are going to vanish as soon as things get “back to normal.” The horse has left the barn.

Every day, as consumers become more familiar with using Zoom and checking in on Instagram and Facebook Live events, new habits are being formed. While we all can’t wait to get the heck out of our house, eventually, the novelty of that will wear off too. Though (hopefully) quarantine-life won’t return, a new normal is already emerging. One that certainly involves more digital tools than it did before.

The fascinating thing about putting together VirtualWineEvents.com, as well as attending numerous online wine events myself, has been seeing the different approaches to these events.

Some have been very creative such as Peltier Winery in Lodi hosting “Wine and Comedy” shows featuring their winemaker with a professional comedian. Or Tinte Cellars in Woodinville doing Facebook takeovers with local musicians. Other wineries, shops and entrepreneurs are hosting cooking events, yoga, pajama parties, painting classes and even tasting parties centered around solving murder mysteries.

People are having fun, creating worthwhile and engaging events–taking advantage of digital platforms that give their brands a larger reach.

And then there are the folks who are thinking small.

While a lot of wineries are doing fantastic jobs focusing on retention and taking care of their wine club members with personal, one-on-one virtual wine tastings. Far too many wineries are limiting themselves to the same formula. Take a look at the listings on Virtual Wine Events or just Google and take a gander at Facebook event postings. You’ll see the same script.

Hey, we set up a special virtual wine tasting pack for you to enjoy. Order by _______ and we’ll get it sent to you in time for our next event on ________.

These events, in and of themselves, aren’t bad. Every winery should be doing them periodically to generate revenue. But the over-reliance on them, and making them the sole expression of their digital strategy, introduces the same problems that make the traditional tasting-room model unsustainable. You’re fishing from a small pond stocked with fish that likely already know your brand. You’re just playing catch and release.

Meanwhile, you have a whole digital stream of wine lovers spawning and flowing right past–and you’re not even casting a line.

Online wine events are brand-building bonanzas.

They allow consumers a chance to discover a brand without having to invest much commitment–just a little time. I don’t need to already be familiar with a winery in order to be intrigued by an engaging topic for a virtual event. Such as Pearl Morissette Estate Winery in Ontario talking about Cabernet Franc in the Niagara or Laird Family Estate’s Clone Wars. If it sounds interesting, I’ll check it out even if I don’t have the wine. If it ends up being boring, I can just leave. No biggie. It’s even more painless to drop in and out of IG or FB Live events.

That ease makes me more willing to check out news brands. For wine consumers, that low bar of commitment offered by digital is GOLD. It frees us to be adventurous because the barrier of entry is far lower than say, visiting a tasting room.

So why squander that gold by basically treating virtual wine events as tasting room visits?

Have you ever stopped to think about what wineries ask of consumers under that traditional tasting room model? How much of a commitment they’re counting on, just to discover a new brand? Let’s say someone has never heard of or knows very little about a winery, to get them interested in buying wine we expect them to commit:

Time
Planning
Travel
Money

…to come visit a tasting room, try the wines, hear the spiel and so on. All this, just to get to know your brand. You’re asking quite a bit, even for local consumers, much less of consumers in other markets. And this is just looking at it from a pure, self-interest consumer POV. We’re not even considering environmental concerns that will also diminish people’s motivation to travel across the country or oceans.

Now with the traditional VT script, the travel commitment is removed. However, wineries are still asking a commitment of time, planning and money upfront. Again, all this, just to get to know them and figure out if they’re a brand worth paying attention to.

No wonder so many wineries are fishing in a small pond.

Vineyard Chat

Jeff Harding, the Beverage Director at The Waverly Inn in New York, has been doing some great IG Live events with winemakers out in the vineyards.

To really buy-in to all the opportunities that digital offers, wineries need to think beyond the tasting room. Yes, the wine club and personal one-on-one virtual tastings are great. They can convey intimacy and personal attention, which will surely pay dividends. But that should just be one aspect of a broader digital strategy.

