Technology

How Wine Brands Can Successfully Utilize Virtual Tastings to Drive Consumer Sales

From offering the right product mix to creative partnerships and formats, here’s how wineries are monetizing virtual tastings

Photo courtesy of Frank Family Vineyards.

The virtual tasting model, which wineries embraced en masse to connect with consumers while their tasting rooms were closed, looks like it’s here to stay. According to a recent survey conducted by Napa Valley Vintners, 64 percent of wineries have hosted at least one virtual tasting since March, and 72 percent of wineries plan to continue virtual tastings after shelter-in-place orders are lifted. But while this format offers a new opportunity to reach wine drinkers around the globe, the market has quickly become saturated and consumer Zoom fatigue is only increasing. SevenFifty Daily spoke to winery principals and other experts to understand the virtual tasting strategies that drive engagement, and most importantly, sales. 

Craft an Attractive Offer

The most efficient way to promote sales with virtual tastings is to curate tasting kits that consumers can purchase prior to a virtual event. Many wineries choose to host themed tastings featuring two to four bottles and ranging in price from $99 to $450, depending on the theme. 

For the right offer, consumers are eager to spend, discovered Belden Barns in Sonoma, California. By selling the winery’s entire portfolio in one box and featuring one wine in each weekly virtual tasting, Belden Barns gives consumers access to 11 bottles for $332.80 (a 20 percent discount off of the bottles’ full prices). 

The results were massive. “In one-and-a-half months, our 11-bottle virtual tasting box outsold our web-based sales for the entirety of 2019,” says Lauren Belden, the proprietor of Belden Barns. In four months, the winery doubled its 2019 e-commerce sales, selling 180 boxes and signing up 72 new wine club members.

Venturing into a winery’s library can also differentiate its virtual tasting from the pack, if back-vintages are available. Blackbird Vineyards in Napa, California is hosting live library tastings with winemaker Aaron Pott and selling the wines at a 35 to 55 percent discount. 

“The thought behind this was to provide clients with ready-to-drink, high-scoring wines that weren’t easily accessible otherwise,” says Amy Pierce, the director of CRM at Blackbird Vineyards, “and to allow them the opportunity to hear Aaron’s perspective on the wines and the vintage as a whole.” In April, Blackbird’s ecommerce sales jumped 1,117 percent YOY, with 38 percent of those sales attributed to the library offering and three virtual tastings.

In order to make virtual tastings accessible to more consumers, Passalacqua Winery in Healdsburg, California added a flight of three, two-ounce samples for $55, which is similar to the winery’s standard tasting room fee. While the upfront sales are smaller, proprietor Jason Passalacqua says that about 75 percent of consumers purchase wine after the private virtual tasting, averaging a case of wine or more each.

Upgrade Your Production Quality 

A laptop or phone set on a tripod works fine for virtual tastings, but wineries planning to host virtual tastings regularly might consider enhancing video and audio quality with upgraded equipment like a 720p webcam or body microphones, says Juliana Colangelo, the west coast director of communications agency Colangelo & Partners. Align the camera with the host’s eyes, and show their face and part of their upper body. 

“If the camera is lower than your eyes, it will make your body and your face look too prominent on-screen,” says Colangelo. “If the camera is too high, you could have similar issues.” Zooming in could reduce video quality, and the host should speak to the camera to maintain eye contact.

A tasting room setting—or a virtual backdrop of the tasting room—is ideal. While a cellar or vineyard creates an interesting setting, check that the internet connection is reliable. “We’ve had to overcome some production limitations, such as internet bandwidth and audio and visual quality,” says Leslie Frank, the proprietor of Frank Family Vineyards in Calistoga, California. For instance, the team once went live from the vineyard, only to get caught in the rain mid-broadcast. Frank has also upgraded the winery’s Zoom account capabilities after an early tasting exceeded user capacity; they now regularly get 500 to several thousand viewers at each weekly tasting, half of which purchase a virtual tasting package for the free events.

While most of the wineries interviewed use Zoom as their current virtual conferencing tool, several other providers including Google Hangouts, Skype, GoToMeeting, and Cisco Webex are also well-suited to meetings for large groups.

