An enforced break from trade tastings has given us all time to reflect on what’s good and bad about these industry rituals. Does that mean the future is digital? Not entirely, says David Williams
The emotional consequences of returning to a relatively normal daily life after 18 months of restrictions and existential dread are, I think we’d all agree, somewhat unpredictable.
I can’t say I enjoyed my first ride on a packed London tube (freaked out might be a better way of putting it), but, to my surprise, I barely noticed the first time I was served by a mask-less shop assistant (my wife pointed it out after we’d left the shop), and my first visits to the local library and gallery felt immediately like I’d never been away.
Clearly, it’s going to take time, and patience, plus plentiful supplies of mutual tolerance and respect, to get the hang of post-pandemic life (even using that term with something resembling confidence makes me feel a little dizzy and glib).
No doubt, we’ll all have different responses at different times. Some of us will swing back into our pre-pandemic lives with barely a second thought. Others may well wonder if there aren’t some aspects of the past year and a half that might be worth conserving or that, at the very least, pose a few questions about our previous assumptions and priorities.
This is, of course, true of the specific ways we go about our business in the wine trade as much as any other part of our lives. Many of the things we used to take for granted have been proved to be rather less indispensible than we thought. Some of the temporary solutions found, in extremis, during Covid, have proved to be more efficient, if not necessarily more enjoyable, than the things they replaced.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of the large-scale trade tasting. Like many readers of this magazine, I used to devote an enormous amount of time to attending these events: whole days – whole weeks in the spring and autumn tasting high season – spent navigating interchangeable circuits of white tablecloth-topped trestle tables, waist-high communal spittoons, and winemaker sales spiels.
I did it because I thought it was the best way to discover new wines and vintages and to assess the current state of play in a region, country, supplier or retailer, while picking up news and gossip and – let’s be honest here – meeting up with friends and acquaintances.
But the abrupt cessation of pretty much all public tasting activity in spring 2020 gave me plenty of time to consider the value of these events: a cold-eyed, cold-turkey assessment of their place in the (or at least, my) wine world that can be boiled down to the simple question: do we really need them?
For so many winemakers, it’s so much more efficient to host an event online than take a trip to the other side of the world
It’s a question brought into sharp relief by a quick scan of the WSTA Trade Diary for September and October, which is in full back-to-school mode, with two, three or four events each day.
And I’m sure I’m not the only wine professional to admit to mixed feelings as I imagine the effects that those weeks will have on my life: all the trains and tubes taken, all the hours of “real paying work” lost (at the desk in my case, in the shop for many readers), all the queasiness at however many expectorations-per-minute in a room filled with 100 or more tasters.
Beyond such personal concerns, however, there’s debate about the merits of doing your tasting in public versus the Covid-era necessity of doing it at home or in the shop.
On the positive side of the ledger: for sheer range of choice, and number of wines tasted, the old trade tasting model wins hands down. There are thousands of samples to choose from at the larger trade tastings. Multiply that by, say, two a day for four days and you’re looking at a logistical impossibility to replicate at home or in even the largest shop.
On the other hand, most of us just taste better – more attentively, but also more naturally – when we’re away from the bustle and distraction of a busy tasting.
Certainly, my own experience of tasting during the past 18 months has been of a narrower pool of wines, but a much deeper engagement with the wines in that pool. I may only taste on average 25 wines a day at home, rather than the 100+ that I would “in the field”. But I would really get to know those wines, spending time with them, and even drinking the best examples with dinner.
This way of tasting is much closer to the experience that people outside the trade (ie 99.999% of all wine consumers) have of wine – it gives a much “truer” picture of a wine’s merits than the snapshot judgement of the mass tasting.
As for the social element, well, I’ve probably spent more time listening to winemakers chatting over Zoom in the past year than I would have done at trade tastings. More than merely plugging a gap, they’ve offered a lifeline for journalists like me looking for stories, or for producers in need of something resembling face-to-face contact.
Indeed, it seems certain that at least some tastings will remain online even as international travel properly resumes. For so many small winemakers, particularly those in the southern hemisphere, it’s so much more efficient to host an event online than take an expensive and tiring trip to the other side of the world. And for retailers who simply can’t find the time to leave their shops for a day, “meeting” a producer or supplier online is a very effective, efficient alternative.
But for all that online tastings can compete with IRL tastings for sheer volume of human interactions, they just can’t compete on quality. As an experience, they’ll never match the real human thing.
And of course, it is this “real human thing” that, more than anything, will be driving me and others back to tastings this autumn.
We’ll go with a new sense of perspective, fully aware that they represent an imperfect way of going about our business. And no doubt we’ll be a little wary at first. But we’ll also go with the understanding, sharpened to a fine point during months of isolation, that wine without people just isn’t the same.