To maximize the massive potential of online wine events, wineries need to look beyond the pond. They need to expand the scope beyond just “Hey, let’s taste some of our wines–which we hope you already have!” Instead, they should be using these virtual events to show us the vibe and personality of the brand. Consumers want to know if wineries share their values and if they’re just plain likable or interesting.

These digital platforms are opening up new streams of consumers from across the globe and bringing them closer than ever to wineries.

Now is the time to be thinking big and casting lines.

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A New Tool to Help Promote Online Wine Events

My post last month on How Can We Make Virtual Wine Tastings Less Sucky? generated quite a response. While most of it came from wineries seeking honest feedback on their VTs, I also received numerous inquiries from folks wondering how I was finding these events. For me, it was relatively simple because they’re popping up everywhere on social media. But when I went to Google “Virtual Wine Tasting,” I quickly realized what a chore it was for consumers to find interesting online wine events.

Mobile screenshot from https://virtualwineevents.com/

Unless someone is actively following lots of wineries, wine schools, bloggers, etc., most of these events float under the radar. Yet, there’s clearly a growing interest even in a post-Covid future.

One silver lining emerging from this pandemic is that it has encouraged us to embrace digital tools like never before. Zoom is not going away, neither are Facebook and IG Live events. Everyday consumers are getting comfortable connecting with people and brands from across the globe on these platforms. Even when things get back to semi-normal, there’s always going to be an audience for online wine events.

We just need an easier way to find them.

VirtualWineEvents.com

I have to give credit to my wife, Beth, a former Google site reliability manager, for developing this site. She not only noticed that the domain name was available (as well as onlinewineevents.com) but that Google Trends was showing people searching for these terms. She had been itching to play around with wine-related technology in her quarantine downtime so, after a couple of weeks of work, we launched the site this weekend–already populated with over 200 events.

US Search terms

Google Trends in the US for Virtual Wine Tasting and Online Wine Tasting

Global search terms

Global results

This is a free tool for wineries, educators and other small businesses to promote their wine events.

While I will be managing the site and uploading events as I find them, it’s designed to be easy for anyone to use. All you have to do to upload an event is to create a login via FaceBook or Google. We also have an email login option that we’ll keep as long as it’s not being abused. The aim is to maintain some accountability on who is submitting events.

Once you’ve created a login, you can input an event on any date by filling in the details below. The listing will then need to be approved by admins who will make sure it is a legitimate event before going live.

Input page on Virtual Wine events

The timezone is based on the login IP of the submitter (in my case, Central European Time). For global visitors to the site, the time will be adjusted to their own time zone.

Future Developments in the Works

We just launched the site this weekend with several more features slated to be added–including some front-end design work and the ability to upload photos. But three significant items coming soon:

1.) Social media share buttons on each event listing so that consumers can easily post to their SM accounts events that they are interested in.

2.) An “Interested” icon that consumers can select to highlight events that intrigue them. This will contribute to a Reddit-style “Trending Events” listing that will appear on the main page to highlight future events that are garnering the most interest. While the homepage for today’s events will always list things in order of what’s coming up next, future calendar dates will elevate to the top more popular events for higher visibility.

3.) A back-edit feature to upload links to recordings of events that have passed. As I noted in my previous article, the long term benefit of virtual wine tastings and other online wine events is that this is content that can keep working for you.

Search results on Virtual Wine Events include several of the most recent past events that are relevant to the query. Like this example of what someone would see searching for a wine event about New Zealand.

NZ Search

Items that have a post-event recording available will have a special tag noting this for users to check out.

Another feature that will come a little further down the road is the ability to subscribe to be notified of events based on keywords such as a favorite winery or wine region. This way, whenever an event that matches is submitted, the consumer will automatically get an email notification of it.

How can wineries use this tool effectively?

Mobile view VWE

Mobile view of events.

While I highly encourage wineries to start using VirtualWineEvents.com as another promotion tool, you’ll quickly notice poking around the site that there are A LOT of online wine events happening. And more are popping up every day. So to maximize your reach, keep a couple tips in mind.

1.) Have a Catchy Title. Something more than just “Virtual Tasting with the Winemaker”–stuff. On mobile, all people are going to see at first is this title, so make it count. Do you have a particular theme like “The Battle of the Zins” or “Wines to convert Chardonnay-skeptics,” etc.? Think of something that is going to make folks want to click on your event.

