All posts by Amber LeBeau

Talking Virtual Wine Events Next Week at FOMENT 2020 and on IG Live with Tablas Creek Vineyards

It’s been a busy spring and early summer for me since the launch of VirtualWineEvents.com. I’ve been invited to several interviews and panels, mostly to talk about the industry’s adoption of these new digital tools. Two exciting ones coming up is the FOMENT Conference this Tuesday, June 30th, which I’ll follow the next day with by joining Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyards for a chat on his weekly Instagram live broadcast.

I’ve posted the details of these events below which I hope you’ll join us for.

At the end, I’ve also included the videos from some of the projects I mentioned above such as Destinate’s The Future of Wine Tourism Webinar, Pour Agency’s wine marketing series and a couple of The Real Business of Wine panels that I’ve been on.

FOMENT | Wine and Tourism Tech Variety Hour

Tuesday, June 30th – 16:00 ACST, 8:30 CEST, 2:30 EDT (23:30 PDT June 29th)

Broadcasting live from Yalumba’s Signature Cellar in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, FOMENT tackles the future of technology in the wine industry and tourism. While the timing isn’t ideal for Americans, registering for this free conference will get you access to the recording.

A few of the notable guests that I’m thrilled to be participating in this conference with include:

Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale
Lisa Anderson and Max Waterson of Yalumba
Wine writer Max Allen of Australian Financial Review, JancisRobinson.com and many more
Polly Hammond of 5forests and The Real Business of Wine
Wine Business professor Damien Wilson of Sonoma State University

My lovely wife and the tech-brains behind VirtualWineEvents.com, Beth, joined me in our pre-recorded interview. We talked about the need we saw emerging during COVID. Our goal was to create a site where wineries, retailers and wine educators could post upcoming virtual tastings, webinars, Instagram Lives–completely free of charge–so they could be more easily discovered by wine lovers.

We’ve been exceedingly pleased with the response and traffic that we’re having to VirtualWineEvents.com. Even as tastings rooms start to open up, wine consumers are still looking for interesting and engaging online wine events that they can attend from the comfort of their homes. Likewise, savvy wine businesses realize the continued value of platforms that allow them to showcase their brands to consumers across the globe.

Tablas Creek Wednesday Conversations with Jason Haas on Instagram Live

Wednesday, July 1st – Noon PDT, 15:00 EDT, 21:00 CEST

A perfect case-in-point of a savvy wine business embracing digital tools is Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles. Every week they host a live stream on their Instagram page. While, for the sake of my sanity and phone notifications, I’m glad that the “witching hours” of endless IG Lives have quieted, these online events are still quite popular.

The laid-back, conversational nature of IG Lives is an easy format for consumers to pick up. All you do is follow the person hosting the event. Then when the notification comes that they’re going live, you click on it. You can watch, comment and even ask to participate if the host wants to bring other folks in to join them. It feels spontaneous and unscripted which, for many consumers, comes across as more authentic.

Numerous wineries like Tablas Creek have been hitting it out of the park with these events that they can later upload to their IGTV channel or YouTube. Check out some of the past Wednesday Conversations with Jason Haas featuring guests like Jeremy Benson of FreeTheGrapes.org, Regine Rousseau of Shall We Wine, Patrick Comiskey of Wine & Spirits Magazine, Cesar Perrin of Chateau de Beaucastel as well as several members of the Tablas team.

I particularly liked this one with Elizabeth Schneider from Wine for Normal People.

There’s often a lull at the beginning of most IG Lives while waiting for people to respond to the notification and join. I love that Haas utilizes this time by giving some behind-the-scenes updates about what’s going at the winery and vineyard. In this episode, he talks about some of the viticultural challenges of their Scruffy Hill Block.

So be sure to join us and bring your questions about virtual wine events!

In the meantime, check out the discussions below. I had a lot of fun working with Destinate Travel, the Real Business of Wine and Pour Agency with their panels and projects.

Future of Wine Tourism Session 4: Going virtual

The Future of Virtual Tastings

The Consumer, in Partnership with ARENI Global

How to Get More Customers to Join Your Winery’s Virtual Tasting Room Experience

What Content Increases Winery Followers and Likes on Social Media

What is The Best Selling Point About Your Winery? Hint: It’s Not Your Wine…

What Can Smarter Winery Marketing Do for Your Winery?

