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'This is their date night' | Virtual wine tastings helping wineries stay open during uncertain times

Boeger Winery in Placerville and Bumgarner Winery in Camino have found a way to connect with wine drinkers virtually while stay-at-home orders are in place.

PLACERVILLE, Calif. — California winemakers are adjusting to the state’s stay-at-home order by providing virtual experiences.

“We had to think of ways we could connect with people online,” Eileen Boeger of Boeger Winery in Placerville, said. 

After California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered restaurants, breweries and wine tasting rooms to close their doors to customers because of the coronavirus, some wineries shifted to curbside pick up and put more of an emphasis on online sales. Jennifer Bumgarner, co-owner of Bumgarner Winery in Camino, said they have drive-thru wine pick up, as well.

“We’ve been selling online, but it wasn’t really a big part of our business,” Boeger said. “We primarily used our tasting room to offer our customers wine. We had to quickly shift gears and focus on online sales.”

Boeger and Bumgarner, like many wineries, are now offering virtual tastings and pairings to fill in the gap.

“My husband and I love being in the kitchen. So we thought why not have people join us in the kitchen,” Boeger said.

Every Sunday at 5 p.m., people can log on to Boeger’s Facebook page for a live cooking demonstration and wine pairing.

“We’ve done anything from creamy fettuccine with Barbera to homemade pizza made with yeast actually used in our Chardonnay to Albondigas with Tempranillo,” Boeger said.

The recipe and wine pairings are released ahead of time so people have enough time to buy the ingredients if they plan to follow along during the cooking demonstration. The wine can also be ordered and picked up or delivered before Sunday evening, but it’s not required, Boeger said.

“People have been very responsive to this sip and cook idea. I think they really like it. It’s their opportunity to ask questions to a family winery. We’re talking about wine, food, togetherness,” Boeger said.

Bumgarner said they’ve had as many as 60 people on their virtual wine tastings over Zoom. 

“They’re there in their home. They can make whatever they want, eat whatever they want. We’ll find out what people are enjoying with the wine. It’s a really intimate experience. You’re hearing directly from the winemaker. People feel like it’s more of a winemaker dinner,” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner said they put together a tasting kit of two to three wines for virtual guests to taste on the call. 

“My husband is a winemaker. We’ll go wine by wine. He’ll give his impressions. What he gets on the nose, where they’re grown, how they’re made. We’ll have photos of where the wine was grown,” Bumgarner said.

Bumgarner said the virtual tastings, hosted every Friday, are great for couples looking to abide by the shelter-in-place order.

“We have folks who can’t go out, so this is their date night,” Bumgarner said. 

Although these virtual offerings have been well-received, both Boeger and Bumgarner said the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent stay-at-home orders have been tough for business.

“It’s so uncertain, especially for smaller family wineries like ours,” Boeger said. 

Boeger added that normally scheduled wine production has come to a halt. They’ve scaled down staff in their tasting room and put events on hold.

“It’s a different strategy on how to get people wine," Boeger said. "We’re figuring out new ways to meet the moment, meet people where they are. It’s uncertain going forward."

Bumgarner said 98% of their sales are direct-to-customers, which means if they don’t pour wine, they don’t make that revenue.

“It’s a scary time. Financially, it’s stressful,” Bumgarner said. 

Bumgarner and Boeger said loyal customers and wine club members have been showing support.

“We miss our customers and we miss our team greatly. We miss being able to share and pour with people. We have a couple of new wines no one has been able to taste yet,” Bumgarner said.

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