Virtual vino: How a Brisbane winery survived and thrived during COVID-19

When COVID-19 restrictions prevented customers from coming to them, City Winery Brisbane decided to take their interactive experiences to their customers. Now, as restrictions lift and customers return to the Fortitude Valley winery, the business is toasting the merits of thinking outside the cask. 

As Brisbane’s only inner-city micro-winery, City Winery Brisbane had quickly built a strong reputation for its locally produced wine, fine food and in-house customer experiences, including wine tastings, wine and food pairings and wine-blending workshops. 

But nearly a year to the day after the winery’s opening, COVID-19 restrictions were introduced that prevented these gatherings from happening. So, City Winery Brisbane co-founder Adam Penberthy says, the team began considering ways to take their on-site experiences off-site and into the homes of local wine lovers. 

When life gives you grapes…

Penberthy and his team decided that they could “sit around and be nervous and upset”, or they could get on with it. 

“We had two rounds of consultation with staff, just to generate ideas and get feedback,” he says. “There were some pearlers that came out of those team workshops in the early days of COVID – things that became highly successful for us, like our virtual food and wine pairing workshops. 

“The saving grace for us that allowed us to pivot quickly was the ability to repackage all of our tourism products and experiences into virtual experiences and degustations. That’s what really carried the business through the worst of it.”

This involved delivering prepared food and wine to customers’ front doors, along with a blend of pre-recorded content and live video calls from the winemaker and winery staff to give customers an interactive experience from the comfort of their own homes. 

“Every Saturday we delivered a four-course degustation with paired wines to homes around Brisbane,” Penberthy says. 

“The virtual component of it was that they’d dial in for a live video conference with the team while they dined, so they could ask questions and try to replicate the experience that they would have had here. 

The first time we did the home degustation, we sold three times more tickets than we would have expected to if we’d had the same dinner in the winery.

“The first time we did the home degustation, we sold three times more tickets than we would have expected to if we’d had the same dinner in the winery. That was the light bulb moment for us. Some Saturday nights, we’d have well over 100 people embarking on our virtual experiences across Brisbane, and we ended up doing very similar revenue to what we would have done with a venue full of people day and night.” 

While the winery was still affected financially by the pandemic, the business was able to retain all of its staff. Penberthy says the team adapted quickly – staff that once served tables became videographers, logistics managers and tech support, coordinating the delivery and execution of more than 100 experiences at a time in some instances.  

“Because of these virtual experiences, we were able to keep the team together, which is something I’m very proud of,” he says. 

The next round 

With restrictions lifting, Penberthy says it’s largely back to business as usual at City Winery Brisbane. While the virtual experiences were a hit during lockdown, they’re no longer a focus while diners are able to visit the venue and enjoy food and wine experiences in person. 

“We tried to keep the virtual experiences going, but the reality is that if you have the choice to go out to dinner or have dinner at home, why would you choose to stay home? It was a COVID novelty. 

“The delivery market is incredibly saturated. We filled a void, so to speak, by creating sophisticated and elegant experiences for diners to have at home that they weren’t able to have out. That’s the position we took in the market. But our customers aren’t about eating at home, unless they have to be.”

That said, Penberthy believes his business’ COVID-19 experience did “open up a whole new product suite we hadn’t really explored”, including in-home wine tasting kits and cheese and charcuterie deliveries to corporate offices, that could be carried forward in a post-pandemic world. 

Penberthy’s main takeaway, though, is the knowledge that if tough COVID-19 restrictions were to be put in place again, City Winery Brisbane would be able to pivot back. 

“I can’t speak for other businesses, but for us, it’s about being agile and moving fast,” Penberthy says. “As soon as we thought COVID was going to have a potential impact on the business in terms of lost patronage, we implemented online delivery and developed the virtual experiences. 

“We were quick to adapt, because we were fuelled by the belief that in the middle of difficulty is where you find opportunity.”

Written By

Brisbane Business Hub

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