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Virtual Vines

In a time of social distancing, innovative purveyors have gotten creative when it comes to sharing and learning about wine.

By Julie Craven Wagner, Stefanie Celata, and Elizabeth Aragao

Whether you just know what you like, or consider yourself to be a full-fledged oenophile, lovers of wine know that one of the most intriguing aspects of their passion includes an exploration of styles and varieties beyond what is immediately familiar to them. An examination of what influences a particular vintner’s latest, or even their most renowned offering, is what makes the journey of discovery rich and meaningful for those who want to expand their viniculture horizons. For those wanting to continue to try new wines as well as the professionals who need to increase their audience, the absence of wine tastings and wine dinners threatens a drought that would render a thirsty public unfulfilled. As is usually the case, a need often develops into an opportunity, and during Governor Baker’s recent Stay-at-Home orders, some innovative entrepreneurs across the region started to create new ways to share their love of wine with virtual wine tasting.

As people are literally living virtually, Tracy MacDonald and Heidi Holdgate log on to Nantucket’s Epernay’s online sessions for wine exploration.

Cape Cod Package Store in Centerville has been a regular stop for Mid-Cape oenophiles as well as a destination for those from more far-flung areas like the Outer Cape as well as off-Cape. Second-generation owner, Danette Atsalis along with her sister Andrea Pendergast have continued their father’s professional reputation for being a purveyor of distinction for those looking for depth and breadth in a collection of wine. In-store tastings were an integral part of the day-to-day activity in the busy store, until they weren’t. “My husband and I were supposed to go to Sonoma for a vacation this spring until it was cancelled due to the pandemic,” Atsalis shares. “It was a Christmas gift from our kids and we were so disappointed not to go.” That disappointment fueled Atsalis’ innovation to do something new and different for the business in the form of virtual wine tastings: a web-based presentation of wine and information to an online group that, in most cases, would pick-up the featured bottles of wine at the store prior to the event.

The first of three virtual wine tasting events kicked off with a moderated talk by local winemaker Joseph Carr and was attended by over a dozen online participants. The second event featured a French wine importer and featured a food pairing of Oysters Rockefeller. Atsalis leveraged her relationship with other local businesses by partnering with Cape Cod Oyster Company, which offered an online purchase of oysters, and chef Matt Tropeano, chef/owner of Spoon and Seed restaurant, who contributed his Oysters Rockefeller recipe and prepared them live in his kitchen for the event. The last event was a tour of Spanish wines and was promoted locally by groups like Cape Cod Young Professionals.

Nantucket’s Epernay Wine and Spirits 

The fall is a time that Atsalis expects to really get creative and offer a robust schedule of virtual events and new opportunities for local partnerships as she brings everyone together over a glass of wine. “People are very quick and efficient with their trips to the store, so the opportunity to spend some time learning and interacting isn’t happening as much anymore. A chance to connect virtually appeals to everyone,” Atsalis reflects.

Stores such as locally-owned Luke’s Cape Cod, offered a “Virtual Visit to Duckhorn” (Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards) where Joey Casco, CSW/CSS, beverage marketer for the Luke’s organization, posted videos of conversations with the winemaker, as well as discussions of particular varietals in their weekly periodical, The Grape Bunch. “I think the real value is that most of these virtual tastings aren’t just tastings. They’re also webinars. You get to learn about the history of the wineries, the vineyard, even the region. People see and interact with the people who are involved in making these wines,” says Casco. The Grape Bunch also spotlights fun in-home tasting packages. Six wines with a common theme are selected monthly by Casco and are presented in an informative and timely way. Some of the recent themes have been “The Grillin’ 6 Pack,” which offered wines that pair with food hot off the grill and included accompanying tasting sheets and recipe suggestions. Additionally, there have been “Rosés of the World.” This tasting offers a passport around the world, guided by the elusive pink summer nectar found in the world’s various wine regions. As people search for social activity during times of quarantine, or even as we remain socially limited, expanding not just one’s wine knowledge, but also one’s tasting and cooking skills is the perfect pastime. A six-pack is under $80 and even includes free delivery in this age of COVID. According to Casco, “We see that it is such a great opportunity to expand wine adventures from home without traveling. I believe virtual wine tasting will still be going strong after this crisis is over, and that’s why offering things like free delivery just make sense for everyone.” 

Joey Casco, CSW/CSS from Luke’s is always ready with the perfect wine suggestion.

Wine suppliers such as Ethan Hunt, manager of Maisons and Domaines Henriot, have partnered with locally owned retail outlets such as Cotuit Liquors and Liquor ‘N More to offer virtual tastings with a selection of wines at a favorable discount. Hunt, who resides in Sandwich with his family, represents a beautiful portfolio of fine wines hailing from France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions. He has offered informative and lively tastings such as “A Taste of Burgundy” and “Chablis & Oysters” to name just a couple. The events usually last about 90 minutes and feel like a mini-vacation to some of the most beautiful wine regions in the world. When discussing the benefits of virtual wine tasting, Hunt says, “The prevalent benefit is pure escapism. I try to transport people to the very place we’re discussing through pictures and details about the winery, the vines and surrounding area.“ The tastings are entertaining and engaging, supplemented with regional maps and photos from Hunt’s personal collection of travels. “I like to encourage interaction so people can ask questions and get as involved as they would like to,” says Hunt. In addition, he also offers private virtual group tastings, allowing attendees to socialize, and absorb valuable information from a French wine professional. Those customized virtual events run the gamut from book club tastings to co-workers and friends hosting a private celebration of wine. Hunt also encourages those new to French wine to dip their toe in the eau de vie and says, “The fun part is to discuss and learn. Hey, at the end of the day, it’s simply wine. It shouldn’t be intimidating, it should just be enjoyed!”

