Wine education during lockdown

While the world is evolving towards a complete lockdown due to the Covid-19 virus, people are looking for ways to continue working and having social contacts. Online tools for webinars and videocalls are flourishing and some people are very creative in finding solutions to reach out to other people. But how do you do that in the case of wine classes? Wine education is still very much based on tasting wine together and discussing it. Is it possible to learn about wine without actually tasting it?  Can you imagine how a wine smells and tastes just from the description of it?

Those questions became very real to me after I had accepted to do a temporary replacement at a school for adults, teaching about wine. The timing hardly could have been worse : after my first week, during which I taught two wine classes, the government decided to close down schools as part of the measures to fight the spread of Covid-19. Right! Very unfortunate, I thought, but not much that could be done about that. Until I started seeing how people were organising themselves to do webinars, have online discussions, do video calls and what not. Adam Knoerzer of Burghundy.com is one of those fast movers to have started with online wine classes. Being a certified sommelier based in Pittsburgh, USA, he already gave traditional wine classes. With plans to give online classes already in the back of his mind, however, things sped up considerably with the break out of the corona virus.

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Seeing how many others were getting to grips fast in a very different reality, I decided to give it a try myself and get prepared to give an online class. The perfect way for me to see how things work out for people at the other end was to participate in a class myself, so I enrolled for a class by Adam on Pinotage. The online tool he uses is BlueJeans, which allows you to do video calls, but also share your screen. The latter is a very useful feature for teaching as it allows you to give a slide presentation, just as you probably would in normal circumstances. Since learning about wine still involves a theoretical part, it’s really difficult not to use a visual support, so the screen sharing feature was very useful to visualize maps, but also show pictures of landscapes, vineyards, and wineries.

Joining the session did not work out immediately. There are different ways to join a session : through the app, via the browser or via phone. My attempt to join via the app failed, but I was able to join using the browser. I was pretty impressed by the quality of the sound and the video was more than sharp enough to be able to see everything clearly on the maps that Adam showed. The presentation was really smooth, and especially, not too long. While a traditional wine class can easily take several hours, Adam chose to limit his session to one hour, questions included. I thought that was a wise decision, as it forces the wine educator to focus on essentials, while not keeping people in front of their screens for too long. Listening to someone online for several hours would indeed be overkill, especially without having the actual wines in front on you. What also helped to keep things dynamic was the chat function that allowed people to type in their questions or to comment on something. There is also the option to allow people to comment using their microphone, but since there were 20 participants, things would have been pretty chaotic if everyone came in whenever they felt like it, so Adam put everyone on mute, asking people to use the chat function. And that was fine. So all in all this was a very smooth experience.

Since Adam had made things look very easy, I decided to use BlueJeans as well for my class on Champagne. I am happy, however, that I took ample time to prepare and get familiar with the tool, because things were not as easy as they looked. I tested the tool several times and ran into problems more than once with getting participants to connect.  A question I asked via the online help desk never got answered, and the help desk guy I chatted with after that came back to me with a solution more than a day after the chat. So take that into account if you spontaneously decide to set up a videocall, as you might run into issues you didn’t expect. Luckily Adam was so kind to provide me with a couple of hacks. In fact the organizer cannot see the chat when sharing the slides with the participants. You have to exit the screen sharing mode to see the chat, which is of course very annoying. One way of dealing with this is to join the session with a second device (tablet of smart phone) to monitor the chat ànd to connect headphones to that device. If you don’t do the latter, you will have terrible resonance. It seems that Zoom, a similar tool, does allow you to see the chat function while presenting slides, so you might want to experiment with different tools.

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So how did the class work out? Interestingly, of the two groups to whom I proposed doing an online class, only one was enthusiastic enough to go along with it. The other was the beginners’ class, where it is important to really sample wines together to find out about aromas and tastes. So it wasn’t a complete surprise that people preferred waiting until the normal classes resumed. Other important feedback I got was that many people already spend a whole day in front of a computer at home during lockdown, and that more of that was just not how they wanted to finish the day. And that’s completely understandable of course.

The group that decided to try it out had a class on Champagne. To make things a bit more fun and to stimulate interaction, I invited people to open a bottle of Champagne at home, either during the weekend in the run-up to the class or during the class itself. Several people happily had a glass of Champagne while I presented a short slide show. They also received a few questions in advance with things they could focus on : is it a blend? is it a non-vintage or a vintage? what’s the sweetness level? After the theoretical part I invited people who were having a glass to discuss their Champagne and to talk about the things I asked to focus on. These are of course not very dynamic discussions as it’s difficult to interact without having online chaos, but at least people could come in and share their experience. Several people also posted questions on the chat.

In general I felt people were happy with the alternative that was offered. And probably just as important : it allows to connect with other people during difficult times of confinement and social distancing. Or as Adam put it : “it’s also about creating a sense of community right now”.