2.) Have a Good Landing Page. This is the link that your event title goes to. Ideally, if it is an event that requires registration, you want the landing page to be that registration page. Consumers will lose interest if you make them have to click through multiple links.

3.) Make the Description Worthwhile. The search function pulls from the event title and description box. You want to make sure that if someone is looking for an event on Pinot noir, yoga, natural wine, etc., that they’re going to find you.

Any feedback or suggestions would be much appreciated!

As you can tell, this is still a work in progress. You can email me at amber@spitbucket.net with comments as well as hit me up on the Virtual Wine Events Twitter handle, @VirtualWineEvts.

This will definitely be a valuable tool for connecting consumers with wineries and other small businesses. The potential of online events is limitless and go far beyond just virtual wine tasting and webinars. There are folks hosting murder mystery parties, cooking and painting classes, R&B social events, trivia quizzes, watch parties for movies & YouTube premieres, etc. Long after we’ve emerged from our Covid slumber, there will still be consumers interested in online wine events.

Hopefully now they will be easier to find.

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60 Second Wine Review — Hess Collection Estate Napa Valley Chardonnay

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Hess Chardonnay from Napa Valley.

The Geekery
Hess Chardonnay

Donald Hess came from a family of brewers in Switzerland. But in his twenties, Hess purchased a mineral water source and founded Valser Wasser that grew to become the largest in Switzerland. It was a search for new sources in California that would bring Hess to discover Napa Valley wines in the 1970s and eventually lease the old Mont La Salle winery on Mount Veeder from the Christian Brothers.

The Su’skol Vineyard, located just east of Carneros at the far southern extreme of Napa Valley, is the source for the estate Chardonnay. The vineyard is unique with Hess using massal selection to propagate and sustain a mixture of 9 different clones of Chardonnay–including several of the aromatic musqué clones. Like all their estate vineyards, Hess farms Su’skol sustainably and is certified Napa Green.

Depending on the vintage, around 20-30% is fermented in new French oak for nine months with weekly lees stirring for four months. A similarly small amount will see malolactic fermentation. In 2016, around 21,700 cases were made.

The Wine

Photo of citrus blossoms by Ανώνυμος Βικιπαιδιστής. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Gorgeous citrus blossom notes in this Chardonnay.

High-intensity nose. Lots of lemon with very citrusy white blossom notes as well. Subtle herbal and white pepper spice reminds me of both Sauvignon blanc and Gruner Veltliner. With air, spiced pear hints at oak and more Chardonnay-like fruit.

On the palate, the Chardonnay character emerges with spiced pear, as well as apples, going along with the still pronounced citrus fruits. There’s also noticeable medium-plus weight and subtle vanilla creaminess of oak. It doesn’t dominate the profile, but the fresh lemon definitely moves to more lemon custard. High acidity still maintains freshness with a mouthwatering nature that lingers on a long finish.

The Verdict

This is definitely a very different Cali Chard that’s nothing like the butter bomb “cougar juice” stereotype. Nor is it trying to be a wannabe Chablis.

For around $17-20 retail, it’s just a plain delicious Chardonnay that is well worth finding.

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Talking about Millennial consumers today on The Real Business of Wine!

I’m very excited to have been asked by Robert Joseph, aka the Wine Thinker, and Polly Hammond of 5forests to join them on their April 20th Real Business of Wine panel talking about wine consumers. While I’ll be there to share some insights on Millennial buyers, the event is going to cover a lot of ground.

RBW logo

Join us for this very special session in collaboration with ARENI Global, as we explore the changing face of the modern wine consumer. Millennials, Boomers: does it matter? Technophobes, Social media natives: what does it mean for communications? Wine shops, DTC: what does the future look like?”

The panel will start on Zoom at 18:00 BST (1 pm EST, 10 am PST). You can get the link by registering on the RBW site.

