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April 2, 2020updated 02 Nov 2022 11:02am

A new direction for wine tastings in the face of Covid-19

By Victoria Daskal

This famous quote from the American four-star general, Oliver P Smith, refers to an episode during the Korean War, but it resonates in today’s Covid-19 crisis on many levels. The sudden closure of restaurants and cafés has already proven to be devastating for the hospitality industry, but there are glimmers of creativity, collaboration, and innovation as many establishments temporarily modify their business to survive the current lockdown.

Equally fascinating and inspiring during the Covid-19 pandemic is the surge of virtual tastings and panel discussions via videoconference over the past weeks. And while we hope and expect that once the Covid-19 crisis is over going out to restaurants, cafés, and wine bars will pick up again quickly, alternative means of accessing wine education and participating in tastings could become viable and sustainable ways to connect producers with consumers and everyone in between.

A stream of new virtual propositions is already flooding in-boxes and social media, inviting viewers to engage with wine producers around the world, or learn from Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, and regional experts.

Sudden home isolation for many presents different challenges—from restrictions on work, to restrictions on time (those lucky enough to be able to work from home may also have children to home-school). Wine lovers are also faced with the challenge of pursuing their hobby, education, passion, or profession in isolation. While most will likely agree that the joys of tasting wine increase exponentially when shared in beautiful surroundings and with good company, that was not always possible before the current Covid-19 crisis, and will not always be possible after it is over, but now there is an opportunity to advance in multiple directions, not only staying connected, but building new and further-reaching networks. Besides the virtual tastings offered via Zoom or other platforms, pre-existing on-line wine schools are worth exploring now more than ever.

What follows is an overview of select on-line wine courses and virtual tastings, which are part of the creative silver lining to this Covid-19 crisis.

Up close and personal with the experts

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, London’s private-member wine club, 67 Pall Mall, has swiftly set up a schedule of three video-wine-tastings per week; 6pm GMT on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays. “No RSVP required,” assures Ronan Sayburn MS in his first virtual wine tasting with Jasper Morris MW, “everyone is encouraged to open a bottle of white Burgundy while they listen along to Jasper discuss the differences between Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet from his home in Beaune.” The zoom tastings are free, casual, and wide-ranging, with upcoming themes including Tim Atkin MW’s Virtual Guide to the Valleys and Peaks of Chile, and Jane Anson’s Bordeaux Battle of the Banks.

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The Real Business of Wine launched on what should have been the first day of Prowein in Düsseldorf (March 15). Robert Joseph and Polly Hammond have partnered to produce (so-far) daily hour-long webinars (6pm GMT) on all aspects of the wine industry, from an analysis of higher wine education (comparing WSET, MW, and MBA), to an overview of the state of the on-trade with James Tidwell MS, Ronan Sayburn MS, and Joe Fattorini of The Wine Show, an hour-long live chat with Jancis Robinson MW on wine trends, and Biodynamics with Monty Waldin. It’s free to join and listen, and recordings are available to view on their site afterwards.

Meet the winemaker… at home (the team behind La Paulée and La Fête du Champagne) has partnered with Morrell & Company to offer online wine tastings and conversations with winemakers in Burgundy, Champagne, and the Rhône. The concept of their Covid-19 ‘At Home Sessions’ is an in-depth guided discussion via Zoom with a star winemaker, followed by a tasting of a suggested wine, ending with a moderated Q&A section. Prior to the event, participants can purchase from Morrell & Company the featured wine of the grower, in order to taste along. The line-up is seriously impressive—Frédéric Lafarge, Guillaume d’Angerville, Olivier Krug, Dominique Lafon, Jean-Marc Roulot, and Véronique Drouhin—with updates of new producer participants coming through daily. Wine purchase is not required, and delivery options are guaranteed in Manhattan only. But if you already have the wine in your collection, or just want to tune in and listen, you can register by purchasing a ticket for $50, all of which will be donated to a selection of funds set up by restaurants to help laid-off employees.

From Vila Nova de Gaia, Churchill’s has launched ‘Virtual Conversations with Winemakers’ inviting Port lovers to tune in on April 14 and 16 to meet winemaking duo John Graham and Ricardo Pinto Nunes for a back-to-back e-tasting of its Ports and Douro terroir wines. The wines in the tastings are available to purchase online in advance—in a bundle with free shipping to most of Europe— so that viewers can taste live along with the winemakers. The bundles are designed so that participants can enjoy the bottles over the course of the next week, with 20cl tasting bottles of the Ports and a selection of three Douro wines to choose from. “I’ve given countless tastings over the years to teach people about Port and Churchill’s specific style of Port, but I never imagined I’d be showing my wines alone in my home to an audience around the world,” said Johnny Graham.

Instead of Vinitaly wine lovers across the globe can now enjoy a virtual encounter with 15 renowned wine producers throughout Italy in a “virtual wine fair.” The usual wine-fair stands will be replaced with direct social-media encounters right from the wineries, vineyards, or desks of these wine producers in most of Italy’s regions. Anyone using social media can meet with them via the wineries’ Facebook (FB) or Instagram (IG) pages. The producers who will be present include Lamberto Frescobaldi of Luce, Axel Heinz of Ornellaia, Carlo Franchetti of Tenuta di Trinoro, Anselmo Guerrieri Gonzaga of San Leonardo, and Clara Gentili of Fattoria Le Pupille. After they introduce their new vintages, the producers will engage in conversation with wine lovers and wine professionals and respond to live questions.

