Virtual tastings are rebuilding the landscape of the wine industry

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Had you asked me last year if my calendar would be packed with wine tastings done via video call, I would have shuddered.

Amidst peak lockdown, a number of colleagues and friends inquired as to whether I was jumping on the Zoom bandwagon. The thought elicited disgust and whatever resting bitch face is when not resting.

The thing is, whenever something is trending, I tend to do the opposite. I liken it to an impulse embedded in my DNA from my Mother. When renovating their kitchen a few years ago, she didn't want stainless steel appliances because, "everyone else has them" (coupled with an unexplained aversion for ice makers). What she inevitably discovered is that stainless steel is the best option - which her kitchen now houses. Such was the reality in accepting my fate with virtual tastings.

Must to my opposition of transitioning my business virtual, a dear friend approached me and asked if I would host one for a client of hers. I didn't have a Zoom account and wasn't sure logistically how it would work - so naturally I said yes.

It's a bit weird talking to yourself on a screen (seriously people, turn your cameras on). But once participants throw back a few glasses - it can actually be a lot of fun, and many of the tastings I've hosted run over time, turning into what feels like a crew of old friends hanging out.

Naturally, I assumed this would be a temporary solution to a dumpster fire of a year. However, myself and numerous colleagues now foresee this becoming a fixture in day to day life. I've hosted tastings for companies with staff scattered coast to coast, or for friends celebrating a birthday who can't be together - it's a great way to stay connected, even once we can safely gather again.

Kari Macknight Dearborn, owner and operator of import agency Drink Better agrees, "I have clients who want to do these on an on going basis. The direct to consumer market is massive - there are millions of people not being reached outside of Toronto. They are begging for this stuff. A lot of agents claim it's too much work - they've had to make zero effort selling (before Covid) and have this notion they don't have to shift their thinking. These people are going to get left in the dust. People in the trade create a snobbery that even those victimized by it perpetuate. The idea that we shouldn't shift our thinking is arrogant."

It's a privilege to expose people - who delight in excited surprise - at the styles of wine emerging from places they didn't know produced wine like Vancouver Island or Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Ironically, it's helped to bridge the gap in the Canadian wine industry more successfully than I could have achieved doing in person.

Virtual tastings have transformed the landscape - expanding the possibility to teach and share in new ways, reaching eager consumers more than ever.

A few tips should you be looking to host your own:

Verse yourself on the platforms available

While there are plentiful options for video chats out there, here are a few suggestions:

Zoom - host up to 100 participants for free, 45 minute cap

Google Hangout - host up to 10 participants for free, no cap

Skype - host up to 50 participants for free, no cap

Webex - host up to 100 participants for free, 50 minute cap

Advice on food pairings

While the thought of including food pairings is a fun idea - sharing dinner virtually with your friend in Vancouver sounds cool right? It can be a bit of a logistical nightmare with timing when the food will arrive or requesting re-heating instructions - your best bet is to keep it simple and do food pairings with non perishables like potato chips, cured meats, cheese, nuts or tinned fish. (marinated octopus, anyone?)

Find out who will ship direct

While most wineries ship nationally - certain limitations do exist (some wineries in Ontario and Quebec won't). Working with agents or wine boutiques locally, like Sips Toronto, will expand your options if tasting international wines are more your speed.

Sips sommelier, Heather McDougall attests to this, "Call me old fashioned, and you still probably can, but I have only recently come to enjoy how the internet has helped me share my love of wine. I had always tied my idea of hospitality to a bricks and mortar location, and now I don't have to. I still operate in a guest focused and service oriented way, but now do it online. Give me a date, a budget and shipping addresses and I take care of the rest."

Maja Roy, a wine educator based out of Tennessee concurs, "I would say the most successful tastings were those where I picked the wine ahead of time, and they pick it up at the wine store or got wine delivered to their homes. This way everyone had wines in front of them and we were able to interact and chat and discuss things."

Hire someone to take care of the logistics for you

Many wine professionals will attest what they bring to the table beyond expertise, is access. We're offering a glimpse into our world, and providing you an inside peek into the relationships and friendships we have with winemakers. Look to a local agent, wine educator or consultant who will curate the wine packs, cover fulfilment and shipping, and host the entire event for you. The price might surprise you.

The winery will probably want to join

Small, family owned wineries have been hit hard this year. What better way to support them than featuring their wine, and inviting them to join your event.


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