How to Increase Wine Sales with Personalized Winery Marketing

This is the full version that the snippets above were taken from. Brandon Lee of Pour Agency gives a breakdown of the key points on their blog.

01:45 – What is SpitBucket and who is Amber LeBeau?
03:45 – Why is it so important for wineries to invest in marketing and what works
04:33 – The power of YouTube and how your winery can take advantage
06:34 – How can wineries reduce the noise and provide more value?
06:44 – Making good wine alone is not good enough to get more sales
07:32 – Wineries are not only competing with their neighbor or other labels
08:38 – What can wineries be doing to capture more attention?
09:16 – Winery video creates connection and engagement in the midst of the shutdown
10:42 – What your winery might be doing wrong with social media and Instagram marketing
12:08 – Make your content meaningful and stop potential customers in their tracks
12:55 – How can wineries incentivize more people to engage with their virtual tasting room?
14:50 – Sell your brand, not just wine. Jackson Family Estates and The Wine Makers on Radio Misfits – The Wine Makers
17:58 – What video would you want to see created to make you take action and buy a winery’s wine?
20:50 – The easiest thing you can do to start winery marketing right
22:34 – Show people who you are, build meaningful connections with everyone within your winery
25:15 – Wineries should be asking their customers what they want
27:54 – Why it’s important to move forward and innovate with marketing even if you have a reputation
30:01 – What is branding and what does that mean for a winery?
32:00 – If you give people a reason to give a damn, they will give a damn.
32:14 – What’s Amber’s favorite wine?

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60 Second Wine Reviews – 2016 Domaine de Cébène Felgaria

Note: This was a sample from the Languedoc Outsiders.

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Domaine de Cébène Felgaria from Faugères.

The Geekery

Domaine de Cebene FelgariaAfter working many years with Jean-Luc Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud in St. Emilion, Brigitte Chevalier founded Domaine de Cébène in 2006. Most of the Languedoc sits on a broad alluvial plain, but it was the unique schist soils of Faugères that caught Chevalier’s attention.

For Grenache and Syrah, Chevalier focuses on north-facing slopes to retain acidity & balance. The late-ripening Mourvèdre gets full southern exposures. Being highly drought-sensitive, Mourvèdre also benefits from the friable schistous soils that allow its roots to penetrate deep into underground reserves. Though, curiously, finding Mourvèdre on schist is not very common.

The 2016 Felgaria is a blend of 75% Mourvèdre and 25% Syrah from organically-farmed plots. The wine was fermented and then aged ten months in 500L demi-muids before being bottled unfined & unfiltered.

The Wine

Damson plums photo by Stiller Beobachter. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lovely freshness to the dark fruit in this wine.

High-intensity nose. Very complex and evocative. I featured this wine on a recent Instagram Mystery Grape game and it was tough to sum it up in just 4-5 aroma/flavor clues. A lot is going on here–black fruits, grilled savory, meaty notes, dried garrigue herbs & flowers (lavender, sage and mint). Also a very intriguing, zesty blood orange note.

The wine kept changing in the glass with the fruits and savory flavors carrying over to the palate–plus added spiciness. Full-bodied with juicy medium-plus acidity and ripe, medium-plus tannins. The long-finish amplifies the spice notes (pepper, clove & cinnamon) as well as the dried floral notes.

The Verdict

As I noted in my IG review, this Felgaria has you licking your lips and sniffing the glass afterwards so that you can savor a tiny bit more of it. If you find this for around the $33-40 that Wine-Searcher is listing, that’s a steal. It probably should be closer to $50, IMO.

Bonus Geekery!

Here’s Brigitte Chevalier talking about schist. I love how the color of the rocks inspired her labels.

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How NOT to Respond to a Guest’s Concerns About COVID

These are unprecedented times for the wine industry. Some bumps and missteps are to be expected as wineries reopen after long lockdowns. But stuff like what I’m sharing below needs to be called out and nipped in the bud.

Earlier today, I had this exchange with a friend in Washington State. She does not work in the wine industry but is an avid wine lover who belongs to several wine clubs. I asked her permission to post these screenshots of our conversation with both her info and the winery’s name redacted. The only thing I will say about this winery is that it is relatively well known in Washington. With multiple tasting rooms throughout the state, I’m sure they were quite eager to reopen and get back that traffic flow.

