The pitch seemed too good to be true. A video graphics firm specializing in virtual-reality exhibits and “minds-on experiences” was offering to produce virtual tours of wineries, for no charge.
“I honestly thought there was a catch to it, you know, like the free cruise phone calls you get,” says Pennie Haase, national marketing director for Alexander Valley Vineyards in California’s Sonoma County. But she checked out the firm, Geoffrey M. Curley + Associates, or GMC+A, and discovered “The Great Fermentation,” an exhibition last year that brought the experience of visiting a Tuscan vineyard and winery to downtown Chicago. She decided to jump at the offer.
Alexander Valley Vineyards is a fourth-generation winery located just north of Healdsburg on land once owned by Cyrus Alexander, for whom the valley is named. That’s a good story to tell, but the Wetzel family and their team had experienced difficulty getting the word out.
“Our tasting room and hospitality operation was closed for a total of almost 60 days due to fires and floods in 2019, and we had not recovered from that when the coronavirus hit,” Haase says. California’s lockdown closed the tasting room for an additional 10 weeks and forced cancellation of events, a major source of income for many wineries. “We are now open to a limited number of guests by appointment only, but all of them are from Northern California. We honestly don’t know when tourism can or will return.” The virtual tour, she says, “will allow us to take the winery to customers rather than bring them to us.”
I contacted Geoffrey Curley after reading about his work at Schramsberg winery in Calistoga in the Napa Valley Register. In a conversation via Zoom from his home base in Minneapolis, Curley told me he wanted to help wineries navigate the economic stresses of the novel coronavirus pandemic. He dubbed the effort “Vineyards to Home,” and based it on “The Great Fermentation,” which received more than 14,000 visitors during its monthlong run last year in Chicago.
“We wanted to take that experience to a more personal level, knowing that in the pandemic people either cannot or are reluctant to travel. So how can we let them enjoy the experience of a winery visit in the comfort of home? Virtual-reality technology is so good now that we can actually walk you through the vineyard, and if you see something interesting, click on it and learn more about it.”
Curley and his associate, Gina McLeod, spent a week last month in Napa and Sonoma counties filming at Lamborn Family Vineyards, Dos Lagos Vineyards, Sky Pine Vineyards and BobDog Wines, and Pasterick Vineyards, in addition to Schramsberg and Alexander Valley Vineyards. He is specifically targeting wineries that produce fewer than 5,000 cases of wine a year. Schramsberg and Alexander Valley Vineyards are considerably larger than that, but they are both family-owned wineries with strong links to California’s history. In other words, great stories to tell. The tours Curley and McLeod filmed are now in production. Once launched, viewers will be able to enjoy them on mobile devices, computers or virtual-reality headsets.
Visitors to “The Great Fermentation” were able to sample wines, and that is part of the experience Curley and his virtual-reality technology and 360-degree cameras are not able to replicate.
“This isn’t going to sell more wine for them, but they can add it to other assets they have,” Curley said. He mentioned virtual wine tastings or dinners, two other innovative ways wineries have shifted their marketing efforts during the pandemic. “They can show this, and people can ask about the red soil, or the diseases they hope to control with that airflow through the vineyard. Smaller wineries can cast their net a little wider, and maybe reach people who wouldn’t go out of their way when in wine country to visit a small winery on top of a mountain.”
Curley laughed when asked whether he considered himself a wine person.
“I’m a wine lover but not someone who feels he knows a lot about wine,” he said. “Part of the reason we worked on ‘The Great Fermentation’ was to help people like me, who might be intimidated by the jargon or the price point, but interested in learning more about the craftsmanship and the science. Why are different types of soils going to produce different flavors in grapes? Why is altitude important? Why does a shorter or longer growing season make a difference?
“I’m at that point right now where I love discovering a new wine or a new aspect of wine. So yeah, I guess I am a wine guy.”