Use hashtag #storiedivino to follow this virtual wine fair over April 6–9, from 3pm (CET)

Monday, April 6: Ricasoli 1141 (IG 3pm), Tenuta di Ghizzano (FB 4pm), Pio Cesare 1881 (IG 6pm)
Tuesday, April 7: Azienda Vitivinicola Passopisciaro (FB 4pm), Conte Vistarino (IG 4.30pm), San Leonardo (IG 5pm)
Wednesday, April 8: Tenuta di Trinoro (4pm on IG under “passopisciaro trinoro”), Tenute Silvio Nardi (FB 4.30pm), Castello di Querceto (FB 5pm), Fattoria Le Pupille (IG 5.30pm)
Thursday, 9 April: Ornellaia (FB 3pm), Antico Podere Gagliole (IG 3.30pm), Alliance Vinum (FB 4pm), Giodo (IG 4.30pm), Luce della Vite (IG 5pm)

Escapism to Italy

James Suckling’s Masterclass on Wine Appreciation was produced in December 2018, but if ever there was a time to dive into this 11-part series, shot beautifully on location in Tuscany in and around his home, it’s now when you’re stuck in your own home. His relaxed and slow manner of speaking sets a gentle pace to the on-line course which comes with a smart downloadable workbook complete with definitions, key concepts, and wine information summarizing each video lesson.

The content provides a solid introduction to wine for beginners, but there’s good stuff for experienced wine lovers, too. The segments that take place at Villa Antinori with Albiera Antinori are especially interesting as they taste through a vertical of Tignanello (1983, 1999, 2007, 2015) and discuss vintage variations, evolution of stylistic differences over the decades, and how they are achieved in the winery, climate change, and their vision of the future of wine. James shares a wealth of advice and opinions based on decades of experience. Instead of an exam at the end, the last lesson is a family Tuscan lunch with his son, wife, and neighbor winemakers as they discuss food pairing ideas with classic and Asian dishes. $180 for one year of access to the entire MasterClass database (with other categories of on-line classes ranging from cooking, writing, and science to explore).

A new on-line wine tasting class from Italy, WineOnLine, is set to launch next week. Planned before the covid-19 crisis, it couldn’t come soon enough, because it will be a live, intimate, and virtual wine tasting course with the unique feature of participants receiving their wine samples by post so they can taste exactly the same wine as the presenter and fellow students. The courses will be in Italian with English subtitles and will cover topics on tasting appreciation, Italian wines, international wines, and production techniques aimed at general wine lovers. More technical wine seminars on specific wine regions will also be led by preeminent Italian and international wine experts. For instance, a three-hour Barolo seminar led by the founders, Bernardo Conticelli and Andrea Pecchioni, with guest speakers including Alessandro Masnaghetti describing the differences in crus, and producers such as Cavalotto adding their perspective. Students will be able to sign up for the wine class and receive a pack of four small sample bottles (2 cl size) by post. During the live class, students will participate from home via computer or smartphone, and be able to interact with the wine expert and fellow classmates as they taste the wines together. Prices start from €35 for a live wine class (90minutes) with four wines to taste, and from €50 for pre-recorded specialist wine seminars with leading producers and experts.

For the stay-at-home masterchef

Many of us are now forced to prepare all of our meals, all of the time. Some are embracing this period, digging out old recipes, and turning pantry cooking into a competitive sport on social media. If this is you, or someone in your home, then an on-line Food and Wine Pairing course could be the perfect opportunity to connect two passions, bond with the chef of the house, or simply enhance your own understanding of wine-pairing principles.

Fine Vintage Ltd offers an 8-module Food and Wine Pairing course written by Masters of Wine, James Cluer and Philip Goodband. The course covers the five tastes in food and wine, textures, key concepts in food and wine pairing, major wine styles with food, classic foods with wine, regional cuisines with wine, external influences on pairing, and finishes with an examination and printable certificate. It is not a video format but rather presented in sequential slides with interactive questions and quizzes throughout to check comprehension. There is an especially interesting section on molecular matching, which outlines principles around molecular flavors (lactones, eugenol, and terpenes), molecular temperatures (compounds such as menthol and estragole) and molecular oak maturation (levels of toast that pair well with varying degrees of umami in food). The course takes 4–6 hours and costs $99.

Distance learning—all levels

The same company, Fine Vintage Ltd, offers Level 1 and Level 2 in Wine covering the basics of wine starting from the history of wine 8,000 years ago, to the modern day, 14 important grapes to know, and the like but also answers important questions such as what makes some wines cost more than others, what makes wines taste different, and how to taste, with extensive video explanations by James Cluer MW. The Level 1 course takes 4–6 hours and costs $99; the Level 2 course takes 6–10 hours and costs $299;

The Court of Master Sommeliers has joined forces with Guildsomm to offer a series of free wine-education webinars to support sommeliers’ studies in this challenging time of Covid-19. Their first instalment is a two-hour webinar on CMS Advanced Deductive Tasting led by Geoff Kruth MS, president of Guildsomm, and Melissa Monosoff MS, education director for CMS. Plenty of free and members-only content is added regularly.

Until we can meet again

Hats off to everyone who has managed so quickly to adapt in the Covid-19 crisis, finding new ways to share their knowledge and passion for wine. At the time of publishing this round-up, an astounding number of enticing virtual dates keep popping up, with invitations to connect on-line from individuals, merchants, or wineries. Many of us are stuck at home, but together we can advance in a new direction for wine communication, education, and participation.

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