On Nantucket, Epernay Wine and Spirits owners Jenny Benzie and Kirk Baker have been quite creative in replacing their weekly in-person store tastings. Previously, the events had typically been hosted by a winemaker or a beverage luminary. Now Epernay is successfully creating an alternative that aims to be an elevated virtual wine experience. “The idea of doing virtual wine tasting came to mind two-fold.  First, this enabled us to include customers who enjoy our tastings in the summer but are not here year round. Secondly, we were able to revamp our Cheers to Charities program,” Benzie explains. The Cheers to Charities Wine Pack is a collection of four sommelier-selected wines that complement the mission of the partnered non-profit, and are featured for an entire month. One wine from the pack will be featured each week by Benzie on her various social media platforms. In addition, 10% of proceeds from each pack is donated to the monthly charity of choice. Past recipients have been Sustainable Nantucket and PASCON, the island’s palliative care organization. Subscriptions to the series are also available, which make unexpected gifts for those wine enthusiasts who seem to have everything.

Baker and Benzie, who are extremely accomplished sommeliers (Benzie’s credentials include Certified Wine Educator and a Diploma of Wine and Spirits), offer weekly virtual wine tasting, featuring two wines per week.  The wines featured are usually under $20 and the tasting lasts about 30-45 minutes, depending on how many questions people have at the end of the event. Participation in one of these events is an amazing opportunity, given the extensive knowledge of the team at Epernay. The wines can be purchased online or by calling the store for pick-up or delivery; unfortunately, they do not ship off-island.

For those who are practicing social distancing and are ready for culinary adventures, the Chatham Bars Inn has implemented a comprehensive Wellbeing Plan in order to keep staff and guests safe. The Chatham Bars Inn Farm has had a bountiful harvest of vegetables and edible flowers this year and incorporates all of them into Chef Anthony Cole’s menus for the Wine & Dine dinners. The summer series has included exclusive selections from Joseph Carr, bringing a winemaking philosophy of balance and approachability to the beautiful atmosphere provided by these seaside wine experiences at the Chatham Bars Inn. Additional events in the Wine & Dine program included a dinner with the iconic Marlborough, New Zealand winery Cloudy Bay.

Off-Cape, in the historic district of New Bedford, an intriguing artisan showroom called The Drawing Room introduced virtual tastings in partnership with The Coastal Wine Trail (CWT) earlier this spring. Corey Nuffer, a vineyard representative from Westport Rivers (one of the several vineyards on the CWT), has led the in-depth discussion and journey for those savvy enough to have discovered this hidden gem in the historic seaport. Nuffer first partnered with Anthi Frangiadis, owner of The Drawing Room, which now carries locally produced wine and beer, for a successful series of in-person Wine Salons. They pivoted to virtual tastings early in quarantine. The shop, licensed to sell wine and beer, was able to stay open, offering contactless pickup for wines that would be featured in that month’s online event.

“While we had to adapt our original plans, the virtual wine tastings give us a way to keep connected and share some lighthearted moments with our community at a time when we all need it,” says Frangiadis. “The events are informative, and, above all else, fun. We get to learn and laugh together, while offering a toast to the local makers who create such delicious wines for us to enjoy.”

Whether it’s Methode Champanoise wines or Vermouth, talking wine comes easily to Nuffer. “Before Prohibition, Americans were doing a lot of very cool things with their alcohol,” Corey Nuffer explained during a Vermouth-centric virtual wine tasting. “After Prohibition, everything started to become more of this Mad Men-era of ‘we want as little flavor as possible, we want as much vodka as possible’ and that approach to Vermouth hasn’t changed — until recently.”

The Drawing Room’s virtual wine conversations include notes on flavor profiles, such as the description of the new Farmer’s Fizz Red from Westport Rivers as a “boozy berry popsicle.” They also include fascinating deep dives, such as the different ingredients you can combine to make your own Vermouth at home, to the proper safety tips for bruleeing an orange peel over an open flame (hint: use tongs). 

Willing to test the stability of Internet connections, Nuffer and Rob Russell, owner of Westport Rivers, joined one livestream from the 80-acre vineyard, standing in different rows of vines discussing varieties of grapes, different growing methods, and the history of the hybrid grape. And when Nuffer’s computer ran out of power, she sprinted over to Russell’s row of grapes to continue the conversation. Technical difficulties will inevitably happen, but will never stop the discussion, with Frangiadis stepping in to ask thoughtful questions from her shop’s wine room. 

The Drawing Room plans to grow its wine offerings, first by expanding its in-store selection to include wines from vineyards featured in the Coastal Wine Trail. It will also take the Wine Salon experience virtual with its first online wine class on Sunday, October 25th. Part tasting, part salon, part book talk, Nuffer will lead a transformative discussion combining the art and science of developing your palate. 

Nuffer decribes the unique class by saying, “It is informed by a more narrative-driven primer to wine, as well as a focus on science, all with some pointers from Bianca Bosker’s life-changing book, “Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste.” Our goal is for people to learn just as much about how their body works through smell and taste. And we’ll explore the importance of words, something that’s often overlooked during tastings…and pretty much all wine lists everywhere.” 

As the crisp weather approaches, plans for a winery visit or events such as in store Grand Wine tastings would be in the works.  But with a global pandemic limiting wine experiences, oenophiles have been forced to become creative in the quest for virtual vino. Luckily, many businesses on Cape Cod and the Islands are offering alternatives to keep the wine lovers’ palate peaked.   



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