Since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, U.S. wine sales have skyrocketed. According to Nielsen, “combined U.S. dollar sales of wine were almost $2.5 billion in March , an increase of nearly 30% versus one year prior.” By July, the Wine Analytics Report showed “consumer spending on domestic wine in June was $3.4 billion, and wine spending for the 12 months ending in June reached $70 billion.”
At bars, restaurants and wineries, however, wine sales declined or disappeared entirely due to mandatory shutdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions. So, we’re drinking plenty of wine, but not at crowded restaurants or on group trips to wine country.
However, four women created businesses to bring the communal aspect of wine to private homes and remote businesses throughout the pandemic. From curated boxes of bubbly with special glassware, to virtual tastings of wine, beer and even coffee, these entrepreneurs created new ways for drinks to bring us together.
Wine and liquor shops were deemed essential businesses at the start of the pandemic, but social distancing made it difficult to learn about the wines you were buying through casual, in-store conversations with local merchants. Wine educator and consultant Kelly Mitchell saw this as an opportunity to create a wine club, Kelly Selects, that delivers hand-picked wines and consumer education with each shipment.
“I put together a well-rounded set representing regional and varietal diversity,” says Mitchell. “I favor small production and minimal-intervention winemaking. Food friendliness is also an important factor because it includes tasting notes and pairing recommendations.”
Mitchell sources bottles from retailer Wired for Wine, and she says their value take center stage, not marketing, labels or branding.
“This is a major differentiator from the structure of most wine clubs,” she says. “There’s also a great sense of community that has formed organically online via Instagram. Having Kelly Selects has allowed me to connect with a broader national audience over wine.”
Sommelier Ronda Fraley launched her company, The Wine Party, at the height of the pandemic. She hoped to create a unique at-home tasting experience with organic wines.
“From my time in hospitality, I saw firsthand how much people loved the experience that wine creates: the conversation with the sommelier, exploring new wines and leaving knowing a little more about wine than before,” says Fraley. “That’s the experience that I wanted to create for my friends, but I couldn’t find anything on the market that checked all of my boxes: thoughtfully curated organic wines, a simple way to elevate the experience of sharing a bottle of wine and a fun way to learn the basics of wine for every day.”
The Wine Party also offers classes that teach students wine basics.
“My wine-class students love feeling more confident when choosing wines because they know more about what a wine will taste like or pair with foodwise,” she says. “They’re looking at the grape varieties, all of the different regions and making educated choices.”
Keeping Community First
After seeing many of her colleagues and friends in hospitality furloughed due to the coronavirus, Alexandra Schrecengost created Virtual With Us, a platform to build relationships through virtual tastings. She called upon her 15-plus years in wine and spirits marketing communications to bring people together around wine.
“The clientele that I’m working with enjoy feeling like they’re almost at a restaurant,” says Schrecengost. “Not that our tastings are in any way replacing a restaurant, and they never could. But when you’re stuck at home with takeout, this is a fun way to have a sommelier at your table and connect with your family and friends.”
Schrecengost enjoys curating the beverage lists to include multiple brands that guests can try.
“If we’re making people smile and enjoy themselves, then we are doing our job,” she says. “The purpose of our program is to create a slice of remote happiness for everyone so that they continue to build their personal and professional relationships.”
Started with a Girls’ Trip, Now We’re Here
Founders Erica Davis and Catherine Carter launched The Sip Society in January 2020 to share their love of Champagne. On a girls’ trip to Napa Valley after college, they visited Domaine Chandon. They loved their experience so much that each subscribed to the winery’s wine club.
“For us, it started as a nice way to relax and unwind together,” says Davis. “We’d get together for our monthly or bimonthly girls nights, open a box and talk about it.”
After they tasted all that Chandon had to offer, the friends wanted to explore other sparkling wines and Champagnes. They couldn’t find anyone who could recreate that experience, so they did it themselves.
The Sip Society offers subscription boxes, or what it calls a “gifting box,” that ship every other month. Each includes three, 187-ml bottles of sparkling wine, a tasting guide, a $10 credit toward a full bottle and a “Sip Gift,” which changes with each box.
Sip Gifts can be anything that enhances the drinking experience, like specialty flutes or other glassware. Every week, Davis and Carter host an Instagram Live for followers and subscribers on @theofficialsipsociety. Their “Thirsty Thursday” chat offers in-depth discussion of one of the wines from the gifting boxes.
“Drinking itself is such a shared experience, so early on in the pandemic, we introduced virtual events and that helped to shape part of our business model,” says Davis. “We realized quickly that it was important for people to connect from afar, and our boxes curate experiences to allow people to do just that.”