News 12 May 2020

Virtual tastings – wine’s amateur broadcasters shine

The UK’s political class got themselves into a lather assessing the contents of news commentators’ bookshelves. Adam Lechmere asks what we can read into the backdrops of drinks experts conducting online tastings

Words by Adam Lechmere

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One of the things I’ll miss most at the end of lockdown is the amateur virtual tasting. It’s not that such broadcasts are going to end – far from it – but as their creators realise what works and what doesn’t, and camera crews start getting involved, we’re going to see far fewer cluttered kitchens and unintentionally amusing missteps in favour of slicker productions and carefully-curated backdrops.

For the past couple of months we’ve had the pleasure of seeing into the homes not just of our colleagues, but of people whose houses we’d be highly unlikely to enter. And there’s a weird and pleasing intimacy about these domestic glimpses. Even chief executives are feeling it. “I have been so much more connected to our 20,000 employees in the last six weeks,” one told the Financial Times.

I know what he means. After seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wonderfully eccentric Instagram clip in which he invites his miniature pony and donkey into his kitchen for snacks, I feel closer to the Terminator than I ever did watching his films.

Dawn Davies
Dawn Davies

Kitchens are the most-used room in the house and they convey a lot about their owner. Here we have Dawn Davies, who runs operations for Sukhinder Singh, one of the world’s great whisky collectors and founder of London’s Speciality Drinks. She’s tasting a few wines in her kitchen. There’s an empty milk bottle on the counter, a few plates on the draining board, a bit of homely clutter – and, crucially, half a dozen bottles in various stages of quaffing. You feel instantly welcome. By contrast, allow me to refer you to celebrity chef Jason Atherton’s series of home cooking demos. His kitchen, with its matt surfaces and marble splashbacks, and at least three different fridges, is cool in an alpha-male sort of way, but it’s not the sort of room you can imagine yourself kicking back in. In fact, I’d feel more at ease with Arnie and his livestock.

Frazer Thompson
Frazer Thompson

The kitchen is the mirror to the soul, but I’m happy to have a look around any other rooms you want to show me, as long as you keep it informal. Corporate settings are killers. Here’s Frazer Thompson, CEO of English winery Chapel Down, affably introducing a tasting at the winery, glass in hand, in a tweed jacket of such aggressive newness it glows. You wonder if that’s real wine in his hand, a doubt I wouldn’t have had if he’d been in his kitchen in a cardigan.

Virginie Boone
Virginie Boone

Many people like to talk from their home office, which is fine, until you start getting overinterested in what’s tacked to the noticeboard. Instead of listening to Wine Enthusiast’s Virginie Boone (MC’ing a fascinating and informative seminar on the future of wine in restaurants, run by Dan Petroski of Napa’s Larkmead Vineyards) one evening, I indulged in a bit of industrial espionage by peering at her to-do list. Mind you, at least it wasn’t a shopping list: no-one wants to see the more mundane elements of your everyday life (on which note I’ll spare the blushes of the host of another broadcast who had left their underwear drying on the radiator behind them).

Avoiding distractions, though, doesn’t mean you should choose the most neutral space in your house – it makes people wonder what, if any, is your hinterland. In the same seminar, John Ragan, wine director of the massive Union Square Hospitality Group, broadcast in a grey shirt, from a room of muted greyness, with a black door adding a sombre touch. It looked like a scene from early David Lynch.

Dave Broom
Dave Broom

At the opposite end of the scale you have the whisky fraternity. In the whisky world, as we’ve been seeing on the excellent WhiskyCast.com, grooming should be casual: rumpled shirt, beard and/or ponytail is de rigueur. Backgrounds should betoken conviviality, even excess. American commentators like to present in front of a solid wall of bottles, but it should be clear that’s their sitting room, not the local bar. Your background should, it seems, demonstrate a hearty, healthy, outdoor life. Veteran critic Dave Broom, luxuriantly bearded, sports a fine rack of antlers – above his mantelpiece, that is, not on his head.

Tom Harrow
Tom Harrow

In wine, especially in the UK, nothing says “heritage” better than a fine mantelpiece. Will Lyons of the Sunday Times has one, covered in bottles (shorthand for “my cellar is overflowing”); Tom Harrow of Honest Grapes sits in front of his mantelpiece in a leather armchair, in a nice warm pullover, with blanket to hand in case it turns chilly. It’s a scene exaggerated in its Englishness, which is exactly the effect he’s aiming for.

Joe Fattorini
Joe Fattorini

The trick, as always, is to make your guests feel at home. Dress casual but wholesome (men, unless in whisky, should shave). Choose a room that has some character (though not too much – we don’t want to see a rumpled bed, or indeed any bed at all). Finally, do for heaven’s sake be careful with the kind of off-the-peg backgrounds that my colleague Joe Fattorini favours. “There was one broadcast,” he emailed me, “where my head was nestled on Dominic West’s naked tummy. I’ve been asked not to do that again.”

Alas, I don’t think he will. All these rough edges will be polished until they shine as bright as Thompson’s tweeds. The world of DIY home broadcasts is going to be just one of the many things we remember as part of the weird and (sometimes) wonderful lockdown world.

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