The Larkmead Salon: A Virtual Gathering

Kelly J. Hayes

If you are lucky enough to be an aficionado of the Calistoga-based Larkmead Vineyards, a historic Napa Valley winery in the midst of a 21st-century renaissance, and I mentioned their “Salon,” you might think fondly of their cabernet franc-led Bordeaux blend, the LMV Salon. But the word “salon” also conjures a gathering of individuals, perhaps intellectuals and artists, who come together to discuss weighty issues of the day.

Since 2017, Dan Petroski, Larkmead’s celebrated winemaker (including LMV Salon) has assembled a series of wine salons to address the future concerns of the industry. Winemakers, tastemakers, journalist and marketers have occasionally convened at the magnificent Howard Bracken-designed winery on Larkmead Lane to discuss issues like climate change and how the wine world can respond.

But, with COVID-19 eliminating the opportunity for in-person get-togethers, Petroski and the Larkmead team recently decided to do what so many of us are doing to replace our group interactions: Zoom it.

This past week Petroski hosted a Larkmead virtual Salon, via Zoom, to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on the wine industry.

Moderator Virginie Boone, contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, posed questions to a panel that included Master Sommelier John Ragan, director of wine and restaurant operations at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, and Jackson Family Wines vice president of public relations Kristen Reitzell. Joining were a pair of premier importer/distributors, Michael Skurnick, whose eponymous company represents over 500 domestic and imported brands, and Suzanne Chambers, president of Chambers & Chambers Wine Merchants.

The tone and tenor of the conversation ping-ponged between the devastating and the optimistic.

“We’ve all surfed challenges from tariffs to price impacts to consumer preferences,” said Ragan, who oversees the wine programs for 20 of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City. “But we’ve never seen anything like this. We never imaged we would lay off 2,500 people in a day.”

Skurnick, whose business supplies both restaurants and liquor stores, echoed Ragan. “It has been a ‘crises management moment,’” he told the virtual group of over 150 wine industry types who had signed up for the salon. “Overnight we lost 50% of our customer base when on-premise closed.”

“We began to see what was happening a little early because we do business in China,” echoed Jackson Family’s Kristen Reitzell. “But the issue here is we are not able to see anyone at the wineries right now.” The company has 43 wineries globally and the flagship Kendall-Jackson winery in Santa Rosa is a magnet for wine lovers.

“A tasting room is where you make connections for life with a customer.”

Boone, the moderator, adroitly steered conversation to the opportunities that may arise from the current closures.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of community out there,” said Suzanne Chambers, who has seen a lot since 1973 when Chambers & Chambers was first founded by her father, a former Western Airlines pilot. “We are getting extended terms and people we work with are engaging and trying to partner up.”

She said she sees a bright future … with reservations.

“It will come back but we may have to adjust and change. I worry about trophy wines (high-end collectables) finding their market. I feel the sweet spot is going to be quality wines in the $30 to $40 range at retail.”

Ragan agreed that there will be better days ahead but cautioned against a boom in the marketplace: “When restaurants open, they are going to be selling what they already have in stock, right? We are not going to suddenly be buying wines. It may be challenging for destination restaurants but I think those that connect, that are a part of the community, will always be successful.”

Interestingly, all of the participants concurred that virtual gatherings are here to stay. “It’s time for wine to take back the narrative,” Reitzell said. “We need to adapt and virtual tastings are a great way to do that. There are people who buy and even collect wines that have never been to wine country. If we can take them virtually, that is a great way to create relationships.”

Regan reiterated, “People want to make connections with wines and winemakers and virtual tasting are great for that.” Chambers agreed, noting, “Virtual will add a whole new level of consumer engagement.”

“Think about it. Ninety-eight percent of the people coming to virtual tastings on Zoom never heard of it before this crisis,” Skurnick said. “Those who can figure it out to create virtual hospitality centers will be successful. This can be a time of great opportunity.”

Words to drink by.