About #RealBizWine

Joseph and Hammond launched RBW earlier this year to bring wine professionals from across the globe together to talk about today’s hot topics. In a little over a month, they’ve broadcasted over a dozen episodes covering issues as diverse as biodynamics and natural wines to excelling at eCommerce, wine writing and working remotely from home.

Along the way, they’ve featured a literal Who’s Who of authoritative voices in wine such as Jancis Robinson, Jane Anson, Isabelle Legeron, Felicity Carter, Laura Catena, Rebecca Hopkins, Ronan Rayburn, Joe Fattorini, Monty Waldin, Eric Asimov, Tim Atkin, Elaine Chukan Brown, Alice Feiring, Paul Mabray, Jasper Morris, Ray Isle, Erica Duecy and DLynn Proctor.

*Cue “One of These Things is Not Like the Others….“*

But, hey, I’m just going to do my best to hold my head above water while talking about a topic that I’m passionate about. Beyond being a Millennial myself, over my 15+ years of retail experience (most of it in the wine industry), I’ve seen how the old playbook doesn’t always work with my cohorts. However, we’re far from monolithic with the oldest of my generation starting to hit their 40s while the youngest is still in college.

On this blog, I’ve written about Millennials a lot. These articles have been some of the most searched for and shared pieces I’ve produced.

Is the Wine Industry boring Millennials to (its) death?
The Wine Industry’s Millennial Strawman
Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?
The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials
Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?
Under the (Social Media) Influence
The Real Influencers of the Wine World
Adapt or Perish — The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Technology
The Lost Storytelling of Wine
Wine Above Replacement (WAR) — Hard Seltzer
How Can Wineries Use Instagram Better?
Why Do Winery Instagram Feeds Suck So Much?
Fake Wine and Real Boobs

However, more than participating, what I’m most looking forward to are the new insights.

One of the great things about the Real Business of Wine format is that it’s interactive with the hosts, Joseph & Hammond, frequently bringing in folks from the audience to ask questions and share their experiences. (Check out of one my favorite episodes below on Wine Tourism as an example.) It truly does become a global conversation that I’m thrilled to be a part of.

However, because of its popularity and bandwidth issues, they have to limit the audience to around 100 people. This is why they encourage registration via email to secure your place. So if you want to take in the panel live, definitely sign up!

But don’t worry if you miss the 100 person cut-off, the episode will be on The Real Business of Wine YouTube channel with clips posted on the @realbizwine Twitter feed.

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Dead Weight — Are heavy wine bottles a good idea?

The other night I had a gorgeous rosé….which I have ZERO desire to ever purchase again.

Empty Muga bottle

For comparison, I weighed a FULL bottle of Champagne as well. You expect that to be thick and heavy to hold the pressure.
It was 1595 grams, meaning that this empty rosé bottle (892 g) weighed more than HALF a full bottle of Champagne.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was absolutely lovely. Superb even.

The 2018 Flor de Muga from Rioja checked off so many of my yummy boxes. High-intensity aromatics of strawberries, citrus peel and peaches. Crackling acidity and freshness with a little bit of creamy texture coming from the oak. Long minerally finish that introduces some cinnamon spice to add complexity. Scrumptious to the last drop.

But every time I refilled my glass, enthusiasm for buying this rosé diminished. Because regardless of how much pleasure it was giving me, I couldn’t get past how obnoxiously heavy the bottle was.

It was ridiculous. Holding the empty Muga bottle in my hand, I was startled with how similar the weight felt compared to the bottle of Bodegas Tradición Amontillado I had just opened that was mostly still full. While I bought this bottle online, the next time I see this wonderful and exceptionally well-made rosé available for purchase, it’s going to get a big ole “Nope” from me.

Why?

Because there are TONS of wonderful and exceptionally well-made rosés out there that I can buy instead–including many that I have yet to discover. There’s no monopoly, anywhere, from any region or winery for quality wine. Like every other consumer, I have near limitless options to spend my money. Making good wine alone doesn’t cut it.

And, frankly, life’s too short to waste time with obnoxious fat ass bottles.

As part of a Millennial generation that has been telling brands for years that we want more sustainable, less wasteful packaging, seeing wineries still cling to these ridiculous heavy bottles sends the message that they’re not serious about sustainability. I don’t care what platitudes of stewardship you put on your website if I’m holding the contradiction right in my hands.