But this is not the way you should treat a consumer–or let them be treated. Especially not one who is responding to your Facebook ad asking for visitors to come back to your tasting rooms.

FB screenshot

Salty language left un-redacted because, well, that’s how life is.

I understand the frustration. 

This should not have played out this way. And what’s equally as frustrating is wondering where else this is happening. While I hope that this is a fluke event, how can we be sure that’s the case?

Even with all the headaches and hassles that COVID has tossed on our laps, the very last thing that any wine business should do is to lose sight of basic customer service. I know none of us asked to be put in this situation and there are a lot of things that are beyond our control. But what we absolutely can control is how we respond when consumers share their sincere concerns.

And there are several ways that this winery could have done better.
Photo by Seedeblay. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

I know that monitoring your social pages is a lot of work, but do you really think that having a page that feels too hostile to interact with helps your business at all?

I’m going to go on good faith that the winery rep didn’t participate in the snarky comments. That just boggles my mind that anybody in the hospitality industry would be so idiotic. The winery did do well in deleting those comments fairly quickly. They deserve props there.

But where they dropped the ball was in not calling out the snarky commentators, who were attacking their customer, and in also not apologizing to their customer for being on the receiving end of this abuse. Plus, it was also disappointing that if they were online to delete comments, they still waited several more hours to respond to her question.

I followed up by checking out the winery’s Facebook page and found the post my friend replied to. The ad has received over 400 likes and has been shared multiple times, so a good amount of people are seeing in it. I found the original question and the cursory reply, noting that they’re practicing social distancing, limiting guests, wearing masks, etc. But no apologies for the other comments nor any further comment or post encouraging folks to treat each other with respect.

And, no, my friend has not gotten a DM apology or follow-up either.

Put yourself in this guest’s shoes.

Photo by Laurel Lodged. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

If guests don’t feel comfortable visiting your tasting room, for whatever reason, they’re not going to come.

And in the shoes of similar guests who the industry desperately wants to return.

Here is someone who does want to return. She wants to get back to visiting winery tasting rooms. But she has concerns, like many, many other consumers. So when she sees the Facebook ad of a winery that she likes, telling her that they’re reopening, she reaches out to them.

There’s intent. There’s desire. All she needs is reassurance. All she needs is to be treated like a valid human being.

But instead, she was made to feel that her concerns were “political,” “overblown,” “invalid.” Even if the winery wasn’t aware that guests still get notifications and previews of deleted comments, this abusive behavior should have been called out.

Because what are the odds that this would be a one-time thing? That these Facebook commentators who were attacking this person weren’t going to attack another guest responding to the same Facebook ad and having similar concerns?

And what assurance does anyone have that they wouldn’t be likewise heckled in the tasting room or parking lot by these other “fans”?

If you want to welcome guests back to your tasting rooms, you need to make clear that it’s a welcoming place.

And that extends to how your guests are treated on your social media pages. If other commentators on your Facebook page are attacking your guests, you need to do more than just delete comments. You need to make clear that respect is a value that your winery holds dear.

This is not about being political. It’s crazy that things like personal concern and safety are being turned into political hot topics. But as an industry, we have to rise above this. We have to look out for our customers. We have to make them feel welcomed, valued and safe.

When one winery drops the ball, it hurts their neighbors and everyone else who is also counting on those visitors returning. That’s why we need to call this out and stop this from continuing.

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Why the Wine Industry Shouldn’t Be Color Blind

In the last few weeks, I’ve listened to a lot of very moving testimony from Black wine professionals about their experiences in the wine industry. One that hit me particularly hard was Tahiirah Habibi of the Hue Society recounting her story of taking the Introductory Level 1 course & examination with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

 

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If you are in positions of power, check yourself on how you use that power and who you hurt with it. • • It is time for the wine industry to STOP taking “safe” stances in order to keep your primarily white audience comfortable. Include Black and Brown people in the foundational decisions and planning, instead of using them retroactively as tokens. Enough. • • -If you are the president of a distributor, the CEO of a winery, if you own a wine shop, ask yourself— are you teaching or hiring black people? • • -Make sure you are using your positions in the industry to create front line marketing and placements of Black brands. • • -Make sure your mentees don’t all look like you. White people have the task to other white people to end racism. • • If Master sommeliers are the aspirational peak of our industry, then they will have to challenge each other to make this institution accessible for everyone to aspire to. • • Your intentions may be good but your actions are what you will be held accountable for. • • @richelieudennis @fiyawata #huesociety #assimilationnotrequired #wineandculture #blacklivesmatter

A post shared by Tahiirah Habibi (@sippingsocialite) on

Habibi later goes into more detail about her interactions (or rather lack of interaction) with the Court that is just as infuriating. But that story of taking the level 1 exam really resonated with me. It took me back 13 years ago to when I did my own level 1, spending a weekend at a Tucson hotel for two days of classes and the exam. I remember quirking an eyebrow at the instructors referring to each other as “Master Jones” or “Master Smith” and expecting the students to do the same.

But that’s all it was, an eyebrow quirk. A shoulder shrug.

I chalked it up to a vestige of the restaurant industry where everyone “Yes, Chef!” the master of the back of the house. It never once dawned on me, for over 13 years, how what I could so easily dismiss with a shrug and Whatever would so deeply sting someone else. While in hindsight, it’s so glaringly obvious and cringeworthy, it just blew right passed me.

What troubles me the most, though, is that after all these years, I can’t tell you if there were any people of color in that class. With over 50 people attending, it seems like there would have been. But I honestly don’t know. I didn’t notice.

It struck me how often that is the case–how often I don’t notice people of color at wine events. They just meld into the crowd of other wine folks. Now some might say that’s a good thing, that you’re “color blind” and everyone should meld together. It should all just be wine people doing wine things.

But I reject that. I reject the idea that being color blind is a good thing. Because if you’re not noticing the presence of people of color in the wine industry, then you’re certainly not going to notice their absence.

Being color blind robs us all.

Tapestry photo from Kalamazoo Public Library. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright descriptions.
I don’t know if the people who advocate “All Lives Matter,” saying that they don’t see color or want to see color, realize that what they’re advocating for is a disorder. Achromatopsia (i.e., color blindness) is an affliction, a limitation.

People that suffer from actual color blindness don’t get to see the world in all its vivid richness. They can adapt and make do, but there will always be things that they’ll never be able to experience fully–the colors and context that enliven life.

Why would we want to aspire to that?

Why would we want to strive for a world that will always be less than what it could be?

It doesn’t make sense–especially not in the wine industry where we are immersed in a product whose greatest strength is its diversity.

We revel in the joy of endless possibilities from the multitude of grapes and wine styles we have. We’re fascinated and enthralled by the unique imprint of different terroirs. Every vintage, new chapters are written by mother nature and the hands of thousands of winegrowers across the globe. The world of wine is a world wrapped up in a rich tapestry of diversity.

But this world doesn’t just begin and end in our glass.

Think about all that we’re missing when we don’t notice the people of color in the room.

And especially what we miss when we don’t notice their absence.

Think about the insights, perspectives and backgrounds that we don’t get to hear about. Wine is consumed by our senses–both physical and through the lens of our sense of self. We reflect all of that in our descriptions and interactions with wine.

If we’re not noticing, listening and talking to people of color, we lose opportunities to see wine through lenses that only they can share. We lose the words, sentiments and moments that broaden our understanding and make our tapestry more dynamic.

Just as the thought of limiting our vibrant world to a small handful of wines makes our heart sink, so too should the thought of limiting the voices that help bring this world to life.

So, no, I don’t want to be color blind. I want to see. I want to listen and learn.

I want to notice.

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The World’s Most Over-Hyped Rosé?

It’s National Rosé Day! For exactly which “nation” (U.S.? U.K.? France?), I’m never sure, but my social media feeds are certainly popping with pink. Likewise, several rosé-related virtual wine events are being held across the globe this weekend.

Garrus rose

And while I’m a huge fan of rosé wine, I need to get something off my chest.

When it comes to the thoroughly prized and feted Château d’Esclans’ Garrus, The World’s Most Expensive Rosé Wine, I just don’t get the fuss.

Oh, I’ve tried it a handful of times–most recently the 2018 vintage at the Wine Paris Expo this past February. It’s a frequent high scorer for Wine Spectator and, with their penchant for repeating the same wines over and over again at their Grand Tour, that’s offered me a few more opportunities to try. In wine circles, it tends to pop up at rosé parties–either from someone who wants to “ball” or, ironically, wants to snob it up and make a point about overpriced rosé.

Each time I try my best to taste it with an open mind. But every time I keep going back to my glass wondering, “What am I missing?”

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad wine.

Researching its background with how it’s made is actually kind of cool. The techniques that Sacha Lichine and the late Patrick Léon (Mouton, Opus One) developed for Garrus are undoubtedly innovative. Perhaps echoing back to Léon’s work with Domaine Faiveley, they approached Garrus like making a fine white Burgundy.

The fruit comes from old vine Grenache and Rolle/Vermentino planted on chalky hillsides. Often 100% free-run juice (though some vintages can have up to 10% press juice for balance), the wine is aged in a combination of new and once-used barrels. The wine then sees twice-weekly bâtonnage and lees contact for 8 to 10 months. But being a rosé, where freshness is a premium, Lichine and Léon developed a complex temperature-controlled system to keep the barrels cool throughout fermentation and maturation.

James Suckling has a great video (3:35) with Sacha Lichine where they show that barrel set-up.

Those efforts definitely show up in the wine.

While I’ve never tasted Garrus blind or in black opaque glasses, its mouthfeel is distinctive. The wine has a creamy texture that feels almost like a buttery, vanilla-laden Chardonnay but without vanilla & buttery flavors. I’ll admit that the first time I had it (the 2012 vintage when it was about four years of age), that mouthfeel really caught my attention. I was also impressed with the age as I tend not to have the best of experiences with older rosé. But with ample medium-plus acidity, the wine was still lively and fresh.

I scribbled in my notes that this would be an excellent $30-40 wine. Lo and behold, it was more than twice that! Today, it’s not that shocking to see Garrus over $100 a bottle. And I guess for me, that’s the crux of the issue.

It’s good, but it’s not that good.

While I get the business side of it–the cost of maintaining old bush vines on rocky hillsides, the expensive fermentation & maturation techniques, new barrels, extended aging, etc.–it’s hard for me to feel as a consumer that I’m getting my money’s worth. Full disclaimer, though. Every time I’ve tried Garrus, it has been either at a tasting event–some of which I’ve paid to attend–or that someone else has purchased.

Still, even though I have the means to spend upwards of $100 a bottle on wine, I’ve never tasted a vintage of Garrus that has compelled me to want to spend that on one to take home.

So what does it lack?

3L bottle of Garrus

That 3L bottle cost around 400 euros.
Which is fine on someone else’s dime.

Looking back over my past tasting notes, the words “Shy”, “Subtle”, “Vague” and “Undefined” litter them. The nose, especially with younger vintages (like the 2018 I had this year) often seems very muted, which is always a downer for me with rosés. I expect more pronounce intensity.

I’ve heard that Garrus does shine with some decanting, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience that. However, it seems like a little bottle age helps as well.

But even with slightly older examples, the texture is always the strongest, if not sole, selling point. The aromatics and flavors still hide in the background. They’re there but they never jump out and make their presence known. I get a little peach, some pear, maybe a bit of exotic mango and the slightest hint of spice that often comes out in the moderate-length finish. Again, pleasant. Enjoyable. Certainly drinkable. But so are many other rosés for far less.

I’m not opposed to the idea of spending money for a “serious” rosé.

I just need to feel that it’s seriously worth it. Which, for me, the Château d’Esclans Garrus is not.

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60 Second Wine Review – 2017 Bedrock Zweiter Zweieiiger Zwilling Riesling

A few quick thoughts on the Bedrock ZZZ Riesling from the Cole Ranch AVA in Mendocino.

Bedrock Zweiter Zweieiiger Zwilling
The Geekery

There’s tons of stuff that I could geek out on here. I’ve been a huge fan of Bedrock for some time, and you can find a few backstory tidbits in my review of the Ode to Lulu Rosé.

But today, I’m going to highlight this remarkable vineyard, which is a monopole and the smallest AVA in the United States.

I’ve included a YouTube vid below from Bedrock talking about how asst. winemaker Cody Rasmussen stumbled upon Cole Ranch in 2016. Its section of Riesling is some of the oldest in California–planted in the early 1970s. The vines are dry-farmed and trained as goblet bush vines. However, they uniquely have an added cane trellised California sprawl-style to control vigor.

