LAKE LEELANAU — Wine tasting usually is a social affair, an elbow-to-elbow group of people sipping together and sharing thoughts in a tasting room bustling with human traffic.
Such gatherings are strongly discouraged in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wineries are responding with curbside pickup options, online deals and even virtual tastings.
Aurora Cellars is promoting an alternative to the in-person tasting experience that maintains social distancing protocols, but still allows enthusiasts to sip wines and learn about them straight from the lips of the winemaker — though those lips will be far away, separated from the tasters by untold miles.
Aurora will hold 6:30 p.m. virtual tasting events on April 15, 22 and 29, livestreamed off the company's Instagram, @auroracellars. Each date will revolve around a different wine.
Winemakers and foodies across the region are brainstorming how to remain sociable in this era of no-closer-than-six-feet.
Social distancing guidelines prompted Traverse City-based nonprofit Taste the Local Difference to publish a blog post titled "How to plan a virtual dinner party." Instructions include: choose the date and time, choose a video chat service, decide on a theme or send out a recipe to invited participants. The post also suggests each participant mix a cocktail made from ingredients already in their home, a "quarantini," so shopping is not required. Read the post at: http://blog.localdifference.org/how-to-plan-a-virtual-dinner-party.
Leelanau Cellars' website features a deal for 10 percent off some purchases with the code "stayhome."
Blustone Vineyards' Tom Knighton said via email that his winery next week is doing a virtual tasting for Michigan By The Bottle, an Auburn Hills tasting room.
Designated Driver TC is promoting a "SIP Happy Hour," A shelter-in-place (SIP) online show for local businesses in the craft beverage industry and ancillary businesses that have been affected by the pandemic. The events are intended to entertain, educate and offer specials and giveaways to viewers. More information is available at www.siphappyhour.com.
"We're shut down" said Designated Driver TC founder Michelle Corteggiano, who also operates Bay Life Getaways and Happytown Rickshaws. "Our job is to bring business to local vineyards. With our new normal, we had to come up with a way to help our local economy, and SIP does it through a worldwide lens."
The first SIP Happy Hour, Friday, April 3 at 5 p.m., will feature Rove Estate and music by Levi Britton.
People who want to take part in Aurora's virtual tastings can order a $58 three-bottle package from the winery's website, auroracellars.com, under the "shop" link, and receive delivery before the tastings begin.
"My sister and I made a commitment that we weren't going to lay anybody off no matter what it took," said co-owner Sam Simpson. "That's part of the reason we're trying to come up with creative ways to keep revenue flowing, so that we can keep everyone moving."
Sam and his sister, Taylor Simpson, have about 30 employees on payroll this time of year, which bumps up to about 60 in summer. They own Aurora Cellars and Good Harbor Vineyards, both of which operate under parent company Harbor Hill Fruit Farms, which also offers vineyard and mobile bottling services.
The siblings brainstormed ideas to adapt to a changing shopping culture even before the coronavirus stomped on the accelerator.
"One of the things we've been working on is going online, going more digital, really trying to speak to a younger consumer. And also, our more seasoned wine drinkers have started migrating to online shopping," Sam said.
"What COVID-19 has really done is, it's forced us to move a lot quicker, even though we were heading in this direction. It's something we knew we needed to do, and we were working towards it. It just really put it on hyper-speed.
"It really gave us the opportunity to focus on it, because we don't have our tasting room open right now."
"In my opinion, people have started to appreciate their own homes and be comfortable," said Sam. "You're seeing that with Netflix, you're seeing that with all of the streaming services, Amazon as well. So I think the culture has shifted more toward: Business has to be mobile to the people."
Before internet ordering and delivery rose in popularity, most consumers traveled to places of business to buy.
"People just don't have the patience for that anymore," he said. "They expect things to bend to their needs — which is fair."
Wine enthusiasts who don't have the patience to wait for the pandemic to taper off — or who seek something to help decorate their temporarily homebound lives — can have wine delivered, then listen to Aurora winemaker Drew Perry talk about the wines from a safe, electronic distance.
"There are three different dates, based on those wines," Sam said. "So it'll go out in one shipment, then on each of the different tastings, we'll be opening one of those bottles. Otherwise, you open three bottles — that's a lot of wine to drink in one night."
The three wines to be featured are 2017 Pinot Grigio, 2016 Blaufränkisch and Luminous.
"Taylor asked Drew to pick three wines that he's most proud of, and that he would most like to explain to our customer base. And also three wines that would be broadly appealing to a lot of different people," said Sam.
Perry will lead the tastings and will talk about the vintage, what went into farming the grapes, processing the wine, what characteristics to look for while tasting the wine. He will be available to answer questions while the tasting is in progress.