Photo courtesy of PlumpJack Group.

Promote Pre- and Post-Event

Effective virtual tasting promotion is essential for consumers to learn about and purchase wines for a virtual event in advance. “Give customers enough time to get the wines into their homes to drink,” says Colangelo, citing a 7 to 10 day lead time to be safe. She also recommends that wineries create a landing page for virtual events to enable consumers to purchase with as few clicks as possible. 

At the PlumpJack Group, which has three Napa Valley wineries—PlumpJack Winery, Cade Winery, and Odette Estate—pre-event promotion always starts with an email to the group’s mailing list, at least one week prior to the tasting. Kristine Mason, the marketing manager for the PlumpJack Group, also utilizes social media, creating a Facebook event for consumers to RSVP and sharing content to build anticipation. A day-of email reminds the audience to tune in.

Offering added value in these pre-event emails can also boost attendance and drive sales. Lacey Lybecker, the proprietor of Cairdeas Winery in Manson, Washington recently included a special case discount in a reminder email for one of the winery’s weekly tastings. In three days, she sold 12 cases.

Rather than hosting one-off tastings, wineries may gain more traction if they promote virtual events as a regular series. “When [our clients] are promoting [tastings] as a series, they’re seeing growth,” says Colangelo. For instance, Justin Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles, California, has seen a loyal fan base return for regular Instagram Live tastings with founder Justin Baldwin; the second tasting had a 25 percent increase in views over the first.

But sales opportunities don’t end once you go live. While Cairdeas’ e-blast results in immediate sales, that’s just one piece of the picture. “Our tasting room gets several phone calls during the broadcast,” says Lybecker, “and we get many calls and orders online right after.” Overall, each virtual tasting generates $2,000 to $5,000 in sales.

Mason employs the PlumpJack Group’s team members to seize all sales opportunities, which has been lucrative for the company; she reports that 75 percent of virtual event sales have occurred during or after the event. Off-camera staff responds to incoming comments during the broadcast, engaging the audience and posting links to purchase wines, and after the event, the team shares the video again with another link to purchase. E-commerce sales for the three Napa wineries have grown 400 percent YOY and the company’s contact database has grown by 200 percent. 

Create Virtual Experiences

Hosting virtual tastings, rather than in-person ones, has also given wineries like Justin the opportunity to feature celebrity partnerships. Recent virtual tastings have included pro basketball player Josh Hart of the New Orleans Pelicans and football hall-of-famer Jerry Rice.

“Bringing in a celebrity is fun and an escape,” says Diana Schweiger, the sales and marketing director of Acumen Wines in Napa, California. Together with CellarPass, the winery reservation platform, Acumen hosted two virtual tastings with former San Francisco Giants player (and friend of the brand) Chili Davis, who offered to participate for free. Together, the tastings drove in more than $13,000 in revenue.

Wineries can also attract an audience by breaking away from the standard tasting format. Many wineries, like Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa, California, are hosting cooking classes with top chefs, and others are offering blind tastings or wine blending classes. 

Wineries need to move away from the idea that the best use of these online platforms is to try and replicate a tasting room experience,” says Amber LeBeau, blogger for SpitBucket.net, who recently launched VirtualWineEvents.com, which promotes wineries’ virtual offerings. “The experience on the other side of the computer screen is never going to match being in wine country. We need to divorce our thinking from virtual wine ‘tastings’ and focus more on virtual wine ‘experiences.’”

Even relationship-building experiences, like Cairdeas Winery’s virtual wine club party with a live musician and food pairings, can convert to sales; Lybecker recorded $4,600 as a result of the Zoom party. Belden Barns turns their weekly tastings into fun events with whimsical additions like trivia, food pairings, giveaways, and dance parties.

“As soon as people started turning into the weekly Sunday tastings,” says Belden, “they began to spread the word pretty quickly, often buying multiple boxes for friends and family who they wanted to join the weekly ritual.” Creative experiences, rather than traditional tastings, are great ways to attract new customers for the long-term, too.

