Lockdown I was the surprise hit of Summer 2020. It was of course followed up by Lockdowns II and III; arguably the worst sequels since The Matrix debacle. Suddenly, wine tastings came to a halt. It was uncertain that wine merchants themselves would be able to open for physical trade, instead having to rely on the mysterious internet. Over night, wine merchants across the country not only had to find new ways of interacting with their customers, but of being able to continue the experience of tasting wine in some kind of communal, shared environment.
ENTER STAGE RIGHT: Zoom
ENTER STAGE LEFT: Instagram Live
Both of these platforms offered merchants, producers, importers, total chancers…the opportunity to put themselves in front of a customer base in an attempt to inform, educate, and entertain, in the way they had been doing physically since forever. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of live tastings and the difference they make to the success of a wine merchant. In my experiences of opening a sine shop in Oxford from scratch, a huge amount of our success was down to the frequency of live tasting events. These events facilitate the building of rapport and relationships, they are perfect spaces to educate (overtly of otherwise), but primarily provide a wonderful environment for shared experience. Which is what wine should be about, at least partly.
But pulling off a virtual tasting takes a little more than the physical event. Logistics become more complex with added variables outside of the merchant’s control. And switching on a camera can trip up even the most experienced presenter. What I’m trying to say is, it’s not easy. However, I think I have found the people who are not only comfortably occupying this virtual tasting space, but taking it to an entirely new level.
CMS & WSET trained sommelier Jamie Smith and Cambridge educated engineer turned Plumpton trained winemaker Alex Taylor (often known as ‘The Other Alex Taylor, lest he be confused with the other Alex Taylor…Alex Taylorception) started their business Tring Winery in March 2020. Great timing. The model was a wine shop, small winery, and education space. Alex would source fruit at harvest from around Europe and make some wine, while Jamie would run WSET courses and private tastings, all while between them they’d run the wine shop element. A great model. I was there for their inaugural tasting. A fantastic event which had sold out the maximum 40 tickets, I reiterate, this was their first event. It was an evening of Argentine wines from Karim Mussi. On this hugely successful evening, we partly joked about what Covid would mean for us all. Only a few days later, the shop had to close.
As Jamie said last night “It was either go bankrupt or try to find new ways of doing things.” Like most merchants at the time, Alex and Jamie created tasting packs of wine, which would be posted out with a Zoom link. Decanting wine into small bottles is not only time consuming, it’s not the best way to guarantee quality. Filling the bottle and jetting in some argon to displace oxygen is hardly a certain way to preserve a wine for tasting. They were convinced there must be a better way, so they set about trying to find it.
This is where Part I of their innovation lies. After much research they have created a system where wine can be decanted from bottle, under inert gas, go through a hermetically sealed system, and be funnelled into a small pouch. Yes, a bit like a ketchup sachet. But infinitely nicer and more interesting. The technology to do this only existed for, yep, ketchup sachets. It didn’t exist for wine. Working with the people who make this machines (in China) Alex was able to create a machine that could do this very thing. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Imagine everything that could go wrong with this process: failed deliveries, missing forklift trucks, damaged machinery…it all happened. It seems the delivery of their equipment from China was handled by Frank Spencer.
They eventually got the piece of tech in place and ramped up their new project, The Online Wine Tasting Club. These pouches, and their outer packaging, are 100% recyclable. They’re smart, the contain a decent serving of wine (75ml), and they capture the very zeitgeisty ‘unboxing’ phenomena. From the moment the letterbox sized parcel arrives, the whole experience becomes interactive and engaging. Each box contains some relevant information on the wines within, as well as a link to the live show…
Live show? What? This is the second part of their innovation, and to me, the most exciting. The repackaging of the wine, and the packaging itself should be innovation enough. It would be very easy to just do what everyone else is doing, head to zoom, present for an hour and a half and call it a day. But that wasn’t enough for Jamie and Alex; they wanted to create an entirely new viewing experience. They set up…a studio. Mixing desks, recording equipment, things with buttons, microphones…the whole smash. To accompany your tasting kit, Alex and Jamie host a live wine show. Initially streamed through Zoom, it has now moved to streaming through YouTube.
How best to describe this show? It’s like a cross between This Morning and Top Gear. No, that’s a terrible analogy. Partly because both of those shows are shit. Imagine the magazine feel of This Morning; a mixture of live broadcast, pre recorded VTs, covering various different topics…and then mix in the irreverence and sense of fun that Top Gear achieved. As much as I personally dislike said program, it got people who didn’t care about cars, watching a program about cars. But it wasn’t really about cars was it? It was about the presenters having fun with each other and the subject. This is what The Online Wine Club’s live show does. Alex and Jamie are clearly having a blast. And watching people have fun at what they do is part of the fun of watching people do what they do well. Yeah. That makes sense to me anyway.
Where this show really works is its live, interactive nature. The presenters see comments coming in in real time, and can share their viewers thoughts, read out tasting notes, and answer questions. This show is anything but pretentious. Much as is my own view, they both believe that wine should be fun, accessible, and that there’s no room for snobbery. But they by no means dumb things down either. Alex regularly talks about chip budding. They’ve covered some cool, fairly technical winemaking stuff…but it’s all light hearted, fun, self effacing…and importantly, great viewing. The show incorporates winemaker interviews, a roundup of interesting wine news, and there’s usually a musical escapade.
Last night I was absolutely thrilled to be a guest host on this show. I cannot tell you how much fun the whole experience was. Jamie and Alex were completely relaxed and made me feel incredibly welcome, like I belonged. Although we couldn’t see the audience, and their interactions were entirely in written format, it felt like we were in a room full of people. The audience clearly buy into the format, and obviously enjoy it. There were plenty of questions, interesting tasting notes, some gentle ribbing about our sartorial choices. This show takes the very best elements of hosting a live tasting to real people (in the old analogue world before Covid) and makes them thrive in the virtual space. It achieves a level of interaction that simply isn’t possible with pre recorded TV.
Just this week Jamie was announced as the winner of the IWSC’s Emerging Talent Award. It was a strong shortlist but her came out on top. It’s well deserved. Other people have found ways of packaging wine into small samples for delivery. Other people have developed various forms of live content. But no one has developed the quality of packaging, and delivery of content in the way Jamie and Alex have.
Check out their website here; they have a multitude of fascinating shows and tastings coming up. They also offer two different formats, one a little bit more technical than the other. If you can’t watch live, the content exists on the internet to watch on catchup. This feels like the innovation wine needs to help reach a new, or at least wider, audience.
Huge thanks to Jamie and Alex for inviting me to be a guest last night. It really is the most fun I’ve had in wine in a very long time. Alex and I concluded last night’s show with a reworked Oasis song…Drink Forever. Here it is…
Remember: it’s just grapes
Link to last night’s show covering Chile: