Remote wine tasting was an abstract concept for many players in the Australian wine industry before the coronavirus pandemic, but virtual experiences have become an important fixture for many businesses despite the easing of restrictions.
- Virtual wine tasting enables WA wineries to reach customers directly during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite lockdown restrictions
- Winemakers believe remote tastings will be popular after the pandemic ends, due to cost and environmental benefits
- Industry leaders stress virtual tastings won’t ever fully replace face-to-face cellar door experiences
When international and domestic borders closed, and cellar doors shut due to strict social-distancing rules, winemakers were forced to turn to technology to survive.
Wineries in WA’s South West say so-called virtual tastings have enabled businesses to tell the story behind their produce and connect with new markets and existing clients amid the crisis.
To participate in a virtual tasting, customers either pre-order, or are sent samples of wines in advance, and then connect with the winemaker via online videoconference platforms.
One of the wineries using the virtual tastings is Cullen Wines, based in the Margaret River wine region, three hours’ drive south of Perth, and thousands of kilometres from its markets and customers, which are scattered across the world.
A rare positive from a devastating pandemic
Managing director Vanya Cullen had never used videoconference to host tastings before the pandemic but said it was likely to become a fixture of the operation after the pandemic ended.
“It’s been an opportunity to completely change our business,” she said.
“That connection and being able to talk about the wines and discuss whatever questions they want to have has been phenomenal.”
Ms Cullen said the business relied on tastings because customers liked to sample the scent, clarity, colour and, most importantly, flavours of the drop.
While the pandemic had posed unparalleled challenges for the business, she said virtual tastings were one positive that had emerged from the crisis.
“It’s pretty phenomenal to see that the reach of the internet, which is one opportunity and outcome, that has happened as a result of COVID.”
Cutting emissions and travel costs
Ms Cullen said virtual tastings could also help cut emissions by reducing air travel, which would bolster the company’s sustainable brand.
“We’re a fully biodynamic carbon positive business where sustainability is a big tag of our ethics,” she said.
“To do less air travel is something that we’d look at as being part of that program to address climate change from a wine industry perspective.”
Margaret River Wine Association chief executive officer Amanda Whiteland said the technology could also help winemakers connect with clients year-round instead of during select months.
“A lot of winemakers do travel a lot but there’s a big part of the year when they can’t travel during vintage and they’re working on making wine and picking grapes,” she said.
Virtual tastings no threat to face-to-face experiences
Larry Jorgensen is the chief executive officer of industry body, Wines of Western Australia.
He said the virtual wine tasting experience could never fully replace face-to-face engagement, but it would change the way wineries did business.
“At a cellar door tasting you’re onsite, speaking to the people, you can smell the smells of the building, you might have a meal there, and see the vineyard — there’s a lot of other emotional queues that help bond you to the brand,” he said.
“For export markets, you probably still need to make those personal relationships more solid and real by being there.
“But you won’t be jumping on a plane all the time, you’ll be using it to reinforce the interaction you have through virtual methods.
Mr Jorgensen said videoconferencing could also emerge as an alternative to large tradeshows within the wine industry.
“A little producer with a stand sitting there never cuts through,” he said.
“It might be that we think about how we can engineer things that really focus on brands and regions and bring them to the fore.”