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Virtual wine tastings and cocktail classes go down easy with Nebraskans
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Virtual wine tastings and cocktail classes go down easy with Nebraskans

It’s one part social gathering, one part wine tasting and one part gastronomic adventure.

Daniel and Tamara Sloan, owners of Lincoln coffee shop The Mill, are hosting wine tastings from their home, leading participants on virtual trips to all of the best wine-producing areas in the world. Chef Adam Hurt adds the perfect appetizer to go with each stop. A wine expert also contributes.

The events have proven a hit with customers, who enliven the conversation with tales of their actual excursions to places such as Central America, South Africa and Italy.

“People are really lonely, and they see way too much of the dog,’’ Daniel Sloan said. “I know lots of people knock Zoom. This is everybody at one big table, hearing all the questions and answers. It’s just an oddly communal experience. It’s really resonated with hundreds and hundreds of people. We’ve really developed a following.’’

Businesses in Omaha, such as Spirit World, are offering similar events.

Kari O’Neill Potts loved the virtual cocktail class offered by Spirit World, which she did with some colleagues.

She’s always been a wine person and normally doesn’t enjoy a cocktail. But discovering how to correctly make the four showcased and using quality ingredients made all the difference, she said.

“I learned all about the history of cocktails and why they are made certain ways,’’ she said. “It just drove a really fun conversation with friends. By the second cocktail, everyone was talking like we were sitting in a room together. It helps to alleviate some of that awkwardness of a Zoom social meetup.’’

Laurie Hellbusch, the owner of Spirit World, said classes have taken off.

Not only are customers happy — with an added bonus of not having to drive home afterward — but the events have become a good way for her establishment to make money and keep employees on the payroll.

Hellbusch said that’s crucial with the restaurant, bar and events side of her business crippled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The classes, like those offered by The Mill, typically cost $20 to $60.

“Thankfully, retail is a big part of our business anyway,’’ she said. “For sure, virtual events have been a big help for us. To be able to sell these cocktail packages has been very helpful in terms of lost bar revenue.’’

Once Hellbusch and her staff decide on a topic for a Zoom event, the chosen alcohol is prepackaged in a kit. Each is a sample size because usually four choices are offered. Bartender Alzuri, known only by his last name, keeps the information and conversation flowing.

Details about each drink are also included. In The Mill’s kits, which include appetizers to match the pouched wines, the food is labeled with instructions on how long it should be heated up and how it should look when done.

Customers at both places can decide whether to pick up their kits or have them delivered locally for a small fee.

“It’s been good. It’s kept our kitchen busy and drivers busy, and wine vendors are thrilled to be able to send out wine,’’ Sloan said. “We’ve literally sent out thousands of these kits since mid-April.’’

The State of Nebraska has given the OK for the repackaging of alcohol because of the pandemic, and Sloan said The Mill will continue the events as long as they’re allowed. They’re typically scheduled for Friday and Saturday nights.

Information can be found on each establishment’s Facebook page or by signing up for mailings.

Hellbusch is especially excited about a Women and Whiskey event planned for Jan. 21. She will be leading a panel discussion and tasting with three women who represent some of the biggest brands in the industry.

The two-hour program, with its $10 fee, wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t virtual.

“We can have people all over the country or world come to our event,’’ Hellbusch said. “It’s a neat experience to bring these people to a tasting in Omaha. Because it’s a Zoom tasting, they can commit 45 minutes of their time.’’

Mac’s Creek Winery & Brewery in Lexington, Nebraska, started hosting virtual events last spring, when its tasting room was shuttered.

“We love talking with our customers and wanted to keep that connection,” said Barry McFarland, co-owner and business manager of the family business.

The McFarlands turned to Facebook Live and capitalized on their expertise and fun family dynamic to host a series of 30-minute wine and beer tastings that are attracting 2,000 to 3,000 participants per session.

The wines are announced in advance, giving participants a chance to buy them online or from local retailers for uncorking during the livestreamed event.

While Barry’s dad, Max, and brother, Seth, are on camera, Barry monitors comments and questions posted by their online guests.

The concept has been so successful that the vineyard won a Nebraska Tourism Industry award in September for best virtual event.

“Before, with our traditional tasting model, we’d reach 50 to 100 people per event,” Barry said. “Now we’re connecting with 2,000 or more in a half-hour.”

Mac’s Creek is hosting its next virtual tasting on Tuesday at 7 p.m. A biweekly schedule is planned through the winter, with Barry’s mom, Theresa McFarland, soon to join the act with occasional food and wine pairings. The highlight of the Jan. 26 session will be the release of a new peach wine.

There’s no charge to participate in the virtual tastings. Simply search for Mac’s Creek Winery & Brewery on Facebook and click on the Events tab.

“It’s been fun. The sessions are interactive, and people are engaged,” Barry McFarland said. “They’re asking lots of questions, and we’re selling some wine.”

World-Herald staff writer Chris Christen contributed to this report.

Omaha World-Herald: Omaha Dines

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Marjie is a writer for The World-Herald’s special sections and specialty publications, including Inspired Living Omaha, Wedding Essentials and Momaha Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mduceyOWH. Phone: 402-444-1034.

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