Over the pandemic, things have improved considerably in the area of online tastings. (photo by Giuseppe Lombardo)

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon with a great French winemaker and a few friends around a tasting table with a full complement of stemware and a number of vintages. Together we worked our way from the 1982 to the current 2019 releases for his domaine. There was just one catch: he was at his chateau in Bordeaux and, well, we were most decidedly not.

Thanks to numerous miracles of modern technology (and overnight shipping), we spent two hours on a Zoom call with the venerable Bruno-Eugène Borie, even tasting barrel samples of his family’s 2019 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou. We had all received the 1982 and 2019s by mail and those who were so inclined were invited to pull the 1996, 2005, or 2008 vintages from their cellars for our discussion of aging and the house style.

The video call, organized in the U.S. by the wine appreciation society Commanderie de Bordeaux and Grand Conseil du vin de Bordeaux, connected 80 or so sites together.

The samples arrived directly from France in high tech glass test tubes or flacons containing about 3 oz or 100 ml of the wine. The glass containers were filled and capped “under nitrogen” according to Monsieur Borie, then labeled and carefully packaged for international shipping.

The professional Zoom Tasting as a phenomenon was slightly preceded during quarantine by the Zoom Happy Hour, where social friends would use the video call service to gather for “afterwork” drinks. Once wine lovers discovered they could learn about wines with like-minded friends, wineries got involved, taking sophisticated approaches to these online opportunities by including videos, display graphics for screen sharing, and even drone or handheld phone vineyard tours. 

Buffalo Trace is among many spirits brands getting in on the act as well.

These days, extroverted wine lovers can book their schedules with as many events as their livers can stand. And with wine travel at a near stand-still, video tasting appointments for would-be visitors have become “must-see TV.”  Wine and food organizations like the Chaine des Rotisseurs arrange regular large group tastings for members with producers and other professionals, and wine educators are now conducting tasting groups of wine lovers scattered across the US. The Educated Grape has a fun group that meets weekly for a virtual meal and wine discussion.

Groups can work in a number of ways. Some winemakers send a list of wines for attendees to purchase in advance while others will ship a package of tasting bottles for a fixed price. Still others ship samples around the world using any number of elegant systems from glass bottles to more sustainable options.

For wine producers, Zoom tastings have become an effective way to reach critics and customers, in large groups and small, international or domestic. Whether the call is day or evening, formal or informal, the common denominator (and, to my mind, an upside) is tasting the wine from the comfort of your dining room table or living room sofa. With a small enough group, the experience can feel a little like a normal wine tasting appointment without the luggage carousel and airline peanuts.

It’s not a perfect solution, but maybe it can hold us over, keeping our love of wine going and connecting us to friends.  Or, as a friend of mine from college who’s a wine educator in Napa recently noted: “I’m finally putting my broadcast degree to work.“