In the age of COVID-19, it is hard to find a place where one can comfortably unwind with some friendly strangers – namely a bar.
Bars in Maine are open for outdoor service, but the face masks and physical distancing required make it difficult to engage in the random boozy camaraderie that draws many patrons to these watering holes.
The Damariscotta River Grill and Maia Gosselin, who served as the downtown restaurant’s wine director until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, recently introduced a creative way to bring these happy hours into the home with a series of public, virtual wine tastings modeled after the restaurant’s wine club, which is on hiatus.
The River Grill’s first tasting took place Wednesday, July 8 at 6 p.m., with 10 different groups of participants attending via Zoom.
The $55 fee per household includes the virtual wine-tasting experience and three bottles of wine.
“Many people do this as date night or with a friend or two, so it’s really a great value,” Gosselin said.
Participants can then choose from a menu of a la carte appetizer pairings for each wine or order from the River Grill’s full menu for pickup on the day of the event.
The tasting included an engaging history of each wine and the region where it is produced, as well as some practical wine tips that are useful for inexperienced tasters like me.
I don’t want to give away all of Gosselin’s wine expert secrets, but one thing I was grateful to learn is that there is no shame in drinking boxed wine. It stays fresher longer, is more environmentally friendly, and there are respectable wines that can be found in the unassuming package of a plastic bladder in a cardboard box, Gosselin reassured us.
The theme for the inaugural River Grill wine tasting was “Sip of Summer.” It featured varieties of white, red, and rosé that are light and refreshing and go down smoothly on a summer day – maybe a little too smoothly.
The tasting started off with each group munching on appetizers and pouring glasses of wine inside their little square video boxes, accomplishing one of Gosselin’s stated goals for the virtual tasting.
“The first part is to create an event that makes people feel like they’re getting the experience of dining here, drinking and eating – creating that Zoom-friendly, convivial atmosphere,” Gosselin said.
Gosselin set the tone early, making sure everyone knew the event was mainly about cutting loose and having fun.
“Now you’re at home; nobody’s going anywhere. It’s completely your discretion how much wine you want to drink. Go ahead, pour big glasses, pour little glasses,” Gosselin said during the July 8 tasting to chuckles from participants.
For my part, I had spiced nuts and smoked trout pate to pair with the Landron “La Louvetrie” Muscadet Sévre et Maine white wine, savory cheese puffs to go with the Bastide des Deux Lunes rosé, and frozen crab cakes to pair with the summery red wine, the Italian Santa Tresa Frappato.
Gosselin began by explaining how wines in New World countries like the United States are named by the grape used in their production, while wines from Old World countries like France and Italy are named for the region where they are made, like the Muscadet Sévre et Maine, named for this region in France’s Loire Valley.
She then led the group through a history of rosé and its popularity in recent years and a discussion of the Frappato and Sicily, the Italian island where the red wine is produced.
The loose, jolly atmosphere allowed us to ask questions, make comments, and engage with each other throughout – giving me that familiar happy hour buzz normally reserved for bars.
Gosselin said this looseness is actually one of the benefits to the virtual model, allowing for more people to engage and learn about the world of delicious and affordable wines available to them.
“There really is this wonderful world of wine – high-quality, dynamic, interesting – that doesn’t have to break the bank,” Gosselin said. “In general, what drives me is to encourage people to ask questions, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone. So that’s something I’m seeing that’s positive on Zoom. People just tend to be more comfortable.”
Gosselin, who has been holding private virtual wine tastings through her business, Sip Wine Education, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, approached Damariscotta River Grill co-owners Tim Beal and Tamara Dica with the idea.
“I said, ‘You have a retail store. This is a fantastic, in my opinion, platform. Let’s try to offer this taste of the Grill to people from the comfort of their own patio, or their home or living room or whatever it is,’” Gosselin said.
Beal said that with the Grill’s dining model completely “scrambled” by COVID-19, the restaurant turned its attention to the Prep Kitchen beneath the restaurant, which offers an impressive selection of wine and beer and frozen meals.
“We’ve been doubling down on what the Prep Kitchen does, trying to quadruple that menu of frozen and takeout items,” Beal said by phone July 21.
This new focus seems to jive nicely with the virtual wine-tasting model, as customers can pick up their prepackaged collection of wine and food pairings from the Prep Kitchen prior to the event.
Attendees of the wine tasting are offered a 10% discount on orders of wine placed through the Prep Kitchen within a day or two of the tasting.
Gosselin said on July 10 that three cases of wine had been ordered as a result of the tasting, and she expected more orders to come in.
“It’s a nice way to drive some traffic to the retail store,” Gosselin said.
Gosselin said the virtual tastings are somewhat taking the place of the long-running Damariscotta River Grill Wine Club, which has 30-35 members but has been put on hold indefinitely because of COVID-19.
Gosselin said virtual wine tastings for private events or celebrations are also available and the selection of wine and food can be customized accordingly.
The next public wine tasting is set to take place Thursday, Aug. 13 at 6 p.m. Reservations can be made by messaging the Damariscotta River Grill’s Facebook page, emailing Gosselin at firstname.lastname@example.org, or calling the restaurant at 563-2992.