With many wineries pivoting to offer virtual tastings in recent weeks, I sat down with Jake Krausz of Arkenstone Estate in Napa to learn how this new medium has been working for them. For background, Arkenstone is a small winery located on Howell Mountain. Typically, their tasting room is open by appointment only and they have a substantial wine club and allocation list that drive the majority of their DTC sales. They also sell a small amount of wine in the wholesale market. In addition to the cellar and vineyard crews, the team is comprised of five people, including proprietor Susan Krausz and winemaker Sam Kaplan.
Q1: What kind of virtual tastings are you currently offering?
We've been experimenting with three virtual tasting formats. The first is 1x1 private tastings which are designed to take the place of traditional tasting room visits. We've offered them to guests who had to cancel their bookings, as well as our broader list, and primarily they are geared towards people who have never visited the winery and have not yet tried our wines. This is one of the most important things we are doing right now, since typically spring is a busy time for us in the tasting room where we meet new people and sell to those who typically only purchase on site.
The second format is for medium-sized groups - more than two households but fewer than ten - typically a group of friends in a single city. It's not something we are actively promoting, but came up organically through our loyal customers wanting to create a social event with their wine-loving friends. This works for a fun, informal happy hour, but it starts to get chaotic the more people you have on and it's hard to have any kind of focused discussion or tasting. It's also ideal to do these earlier, preferably on the first bottle of the night.
Third is larger-format tastings. These are exclusively open to our mailing list members (but anyone can join the list). Because of the high number of attendees, the format here is webinar-style. Instead of allowing everyone to share their video and audio, we had four members of our team present, including our winemaker and two generations of vintners. We weren't sure how much interest we'd get in this, but ended up having to cap attendance because it was so popular.
Q2: What is your primary goal in offering virtual tastings?
#1 is customer engagement. We want to give people an on-brand experience at home. Of course sales are a goal too, but those will come if people have a good experience and feel attached to your wine, and to you, just like they do in the tasting room.
Q3: How have sales been going?
Despite the fact that driving sales is not our top goal, it is still a goal, so you have to ask for the sale. We have had a very strong response from offering a shipping special and library wines, which are not generally available on our website. The majority of sales have been from existing customers and club members with a long purchase history. They have been primarily interested in library selections that we talked about during our group webinar, which makes sense since most of them have just received their spring shipment of our current releases.
We've also had first time buyers make substantial orders and even a handful of club signups. These orders tend to focus on our current releases.
And finally, we've seen people purchase our wines at their local retail shop, driving our wholesale business, which is a nice bonus.
Q4: How have you been marketing the tastings?
Primarily via email and social media. Because the large group webinar was for our list members only, we posted on social media directing people to sign up for our list to get future invitations. This gives us the added bonus of growing our mailing list as well as making follow up easier.
Q5: Do people have to buy wine to participate?
For the 1x1 virtual tastings, consumers are purchase 3 bottles from our online store. Then we give them instructions on how to store the wine and when to open it before the tasting. This is the only tasting tied to a purchase.
For the webinar, we didn't want to exclude anyone who was excited about joining, so there was no purchase requirement. We themed it around a specific wine, our 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and encouraged people to taste that wine with us. However, we also told them we'd be taking questions about other wines if they preferred to open something else. This was very successful for two reasons: 1) people who hadn't bought the 2016 Cabernet yet got excited about that wine and then made a purchase, and 2) as customers asked questions about older vintages or single vineyard wines, it piqued interest in those wines.
Q6: What kind of content have you found resonates most in the virtual tastings?
For our webinar tasting, we prepared remarks to share including a brief history of the winery, drone video footage of the property, live views of our vineyards and cave, and a brief sensory tasting breakdown. Right away we started getting a lot of incoming questions which we incorporated a we went along. Some popular topics were asking us about our favorite vintages, differences between vintages and drinking window recommendations. So we probably ended up with about 20 minutes of prepared comments and 40 minutes of spontaneous Q&A. By answering questions throughout the tasting, we were able to make our guests feel welcome and more connected than just watching a static presentation.
We also found it worked well to have multiple presenters - in our case we had four, which is probably the maximum I'd recommend. We had a moderator to help keep the pace going, and each person presented a different topic.
Q7: What kind of technical setup do you have?
We decided to use Zoom because we found that most of our customers were already using it for work and were very comfortable with the software. We use the built-in computer audio and video. As a boutique brand, offering a gated, invite-only experience felt more appropriate for us than using YouTube or Instagram Live.
Another thing to note is where we broadcast from. Of course we are all maintaining social distancing, but as a small business, that means we can still have a few people on site at the winery. For our 1x1 tastings, we host from our actual tasting room and show the views of the vineyards out the window. For our webinar, we had one person in the tasting room, one in the cave, and two others at home. Being able to show live video of the winery itself makes it feel that much more authentic and not just like another work conference call with people at home on the couch.
Q8: What about follow up?
There has been an enormous amount of 1x1 follow up, both from our individual tastings as well as our webinar. We received a large number of emails from people asking about specific wines to purchase, or just sharing photos of them at home enjoying Arkenstone wines. There were also a lot of social media posts. It's a good affirmation that you're doing it right when people are so excited to post a photo of their computer and a bottle of wine! At the same time, every single social post and email requires an individual response, so we've had to allocate time for that.
And of course for those wishing to purchase, you want to make sure they have a good ordering and delivery experience, otherwise it’s all for nothing. One thing I did in advance that worked well was to compile a list of library wines, with current pricing, that we have in stock with WineDirect fulfillment so that we can get everyone's orders out the door seamlessly
Q9: What's your #1 tip for anyone considering offering virtual tastings?
Overprepare. Test your audio and video. Test your lighting. Test your wifi. Make sure everyone knows what they are supposed to talk about. Create a backup plan in case your computer crashes or the wifi goes out. Dress professionally, just like you would for an in-person tasting. Control as many variables as you possibly can, so that when (not if!) something goes wrong, you can recover quickly and gracefully.