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Saturday, 24 October 2020

On Virtual Wine Tastings

The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed
William Gibson, interviewed on Fresh Air, NPR (31 August 1993)

The pandemic has changed many things unrecognisably in the short term, but the long-term reality will prove not to be quite as disorientating, I predict.

The hot take on this pandemic is not that it has "changed everything", but that it has - merely - vastly accelerated pre-existing underlying trends, especially in the area of "digital".

I had been routinely chatting to my parents on video calls for years before Manchester went into lockdown. And as behavioural economist Rory Sutherland has pointed out, what really killed off Concorde was video-conferencing. That is, the benefit of shaving off three hours from a flight to New York was rendered obsolete by the ability to speak to someone there face-to-face without leaving your office.

With mass international travel proving all-but-impossible at the moment, wine PRs and trade bodies are finding new ways to bring the sights, sounds and flavours of a region to writers and buyers. We are learning together how to adapt to this new way of doing things and some innovations will surely become habits that stick even after we have found a cure and / or vaccine.

There is an observation about creativity that imposing limitations leads to more innovation; essentially, if you don't have as much freedom, you have to be cleverer. This has certainly proven to be the case with virtual press trips. Over the past 12 months or so, I have attended various trade tastings virtually and the level of innovation and creativity has increased noticeably with time.

Here is my (very personal) review and guide to what I think works best and where to go next:

KWV Facebook Live (November 2019)

Organised by Mike Turner pre-pandemic, this was a chance for UK press and trade to chat, taste and spend some time with winemaker Izele van Blerk and Chief viticulturist Marco Ventrella in real time from the other side of the world to South Africa.

Innovative at the time and well-organised by Mike, perfectly fine but something of stepping stone. Think Ford Model-T or Blur's Leisure.

Gallo Fine Wine Virtual Tasting with Edouard Baijot (May 2020) 

My first lockdown virtual tasting: Edouard Baijot MW, Gallo’s head of fine wine for EMEA led a tutored tasting of five super premium Cali wines from Gallo's portfolio.

This was run as a virtual masterclass with a small number of participants, all tasting together and discussing the wines.

Again, perfectly fine - replicates the tasting experience but does it online.

Côtes du Rhône Villages - Roaix and Laudun (August 2020)

Virtual and immersive with a tie-in podcast, this was a real step-up in creative thinking. Three wines from the Rhône along with a picnic-hamper box of local foods to eat with them which I had planned to try later but which mysteriously vanished on evening they arrived - along with some of the wine. Sitting in the garden on a hot summer's eve.

The really immersive touch was the bunch of lavender which instantly took me back to lazy summer holidays with rocky mountains and winding country roads.
Wines of Chile masterclass & tasting hosted by Tim Atkin MW (October 2020)

This was a two-part masterclass on 16 Chilean wines by Tim Atkin MW with each producer zooming in to be interviewed by Tim and talk about their wines.

For me, this really showed the potential for virtual masterclasses - with around 60 attendees and each wine being presented by the winemaker, this would not have been possible without holding the event online.

The set-up played to its strengths - Tim is deeply knowledgeable about Chile, has a flawless palate and is a great interviewer. There was discussion of terroir, climate, geology; in short, highly educational and showcasing the range and quality of the country with memorable human stories.
Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore docg Virtual Trade Trip (October 2020) 

The most wide-ranging of the virtual events, this was a two-day trip and tasting of Prosecco Superiore; although all done over zoom, it was a deep and highly experiential dive with talks on the soils, history, grapes and culture of the region. A talk on local gastronomy had us all comparing comments on how hungry we had started feeling, videos gave us a strong visual overview of the region and its terroir and outside broadcast talks made us feel almost as if we were there.

This was all followed by a tutored tasting of five wines, again with zoom links to the producers in their wineries, cellars or vineyards.

Virtual recommendations

Another feature of lockdown without the customary summer holiday in Europe is no opportunity to bring back some inexpensive local wines in the car, so I have been watching out for recommended wines in the UK.

I bought several bottles of a Portuguese red on the back of a video tasting by Charles Metcalfe - and I routinely tune into Tom Cannavan's Wine of the Week, sometimes just to listen to his soothing Scots burr.

Where next?

Between them, these tastings have all provided a mixture of cultural immersion, technical knowledge, inspiration and discussion / banter.

Several of these events would have been impossible for me to attend in person; I have a day-job outside wine, so after-work tastings in London are entirely possible but press trips less so. However, doing a masterclass in my lunchtime or even fitting in two consecutive mornings are completely possible.

This is my very personal list of what makes for a good virtual press trip or tasting:

- chatting with other participants, either discussing the wines or commenting in the chat section; as a writer, hearing what other people think, comparing impressions and just being sociable is an important part of telling the story of a wine. For me, the stories are actually more important than the technical stuff. I want to know "why" you made the wines you do more than "how".

- twitter and hashtags can be especially useful; when information is coming in thick and fast, tweeting soundbites serves a secondary purpose of highlighting key points to come back and focus on for a write-up. Chat sections of zoom do the same but are lost when the session ends unless the organisers save key comments and issue them to participants.

- immersion; again, this helps with the storytelling. In Europe at least, wine is an intrinsic part of a cultural landscape that includes geography, geology, climate, gastronomy, geopolitics and religion. For me, winemaking is best understood as part of a dynamic ecosystem of agriculture and character, and it is only on full acquaintance with all these factors that the deep history of a wine can reveal itself.

Food and drink is how wine makes sense, so matching local foods to the wines will always enhance the appreciation. And creative touches like lavender or, as I saw elsewhere, a spotify playlist of national music help bridge the physical distance between a desk and screen at home and the winemaker's vineyard or cellar.

Serving and portion sizes merits some consideration.

In general, a 5ml sample is enough to form an impression and write a brief note. However, this depends on the wine being served under just the right conditions to show its best; when was the bottle opened, was it decanted, at what temperature, were the wines all pre-poured etc.

Screw-capped 100ml bottles with stuck-on labels provide a decent enough amount to taste, re-taste and then come back to maybe over dinner in the evening with some food. They do not seal hermetically and prone to leaking, but are OK for tastings of numerous wines where it is simply not practical to send umpteen bottles to dozens of attendees.

Full bottles are more suited to deeper dives, as (if you are like me) they provide the opportunity to see how a wine develops over time. They also helpfully replicate the experience of anyone who buys the wine to serve at home, allowing for the addition of comments on ideal serving temperature, level of aeration and helping with a drinking window assessment.

AOB: DIY tastings

One final, tangential, observation. Lockdown is causing all of us to spend more time in front of screens and less time socialising in person which is not good for anyone's wellbeing.

Over the course of the last six months, I have organised and / or attended virtual wine-tastings with colleagues, friends, neighbours and an MW student.

If you are thinking of doing something similar, here is a quick guide to the different approaches, and don't forget to support your local wine merchant if you want them to still be there when this is all over.

And if you are feeling more ambitious, there is Dan Kirby's approach to online wine tastings, a virtual Secret Santa:

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