News Reports 16 April 2020

How to run a virtual wine tasting

From watching Kyle Maclachlan to a Q&A with Katharina Prüm, there are a thousand ways to interact with wine online. Adam Lechmere dives into the wonderful lockdown world of virtual tastings and asks, does that backdrop really work?

Words by Adam Lechmere

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When eventually we look back at the 2020 crisis, there will be one question above all that will require unflinching examination: who ran the best virtual tastings? The biggest surprise of all is that a concept that should be a clanging oxymoron – tasting wine, of all activities, can surely only be done in reality – the “virtual tasting” has become a thing.

From the Instagram micro-seminar to the full-on masterclass, the internet is abuzz with winemakers, distillers, mixologists, master chefs (and just about anyone in possession of a decent backdrop and an internet connection) talking, demonstrating, pulling corks and wielding spatulas.

First prize for getting its act together has to go to the wine club of wine clubs, London’s 67 Pall Mall, with its rolling programme of seminars by wine leaders and celebrities, from Kyle Maclachlan to Katharina Prüm. Introduced by wine director Ronan Sayburn MS (looking solid as a statue), the talks are polished, professional and attract audiences of up to 500. Notably, 67’s head of communications Stephanie Westcott told Club Oenologique, many of the e-attendees are wine novices. “There are people who are just getting into wine as a new hobby, people who wouldn’t think of joining the club physically.”

Key to this democratisation is access: 67 Pall Mall’s tastings are free and joinable with three clicks of the mouse. Everyone can take part, and (as the chat panel at the side of the screen shows) everyone has something to say.

Ronan Sayburn
"Solid as a statue of Buddha": Ronan Sayburn

Top-end wine merchant Hedonism, just up the road in Mayfair, is taking a different route, charging £150-350 for tutored tastings with educator Sherry Stolar. The sessions sell out, Stolar says, often to couples, who are given screen time – sometimes with unforeseen consequences (see below).

At the other end of the spectrum are the Instagrammers, who come in myriad shapes and sizes, from the fogeyish (though appealing) formality of critic William Kelley to the ebulliance of ABS Wine Agencies’ Elliot Awin (“I is on big screen!”). Specialising in lightning tastings and talks of five minutes and less, they are the amuse-bouches of lockdown learning – they can be salty or sweet but they must be brief and they must be focused.

What follows is a brief “how to” for lockdown learners considering staging their own tasting. We’ve covered a tiny fraction of what’s out there, and we’ve only dipped our toe into TikTok, which (mercifully) hasn’t yet been colonised by serious wine people – though there is still time.

Keep it natural…
From her glass-and-chrome sitting room in Bordeaux, Jane Anson is the master of the genre. Last week at 67 Pall Mall she took the driest of subjects “The banks of Bordeaux” and made it riveting by the simple expedient of a) knowing her subject backwards and b) chatting to her global audience as if each one of the 400 participants were relaxing on her sofa with a glass of wine.

The same rule applies for the micro-seminar. Burgundy expert William Kelley has a nice line in what you might call elegant informality: he sits in shirt-sleeves in front of a baroque fireplace and delivers five-minute chats on such subjects as “Can Gamay age?”, full of nuggets of information such as the old joke that when the French lost Algeria they said they’d be losing a third of Beaujolais as well.

 

…but professional
Be informal yes, but production values must be impeccable. If you’re showing a graphic, do it properly. In an otherwise excellent series on Champagne, The Finest Bubble’s Essi Avellan MW was somewhat distracted by the Bubble’s Nick Baker showing a graph by holding his phone up to his webcam. It might as well have been a picture of his cat.

The best tutorials are the ones where you can’t see the wires. The US Wine Institute is running a series called Behind the Wines with Elaine Chukan Brown. In her latest, she and Jasmine Hirsch discussed the Sonoma Coast terroir, seamlessly introducing special guest Cathy Corison of Napa on a third screen towards the end. It worked, and – most importantly – they made it look easy.

You don’t want that sort of thing to go wrong though – just as you don’t want 45 seconds of your host staring at the screen (“am I live yet?”) or giving their audience a perfect view of their underarm as they adjust the cam – as I’ve seen a few times.

