BERKELEY, Calif. — As the recession continues to pinch budgets, some tech- (and cash) savvy wineries are rethinking the tradition of jetting their winemakers around the country for in-person tastings with top critics.
Instead, wineries such as California's Kendall-Jackson are embracing low-cost, eco-friendly virtual tastings via the Internet.
"We're reinventing the time-honored tradition of winemaker tastings for leaner and greener times," says Kendall-Jackson spokeswoman Caroline Shaw.
The tastings, which Kendall-Jackson launched this year, come at a time when the famously slow-moving wine industry has begun to explore in depth the new communications options surging across the Internet.
"Wineries are really starting to take notice of everything that's out there, whether it be Webcam technology or Facebook or Twitter," says Lisa Mattson, spokeswoman for St. Helena-based wine consulting firm Wilson Daniels Ltd.
For example, Wilson Daniels recently partnered with Twitter Taste Live, a Web forum for real-time wine tasting, for a tasting marking the 10th anniversary of Open That Bottle Night. A live video feed of the event showed participants on the East and West coasts sampling wines. People following along across the country could post their opinions via the Web site's live Twitter feed.
The Kendall-Jackson tastings are a little different, with winemaker and critic interacting one-on-one.
"Make sure you don't spill any wine on the keyboard," Kendall-Jackson wine master Randy Ullom joked as he started a recent session.
The setup is pretty simple. Wine critics are shipped the bottles to be sampled, then e-mailed tasting notes. If they don't have a Webcam, the winery sends that along, too. And the winery's tech people do a test run to make sure it all works.
The tastings are the same as in-person sessions but instead of sitting across a restaurant table — the usual venue when Ullom is on the road — critic and winemaker view each other by videoconference.
Being able to meet face-to-virtual-face means the winemaker and critic can talk about the wine as they're tasting it, exploring things like the impact of growing conditions and the many other factors that go into a particular wine.
Does an e-tasting equal the romance of strolling through vineyards and sitting down to a tasting in the cellar? No. But, then again, it's not supposed to, says Shaw.
"Seeing anything first-hand makes a difference," she says. "First choice is always to host."
So far, the biggest problem has been working out technological bugs, most of which seem to be settled, she says.
Steve Heimoff, West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast, recently did an e-tasting and found it relaxing to sip without a trip.
"I always say if I went to every winery that invited me I would be living in my car," says Heimoff. "To be able to do something like this — it really frees up both the winemaker and the winemaker's guest. It's not as humanistic as actually being with the winemaker, but we're all pretty busy these days."
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