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Long Island restaurants, bartenders offer virtual cocktail classes, wine tastings

Cocktail-mixing and wine lessons, whether via text or

Cocktail-mixing and wine lessons, whether via text or social media, have been proliferating online as people shelter in place. Credit: Tracy Johanna

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After Tracy Johanna lost her job as a bartender at a Lindenhurst bar — one of thousands of service-industry professionals who were laid off last week — a pair of former customers reached out via Facebook Messenger. "They said they were thinking about me, and hoped I was OK," she said. They also had a request. "They wanted to make a couple of cocktails."

They message which base spirits they wanted to drink: Whiskey for him, tequila for her. Then Johanna came up with a shopping list and recipes for two drinks: a coffee Manhattan for the whiskey, a margarita with a smoked paprika-sea salt rim for tequila. "I walked them through my regular margarita, but she wanted something a little sweeter, so we put some coconut milk in," Johanna said. Afterward, even though she hadn't asked, the pair insisted on tipping her via Venmo.

For the brigade of out-of-work servers and bartenders — as well as restaurant owners who struggling to stay open — the challenge of generating cash flow, or at least staying connected, has instigated some novel moves, including a tide of cooking and cocktail lessons via Instagram video and text message, or live interactive sessions of wine or beer appreciation. Out in Greenport, The Halyard has begun weekly virtual cooking and cocktail classes via Instagram live. In Johanna's case, some former customers sent photos of their home bars and asked for suggestions. "A lot of people have home bars and don't know what to do with them," she said. And at Meritage Wine Bar in Glen Cove, the owner and chef decided to leverage their knowledge of wine and spirits into a virtual wine tasting.

About a week into the shutdown, Meritage owner Alex Fiorentino came up with the idea for a Wine Appreciation Tasting Series, and on March 25, he posted on social media that he had 16 bottles of Casa Smith Porcospino Primitivo 2017 for those interested in a live tasting. Many came by the restaurant to pick up a bottle for $20; that evening at 7:30 p.m., Fiorentino and chef Julius Miranda (wearing a black face mask) appeared on both Facebook and Instagram live. Sitting side by side, they uncorked the wine and riffed on its particulars — variety, region, winemaker (Charles Smith, a wine world icon) and food pairing possibilities. Fiorentino explained how primitivo is also known as zinfandel, and originated in Croatia. Miranda tasted red berries and black licorice. "Definitely licorice," wrote one viewer. The conversation veered to such diverse subjects as wine oxidation, Oreos, cheese course timing, the merits (or not) of rubbing steak with coffee, and the surreal moment we find ourselves in. 

"If this horrible predicament that we're sharing right now does bring you closer together with your loved ones and your family and your friends, even if it's just like this — it's horrible, but at least we have to find some silver lining," Fiorentino said. "We have to be able to commune as human beings and be social."

"Whether you're in California or New York, we're all going through it together," Miranda said at one point.

Meritage is still doing takeout and delivery, and Fiorentino said he's planning a series of tasting sessions based on some of the wines he has enough inventory of to sell and share. "Maybe we'll do two next week," he mused. 

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