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With Tasting Rooms Shut, Wineries Look To Market Directly to Consumers

TAY GLASS, HOST: May is normally the time of year that tourists start flocking to New York State’s 400 wineries, which together sell over half a billion dollars’ worth of wine each year. But now, the pandemic has forced tasting rooms to close, and it’s stalled wine sales to restaurants. So to make up for lost business, wineries have had to figure out how to sell more wine directly to consumers. But as Aseem Shukla reports, wineries who’ve already cultivated those direct consumer relationships are best positioned to ride things out-- and those who haven’t are fighting an uphill battle.

ASEEM SHUKLA, BYLINE: Paul and Shannon Brock own Silver Thread Vineyard, a small winery in the bucolic Finger Lakes region of Western New York. And for the past 9 weeks, and at least the next three, they’ve been hosting virtual wine tastings on Facebook Live.

((SOUND: piano music fade in

((SHANNON BROCK: Hopefully, everyone’s gotten a chance to log in, and we’re ready to get started with our class.))

I want to talk about some of the aromas here from the Estate Riesling. You know, right away I noticed that mineral quality...

SHUKLA: Days after the pandemic forced them to close their winery’s tasting room, the Brocks decided that they had to stimulate demand somehow. They’d been selling most of their wine by mail order to existing customers, but that relationship usually started with a winery visit. Without that regular stream of visitors, they needed to figure something else out quickly.

On two days’ notice, they decided to open sales to whichever of their Facebook followers wanted to join them for a drink on Friday evening-- online.

PAUL BROCK: So it was a Wednesday, um…

S. BROCK: It was crazy, it was crazy!

P. BROCK: Yeah she posted at noon and said if you ordered by four o'clock I'll make sure the order gets to UPS, and most people in the Northeast get UPS shipments in two days.

SHUKLA: The Brocks say they were not big on social media before this, but as a mom and pop shop with no marketing staff, the whole family had to learn. Even their grade-school-aged daughter got involved, playing piano before the tastings started (that’s who you heard earlier).

But in a way, these videos play to the Brocks’ strengths. Paul teaches winemaking at the local community college, and Shannon teaches courses about understanding wine. They’re used to explaining things, and some of their videos can get pretty in the weeds.

((P. BROCK: Hi I’m Paul Brock at Silver Thread Vineyard. We are nearing the end of our pruning… ))

SHUKLA: They used to be able to charm their customers in person, but they’ve quickly learned how to do that online. One week, to create a sense of occasion, they asked all their followers to tune into the tasting dressed up for a night out-- and to post selfies of their outfits. They’ve also started a winemaking trivia series…

((S. BROCK: Name the type of tree whose new growth in the spring would be used to tie vines to the wires. We’ll draw one lucky winner and the prize this week is a four-pack of beautiful crystal Riesling glasses!))

SHUKLA: The result of all online community building? Their customers are putting in a hundred orders a week. They’re actually selling more wine than they were this time last year.

But that direct-to-consumer success story isn’t true for all vineyards.

Len Wiltberger owns Keuka Spring Vineyards, a few dozen miles west of Silver Thread. Keuka Spring is a bigger winery, and it’s won national awards. Still, Wiltberger says that 70% of his business comes from people just walking in the door. Unlike the Brocks, Wiltberger doesn’t have a particularly big wine club, and the dip in sales means he could go under. Now that he’s faced with doing business only online, he’s not sure how the season will turn out. (0:33)

LEN WILTBERGER: Yeah, generally confident, but not completely confident. It, there's a lot of worry out there.

SHUKLA: Keuka Spring had a regular Facebook presence before the pandemic, but not much by the way of video or direct marketing to wine club members. (One of the few videos that Wiltberger appears in is from the ALS ice bucket challenge, in 2014.) Despite that, Wiltberger’s found that just a little engagement with his Facebook followers goes a long way.

WILTBERGER: I remember my daughter saying, so she's our social media person. And her first message was, we miss you. And then the response has been good. It's been a pleasant surprise.

SHUKLA: The Facebook engagement is helping: Wiltberger says his wine club sales are way up. But overall, his business is still down by half compared to last year.

Mike Veseth is an economist who studies the wine industry. (He calls his blog “The Wine Economist.”) He says that in order to make up for lost sales in restaurants and tasting rooms, direct and supermarket sales have to be up by at least 20%. So far, industry-wide sales are up by even more than that.

MIKE VESETH: People are buying a lot more wine. Gosh, I hope they're not drinking it all at once, because that would be just terrible.

SHUKLA: But that sales increase isn’t happening for all wineries. Although alcohol sales do tend to be recession-proof, Veseth thinks the recent bump might fade. If it does, the wineries who’ll have the best chance of survival are both the biggest ones, and those that already have strong relationships with their customers-- like the Brocks do at Silver Thread...

VESETH: I often compare the wine industry to the financial services industry. And if you think about a local community bank that knows all of their customers, they can survive a downturn, because they have such strong relationships that they can draw on.

SHUKLA: For those who don’t, Veseth says, the coming months could spell the end.

VESETH: I do think you’ll see maybe 10% of the wineries fail.

SHUKLA: Jim Trezise is a pioneer of the New York wine industry. These days, he’s the president of Wine America, an industry group that represents wineries in Washington, DC. And he says ultimately, winemakers aren’t doing it for the money.

SHUKLA: You know, I wanted to ask, is all this new development, and this flowering of styles and that sort of thing… is that going to survive this crisis?

JIM TREZISE: It is. And I’ll tell you why. You don’t get into the wine industry to become rich. If you do, you’re making a big mistake. There's a good old saying from California, which is that if you want to make a small fortune, you start out with a large fortune and buy a winery.

SHUKLA: Instead, he says, the industry is sustained by winemakers’ enthusiasm.

TREZISE: I know wine people from around the world. And they're all the same. They're bon vivants, they love to, you know, sit around and have a glass and have some great food and talk and stuff like that. It's a beautiful group of people. So yes, it will survive and it will prosper.

SHUKLA: Still, winemakers’ enthusiasm doesn’t always mean more sales. And even before the pandemic, New York winemakers looking to grow their sales were fighting another battle-- for respect. For decades, local wine was synonymous with sweet, bland swill made from Concord grapes. But in just the last two decades, winemakers here have gained a reputation for making world-class Rieslings and Cabernet Francs in a tough environment.

DYLAN YORK: New York is a very hard place to grow grapes, it's not friendly, it doesn't have a California Mediterranean climate.

SHUKLA: That’s Dylan York, who teaches at the Sommelier Society of America. He says that despite the challenges, New Yorkers are embracing local wines as part of a general movement towards all things local and artisanal. And for continued skeptics of New York wine, York has a simple message.

YORK: Shut up! Taste it!

SHUKLA: For the Brocks at Silver Thread, their years of persuading consumers to “taste it” is paying off in this online-only era. And their customers want more.

S. BROCK: We're gonna, we're gonna keep doing virtual events all year, at least for this whole year. We'll probably keep doing it afterward. Because people really like it. People have said, like, Oh, can you keep, you know, can you keep doing something and-- I mean, what they always say wine is recession proof. And that seems to be, that seems to be true so far. I mean, I hope we're not breeding any alcoholics!

SHUKLA: What Paul and Shannon do hope is perhaps a glass of Riesling here and there will keep both wineries and morale afloat during the pandemic. Aseem Shukla, Columbia Radio News.

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