Kurtis Kolt presenting a virtual tour of Italy. / Photo by: Wendy Underwood
In 2019, a group of senior tech executives gathered at the NoMad Los Angeles hotel for a four-course dinner. A Master of Wine blind-poured a pairing with each dish. Guests used the time between bites and sips to network. At the end of the repast, patrons took a pop quiz, vying to be crowned Chief Wine Officer (CWO).
Organized by Chief Nation, the event was one of 80 held throughout the U.S. and Europe in Michelin-starred restaurants, five-star hotels and member clubs. The business networking specialist sought to create “an evening of networking and industry discussion alongside a premium wine-tasting experience,” says Laura Porter, managing director of Chief Nation.
When the pandemic hit, the firm went virtual, as did many members of the wine industry, from marketers, writers and educators, to entrepreneurs, festival organizers and people planning holiday parties.
Texas Fine Wine Somm Camp tastings. / Photo Courtesy of Texas Fine Wine
Time for Change
The loss of face-to-face socializing has been an obvious downside of the pandemic, but much has been gained by the growth of the virtual event industry. While they won’t fully replace physical gatherings, these online gatherings have staying power.
“We were quick to pivot,” says Porter. “We ran our first CWO digital event in April 2020 and now run 200 events per year. Rather than invite guests to dinner, we ship them three premium half bottles of wine— one sparkling, one white and one red—and run the tasting online. With location no longer a barrier, we can bring in a new audience and make it convenient for our guests in their homes.”
Many in the wine industry have adapted to the new world. Denise Clarke, a public relations professional who handles consumer, trade and media outreach for Texas Fine Wine, started hosting virtual tastings in 2020. Texas Fine Wine is a collaboration among four wineries—Bending Branch Winery, Duchman Family Winery, Pedernales Cellars and Spicewood Vineyards—in Texas Hill Country.
“Since the pandemic closed winery tasting rooms for months, virtual tastings were an opportunity for the wineries to stay in touch with consumers,” she says. “Wineries have also had great success with private virtual tastings for wine club members or businesses looking for employee activities and networking. They would ship the wines to consumers and then host a virtual tasting with the owner or winemaker.”
Bending Branch Winery Virtual Happy Hour. / Photo courtesy of Bending Branch Winery
While virtual events helped build bridges to new clients and keep winemakers front of mind with loyal ones, endless screen time took its toll.
“Zoom fatigue is real, and once things started opening up in Texas, people were eager to get out and enjoy in-person winery experiences,” says Clarke.
Because people weren’t flying, Texans started exploring in their backyards.
“These local wine lovers who normally would visit Napa, Sonoma or Oregon, started visiting the wineries here,” says Clarke. “They have become converts.”