How to share a drink with friends and family when you can't get together in real life.

By Ray Isle
Updated April 01, 2020
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The other day, in the midst of this pandemic, my wife invited me to a 17-person family party. Before you start calling the police or the CDC, I should point out that this was a virtual party, held on the Zoom video-meeting platform.

At 6 o’clock east coast time, people’s faces started blipping into view on our computer: Aunt Lainie and Uncle Tad in Massachusetts, her cousin Lea and Lea’s husband Steve in Delaware, even their son Charlie, who’s currently in college (or, well, not, right now) at St. Andrews, Scotland. Everyone except the kids had a drink: G&Ts, white wine, craft beer, you name it. There were the usual technical glitches—people forgetting to unmute their mics, people talking over each other all at once (same in real life, so whatever), jerky images because of low bandwidth, dogs sticking their noses into the camera. It was a blast, and particularly now, when we’re either governmentally mandated to keep out of groups, like me in New York, or just doing so because it’s a very good idea. And a funny thing occurred to me as well: this huge, cheerful family group normally only gets together once a year, on Thanksgiving. Why on earth hadn’t doing this occurred to us before?

Read more: How to Help Your Local Bars and Wine Stores in the Age of Coronavirus

The virtual happy hour get-together has rapidly become a popular pressure release during a very stressful time. For many people, the usual social outlets—work, restaurants, hanging with friends, playdates with the kids—have been replaced by long work-from-home hours and then family-at-home in the evenings. Netflix and Amazon Prime only go so far for social contact. So why not do a happy hour version of the old Brady Bunch grid of talking heads?

Zoom seems to have become the platform of choice, despite the 40-minute limit on meetings if you use the free version (pro tip: if someone if your group has a work account, make them the host). Google Hangouts, Facebook, and Skype also work. In fact, as testimony to the instant burst of people using Zoom, it’s one of the few stocks that has actually risen during this crisis, rather than tanked.

Get-togethers take many forms, too. In addition to my wife’s family free-for-all, I zoomed with three good wine pals just to shoot the shit as we do when we’re able to get together regularly; being wine-biz folks, we of course chose a specific wine (Pinot Noir). I’ve got one coming up with a different group of wine friends to chat and drink Italian wine. And potentially another with me and my wife and two friends of ours who moved to Michigan last year. Though, as the organizing on that one was left to the husbands, my wife commented archly that “that will never happen.” Hey, so far it hasn’t—but we’re working on it!

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Alexandra Schrecengost, who handles communications for the wine importer Wilson Daniels, has been having a regular Zoom get-together with the moms she usually has play-dates with. “Right now the kids are all going stir-crazy, and we miss each other,” she says, “so we thought we’d use Zoom since I use it for work anyway. I set up a screen in our boys’ room for them to chat with their friends, so they set up a little fort, and pretty soon there were five five-year-old boys all chatting with each other. The moms set up different screens in our kitchens, we all whipped out bottles of wine, and were discussing everything that was going on, how to get groceries delivered, how to get wine delivered—because one friend was saying she was running out. Two of the moms in our group work in hospitals, and they’ve just been in tears. Getting together like this really broke that stress up a little for them.”

Wineries have been getting into the virtual get-together moment as well. Happy hours where winemakers field questions from wine club members are becoming popular. Some require a purchase of wines to participate, but others are open to all comers. For instance, Cade Winery in Napa Valley will live-stream a happy hour tasting Friday, March 27, from its Facebook page; over 200 people have already signed up for it. Winemaker Danielle Cyrot will go through current vintages, but will also be answering any other questions people might have about wine (especially about women in wine—it’s International Women’s Month, after all). Cyrot says, “We felt that this would be a great way to bring a piece of Howell Mountain, where our winery is, to members and fans around the world, especially at this time when we could all use some comfort.”

Of course, wine doesn’t have to be part of the equation. Happy hour cocktails work. Or cocktails and a movie. Netflix Party doesn’t allow participants to see one another, but it does sync your viewing of a show or movie and provides a sidebar for everyone to comment.

Caryl Chinn, a restaurant marketer in Los Angeles, says, “In real life—IRL!—I have this group of friends that always gets together for dinner to watch shows. So we just moved it over to Netflix to watch Tiger King, which is a bananas show. We’re all on the sidebar saying, ‘Did he just say wives? Like, plural??’ It’s definitely the kind of show where you need someone to turn to and say, ‘Oh my god, really?’ And everyone has their drinks; my friend Chris was drinking a Cabernet, my friend Ariel had a glass of white wine, and I mixed myself one of my favorite cocktails, which is honey-ginger syrup, lemon juice and scotch. It’s called a Penicillin. The irony of the name definitely wasn’t lost on me.”

The virtual party can take many forms. The Southern Foodways Alliance is hosting a regular event on Facebook Live on Friday afternoons called “Stir Crazy with the SFA,” which will stream five minute how-to’s for cocktails (both alcoholic and non) with Jerry and Krista Slater of the Expat in Atlanta. Mix along, then drink the results, why not? They even get big—as in really big—like DJ D-Nice’s nine-hour “Club Quarantine” Party on Instagram Live, which attracted over 100,000 people, including Oprah Winfrey, J. Lo, Rihanna, and even Joe Biden. Though, picturing Joe B. and Rihanna dancing together to “Lady Marmalade” is more than my brain can handle, so in this case I’m actually glad the whole thing was virtual.

In the end, though, the virtual cocktail hour is really about finding a way to connect with friends and family in a time when your usual avenues of connection are cut off. It’s a heartening lifeline back to normal times, and it’s fun. It can even be celebratory. My friend Charles Antin, a wine auctioneer, was planning to have a birthday party on April 11—he’s turning 40. Now it’s going to be a Zoom champagne toast, for 50 people. And to that I’m saying cheers.

Here are eight tips for throwing a virtual happy hour:

  • If you’re going to theme your event, make it broad. It’s hard for people, especially in places like California and New York right now, to shop, plus stores have limited selection. So, with wine, pick a popular varietal—Cabernet, Pinot Noir—rather than a specific winery or obscure region.
  • For cocktails, email everyone a recipe in advance.
  • If you are going to play music in the background, have the host choose it and play it, otherwise you get that jarring nine-songs-going-on-at-the-same-time effect. Or collaborate on a playlist in advance.
  • Choose the grid option on the software, so you can all see each other at the same time
  • Start off talking about something other than Coronavirus. This is supposed to be fun, not bleak. Plus, you’ll probably end up talking about it anyway.
  • Set a time frame. An hour is good.
  • Don’t share your meeting link on social media or public forums, because then anyone can join in. There have been reports of trolls crashing zoom meetups (particularly big public ones) and broadcasting awful porn to everyone. Not good!
  • Come up with a plan to occupy the kids during your happy hour time, if you have kids. If it’s a group of parents who are meeting, you can even set up a separate virtual event for the kids (if they’re old enough). In another room, of course, and if you have a spare phone/computer/whatever.
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