“A wine bar is a social place,” said Matt Coltrin, owner of The Parkview in Winter Park. “Literally by definition, we’re a place to gather and drink wine.”

For the past month, COVID-19 has made it impossible for people to gather at his wine bar on Park Avenue, so on March 27, he stepped outside his comfort zone and hosted The Parkview’s first virtual happy hour via Facebook Live, with Wine Club Manager Holly Frost.

“I’m still pretty uncomfortable doing it, but … I miss tasting wine with my neighbors,” he said. “I’m dying for human interaction.”

Plus, he needs to sell wine. When local and state restrictions removed the social component from his business, he had to find new ways to get customers in the door – or at least to the curb.

“The Parkview has never really been known for retail,” he said. “These tastings have been really beneficial, since all we have right now is retail.”

The Parkview has held two virtual Friday happy hours so far, with a third scheduled for this Friday at 4pm. Each event features three wines, which Coltrin offers as a three-pack deal ahead of time.

Matt Parkview Virtual Tasting
Owner Matt Coltrin of The Parkview in Winter Park presents freshly-sanitized wines to be featured at a recent virtual tasting.

At the appointed hour, he and Frost sit on a couch in their empty wine bar, pour themselves glasses, and have a chat.

They offer plenty of information about the wines, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. Frost even wore pajamas for the last one! They joke around and respond to comments and questions from the virtual crowd, which Coltrin says has ranged from fifteen to fifty, with many more watching the videos after the fact.

Trial by Fire

At Luisa’s Cellar in Sanford, owner Mary Montalvo-Weyer was ahead of the virtual curve.

When the state ordered bars and restaurants to stop serving, she was on the verge of launching a new brand called The Vino Dame to host regular wine webinars.

The pandemic kicked that plan into high gear.

“This was a blessing in disguise,” she said. “I just had to launch everything quicker and do trial by fire.”

Since March 21, Montalvo-Weyer has held seven educational webinars, four virtual happy hours, and handful of other events including interviews with winemakers.

Mary Virtual Tasting Luisa's Cellar
Mary Montalvo-Weyer presents one of her many virtual wine events at Luisa’s Cellar. (Photo Credit: Sascha Weyer)

This evening, she’s marking Earth Day with a natural wine seminar. Next Friday, she’ll lead a class on sauvignon blanc.

She charges a small registration fee for the webinars, which includes educational materials and a link to the virtual session. The featured wines are sold separately, by the bottle and in to-go flights.

“For the Malbec Day event [on April 17], everybody got wine flights,” Montalvo-Weyer said. “That was super time consuming!”

She says the most popular webinars have attracted 15-20 people, and like Coltrin, she says they’ve been quite effective at driving sales.

Virtually Blind

Before COVID-19, members of Central Florida’s growing community of aspiring sommeliers flocked to SoDo’s Swirlery Wine Bar each week for Blind Tasting Tuesday.

The sessions, often led by owner and Advanced Sommelier Melissa McAvoy, are open to anyone, but they’re especially popular with students preparing for wine certification exams.

Swirlery Blind Tasting Tuesday w some Wine Bar George staff
A typical scene at Swirlery Wine Bar’s Blind Tasting Tuesday in pre-COVID times

The pandemic forced the event to go on a six-week hiatus, but this Sunday, McAvoy is taking blind tasting into the virtual space.

She’s teaming up with Brian Phillips, another local Advanced Somm who’s been furloughed from his job at Darden, for a project they’re calling Juice Box.

Each week, Swirlery will repackage six wines into single-serving bottles. Participants will purchase the tasting set in advance and receive a link to the week’s Zoom session.

“We’ll have some guest speakers, we’ll get some Master Somms on there, and we’ll just try to make it fun,” McAvoy said, “for someone who wants to blind taste, but also for someone who just wants to try new wines.”

More Virtual Wine Events

As the quarantine drags on, more players in Central Florida’s wine community are jumping on the virtual wine bandwagon.

  • Tim’s Wine Market in Orlando joined forces with Dexter’s New Standard for a virtual wine pairing dinner last weekend. A second one is in the works.
  • Master Sommelier George Miliotes of Wine Bar George at Disney Springs plans a live Instagram chat with the founder of the Coravin wine system tomorrow.
  • Orlando-based The Inquisitor Wine holds a virtual happy hour next Wednesday.
  • “The Tasty Trio” is planning a virtual version of its Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate pairing class next Friday.
  • Blogger Keith Edwards is holding regular Instagram chats with winemakers from around the world.

The urge to recreate the communal experience of sharing wine is only growing stronger, as is the need for businesses to keep customers engaged.

“The virtual tastings are just one of the darts we threw at the board that at least hit the board,” said The Parkview’s Matt Coltrin.

“Even though I’m not chatting anyone up face to face about my latest wine discovery, it kinda fills that void for me and for them,” he says. “Kinda.”

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