Virtual wine tasting? Bay Area businesses find creative ways to stay open during the pandemic

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's almost the top of the hour and Manville Chan organizes the kitchen counter in his San Francisco apartment. Chan is about to begin a cooking class.

"The first part of the class I will show you how to make the dough," said Chan staring at his cellphone. His students are not in his apartment. They are miles away.

Chan is the co-owner of The Story of Ramen. His business offers cooking experiences to customers. They pay for two-hour lessons where they learn how to make ramen noodles and how the broth and other ingredients are prepared before they enjoy a bowl of ramen.

The restaurant was doing great business until the stay-at-home order forced them to close. Unlike other restaurants, The Story of Ramen could not pivot to a sell take-out food.

"We don't really operate in a delivery or takeout model. It is not what we are about," said Chan while he prepared for a gyoza making class.



After looking at options, Chan and his partner Jeff Parsons decided to open virtually.

After a customer signs up for a cooking class, Chan drops off a ramen kit at their home the day before the class. The kit includes all the ingredients needed to make ramen, gyoza or a sake tasting. He even rents out mixers for those who want to learn to make noodles from scratch.

When the class begins, customers call into Zoom and follow along as Chan goes step-by-step through the process of making a meal.

"By doing it home, we connect with people doing it at their home. They are in their kitchen, we are in our kitchen and it seems more of a natural connection for everybody," said Parsons, who mans the camera while Chan teaches a class.

Unlike a cooking video on YouTube, customers are able to ask questions and get immediate feedback if they are making the dough the right way.

"It's fun because it's like you are taking a class, but doing it from home. You are meeting new people and sharing experiences with others," said Jessica Baker, an Oakland resident who took a class making gyoza.

Other businesses are also going virtual to drum up business.



At Passalacqua Winery in Healdsburg, owner Jason Passalacqua dusted off an old idea he had of doing virtual tastings.

"People don't get to wine country every year. We wanted these people to try the new releases without having to come here," said Passalacqua, who put the idea into action.

The process is simple. Customers sign up for a virtual wine tasting on the winery's website. A representative from the winery then calls them to find out what kinds of wines they like and to set up a time for the tasting.

Then the winery sends out a sample kit.

It includes vials containing a two-ounce pour of three wines. When the time comes for the tasting, the customer dials into a video call with a wine expert to talk about the characteristics of each wine and to sample the wines together. The personalized tasting lasts about 45 minutes.

Passalacqua, whose small winery normally does tastings by appointment only, said he did not want to simply mail out samples and have the customers try the wines on their own.

"We like the personal connection. When you think of your most memorable tastings, they are connected to the people," he said.

The wine tasting provides an escape for customers, who sometimes ask to see pictures of the winery or inquire about the weather to get a sense of being there. It also provides work for winery staff.

The sample kits cost $30, but the price can credited to the purchase of wine.

Even when customers are allowed back at the winery, Passalacqua thinks the virtual wine tastings might stick around.

"I think it is here to stay."

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