“Use these events as vehicles to bait the hook and start building relationships that will eventually lead to sales and tourism,” says LeBeau. “Right now, the key to driving engagement is to simply be different.”

Photo courtesy of Priorty Wine Pass.

Seek Out Corporate Clients

Hosting corporate clients, with bigger budgets and higher volumes, can be especially lucrative. Because most corporate employees are working from home, employers are looking for new ways to alleviate stress and conduct team building.

Jamie Cegelski, the owner of Priority Wine Pass—a wine tasting passport program that offers deals at wineries throughout California, Oregon, and Washington—has coordinated 25 large corporate tastings with businesses like Spotify, Salesforce, and Ernst & Young. Each has between 14 and 60 attendees, and many have scheduled additional tastings. Kathleen Inman, the winemaker for Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa, California, has found sales success after promoting private virtual tastings for corporate clients. Joshua Widaman, the winemaker at Lewis Cellars in Napa, California, sold nine cases of wine totaling $8,000 by organizing a series of three tastings for a former customer’s company stakeholders.

The sales opportunity doesn’t end with the tasting itself, adds Widaman. Lewis Cellars’ tastings gave Widaman access to 36 potential customers, so he followed up with an offer letter for a free tasting at the winery and free shipping on three or more bottles. So far, he’s received an additional $1,000 in sales.

Brandborg Wines in Elkton, Oregon, also sees ongoing opportunities for corporate sales; through Priority Wine Pass, Brandborg is hosting a virtual tasting with a Silicon Valley company. “If it goes over well, they said they’d be publicizing it and making recommendations to their whole company, which is 8,000 employees,” says Sue Brandborg, the winery’s proprietor. “We’re pretty excited about that.”

Consider Retail and Restaurant Partnerships

Joining forces for a virtual event with a restaurant or retail partner can prove to be a mutually beneficial partnership that not only generates sales for both parties, but fosters valuable relationships. When Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Newberg, Oregon participated in an episode of Chicago retailer Vin Chicago’s live “Winemaker Chats,” the retailer sold 34 cases of Penner-Ash wine at promotional pricing.

Wine importer Winesellers, Ltd. has partnered with wine bar Pure Wine Cafe in Ellicott City, Maryland, to host virtual tastings for the importer’s wine brands, like Familia Zuccardi in Mendoza, Argentina. Buoyed by their desire to support a local restaurant, sales average around 20 cases per week and draw attention to Winesellers’ wineries. “I think that this is a really fantastic way for consumers to talk to and hear from winemakers that they may not have had the chance to meet or see otherwise,” says Christina Morris Thornton, the mid-Atlantic regional director of Winesellers, Ltd.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington has also found success partnering with restaurants to host virtual wine dinners. Consumers purchase the dishes and wines for pairing from the restaurant, and the winery hosts a virtual pairing dinner while they dine. The company’s most recent dinner hosted 80 participants and sold 30 cases of wine, which boosts revenue for the restaurant and sales for the winery, reports Paul Asikainen, the national wine educator for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

The Pros and Cons of Third Party Platforms

While third-party wine platforms like CellarPass or sommelier-led companies like Second City Soil typically charge fees, the access they provide to new consumers may make the cost worthwhile. Priority Wine Pass charges a 30 percent commission to the select group of boutique partner wineries, but the company offers access to a 25,000-person mailing list and top-ranked SEO status; Cegelski has already sold 500 virtual tasting kits ranging from $50 to $500.

Partnering with another platform also reduces the work necessary to create, promote, and host a successful virtual tasting. “The amount of money a winery would have to spend to do all of that on their own would be quite substantial,” says Bridget Raymond, the owner of Wines by Bridget in Napa, California. Raymond estimates that her direct-to-consumer sales for the second quarter of 2020 have at least tripled from last year as a result of virtual tastings. “Now that everyone is doing these tastings, you might get lost in the shuffle versus partnering with a company that everyone’s finding through search.”

Jess Lander is a writer based in Napa Valley, California, who covers wine, beer, food, and travel. Her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, the San Francisco Chronicle, AFAR, and other publications.

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