Last Saturday afternoon, following a morning of household projects and impromptu family Monopoly sessions while sheltering in place, I managed to steal away for a wine tasting. It was hosted by one of Texas’s most celebrated wineries, William Chris Vineyards, in the tiny Hill Country town of Hye. Only, for this tasting, I didn’t have to leave my house. Instead, I grabbed a wineglass and a four-pack of previously shipped wines from my fridge, popped the corks, and lined them up on my office desk. Taking a cozy seat, I poured the first wine—a racy, floral sparkling Blanc du Bois—and pulled up the winery’s Facebook page to enjoy the latest in coronavirus-era adaptations: a virtual wine tasting.
With lockdown guidelines in place, wineries have had to get creative about how to hold the attention of their customers and, hopefully, continue to sell wine. In lieu of an idyllic Hill Country road trip to sample the offerings of a few different wineries, the standard tasting room has been traded for the laptop or smartphone.
“Seven weeks ago, we closed our tasting room doors, but our company was built on the idea of sharing a piece of our world with people,” says William Chris cofounder Chris Brundrett. “The virtual tastings were born to allow us to connect with people—both longtime fans and those new to our wines.”
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The hourlong tasting format at William Chris consists of a casual chat between Brundrett and his wife, Katharine, while everyone samples a few selections from the winery’s portfolio. (Would-be participants can order the wines up to a few days in advance of the tastings.) The Brundretts share stories about Texas wine while walking participants through the lineup. The most recent experience, on April 25, offered an expanded format in celebration of the winery’s tenth anniversary. It included virtual drop-ins from co-owner William Blackmon, along with staff members and guests such as grape grower Andy Timmons of Lost Draw Vineyards, a longtime supplier for the winery.
Throughout the hour, the Brundretts led more than 430 participants through each wine. The aforementioned sparkling selection was followed by a smoky mourvèdre, a French Rhône variety made from grapes grown in the High Plains near Lubbock, an exceptional merlot from the Hunter Vineyard in the High Plains, and a robust tobacco-, tar-, and dried-blackberry-laden touriga nacional, a Portuguese variety destined for greatness in the sweltering Texas climate.
William Chris isn’t the only winery offering these interactive wine experiences. Brennan Vineyards hosts Friday-afternoon virtual tastings led by winemaker Todd Webster. Located midway between the Hill Country and Fort Worth in Comanche, the winery is a bit off the beaten path already. Weekly online tastings have offered a chance to connect with newcomers and loyal fans. Wines for each upcoming tasting are available to order in discounted six- or three-pack options with free shipping within Texas.
Long-established Becker Vineyards hosts regular wine tastings three days a week, offering a weekly three-pack to order in advance. Tastings are spread over three separate days so that you can enjoy a bottle of wine over a day or two rather than opening all three at once and not having a chance to finish them. (Something we don’t suggest you do.) If you happen to miss one, all tastings are archived on the Becker Vineyards Facebook page, allowing you to tune in at your leisure.
In the past few weeks, other producers have hosted similar events, including Perissos Vineyard and Winery, Southold Farm & Cellar, Reddy Vineyards, C.L. Butaud, and Wine for the People, with more on the way. Check the websites and social media feeds of your favorite Texas wineries for details.
For an all-inclusive, BYOB option, the Bullock Texas State History Museum will premiere an online tasting, Viva Texas Vino, at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 4. The tastings will be led by yours truly and will feature various Texas winemakers and grape growers tasting through specific grape varieties and styles of wine. The format allows the vinously curious to select a few wines of their choice from local retailers to taste along with the virtual experience. (Hint: the first tasting will focus on tempranillo, a Spanish varietal.)
Or, join a weekly bring-your-own tasting for Texas Wine Twitter Tuesdays. Originally part of a marketing initiative launched in 2011 by public relations consultant Denise Clarke and Texas-based wine writers Russell Kane (Vintage Texas) and Jeff Siegel (The Wine Curmudgeon), the effort waned and eventually halted in 2015. Now the weekly tastings have been revived, and with encouraging success.
“When the lockdown on restaurants and wineries was announced from the Texas governor’s office, we sort of got the band back together,” Kane says. “Wineries were trying to drive sales online, and we felt this could help maintain Texas wine’s visibility.”
There’s no registration or signup necessary. Log in to Twitter and follow the hashtag #txwine from every Tuesday from 7 to 8 p.m. Instead of preordering a particular set of wines, this come-one-come-all initiative has a weekly calendar of styles and categories of wines, encouraging would-be participants to bring what they like to the tasting. (The topics in the first few weeks of May include Mother’s Day wines, sparkling wines, blanc du bois, lenoir, and wine pairings for grilled food.) Though organizers lead the virtual conversation, anyone can chime in. Participants often include Texas winemakers and grape growers, along with sommeliers and Texas wine fans who share tasting notes, anecdotes, pairings, and photos.
Also on Tuesdays, the Wonder Women of Wine (WWOW) has launched Texas Tuesdays in celebration of women in Texas wine. This Austin-based organization was founded in 2018 to advocate for women in leadership positions within the wine industry. Its second annual conference was scheduled for the end of March and would’ve featured an all-star lineup of notable women in the world of wine. Instead, founder Rania Zayyat, a celebrated Austin sommelier, has continued her mission of closing the gender gap for women in wine with online tastings, and she’s included Texas wine as an essential part of that message.
The first Texas Tuesdays tasting on April 28 included Susan Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards. She and her husband, Ed Auler, founded the pioneering winery in the late seventies, and she is widely regarded as a matriarch of Texas wine. The series continues with Julie Kuhlken of Pedernales Cellars on May 12, and certified wine educator Jen Beckmann of Slate Mill Wine Collective on May 26. Registration through the WWOW website is required.
Speaking of Slate Mill Wine Collective, this Fredericksburg-based producer has partnered with Austin-based confectioner Delysia Chocolatier for a special Mother’s Day chocolate and wine pairing. Included as part of the tasting are four handcrafted chocolate truffles expertly paired with wines from Slate Mill. Delysia Chocolatier chef and owner Nicole Patel and Slate Mill’s Beckmann will host the afternoon event on Saturday, May 9, from 2 to 3 p.m. Wine gift packs are available for purchase directly from the winery, while the chocolates and virtual tasting tickets are available through the Delysia website. (Note: instructions and the conference link will be emailed to you 24 hours before your tasting.)
Also joining in on the virtual Mother’s Day celebration, Lost Draw Cellars is hosting a summer wine release party on Sunday, May 10, at 3 p.m. on Facebook Live. Wine Club members may preorder a $95 wine pack for the tasting, which will include 2019 Picpoul Blanc, 2019 Arroyo Rosato, 2018 Alta Loma Sangiovese, Lost Draw Viva, and an exclusive barrel tasting of 2018 concrete-aged Counoise. It’s worth noting that wine club members are encouraged to share their benefits with friends and family by ordering a wine pack to be delivered to their home. Members who send two or more packs will get $50 off.
Wineries have been encouraged by Texans’ support. “It has been a real eye-opening experience to interact with our customers in this way,” says Rebecca Conley, director of operations and marketing for Brennan Vineyards. Brennan plans to continue the virtual tastings even after the pandemic has passed, she says.
While nothing can replace a sun-dappled afternoon with friends and family at a winery, virtual tastings may be the next best thing. So fire up Zoom or Facebook Live, open a bottle of your choice, and support a Texas winery while you’re at it.