But this isn’t just a Millennial thing.

Folks like Jancis Robinson have been speaking about the foolishness of Naughty Heavy Bottles (NHBs) for years. Thankfully, savvy wineries have been responding. Many are finding that not only can they save a substantial amount of money by being more environmentally conscience, it’s what many of their customers want.

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek noted his surprise at this revelation when he looked back on his winery’s journey towards greener bottles.

But before we made our bottle change, we reached out to our fans on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog asking for what they looked for in a wine bottle. I was expecting a mix of people in favor of the solidity and feel of the heavier bottles and those who wanted the greener environmental footprint of the lighter bottles. And there were a few of each of those. But the overwhelming majority of the responses focused on utility: people wanted bottles that they could lift and store comfortably, and larger bottles don’t fit in many pre-made wine racks. The hostility toward the larger bottles was eye-opening.

— Jason Haas “A lighter wine bottle revisited, 10 years and 1,370,000 pounds of glass later”, July 29, 2019

But wait, Amber. What about all those marketing and psychology studies saying that people respond positivity to heavy bottles?

They’ve all got merit. I’m not going to dispute that. There are certainly plenty of case studies out there to back them up. But besides invoking the wisdom of Bob Dylan about times a-changin’, I want to cast light on something that those case studies don’t consider.

The success of the “Heavy Bottle=Better, more premium wine” strategy is wholly dependent on ignorance. It’s a tent propped up with two poles.

Ignorance of what makes a wine truly high quality and premium.
Ignorance of the huge carbon footprint and environmental debt of transporting heavy glass bottles.

Pup tent photo by 	Joost J. Bakker. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Another thing to consider–a flimsy tent is easy to set up. Other, even cheaper, brands can adopt thicker bottles–negating your “competitive” advantage.


Sure, you may fool Joe RandoCustomer on the sales floor with your hefty Bottle A swaying him away from Bottle B. But you can’t escape that the long-term success of this trick depends on sustained ignorance. As soon as any of that ignorance chips away, the tent collapses.

Go back to Haas’ Tablas Creek blog.

Note that it was his loyal (i.e., repeat) customers who were telling him so overwhelmingly how much they hated the heavy bottles. These customers are less likely to be fooled on the sales floor by a heavy bottle because they’ve found plenty of premium wines, like Tablas Creek, that aren’t in those kinds of bottles. The light bulb has “clicked” for them so that pillar of ignorance loses its support.

However, losing that second pillar of ignorance is what’s really going to sink heavy bottles.

With all the talk about sustainability these days, would you really want to place a wager on your customers staying ignorant about wine’s carbon footprint? Or that the vast majority of a winery’s carbon costs come from the packaging and transport of glass bottles?

Glass waste bin photo by Usien. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

While glass is 100% recyclable, it does have its share of problems.

Sure, we can talk about cans, pouches and other alternative packages, but I’m not going there today. Instead, I just want wineries to start reading the writing that’s on the wall and the messaging that their customers (both current and future) are getting.

Every day, we see more companies reducing packaging waste. Coca Cola has been making their bottles lighter. The beer and cider industry have adopted “lightweighting”.

And in the wine industry, numerous forward-thinking wineries like Jackson Family Estates, Tablas Creek, Torres and more have long ago shown that, for them, sustainability isn’t a platitude. While they might not aggressively market their lighter bottles as a competitive distinction, there’s going to be wineries that will.

While it’s not just a “Millennial Thing,” it certainly is important to us.

Lots of ink has been wrung worrying about Millennials and Gen Z consumers. The hot question is always when are we going to come around and start adopting wine like previous generations. There is some truth to the optimism that all that my cohorts need is time. However, wineries need to be thinking now about the messaging that they’re sending to these consumers.

Because, yeah, your wine may be great. But so are numerous other wines that similarly want a piece of our wallets. If we have the choice between a wine that speaks to our values and one that doesn’t (or is even hypocritical about it), you know which one has the advantage.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not something I would wager on.

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