Part II: A Peek Behind The Curtain

Hmmm, do I detect notes of litter box and overcrowded barn stalls?

That piece last month about A Peek Behind The Curtain generated some engagement/feedback, so in this second installment, we'll dive into a little-known, but increasingly popular medium: the virtual tasting. And I'll offer 4 (perhaps cynical) reasons why they work so brilliantly.

Enabled by advances in telecommuting technology, one of the darlings in wine publicists' tool boxes is the virtual tasting. Dig this: a PR firm dispatches invites to wine writers and ships samples to those who commit to attend the event. Invitees convene at the appointed time on one of the various hosting platforms/sites, which boast three common features: one-way video streaming, a comments function, and integration to Twitter.

The video stream typically shows a table staffed by 2-3 presenters; some combination of the winery owner, winemaker, vineyard manager, marketing person (sometimes a minor celeb), and/or public relations rep. If you've ever visited a winery, the scene is staged to look pretty much like that. These folks give a little background on the winery and wines, and, just like at a tasting room, begin to talk you through the wines.

Virtual tastings have become increasingly popular because their collective effect can be highly favorable for the sponsors, and come at a fraction of the cost of advertising. They are also sneakily brilliant. Core to the savvy in these events is that they recreate the tasting room dynamic, which itself is often a bit sneaky in its manipulation.

Now, to be clear, each one of these events is its own thing. I've attended some real doozies, but I've also had the pleasure of discovering some incredible treasures and engaged with the people behind them, so they're not all bad - at all.  Still, the function they provide is first and foremost promotional.  Here's why they are so effective:
  1. The Bolus: While the presenters talk through the wines, attendees follow along at home, sipping on the samples and watching the talk-through. You are encouraged to post questions to the presenters and remark on the wines via the comments function, which integrates with the invitees' Twitter accounts. What does that mean?  Whatever is asked of or commented to the presenters gets blasted into the Twittersphere with the winery's handle or hashtag appended. This creates a sudden flood of presence for the winery: 20-ish writers all tweeting comments about the same wines/winery, all in the same hour, with blog posts published in the subsequent days and weeks. It's like detonating a marketing bomb.
  2. Contrived Akwardness: Whomever is pouring the wines does so in a way that conveys pride and ownership in the product. They prompt you through the experience, suggesting specific flattering characteristics about the wine, where those elements came from, and how they are the precise manifestation of the winemaker's vision. "Do you like it?", they then ask expectantly. Now, what are you going to say to this person, who shipped you free wine and is beaming with pride? If the wine is honestly pleasing to you, the truth comes easily. If not, will you reply, "Hmmm, I detect notes of litter box and overcrowded barn stalls."?  No, probably not. Instead, you will look into the pourer's puppy dog eyes and begin calculating how to fake a sudden gastrointestinal crisis. But what comes out of most mouths is normally a vague, benign observation muttered at half volume.
  3. Peer Pressure: Whether organic or manufactured (and sometimes it is), peer pressure is also real. Imagine being in a tasting room where everyone around you is raving about the wines. "OMG, this chardonnay is so amaaaazing! I'm totally going to insta it right now." The same applies to virtual tastings because everyone else's comments are scrolling in a section right next to the video feed - and the most complimentary of which are read aloud by the presenters. You could be forgiven if at some point you get a little swept up in the enthusiasm.  And would it surprise you if occasionally one of the most vocal complimenters is being compensated for their advocacy?
  4. Palate Fatigue: A tired tongue can also come into play. When samples arrive on my doorstep, they spend a minimum of two weeks settling down from their journey, after which I find the right opportunity to spend some solitary time considering what's before me. I need some quiet space to give each wine my full attention.  I also need to return to the wine a number of times over an evening to see how it evolves. Virtual tastings are rapid fire by contrast, commonly tasting through six wines in an hour. By the third one you're becoming either tipsy or desensitized (or both), and that can only play to a wine marketer's benefit.
Leveraged properly, each of these can deliver the kind of impact every promoter desires, but together, they can pack a solid marketing punch at relatively low cost. 

And you thought writing a wine blog was nothing but purity of awesomeness, didn't you?