Over the decades, numerous wineries have used Cole Ranch fruit. Most notably Chateau St. Jean, Fetzer, V. Sattui, Jordan, Tobin James and Esterlina. Bedrock makes two Rieslings from here–the Erster Zweieiiger Zwilling & Zweiter Zweieiiger Zwilling.

The long German names describe the wines as fraternal twins (Zweieiiger Zwilling), with Erster being the first and drier of the two. The second, Zweiter, is usually harvested between Kabinett and Spatlese-level ripeness with anywhere from 25-75 g/l residual sugar left after fermentation.

The Wine

Golden Delicious apple pic from Glysiak. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Juicy, ripe golden delicious apple trademark this lovely Riesling.

High-intensity nose. Ripe golden delicious apples, nectarines and lime zest. Also a little floral citrus blossoms.

On the palate, the wine feels more off-dry Kabinett level in fruit intensity but with the medium-body weight of a Spatlese. High acidity highlights both the ripeness of the fruit and mouthwatering citrus notes. Long finish lingers on the fruit but introduces some stony minerality.

The Verdict

Such a fantastically delicious Riesling. Both the Erster and Zweiter are around $25-30 and are well worth it. Even though I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, I give the nod to the Zweiter just because of its weight & intensity.

Bonus Geekery

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Re-opening Winery Tasting Rooms — What would bring me back?

For a follow up to tasting rooms reopening, see “How NOT to Respond to a Guest’s Concerns About COVID

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek recently posted a poll asking if people were ready to go back to tasting rooms. While the plurality was raring to go, the majority of respondents to his question were a bit more reserved.

A small sample size, but what’s notable is that Haas was polling highly engaged wine lovers–the kind of folks who would actively follow the personal Twitter account of a winery owner. So if over 60% of people who are probably pretty passionate and geeky about wine are still a little iffy about rushing out to tasting rooms, how do you think everyone else feels?

I know how I feel, and it’s not the best news for wineries.

Like the rest of Haas’ respondents, I’m certainly in the highly engaged and passionate wine lover category. I adore traveling with some of the hardest parts of this pandemic for me being the cancellations of wine trips and events that I had planned for the year. Yes, I fully realize that this is a position of immense privilege. I know that many others have suffered and lost so much more than just missing out on wine tastings.

But my point is is that I should be part of that group that can’t wait for tasting rooms to reopen. Yet looking at Haas’ question, my instinct was to click “Not for a while.”

Mask on a painting image from Mucsi Márton. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Doesn’t this image just scream “Hey, let’s go visit some wineries!”?

My reasoning parallels my sentiments about shopping for wine. For me, wine is a source of joy and pleasure, so I want all my experiences with wine to reflect that. But while I love wine, I don’t need it.

Likewise, while I love visiting wineries and wine country, it’s never something that I absolutely need to do. Especially if the thought of doing so right now makes me wince.

Looking over all the different guidelines on opening tasting rooms from California, Oregon and Virginia is disheartening. There are so many hoops for wineries to jump through and, while they all have the best of intentions, none of them make me feel any better about visiting wineries.

Sure, these guidelines will undoubtedly keep the employees and me safe. I certainly appreciate that.

But they’re also going to add a lot more stress, rather than joy, to the experience.

Reading those guidelines, and even the well-meaning communications from wineries, has me picturing a tasting room visit going like this:

1.) Sitting in the parking lot waiting for my appointment because I’m always compulsively early.

But I can’t mill around the tasting room killing time like I usually do. And then being rushed at the end of the appointment to accommodate the much-needed sanitation and cleaning.

2.) Being greeted with smiling (?) tasting room staff in masks while also wearing my own mask.

Yes, I know it absolutely has to be this way for now, but that’s still such a glaring reminder that things are not normal. No matter how hard we try, it’s not easy to be happy and cheerful in a pandemic mask. You wear them out of solemn duty and necessity to protect yourself and others. And of all the mindsets to have when tasting wine and visiting wineries, solemn is certainly not at the top of anyone’s list.

3.) Receiving a laundry list of instructions–likely emailed before the tasting but also repeated in person as protocol–detailing precisely what we can and cannot do, where we can and cannot go.

Again, I understand why it has to be this way, but that doesn’t distract from the stress and fear of doing something wrong. Which is also not a stellar mindset to have when you’re supposed to be relaxing and doing something pleasurable.

4.) But, overall, having very limited interaction with the staff.

