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Suellen Tunney, previously of Wolffer Estates and current general manager of McCall Wines, is one of the local wine pros hosting virtual events. (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

Some local winery tasting rooms are shifting to less plentiful winter hours, but for now, nearly all of Long Island’s tasting rooms are open. Still, it’s a very different experience thanks to the pandemic and new procedures put in place to protect both customers and employees. Table service, pre-poured tastings and the like are the norm now. You can’t stand at the tasting bar and go through wines one-by-one anymore. 

If you want a taste – see what I did there? – of that experience, virtual wine tastings are for you. 

The exact setup varies from producer to producer, but the basics are this: You order wine. The winery sends it to you. You schedule an online tasting of said wines with someone from the winery. You get a very personal experience and learn a lot about the wines. 

You also have a lot of fun doing it. 

“Sparkling Pointe has been doing virtual tastings as a way to connect with our community and fans. Many have been unable to visit or hold events at our tasting house this year due to the pandemic. Holding a virtual tasting event is a great way for companies or families to gather, learn about wine, and re-create the wine tasting experience from their homes,” said Sparkling Pointe sales manager Melissa Rockwell. 

Of McCall Wines’ virtual event program, general manager Suellen Tunney said “I wanted to be able to offer a fun and interactive experience for corporations and friend/family groups alike that would get people engaged and learning about wine in the comfort of their own homes.” 

You’ve probably done Zoom happy hours with friends or family. These are that, but with a bit more structure and someone with extensive wine knowledge tastings you through their wines. 

“We mimic our tasting room experience in that we focus on the education of the sparkling winemaking process and the descriptions and stories of the individual wines,” says Rockwell. 

At Chronicle Wines, tasting kits can be bought as a one-off or a monthly subscription; winemakers Robin Epperson-McCarthy and Alie Shaper then host a virtual tasting and field questions on Instagram Live each month.

A Chronicle Wines tasting kit. (Credit: David Benthal)

Of course, you can’t really recreate the full tasting room experience over the Internet. That’s not neccessarily a bad thing, however. Instead, it’s an opportunity to connect with customers who might be nervous or shy to ask questions in a tasting room setting. 

“I really don’t try to mimic the winery experience at all,” said Tunney. “Every tasting is different, as every group is different. It’s really about getting people comfortable enough to start asking questions they’ve always wanted to ask. I enjoy breaking the wine tasting experience down into very small and easy to understand steps so that everyone, no matter what their tasting level is, will learn something and enjoy the hour we spend together. I’ve learned that people have lots of questions and genuinely want to learn.”

From the sound of it, the hosts of these virtual tastings are enjoying them almost as much as the customers. ““I also really enjoy connecting with people, and having a more one on one experience tasting wines, and teaching.  It’s been really fun for me, as well,” said Tunney.

The word “pivot” has probably been overused in describing how businesses and individuals have had to change how they operate during this pandemic, but local wineries are doing it as well as anyone. Not only are they surviving, some are actually thriving – and they are building lasting relationships with new and existing customers.

“It is often possible that the communities taking shape during these tastings can become even more interested and engaged than you might see during a typical tasting room group visit,” said Rockwell.

Those are the customers who will visit even more once they feel comfortable doing so. 

Long Island wineries have virtual tasting experiences available for groups from 2 to 100 or more, which means that they aren’t just for singles, couples or families. Because traditional holiday parties weren’t possible this year, companies large and small can turn to things like these tastings to thank their employees for all of their hard work. 

Visit your favorite winery’s website or social media pages to see what they are offering. Support them during their slow season in a slow year – and have a great time doing it.