“What is the grape used to make Sancerre rosé? Does anyone know?” beverage director Ryan Totman asked his screen. Instructing a “Tour de France” online wine class hosted by Corkbuzz, a small empire of education-focused wine bars in New York and North Carolina, Totman was quizzing his virtual audience on the grapes of the Loire. A couple of Thursdays ago, 12 of us had logged into a Zoom meeting to learn about French wine for an hour. A young couple sat on their living room couch, a bottle of something white open on their coffee table. A middle-aged woman with headphones sipped from a glass of red wine. An older couple pressed their faces close to the camera. And then there was me, in Haleiwa, Hawai‘i, at 12:30 p.m. HST, listening in, drinking water. Notifications started popping up in the chat window: “Pinot noir.” “Pinot noir.” “Pinot Noir.” Totman confirmed our correct guesses, and moved on to describing Anjou blanc.
Corkbuzz’s virtual series is one of a raft of new online classes, webinars, Instagram Live interviews and Zoom chats—ranging from 101 seminars to Master Sommelier blind tastings—that have sprung up in these pandemic-induced strange housebound months. With a few exceptions (Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, notably), online wine education has been a hard sell—who wants to watch someone else taste wine? That people are tuning in now suggests there may be a real volume of interest, but is this a temporary phenomenon of captive audiences looking to quell boredom, or a sustainable new platform for wine education?
Over the course of an hour, as Totman bounced from region to region providing 101-style factoids, I found myself wondering about the other participants. What were they hoping to get out of it? Did they talk about wine when they weren’t in a class? What else did they do with their time?
These questions were of interest to me not only because it’s genuinely nice to see people outside of my immediate family, but also because I’ve been living on the virtual side of the wine world for a while. Seven years ago I left New York, where I had worked as an editor of a wine magazine for close to a decade, and moved home to a rural beach town in Hawai‘i, where I was born and raised. Here, my IRL conversations tend toward swells and currents, tourist traffic, my two small kids. This isn’t to say there aren’t wine people around, but out here the beach is our common language. And so far I’ve kept myself up to date mining a patchwork of trends, online wine lists, social media, podcasts, solid retail shipping and newsletters.
But over the past three months, it’s felt as if everyone suddenly joined my once-isolated orbit. And while I’m gutted at the reason, I’m glad for the company.
The notifications and pings to join classes started early in COVID-19 lockdown, and the wealth of choices has been astonishing. In the last several weeks alone, I’ve seen announcements for a conversation with longtime Ridge winemaker Paul Draper sponsored by the California Wine Institute, an Instagram Live with Hope Well Wine’s Mimi Casteel and sommelier-winemaker Raj Parr, free classes with sommeliers at 67 Pall Mall, “boot camp” with New York wine bar Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels and an array of classes from the nascent virtual wine education platform Bespoke Social Club. Classes can run anywhere from $10 to $120, and some include tasting vials or bottles shipped directly, while others recommend bottles to buy.
In finding a new revenue stream, these businesses have not only forged an economic lifeline during the shutdown, but they’ve also built and strengthened the communities they serve. “It’s a great way to connect with people we already have met, as well as new guests who we hope to meet in person once the bar reopens,” says Sarah Stafford, events and communications manager at Manhattan’s Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, about the people who sign up for their new slate of online classes. “You can tell a lot of people missed this sort of social connection.”
This isn’t to say that the format is perfect; there are still logistical hurdles to virtual wine education. Shipping wine can be cost-prohibitive; instructors can’t always intuit when audiences might be confused or have questions; joining classes outside of one’s time zone can be tricky (tasting wine at 7 a.m. my time isn’t ideal); and the critical element of live interaction renders streaming a recorded class less fun.
The question remains, though: Will these online classes continue when business starts back up? Stafford says that given the unknown variables, it’s too soon to tell. “My best guess is that we may offer them on a case-by-case basis for private groups, but ultimately, I’d love to resume running an in-person wine bar with in-real-life events where guests can interact safely with each other and the instructor in person,” she says. Selfishly, for those of us half a world removed, I hope virtual wine education continues to evolve.