No more virtual wine tasting – let’s get back to the vineyard

Despite impressive strides made by wine producers to adapt to virtual tastings, David Kermode says he can’t wait to get back to the cellar door IRL

Words by David Kermode

exton park vineyard
Exton Park in Hampshire recently offered a virtual tour of its vineyards, which has made David Kermode even more desperate to get back to visiting wineries in the flesh

I have never been a fan of things that come in small sizes. A finger of Fudge was never enough to give this kid a treat – “fun size” must be the mother of all misnomers and whoever invented the hotel minibar clearly didn’t enjoy a drink. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I have come to the conclusion that life is too short for miniatures.

A year ago, my experience of tiny bottles was probably limited to a British Airways G&T, but coronavirus changed everything. Since the start of the pandemic, I must have encountered a thousand miniature wine samples and what was once a novelty is now more of an ordeal.

Back then, producers and their PR partners were in an invidious position: almost overnight, the convivial wine tasting, with its chummy chats, sharing of bottles and all that spitting, was transformed into a super-spreading dystopia – my own case of Covid-19, in March last year, can be traced back to such an event – while traditional press trips were completely kiboshed by travel restrictions.

67 Pall Mall tasting kit
Private members' club 67 Pall Mall went the extra mile to package top-notch miniature samples for its virtual wine tastings during lockdown

So it was that the word “Zoom” went from a song by Fat Larry’s Band to a near daily ritual in our lives and the virtual wine tasting was born. At first, these were genuinely exciting: we were in lockdown, so anything that came to us instead was very welcome. Some of the early content was admittedly rather dry…and so were our glasses.

It soon became apparent that tuning in to see others taste and describe, not to mention spit, had all the appeal of watching them eat spaghetti blindfolded. Full-bottle samples are expensive, so the miniature had found its moment.

If I sound ungrateful, believe me, I’m not. I’m well aware that getting us to taste virtually required real innovation and significant expense. The moment you pull a cork, or twist a screwcap, the oxidation clock starts ticking, so developing a Lilliputian bottling line in what looks like a fish tank was actually a tall order.

Certain purveyors of small samples go to enormous lengths to ensure their miniatures arrive in good condition – the members’ club 67 Pall Mall springs to mind – but elsewhere, the process is still patchy.

Zoom wine tasting
"In a real-life, tutored wine tasting, we wouldn’t dream of nattering to each other, as happens in the chat room"

Having initially embraced this new “third way” of wine tasting, I have grown weary of thinking “I wonder if it’s meant to taste like this?” Sometimes, it is merely a matter of time, just letting the wine breathe for a bit. On other occasions, it becomes apparent in the chat function of Zoom, that something is amiss:

– “Are you getting stewed apple?”

– “No, but there’s definitely a blue-cheese note”

– “I’m getting well-worn running shoes on this one”

Which brings us to another issue: one of etiquette. In a real-life, tutored wine tasting, we wouldn’t dream of nattering to each other, as happens in the chat room. Nor would we encounter the behaviour of those who unmute themselves, mid-session, to reveal a completely random observation about something they tasted 20 years ago or show off their somehow superior knowledge of the subject matter.

In fairness, webinars have become much more daring, with producers pulling out all the stops. Just recently, I really enjoyed a virtual tour of the vines at Exton Park in Hampshire: a white-knuckle ride, sent live from the camera of some poor man strapped to the back of a pick-up truck. The sky a tantalising azure, the sun glistening from the chalk soils, it made me yearn to be there. However the real triumph was the full-bottle samples that accompanied the event, ensuring that I had a fully rounded sense of what they were selling. It was, no doubt, expensive, but it was also priceless.

Just as staying in was never going to be the new going out, I believe that the virtual wine tasting will wither on the vine

The biggest challenge is, of course, the cold reality of not being there. There is nothing to rival that intangible quality of being amid it all, soaking up the scenery, taking in the terroir, talking to, and tasting with, those people whose passion is so integral to their product.

I am very fortunate to have travelled extensively before the pandemic. No picture can capture the majesty of Portugal’s Douro Valley, as the river snakes a course hundreds of metres below you; to visit Rías Baixas in Galicia is to appreciate the blast of sea breeze you’ll find in the wines; see the solera system and its sunny surroundings and you’ll properly understand sherry.

Just as staying in was never going to be the new going out, I believe that the virtual wine tasting will wither on the vine. Miniature samples have seen us through tough times, but their future lies in the recycling box. Happily, the diary is starting to feature physical tastings again. Travel looks set to open up to the double-vaccinated. I, for one, long to be back in a proper vineyard, with a real-life winemaker and a bona fide bottle of wine. It won’t be long now.

What David has been drinking…

  • Exton Park RB28 Blanc de Noirs from Hampshire, a classy reserve-led blend, drawing from a library of 28 wines spanning a decade. There’s an emphatic English signature of bright, fresh-apple acidity, a hint of tropical fruit, toasted sourdough with salt-crystal butter and a subtle chalky note in the mid-palate.
  • Tio Pepe Fino En Rama (2021 bottling), the annual release of this wonderful, limited-edition raw sherry is an event that rivals Christmas for me. It’s a beguiling blend of yeasty, nutty citrus and green-apple complexity. Tio Pepe’s UK boss Martin Skelton was a recent guest on The Drinking Hour and he’s a fascinating evangelist for the sherry cause.
  • Craggy Range Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2019, a beautiful, dark, seductively spicy wine with the elegance, definition and depth to rival the northern Rhône’s finest. Kiwi Syrah doesn’t get better than this.
david kermode headshot at iwsc judging

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.