By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — While many of us have shifted our office to our basements, and we “eat in” instead of “out,” some things are hard to do from a distance.

But a Twin Cities man who specializes in making memories through a shared glass of wine has turned this challenge into a rare opportunity to bring huge names into our homes.

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It is without question a first-world problem, but the bottles of wine inside Osteria I Nonni in Lilydale are very lonely these days. Hoyt Hill serves as its wine director.

“In the early March we have to stop hosting wine tastings in our private dining room her at Osteria I Nonni, for obvious reasons, and that’s a big part of what we do here,” Hill said.

COVID-19 shut down the inside of the award-winning restaurant, and sent Hill complaining about his fate to his girlfriend, Tina.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you quit whining and do Zoom tastings,’ and I said, ‘What’s zoom? I’ve never heard of Zoom?’” he said.

Zoom, as we all now know, is the video conferencing service that’s become a verb. Hill decided to use it to bring together his Minnesota customers with some of his wine and food friends he’s met over decades working in restaurants.

Soon, big names started saying yes, including the CEO of Rombauer; Christian Moreau from Chablis France; and Hugh Davies from Schramsberg Vineyards. Hill even did a virtual tasting with one of the biggest chefs in America: Thomas Keller from The French Laundry.

Hoyt Hill (credit: CBS)

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“I’ve known Thomas for a long time,” Hill said.

For nearly two hours one recent Thursday night, Keller shared stories over a glass of wine from his California restaurant, with hundreds in Minnesota.

“It was such an extraordinary experience working with him. He’s so talented, so humble, his food was brilliant,” Hill said.

Joining a Zoom tasting is free. Hill sells the wine for each week at Osteria I Nonni’s wine shop, Sunfish Cellars.

“We’ve got somebody really amazing every single week,” he said.

Just like winemakers take rocky soil and create juicy grapes, wine sellers are taking a rough landscape of their own, and creating an experience with a long, lingering finish.

“If you open a nice bottle of wine with dinner, you turn the TV off, you turn the music on,” Hill said. “It brings people together in a common humanity that’s very important.”

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Osteria I Nonni’s Zoom wine tastings are every Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. This week, Hill is tasting with the winemaker of Spy Valley Wines in New Zealand.

Jason DeRusha