Don’t worry, the tasting experience is virtual but the wine is real and so is the food.
Normally an eight-day event that draws in excess of 3,000 attendees, according to its website, the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta (SFWCF), which runs through Sunday, Sept. 27, adapted to the coronavirus pandemic by moving tastings and cooking classes online and canceling the Grand Tasting, typically the marquee event of the festival. Wine pairing dinners continue as usual and are scheduled for 25 restaurants in Santa Fe. Some have added wine luncheons this year as well because there are no daytime events that interfere.
“More than likely, we will operate at a loss this year. If we break even, we’d be very pleased. We’re not selling $700,000 worth of tickets, as we usually do. Sponsorships are 30 percent of what they were last year, but we hope to maintain our level of income at our auctions,” says Greg O’Byrne, executive director of SFWCF. Even so, the Fiesta decided to push forward with the adjusted 2020 event. “The real impetus for us was to keep our audience engaged with our wineries and our restaurants, even though this is a very unusual time.”
Odd as they may sound, virtual tasting events are in vogue across the United States as safe ways to sample alcohol at home and not in a crowded bar or tasting room. David Ramey, owner of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, California, has used virtual tastings as a lifeline during the pandemic. “This is the way the wine business is being done. I hold two or three or four virtuals a week,” Ramey says. “If you’re a brand like ours, around 60 percent of our sales are on-premises.” With restaurants struggling, wineries have relied more on direct-to-consumer sales, Ramey added.
This year, SFWCF has 24 partner wineries, only about a quarter the number of vintners that usually participate in the event. SFWCF runs its tastings over Zoom as webinars. Guests can register online and then pick up their wine at the Inn and Spa at Loretto. Tastings range in price from $50 to $295 and include enough wine samples for four to eight people. Each tasting kit comes with three bottles of wine selected for the seminar and a complimentary bottle of Champagne Palmer Brut. All told, the cost of the three bottles is a little less than retail. “You’re really getting a really great deal here on the wine,” O’Byrne says. SFWCF is preparing 200 kits for the event, roughly eight kits per winery.
Webinars are led by a winemaker and hosted by a guest sommelier. The chat function allows guests to ask questions in real-time. On the surface, these tastings may seem less personal, but there are some advantages. “It is quite remarkable because although people are in different locations, it feels somehow intimate,” says Beth Novak Milliken, president & CEO of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery. “Such nice connections are made through this format, you can feel everyone’s appreciation at the opportunity to come together and share wonderful wines and experiences.”
Ramey enjoys the convenience and simplicity of virtual tastings. “You don’t have to go anywhere, you don’t have to dress up,” he says. “You might put a nice top on, but if you’re wearing your undershorts down below, that’s OK, because people only see your face.”
O’Byrne was also able to book a guest he’s wanted for years, thanks to the convenience of Zoom. “Bobby Stuckey is the owner of Frasca Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. He was the sommelier at French Laundry for 15 years prior to that.” French Laundry is one of the most awarded and recognized restaurants in California. “Every year, I try to get him to come down to Wine & Chile, but he’s just too busy running his restaurant. This year as soon as I asked, he said, ‘Yeah. I can do that.’ ” Stuckey conducted a tasting of the wines of Friuli, a region of Northeastern Italy.
“We’re encouraging people to get a little watch party at home. You get four bottles of wine and if you brought six friends to your house, you could all watch together and taste the wines,” O’Byrne says. He also hopes that people stay tuned after tastings on Friday, Sept. 25, at 6:45 p.m. for the live auction that includes 30 lots of items like rare wines, private meals with famed chefs, and wine tasting trips to the West Coast.
SFWCF also uses Zoom webinars for cooking classes. On Saturday, Sept. 26, James Beard Award-winning writer Cheryl Alters Jamison addresses methods for making great brisket and appetizers. The class costs $35.
For those who would much rather taste in person, participating restaurants offer a selection of wines from a single winemaker or winemaking region. Wines are introduced by a local vendor. Typically, meals include four courses, each of which is accompanied by a wine sampling. Some restaurants are playing around with the format. Izanami, for instance, is holding a wine vs. sake tasting.
In some ways, the meals are the most integral part of the Fiesta, because they show off Santa Fe’s fine eateries. “It’s important to us, it’s a marketing event Wine & Chile,” O’Byrne says. “We’re a nonprofit and we’re really trying to promote Santa Fe as a culinary destination.” ◀