Sherry Stolar: "polished"

Interact with your audience
A curious feature of virtual events is that they can be more boisterous than the real thing – especially if there’s live wine involved. Jasper Morris (67 Pall Mall), though a somewhat academic presenter, attracts a chatty and irreverant audience, greeting each other, swapping notes on what they’re drinking. He obviously revels in the convivial ambience, and namechecks old pals (“Lots of names I recognise here”). If you’re confident with the technology, bring the audience centre stage. In her polished performances as Hedonism’s frontwoman, Sherry Stolar toggles guests onto the screen – it all adds to the fun. But don’t let them take control – Stolar was blindsided by one couple’s “Happy F**king Birthday” backdrop (“Right guys, I think we’re going to have to blank that one out in future”).

Interact with each other…
If you’re interviewing or working with a co-host, get that chemistry going. Show that you know each other or at least know of each other. Avellan and Baker do this well – they’re on opposite ends of Europe but they might be in the same room. And they complement each other. Baker is expressive, enthusiastic, pouring each glass with the look of a man who really enjoys his Champagne – “This 2012 is just a bundle of umm … I’m getting loads of those ripe lemons and apples” – while Avellan is cool and analytic. “For me it’s at a nice stage, the fruit really just pushing through and the time in the glass will bring that forward.”

 

Up next: a selection of wines for this Friday's tasting with The Finest Bubble

… but keep the banter to a minimum
If you’re not a professional comedian, lay off the wisecracks. Carlos Santos of London wine bar chain Humble Grape (on Instagram) gets a little bogged down (so to speak) with a riff on panic-buying toilet paper. “COVID-19 doesn’t cause you to sit on the toilet but on the sofa, for days on end…” It’s a bit forced – and the fact that he’s wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day gives him the look of a spiv about to try to sell you a job-lot of hand sanitizer.

Dress neutral…
With reference to the above – don’t let your outfit upstage you. People don’t want to be distracted by ostentatious jewellery or the shimmering of a moiré pattern, as TV people call the effect of thin stripes on camera.

…but be eccentric if you like
You shouldn’t be afraid of playing up to your national stereotype if you’re confident in your expertise. Salvatore Calabrese has been making cocktails in London clubs like The Playboy and the now-defunct Fifty St James for four decades (“They don’t call me Maestro for nothing”). He won’t let you forget his Amalfi heritage as he Instagrams his way through the perfect Old Fashioned: “The Godfather of the cocktail”, hamming up his sign-off, with finger pointed straight at the camera. “Keep safe and stay ‘ome. Salute.”

Choose your backdrop carefully
Backdrops are important: natural is best, but not too natural. It’s wise to be inside so as to avoid distracting noise. Trevor Clough of sparkling producer Digby Fine English introduces his wine for Armit against a perfect English scene of lawn and yew hedge, but he’s slightly upstaged by some very loud birds. Westcott at 67 Pall Mall says backgrounds are chosen carefully – Morris originally wanted to be in the vineyard but decided his attic study with leaning bookshelves and ancient beams worked better. Whatever happens, don’t try an off-the-peg backdrop, whether it’s the hill of Corton or the Taj Mahal – they make you flicker round the edges, and you can lose whole body parts if you move unexpectedly

Choose your backdrop carefully: Trevor Clough's virtual tasting

Make it easy to join
This should be obvious. Some people are nervous with new apps and shy away from any remotely complex sign-up process. The beauty of Zoom (fun fact: it’s now worth $39bn, three times its valuation when it was listed just over a year ago) is that you can join a talk with literally a couple of clicks.

Five of the best

67 Pall Mall
A rolling programme of talks and interviews from Washington State, Bordeaux, Central Otago, Madeira, Champagne and just about everywhere else. Free: “we simply invite you to open a bottle that aligns with the theme, and our experts will do the rest…” Look out for Jane Anson in Bordeaux, Kyle Maclachlan in Washington State, Jasper Morris MW in Burgundy.

Hedonism
Convivial and imaginative paid-for tastings with educator Sherry Stolar; half bottles such as Gobelsburg Riesling Alte Reben 2006 and Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 are delivered beforehand; ability to share your live video make for amusing interactions.

The Finest Bubble
Engaging two-headers on Champagne and English sparkling from founder Nick Baker and one of the world’s foremost fizz experts Essi Avellan MW. Next up: exploring bottle formats with special guest Vitalie Taittinger.

William Kelley
Rich pickings to be had from the youthful but old-fashioned (and hugely knowledgable) California and Burgundy champion. Typical topic: “Can Gamay age?”.

Behind the Wines with Elaine Chukan Brown
The prolific journalist and jancisrobinson.com regular hosts well-produced, informative and entertaining interviews with California luminaries. Audience chat is academic and serious. Next up: Rory Williams of Frog’s Leap.

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