Virtual tastings help Texas wineries connect amid coronavirus
One of the simplest, most fundamental ways that people can connect is over the dinner table with food and drink. And in these next few weeks, as an increasing number of cities and states in the U.S. issue shelter-in-place orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, such connection is going to be more essential than ever, Kuhlman Cellars founder Chris Cobb says.
Located along U.S. 290 on the way to Fredericksburg, Kuhlman shut down its tasting room the night before Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms statewide last week. But even before shuttering the tasting room, the Hill Country winery had decided to move a big component of its on-site program to the internet.
“One of the things we’re really known for is our food and wine pairings,” Cobb says. “Right away, we had this concern of what happens when we have a bunch of people in this community who are not used to being by themselves. So one of the things we're doing is pivoting from our historical in-person, educational, immersive pairings of wine and food around the table to a virtual platform. We will do our best to bring that connectedness to you, wherever you are.”
Kuhlman isn’t alone in going virtual in an effort to stay close to customers. Others in the wine industry, including nearby Lost Draw Cellars and William Chris Vineyards, have decided to host similar tastings. And in many other industries, people are finding the internet can be a temporary substitute for things usually done in person, such as museum-hopping and going to concerts.
William Chris also closed its tasting room on March 18 and began virtual tastings and happy hours via Facebook Live. The winery in the small town of Hye, like most other Hill Country wineries, relies greatly on wine tourism but knew the responsible move would be to shutter to the public temporarily.
To motivate fans to buy wine while in isolation at home, William Chris staff came up with the idea of virtual tastings every weekend and virtual happy hours every weekday on the winery’s Facebook page. These kicked off last weekend with co-owner Chris Brundrett and his wife, Katharine; each week, there will be a new set of wines to order for the next round.
“We figured, well, people are going to want to still learn about wine and maybe have more bandwidth to learn,” D Thompson, William Chris’ director of education, said. “We want to be part of people's afternoons on Facebook Live, like the way you would get a drink after work during the normal rhythms of pre-corona life.”
That’s the general idea for the Kuhlman tastings, as well, though of course the personalities hosting each tasting range as widely as they would on a day trip through Fredericksburg.
The first virtual tasting hosted by Kuhlman staff, including Cobb, was held the evening of March 20. Ahead of each one, viewers have the chance to purchase a couple of wine bundles featuring wines that people can enjoy over the next few weeks as Cobb and company explore topics like tasting techniques, pairings and what it means when a wine ”has legs.”
“We’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants here,” Cobb said at the beginning of the webinar, noting that though the winery has held meetings virtually for the past couple of years, the staff had never done a livestream before.
They’ll get practice. The webinars will happen every Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. The Kuhlman team will advise viewers on how to pair wine with snacks seemingly as simple as the Marcona almonds included in each bundle. There’s a general rule of thumb for food pairings, Cobb says.
“Everyone's heard (to pair) white wine with fish and red wine with red meat. That doesn't tell us anything, though,” he says. “The better answer is to pair dry white and dry rosé wines with something salty, because the acidity of the dry wine will match beautifully with the saltiness of the cuisine. Popcorn, crackers, soy sauce. Your red wine is a story of tannins, the dry sensation on your palate. So that's why you pair with the protein and fat of steak. Any fattiness — avocados, brie, olive oil — will work.”
Cobb is open about the fact that the tasting room provides two-thirds of Kuhlman’s revenue, which means it’s important the winery finds creative ways to support the business in the interim.
Thompson has no doubt William Chris will continue to be creative, too, making up for its own lost tourism dollars. He became an employee of the winery owned by Brundrett and Bill Blackmon after noticing the winery wasn’t afraid to try new things, such as making sparkling wine via an ancient method.
William Chris will continue the virtual tastings for as long as social restrictions to fight COVID-19 are in place. Other nontraditional avenues the winery is exploring: having tasting room employees get training from the vineyard management team, helping them with necessary work this time of year.
Spring is a crucial time for vineyards across Texas, after all. Thompson has noticed the vines in William Chris’ estate vineyard are beginning to awaken from their winter dormancy, when they look like mere sticks, and are preparing to grow a bounty of grapes. Mid-March in the Hill Country means bud break, “a new cycle of life for the vines,” he says.
No matter what’s to come, the grapes will grow, and people — who are used to being isolated from each other among acres of vines — will be there to care for them.