Rod Byers: Owner, winemaker at Montoliva in Chicago Park takes tasting room online | TheUnion.com
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Rod Byers: Owner, winemaker at Montoliva in Chicago Park takes tasting room online

Rod Byers
Columnist
Mark Henry, owner/winemaker at Montoliva and his wife Julianne at their tasting room in Chicago Park.
Photo by Laura Pare

It was a first for both of us. I had never attended a Facebook online wine tasting and Mark Henry, owner/winemaker at Montoliva in Chicago Park, had never conducted one. But we were both ready to go.

Henry and wife Julianne had set up a makeshift broadcast booth in their tasting room and I had three bottles of Montoliva ready to open. All three were new releases the Henrys were introducing that evening with the virtual tasting.

Henry shuttered his tasting room in March and was thinking about survival. Small wineries depend on tasting room sales, wine clubs, restaurants, online direct-to-consumer sales, and to a much lesser degree, grocery and off-premise retail sales.

Tourism, tasting rooms, and restaurants disappeared overnight.

Consumption patterns, tariffs, Brexit, and most importantly, climate change, are impacting who is going to be growing, making, selling and buying wine.

The Wine Institute, an industry advocacy group, issued a report in April projecting revenue losses of 47.5% for wineries ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 cases and 66% for those making 1,000 cases or less.

There is going to be a huge number of small winery bankruptcies and outright closings. Henry didn’t want to be one of them.

Without a big grocery store presence Henry was restricted to his Wine Club and direct-to-consumer sales. He started offering shipping discounts on online sales, curbside pickup and free local deliveries.

That is one of the interesting side consequences. Alcohol is tightly regulated and direct winery to consumer delivery was illegal. Thanks to COVID-19, at least temporarily, personal delivery is permitted.

I suggested Henry try an online virtual tasting to reach out to his club members. Henry responded, “I’m just so technologically challenged, I’m wary of trying it.”

Desperate times and all that, a few days later Henry boldly announced his first online tasting.

I live within his 20-mile free delivery radius and the wines for the virtual tasting were delivered to my doorstep. That’s the thing about virtual tastings. If you don’t have the wine being tasted, they are no fun.

Watching someone else drink wine, and then talk about it, well, let’s just say, if you’re going to watch, make the effort to get the wine in advance.

Henry’s decision to go live online is a key piece of a much larger puzzle. Wine is in a bit of a crisis these days. For the first time in more than a century, today’s winners, from where the grapes are grown to who is drinking it, are not guaranteed to be tomorrow’s winners.

Consumption patterns, tariffs, Brexit, and most importantly, climate change, are impacting who is going to be growing, making, selling and buying wine.

Asia, led by Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, India and especially China is where the action is going. China is poised to become the second largest wine consuming country behind the U.S. and is currently the world’s fifth biggest producer, and growing.

With no restrictive tariffs Australia is China’s leading importer. California wineries have been losing Chinese sales, not making them.

Meanwhile wine consumption in the west is declining. There is a wine surplus and it is getting bigger. The EU is about to turn the equivalent of a billion bottles of wine into industrial alcohol.

On the domestic front, Millennials are blamed for lagging sales. As the Boomers age out, Millennials are not following in their loyal wine drinking footsteps preferring to drink across category lines and to drink less.

Much has been said and written about the need to market to Millennials in a new way but few wineries seem to know how to do it. COVID-19 is forcing them to figure it out in a hurry.

Without the tasting room experience or Wine Club events to rely on, wineries are being forced outside the box. Curbside pickup or delivery is great but delivering the virtual experience is the key.

White tablecloths and wine critic reviews are yesterday. Now everything needs to be about bringing an authentic experience from the winery directly to the consumer. If you want to attract Millennials you need to go where they hang out, their phones.

As much as google has become a verb, so will zoom.

All of which brings us full circle back to Montoliva. The online tasting, charming in its lack of polish, was authentic and entertaining. Sipping the wine, listening to Henry, I could ask questions and make comments in real time, as did other people.

In spite of being by myself I felt part of a larger group, like being in the actual tasting room on a Saturday afternoon with strangers who become friends for the moment.

Still, you need to put the goods in the bottle. The 2019 Montoliva Sierra Donna, an unusual combination of Sauvignon Blanc, Falanghina and Vermintino delivers terrific weight, fruit and flavor. It is my new favorite dry summer white.

While Henry’s winemaking style continues to evolve, he remains true to his mission statement of producing Tuscan-inspired wines. The two new very approachable red releases, 2016 Due Baci, a blend of Aglianico and Sangiovese and the 2016 Primitivo combine fruit flavors, spicy aromas and earthy complexity Henry likes to call Chicago Park terroir.

Who knows how long it might have been before Henry attempted a virtual tasting. Now thanks to COVID-19, you can catch Mark and Julianne Thursdays, including tomorrow at 6 p.m. on their Facebook page. Go to montoliva.com for the details.

Zoom you in the tasting room.

Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at rodbyers@pinehillwineworks.com or 530-802-7172.


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