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Santa Barbara County vintners talk wine while you drink and listen from your home

You miss perusing the grocery store aisles at a leisurely pace. You miss eating out. You miss being served. You miss curling up on a friend’s couch to gossip, drink a glass of wine, and eat some snacks. You miss freedom—the freedom that comes with being able to do whatever you want, when you want.

But that’s gone for now, because of COVID-19, so what are you supposed to do?

Maybe you can take solace in the fact that it’s now OK—nay, even acceptable—to drink wine alone in your house because you can tune in to a virtual wine tasting for a little education, libation, and socialization. Plus, you can support your local wineries while you get drunk on your couch and listen to people talk about what you’re drinking (and appreciating, too).

The Santa Barbara County Vintners Association teamed up with the Wine Militia to bring the area’s wines to social media feeds everywhere. Every Monday and Thursday in April, a local winemaker will hit the Instagram Live airwaves around 6 p.m. to taste through a collection of wines picked specifically for the task. Cambria Winery headlined the first virtual tasting of the month, starting with the 2018 rosé made from Julia’s Vineyard pinot noir.

Cambria winemaker Jill Russell told Instagram Live watchers on April 6 and Wine Militia founder Lamar Engel, who joined her for the tasting, what that particular wine was all about: “single vineyard rosé ... lower alcohol, higher acid ... slow, cool stainless steel fermentation.”

This rosé is a love letter to the vineyard from which it came, a block of pinot noir grown, tended to, and picked for the specific purpose of becoming a rosé.

“Rosé made with intent. ... Sometimes rosé can be an afterthought, and I love that you are purposed to make rosé from a single block,” Engel told Russell as they tasted the wine from their respective places, separated by many miles, but joined together in a sip of pink deliciousness via Instagram. “This is awesome, by the way. I’m afraid of this wine, by the way, because it’s one of those wines that takes me by surprise.”

They talked surprises, soil, labels, people, wine and winery history, vineyards, and more for about 45 minutes while about 100 people tuned in.

Russell later told the Sun that she enjoyed being able to chat with Engel about the wines and see the responses that were coming in from viewers over Instagram. She said she’s been tuning into other wineries’ virtual tastings as well, friends and colleagues who are sharing stories.

That sort of sharing makes everything feel a little bit more normal. Telling stories is part of what winemakers do, not just in the end product, but sometimes by stopping in to the tasting room to chat with customers about what went into each bottle. Whether it’s soil, weather, harvest, or aging, each vintage has a story to tell, Russell said.“We are all working with the land, and there’s a lot of things that are out of your control, sometimes, and the one thing you can do is really relay that time and message,” Russell said.

“I really miss that. ... But this virtual thing is pretty fun. Everybody is pretty vulnerable and emotional. And then it’s OK if you are too. It just kind of helps with the connection.” Russell is lucky in the fact that she still gets to go to work every day. She gets to drive in to the winery and see the people who are like family to her. As the state considers the agricultural industry to be essential, the winery is still doing its thing—although people are working more in staggered shifts and from home when they can. But, of course, the tasting room is closed. This time of the year is one of the most exciting times at the winery, she said, because they are currently working with three vintages: 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Cambria just bottled some of its 2018 wines, the 2019 wines have finished their malolactic fermentation and are ready to taste for what comes next, and the 2020 grapes are growing. “The weather’s been a little up and down, but we’re already thinking about that vintage and ordering barrels for 2020 and thinking about that next harvest,” Russell said. “We’re kind of thinking about three different vintages at once.”

On the marketing side of the winery, according to Cambria Winery Vice President of Marketing Shilah Salmon, they are trying things they never would have tried before. This includes getting Russell in front of a camera for virtual tastings on social media. “Our job in wine right now, is one, to keep the wheels on the bus, and two, to keep people happy,” Salmon said. “There’s the business side. Can we keep the tasting room open and can we keep our employees? ... But there’s this other side. You know, wine is the thing that makes people happy.”

So Salmon is trying to keep people engaged with the winery—and of course, “hopefully spending money, because that’s part of our job.” And it’s how wineries stay in business. In March, when the stay-at-home orders were issued due to the pandemic’s spread, people were stocking up on wine to get ready and sales were really good, Salmon said. But April’s outlook is unclear. Like Cambria, most wineries are selling and shipping wine (some wineries are shipping for free) or selling online or over the phone for pickup at the winery.

“We’ll see what happens,” Salmon said.

When people are afraid like they are now, when times are uncertain like they are now, Salmon said, people don’t spend money.

So she see’s one of her jobs as just giving people an excuse to relax, a chance to forget a little. And virtual tastings, virtual happy hours, and the hashtag #cambriaonthecouch are all ways to do that. As is a DJ virtual dance party that just happens to feature Cambria wines.

Relaxation is one thing that those social-media-based events can foster, and facilitating connection is another. Not just from consumers to the winery, but for the winemaker, to the people who drink their wines.

“People are just kind of craving that connection right now, and we’re trying to fill that,” Salmon said. “Most winemakers love talking about their wine and their vineyards so it’s a good outlet for that. The winemakers are getting something back to be connected to people at the end.”

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