Randy Ullom was supposed to be skiing Aspen Mountain this week.
The winemaster for all the Kendall-Jackson Family Wines around the globe had long planned a spring sojourn with his girlfriend that would have included “T2Bs” on Ajax, perhaps a hike up the Bowl and multiple laps on the Big Burn. Those sunny afternoons would have been followed by celebratory evenings in Aspen restaurants like Elina, where he would have toasted the season with a good bottle of wine and his equally good friend Jill Carnevale, Elina’s proprietor.
But these are different days and Randy, like many members of his Sonoma-based wine team, and the California wine industry in general, found himself inside his Healdsburg, California, home on this spring week instead of on the slopes.
So to help connect Randy with wine lovers in these challenging times, Jackson Family Wines has created a special series of videos that they are releasing on their Facebook and Instagram accounts each Sunday at 5 p.m. MT. There, Randy sits in his living room and conducts “Sunday Night Virtual Tastings with K-J Winemaster Randy Ullom!”
“Everything you smell, you can taste in the glass,” he declares in one as he takes a sip of the Vintners Reserve Chardonnay and talks about the origins of the grapes in the wine. In another, he opens three cabernet sauvignon-based K-J wines, including the Jackson Estate Hawkeye Mountain Cab from the Alexander Valley region that was the site of last October’s fires, explaining the virtues of mountain-grown fruit. The pieces are short (just 5 to 8 minutes), are delivered extemporaneously, and provide both an education into the wines and insight into their maker.
It is just one example of how vintners are using digital technology to try to keep wine drinkers engaged with their products during this time of lockdown. And most are making offers that include discounts for purchases and shipping. Kendall-Jackson encourages those who want the wines shown in the videos to order via kj.com, use a promo code (KJ20) to receive 20% off at checkout and get free shipping on orders of $75 or more.
The virtual tastings have become a growing part of the marketing efforts at wineries as they navigate the new world of how consumers are buying wine. Go to visitnapavalley.com and there you will find a list of over a dozen and a half wineries that have video tastings in various iterations. They range from an hourlong Zoom-based webinar with Frank Family Vineyards (frankfamilyvineyards.com) winemaker Todd Graff to daily 7 p.m. MT Facebook Live virtual happy hour broadcasts with the ever-charming Jean-Charles Boisset of the Boisset Collection (boissetcollection.com) who opens bottles and takes questions from online viewers.
In Santa Barbara the vintners association has created a page titled “Let Us Take Care of You,” which lists a number of wineries offering discounts and online virtual tours and tastings (sbcountywines.com/let-us-take-care-of-you). And online wine retailer Wineaccess.com launched a series of Facebook interviews this week with winemakers including Helen Keplinger of Carte Blanche and Shannon Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard.
Is this the wave of the future?
While it is too early to tell whether tasting events are drivers or passengers of the exploding online wine sales train, anecdotal evidence suggests that direct sales to consumers from wineries have risen dramatically in the past month. The same is true for major retail wine websites and liquor stores that have been deemed “essential,” even in the hardest hit areas like New York City. Restaurant sales have cratered because of closures, but it seems wineries are still finding ways to get to consumers.
And then there are those who are getting their message out the old-fashioned way. This past week I received a batch email from John Sutcliffe at Sutcliffe Vineyards (sutcliffewines.com) in the McElmo Canyon of southwest Colorado, one of the most remote and unforgiving wine regions on Earth. The Brit with the stiff upper lip who has pioneered and produced some of Colorado’s best wines is known for his magnificently crafted emails that evoke the spirit of his surroundings.
“It seems at such odds with the current gloom that spring is busting into life. Calves and lambs gambling around the farm and the alfalfa and the orchard grass greening up the fields,” he wrote as he extolled the quality of current releases made by his longtime associate and winemaker, Jesus Castillo. “We appreciate and need the support of our already loyal following, now more than ever.”
Sutcliffe is offering 15% off on three or more bottles ordered.
Buy some wine online. It will make a difference for someone like John Sutcliffe.