Taking a virtual winery tour

Rebecca Gibb MW looks at the emergence of virtual reality and how it can be used to enhance the wine experience.

New Zealand Prime Minister Steven Joyce goes on a virtual wine tour
New Zealand Prime Minister Steven Joyce goes on a virtual wine tour

Many dream of holidaying in New Zealand, but the 24-hour flight from Europe means the trip has often remained a dream. Now, the advent of virtual reality means the long-haul journey is no longer necessary: a consumer can just slip on a pair of funny-looking goggles and a set of headphones and be transported immediately to the shores of Blue Lake, a Marlborough vineyard, or to a bubbling vat of fermenting red grapes.

While virtual reality (VR) is more often associated with the video game industry, its far-ranging uses are starting to be realised in wine as the technology becomes more affordable. That’s how wine buyers and journalists swapped a grey winter’s day in London for a sunshine-filled virtual New Zealand during a recent tasting. The instigator of the virtual reality film was Lauren Bartlett from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). She originally launched the campaign at trade fair Food & Hotel Asia 2016, using headsets borrowed from Samsung in return for allowing the New Zealand content to be used in Samsung’s Singapore store. “One of the key sales points is the beautiful landscape in which [wine] is grown, but if you have not been to New Zealand, it’s harder to understand,” says Bartlett. “When we take people to New Zealand they are immediately converted, but that’s an expensive proposition, so we were looking for a way to transport them virtually.”

Marlborough winery Spy Valley was able to create its own VR experience by sharing some of the filming costs with NZTE. The idea came out of a visit from its brand agency, who had asked how many people were able to do the tour of the vineyards and winery. “I said only really our top VIP customers – distributors or wine writers, etcetera – as it can be quite time-consuming and we can’t give everyone that comes to visit that level of attention,” says Nicola Norton, marketing manager, Spy Valley Wines. “So, the idea was it would be great if we can take people for a virtual tour, especially when we are going overseas, as so many people we meet on our travels have never been to New Zealand, let alone Marlborough.”

While there are still only a handful of wineries that boast a VR experience, the use of the technology has applications for all sectors of the industry, from wholesalers and distributors to retailers and educators. For example, UK-based wine wholesaler Matthew Clark commissioned a virtual wine tasting. Tasters sipped real wine while surrounded by a virtual vineyard and cellar door, complete with the twittering of virtual birds. The idea of the experience was to make a wine tasting a little more interesting and to help users identify the wines they were tasting with clues picked up around the vineyard, says Gary Pearson, managing director of Fourth Reality, which was commissioned to create the experience. “It was an unusual request for us – it was a first working with wine for us and a first for Matthew Clark, but the tool is great for trade shows – it really draws people to your stand.” If the stand or tasting gets too busy and visitors don’t want to wait for the experience, there’s a simple solution, as Spy Valley discovered. They had branded cardboard glasses produced which were distributed widely along with instructions on downloading the VR video from YouTube, so people could enjoy the experience at home.

The challenges of VR

Creating VR isn’t as simple as asking a member of staff to take a film on a smart phone. Not only does it require 360-degree, panoramic filming, but the filmmaker can’t direct where the viewer should look – the viewer needs to be able to look at the panorama in any direction. And the cameraman can’t appear in shot, which is how Colin West, the founder of WINERAM, a Sonoma-based filmmaking company, ended up hiding around the street corners of the village of Barolo while trying to capture footage for a VR film. It amused the locals, he admits. “You need to have six cameras that are pointing up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards, and then stitch the shots together,” he says. “It’s a difficult process and that’s where the knowledge and skillset comes in – you have to weave the six camera shots to look like a 360-degree experience.”

A more simple way of creating VR is through the use of 360-degree photography, which blends still photographs together to create depth. Barossa winery Seppeltsfield might have been established in 1851, but it is one of the first wineries in the world to trial VR to create a winery tour experience. Access is through a link on the website or using a QR code, which will feature on wine labels. Arrows on the images suggest the route for the tour.

While West claimed, “Photo VR is an easy way out,” the photo-led VR tour might be better suited to those with a weak stomach. There are some VR experiences that can make users nauseous, because of the mismatch between what the eyes are seeing and what the body is experiencing. The sensation is akin to stepping off a rollercoaster or a boat in a storm. Pearson says that can be alleviated with a more premium headset such as an Oculus Rift, as well as good filming. The trouble comes, he adds, when the camera is moving. “If you put a camera on a zipwire and you are looking left but flying right there’s a sense of dislocation that causes the nausea,” he says. “Of course, people who get seasick are more susceptible to it.”


Retailers can use VR technology to help customers with purchasing decisions while educators could use the technology to help students understand viticulture or winemaking methods, and far-flung regions. However, wineries seem to be leading the industry forward. As for how much it costs, a 360-degree photography experience would cost a European winery around €10,000.00 ($11,176.00). For a short VR video experience, costs are closer to €20,000.00. It can be done in-house, if there is a willing staff member who has the time to devote to learning the techniques and processes of production. Given its complexity, however, it might be better to employ professionals, especially as the technology will become more economical as it improves. “It is getting cheaper and cheaper,” says Pearson. “If you had asked me five years ago it would have been triple the cost.”

With more and more content available to view on the web, however, the novelty factor of the VR experience will not be enough to create a long-lasting impression, warns the firm behind the Spy Valley project. As with so many parts of wine marketing, storytelling, innovation, and authenticity is key.

In the end, VR can’t beat the real thing – but when customers can’t get to the real thing, there’s now a way to let the real thing come to them.

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