Kelsey Glasser, sommelier and owner of Arden, a Pearl District restaurant featuring Northwest cuisine and Oregon wines. ##Photo provided
Terry and Sue Brandborg raise a toast to their online audience. ##Photo provided
Naumes Family Vineyards uses individual bottles to help achieve its virtual tasting. ##Photo provided

A Web of Buys

Virtual tastings spin new avenues

By Paul Omundson

Before COVID-19 reared its head early this year the interesting novelty of virtual wine tastings was already an intriguing blip on Oregon’s wine scene. With Zoom and other audio- and web-conferencing platforms providing easy, real-time communications, it didn’t take long for wineries to realize a great tool to reward wine club members, entice new customers and empower wine sales reps with a new way to introduce new releases to out-of-state and international clients.

When the coronavirus shut down normal life and people were in quarantine and isolation at home, virtual tasting took on a larger role, and became a way to stay connected. During lockdown, it was also one of the best means available for winemakers to promote their wines. Many of Oregon’s 800 wineries attempted virtual tastings and customers sequestered at home loved it.

Virtual tastings are now taking new twists and turns. Here’s a peek at four in Oregon who push this relatively new medium forward.

The beret stays on

“I’m more excited about figuring out what to wear for this video podcast than the wine,” mischievously admitted Kelsey Glasser, sommelier and owner of Arden, a Pearl District restaurant featuring Northwest cuisine and Oregon wines; she was speaking to her audience as she began a recent weekly online tasting.

Before delving into the topic at hand — rosés in the Provence region of southeastern France — she continued to describe, in detail, how she bought the oversize beret she was wearing. “Don’t worry,” she assured, “I’ll take it off in just a minute. Really, I will.” Then Glasser, swirling one of three pours, plunged into her subject, leading followers on a delightful interactive romp through the wines’ famed French area. An hour later, after the final goodbyes from participants, the beret was still on.

Things like that endear Glasser to her audience. This Willamette Valley native left Oregon to become an actress in Los Angeles and New York before returning home to co-founding TheloniOus Wine Bar, a precursor to Arden in Portland. She started virtual tastings in March “basically to keep the restaurant afloat during virus lockdown,” she said. “Now, these account for 15% to 20% of total sales.”

She plans to continue the online tastings into the New Year; Typically, she draws an audience of 30 to 50 viewers for each live-streamed podcast on Instagram, which she then uploads to YouTube. Her total views per show average about 400. Glasser puts about four hours of research into each presentation, creating buzz with obscure wines from places like Serbia, Slovenia and Hungary. She loves what she does and what she’s created.

Glasser explains, “Groups of friends in Portland tune in together, and they have my livestream on their iPhones, then they jump on a Zoom call at the same time on their computers. It’s an excuse for a virtual hangout for all of us.”

Catch her December lineup Saturdays, 3 to 4 p.m. On Dec. 5, she will highlight France’s Jura region; Dec. 12 is a blind tasting; Dec. 19 is a special presentation on Galilee; and there’s bubbles for Dec. 26.

Husband-and-wife teams score success

Veteran winegrowers Sue and Terry Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyard in Elkton and Sue and Neil Shay of Bluebird Hill Cellars in Monroe have found promising second careers as online wine presenters, appealing to a virtual audience they’d never envisioned. Companies and organizations seeking fun refreshers for employee, sales and supporter gatherings are attracted to the casual, informative styles these two couples exhibit during their virtual tastings.

“We never dreamed this would happen,” said Sue Shay. But circumstances have a way. In her and Neil’s case, a two-fold whammy propelled them into the virtual tasting market. First, a lead official for an international consulting firm read an Oregon newspaper’s April story about Bluebird’s plans to host online tastings. “He asked if we’d consider doing virtual tastings for one of his nine teams around the country,” Shay said.

An initial event went so well that attendees of that meeting started booking additional online engagements for their own group’s events. Then, a visitor to Bluebird shortly after lockdown lifted was so enamored by his live experience he also engaged the pair to do online tastings for his company’s gatherings.

“That’s how it started,” Shay said. “Revenue from these online activities has made up for lack of sales at Oregon wine festivals that are now temporarily inactive.”

At Brandborg Vineyard, Terry and Sue were recommended to a Napa company, Priority Wine Pass, a third-party service linking virtual tasting experiences to a wide array of groups and individuals. “It seemed like a great idea, and we jumped in,” Terry said. “We’ve done about 50 of them now. We try to present them as a casual wine get-together or cocktail party. And it seems to be received well.” A new enhancement to Brandborg’s production is sending paired snacks along with wine samples to attendees. Treats like chocolate truffles, spiced pecans and cheese straws now add a nice sparkle to experience.

Active interaction

Corey Schultz, winery director of Naumes Family Vineyards/Suncrest Winery close to Medford, jumped into the virtual tasting business through an interesting fluke: What to do with a shipment of 10 cases of wine to a Milwaukee restaurant that suddenly canceled an in-person tasting due to the virus? He and his hometown friends recast the tasting into an online event. “A friend donated 4-ounce sample bottles.” Schultz and his group managed to label them just in time. The result? “We sold all 10 cases.”

In the coming months, he’s planning more such events aimed both locally for Rogue Valley fans and an aggressive pursuit of opportunities elsewhere, such as the Wisconsin venture.

We’re seeing what began as a fun communications novelty evolve into a remarkably refined sales tool bringing Oregon wines into places they’ve never been before. Winemakers say the successes made during these online events often translate into individuals who later actively seek their wines via the web and visiting in person when they’re in Oregon. 


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