Little vials of wine nestled carefully into a box are waiting for you to take them home. Available at some local wineries, the bottles come in packs of five or six, hold 1 to 4 ounces of wine each, and are the latest iteration of pandemic life.
After the first COVID-19 shutdown in March, wineries battened down their tasting rooms, upped their social media and internet sales games, and waited for reopening. When in-person winery visits were finally allowed again, most knew it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened again.
"We were trying to think of everything that was going to come our way," Epoch Estate Wines Assistant Tasting Room Manager Braden Bautista said. "We'd always had it in the back of our mind that something else could come along—a new wave, a new shutdown."
So wineries like Epoch dreamed up ways to stay in touch with customers. Bautista said they were just trying to keep ideas in their back pocket.
"Just in case," he said. "And, of course, it did happen."
In November, the state of California shut the state down by region—including the Southern California region, which SLO County is a part of—as COVID-19 surged following the holidays. Local wineries were forced to endure another shutdown, again closing down tasting rooms to the public with no forecasted end in sight. So the industry is once again adapting. Epoch and a few handfuls of other Paso Robles area wineries are offering consumers kits for a pandemic wine tasting. Each one is a little different (with different price points), but they follow the same basic outline.
A flight of wines that would normally be offered in the tasting room gets bottled on demand, packed into a box with a flyer outlining basic tasting notes and information about the winery, and the option to do a virtual tasting with someone from the winery. Most are only available for a scheduled pickup due to quality control concerns and can be ordered online.
- Photo Courtesy Of Epoch Estate Wines
- NEXT BEST THING Epoch Estate Wines offers two tasting kit options for those who want to try the Paso Robles winery's offerings just like they would in the tasting room. Visit epochwines.com for more.
At Epoch, the sample bottles hold up to 4 ounces, so each kit is enough for two people to enjoy, Bautisa said. They have two options to choose from, and each $80 kit includes five wines with a surprise pour as an added bonus, as well as a link to an online video Epoch's winemaker put together about the wines and an option to schedule a virtual tasting.
Sales were higher than Epoch anticipated.
"When we saw the period between Christmas and New Year's, we anticipated that to be a little bit slow, but that's the moment that everyone came to get them," he said. "It worked really well."
- Photo Courtesy Of Ray Schofield
- INCOGNITO Cloak and Dagger's tasting kit packaging is as mysterious as the labels on its wines: a black box with little vials tucked carefully into the remnants of shredded documents. Check out cloakanddaggerwines.com to learn about them.
Cloak and Dagger Wines were only available online for about a decade before the winery moved into a shared tasting space on Willow Road in Paso with Volatus Wine and Changala Winery. So the transition back to online-only sales wasn't difficult.
However, Cloak and Dagger Conspirator-In-Chief Rick Schofield said he was only in the tasting room for about five weeks before the first shutdown. He said a bunch of people were in the tasting room when the text came saying they had to shut it down.
"The last couple of hours of tasting were like Prohibition," he said.
About two months later, the state allowed tasting with food, then the state lifted the food requirement and went to outdoor-only tasting. And now, of course, we're in the midst of another shutdown.
"Agree or disagree, it's just the latest thing that we have to navigate," Schofield said. "So the tasting kits were sort of the next answer to that. The next way we thread the needle to keep something going on."
With a small production that ranges from 350 to 500 cases a year, Cloak and Dagger is sort of a one-man operation and hasn't ventured into offering virtual tastings just yet. But his $20 tasting kits come with five 1-ounce pours of numbered bottles with a list to match them with and a discount code to purchase full bottles online.
To order a kit, Schofield says people have to call or email (contact information is available at cloakanddaggerwines.com), and can pick up Saturday and Sunday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
After throwing dozens of ideas against the wall over 2020 to see what stuck, Booker Winery also decided to offer $80 tasting kits for two. Booker has the ability to ship them to every state the winery already ships wine to. That ability required "an insane amount of paperwork," Booker Marketing Director Chelsea Sprague said.
Like the other wineries, the kits are made to order, and they can be picked up at the winery or have designated ship date. For example, Sprague said, for those shipping on Jan. 19, the kits are put together the evening before and come with 100 ml of five different wines, a welcome card, a booklet with brief descriptions and space to make your own tasting notes, and a code to book a virtual tasting.
Although places such as Epoch and Cloak and Dagger recommend consuming the tasting kits within 48 hours of picking them up, Sprague said Booker's tasting kits have a shelf life of about two weeks because they use a little bit of argon gas to push oxygen out of the bottle before filling it.
Booker did blind tastings with the team to figure out how long the wines could sit in the bottles, Sprague said. They started shipping the kits right after Cyber Monday and plan to pause from late February to early March while they are getting a wine shipment out to wine club members.
"It's very labor intensive; it's a lot of work," Sprague said. "If this is something that still has demand, we'll plan accordingly." Δ
Editor Camillia Lanham will taste anywhere. Send food and drink tidbits to firstname.lastname@example.org.