I know that this is for their safety as well as mine. But that interaction is so vital. It goes beyond just asking questions or getting tech notes on the wine. Tasting room staff are the face of a brand and reflects a winery’s personality and vibe. Wine is a social product–made and consumed by people. Losing that personal connection always diminishes the experience.

5.) Being acutely aware of the 6 ft+ spacing in all things–going to our tasting table, to the bathroom, to purchase bottles, etc.

This is a stress of everyday life now. While I have to tolerate it to get food essentials at the grocery store, going wine tasting is not essential. If it feels like a chore or ordeal, why do it?

That’s the ultimate question — if visiting tasting rooms feels more like an ordeal than a source of joy, why do it?

Pine Ridge Tasting Room sign

I do miss wine tastings terribly but…

Or at least, why go now? Why not wait until things eventually (hopefully?) settle with a vaccine and get back to at least semi-normalcy?

Of course, I want to support the wine industry–just like I want to support restaurants as well. I know that many small businesses are struggling and can’t wait for however many months it will take for things to actually settle. I get that.

I will still donate to relief charities, tip generously to delivery drivers and order wine and meals online. But I’m not going to spend my free time and money on joyless endeavors. And I seriously doubt that I’m alone in these sentiments.

Sure, there are going to be folks who are chomping at the bit to get back visiting wineries. But it remains to be seen how those folks feel after actually going through these “COVID experiences” and if they’ll return. They very well could end up joining the ranks of “Let’s wait and see” like the rest of us.

What can wineries do?

Robert Biale Black Chicken sign

Remember those carefree days when wayward black chickens were the worries of wine tastings?

I know this is an incredibly tough spot for wineries. There are no easy answers. But what I would recommend for wineries to keep in mind is that coaxing us back to the tasting room is going to take more than just reassurances about safety. That is undoubtedly important, but just as vital is the reassurance of joy–that this experience is going to be fun and not an ordeal.

While you won’t be able to recapture everything from what it was before, more than anything, an escape to wine country truly needs to feel like an escape. And, perhaps, with a little creativity, wineries may be able to come up with something even better.

Below are some things that would certainly make visiting a tasting room more appealing to me. I know that for many wineries, a lot of these ideas won’t be feasible. But, hopefully, they at least encourage some brainstorming.

And if you’re a winery already doing stuff like this, please let me know! Despite my reservations above, my heart still longs for a return to wine country. I’m also sure my readers would love to know what options they have.

My Ideal Covid Tasting Room Experience

1.) A waiting area that is not my car or out in the parking lot.

It could be a room with interesting art or things relating to the winery’s history. Even better is something outside, out in the vineyard. Just make it clearly designated and well known that here is where we are welcomed to wait (and relax!) till our appointment time. And speaking of vineyards…

2.) Patio tastings are nice, but more private tastings out in the vineyards are ideal.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be that fancy of a set-up. But for wineries with the space and means, I can definitely see many going down this path.

Just get me away from having to stress about the 6 feet thing with other guests and staff. Being greeted by one masked staff member who takes me to a set up in the vines would be much better. Out of sight, out of mind. Plus, it is even more of an enhanced experience that truly feels special and exciting.

I understand that these kinds of more intimate, isolated tastings will likely cost more. But if what’s promised is more compelling than the alternative, it’s worth paying.

3.) Give me some social interaction–even if it’s via an iPad.

This is going to be the most difficult because of safety concerns and regulations. But at least we have the tools to help soften the blow and sterility. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, everyone is getting more comfortable using digital platforms. Take advantage of that.

In my ideal covid tasting up in the vines, I see that masked staff member taking us to a set-up with pre-poured wines and an iPad. While enjoying the beauty, sights, sounds and smells all around us, we can tap on the iPad and be greeted by a truly smiling, unmasked face back in the tasting room. A real person, someone with a name and personality that we could interact with.

They could tell us a little about the wines and winery. Maybe even let us get up from our setting with the iPad and stroll along a delineated path in the vineyard as the staff guides us. Yeah, it’s basically a virtual wine tasting. But it’s going to be one of the least sucky virtual tastings ever because we’re actually out in the vines experiencing something genuinely unique and exciting.

That is something that stirs joy and gets the heart fluttering again at the thought of visiting tasting rooms.

That is worth putting on a mask and going to wine country.

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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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