So based on my experience, here’s a few tips if you plan something similar :

  • Get to know your tool! Modern technology is supposed to be easy and user-friendly, but you’re better off not taking that too much for granted. You will need time to choose your tool, get familiar with it, test it, and troubleshoot issues. In the worst case you may have to decide that the tool you chose does not deliver, and move to something else.
  • Learn from people with experience. If you’re not familiar with new technologies, you will have to invest time to get to know new tools. Companies do a good job nowadays to post videos and all kinds of manuals, guidance, FAQ, etc. But you will notice that the one thing you absolutely need to know… is not in there. So connect with people who know. Thank you, Adam, for helping me out!
  • Adapt your content to the format. In a normal wine class you can get all geeky and elaborate about all the details you can imagine. But if you’re online, you need to focus on just a few messages. No one wants to spend three hours in front of their screen listening to wine theory. Make it concise and keep it simple.
  • Create opportunities for interaction. Despite the inevitable limitations of online solutions, it is important to leave room for interaction. In a small group you can open up the floor for discussion, even though you will want to moderate the discussion (meaning unmuting people one per one) if you don’t want things to derail. In larger groups the chat function is a perfect way for people to ask questions or post comments.
  • Plan your session in function of your audience. With the technology there for you to connect with almost everyone in the world, you may get excited about all the opportunities that loom on the horizon. Just don’t forget that people on the other side of the world sleep when you’re awake (under normal circumstances). So if you want to reach another audience than the one in your own time zone, you will have to schedule carefully, or plan several sessions at different times catering for people in different places of the world.

The remaining question to all this is : will these online formats continue to exist once the dust has settled (hoping that it will, sooner rather than later) ? Adam definitely plans to continue the online classes and will expand his offer, adding new sessions for people in other time zones (Europe and Africa). Personally, I’m also convinced that there is a future for online wine education. I do think, however, that subjects that target a more “advanced” audience will be more successful as beginner classes require more interaction and of course more tasting together. But I might be wrong. The least that can be said is that despite the human tragedy of Covid-19, the circumstances oblige us to change our ways. It will be very interesting to see how much of all this will stay with us in the future.

 

 

Experimenting with the blind tasting order

If you have organized a blind tasting before, chances are high that you will have prepared wines from white to rosé ro red, and from light to heavy. To start with white before red makes perfect sense of course. Although you might come across wineries in Bourgogne who will present their reds before the whites, in Meursault for example. And I have experienced myself that to have a white, rosé or sparkling wine after a series of reds can be nice and useful to “cleanse” your palate, especially if the reds are quite powerful and tannic. But in general white goes before red.

When you come to the order of the reds , things can get slightly more difficult. The basic idea is to start with light and move gradually to more powerful and structured reds. The reason for this this is pretty obvious : if you have a young, structured Bordeaux before a Burgundy, you might miss some of the nuances of the latter. Especially the build up of tannins in your mouth makes it difficult to appreciate the structure and the quality of the tannins of a lighter wine. Chewing on bread and drinking water in between wines will help, but in general you will try and build up from light to powerful.

One issue, however, that I have come across regularly in tastings, is the contrast between ripe and fresh in red wines. What do I mean with that? Let’s take the example of Burgundy again : if you follow the basic guidelines, you will want to start with the Burgundy (so a pinot noir) before you move to wines with more body/alcohol or wines with more tannins. My experience is that it works, as long as you stay in the same category of “freshness”. If you move from a Burgundy to a Loire Cabernet Franc and then to a Bordeaux, for example, that will perfectly work out. It’s more difficult when you move from a fresh, cool-climate style of wine to something riper. The last time I experienced that was when I had a glass of Valpolicella Superiore after I came home from a tasting of Loire Cabernet Franc. The Valpolicella came across as sweet, something I had not experienced when I drank that wine before. Normally I would perceive the fruit of the Valpolicella as ripe, but in balance with the acidity. When I had it after the Loire Cabernet Franc, I perceived it as sweet, round, and lacking tension. We’re talking about the same wine!

So when I had a blind tasting at my place last week with two Burgundy lovers, I decided to experiment a bit with the order. I reckoned that if I put the riper wines before the  fresher, more elegant wines, the riper wines would show well and there would not be a negative effect on the fresher wines that followed.

These are the red wines I gave :

  1. The Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2016 of Stefano Mancinelli. (in my previous blog post you can read that these are very aromatic wines, with loads of ripe fruit)
  2. The Valpolicella Superiore 2014 of Roccolo Grassi, also relatively ripe, but very nicely balanced.
  3. The Barolo Ascheri 2015 of Reverdito, a very typical Barolo with ripe red fruit, and strong tannins.
  4. The Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 of Charlopin, the most elegant in the line-up with nice strawberries, relatively ripe though for a Burgundy.

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I gave the wines in this order. And as I had hoped for, the Italian wines were appreciated at their true value and were even lauded for their freshness. My two companions being absolute Burgundy lovers, I knew it was not obvious that they would like the Italian wines, especially the Valpolicella, which was the same wine that I found sweet after a Loire Cabernet Franc. So the experiment was successful! Almost…

If I could re-do the tasting, I would probably change one thing. I would put the Barolo last instead of the Gevrey-Chambertin. You can probably guess why : the tannins. The Gevrey was ready to drink and did not have very strong tannins. The Barolo, however, had tightened up a couple of hours after opening. The wine was actually very balanced and accessible just after opening the bottle. A few hours later the tannins had become quite prominent, very much typical Barolo tannins. And that made the transition to the Gevrey less smooth than I had wished.

That goes to show that reversing the order will not always work. I would not start with a very structured Australian Shiraz to finish with a fragile Burgundy. But you can play with the order of a couple of red wines in your line-up. If both wines have a tannin level that is more or less equivalent, and one has riper fruit than the other, then try putting the riper one first. And let me now if that worked!