The Buyer
How should physical wine tastings be run post-Covid?

How should physical wine tastings be run post-Covid?

Personal spittoons and personal sommeliers… it’s the return of physical wine tastings. Fifteen months on from attending a physical wine tasting, journalist and winemaker Chris Wilson headed to London for not one but two physical tastings – the Georgian wine trade tasting and the Wines From Spain annual tasting. Both events were run on entirely different models –a walkaround style close to ‘old school’ wine tastings and a sit-down style where personal sommeliers serve you. So what were the key benefits and disadvantages of both models?

Chris Wilson
30th July 2021by Chris Wilson
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

“Both events offered workable ways of hosting safe and enjoyable wine tastings and with September not far away I think we can expect to see a busy month of tastings and events using these formats and others,” Wilson writes.

Lovers of mid-90s indie music will know about The Seahorses, the band John Squire formed following his split from The Stone Roses. They had one huge hit, the banging Love Is The Law, a towering guitar heavy pop song with earworm lyrics and an irresistible riff.

Its follow-up Blinded By The Sun was Britpop fodder by comparison, but it’s this song I’m reminded of on 22nd June as I stand at Cambridge station waiting for the 08:42 to London Kings Cross. As I look up and down the platform blinking into the morning sunshine the song jumps into my head and I realise that I feel like a child about to start school after a long summer break. I feel apprehensive, excited, a little scared about doing something I’ve done hundreds of times before.

This is my first trip to London since March 2020 – when I attended the Essential California wine tasting in Shoreditch – and I have not one but two physical wine tastings to attend, my first in-flesh tastings for 15 months. In this time I’ve jumped on and off the Zoom tasting bandwagon and could never really get into the mini-bottles-through-the-post model.

Give me flesh and blood any day; people to talk to, people to taste alongside, bottles to inspect, chatter, noise, maybe a water biscuit (or better) along the way, definitely a cold beer afterwards.

So it was with excitement and trepidation (related to Covid, of course, but also about returning to something so familiar that felt almost alien after such a long hiatus) that I signed up to two tastings on the same day, hoping to take away different things… and I did, they were chalk and cheese, but both worked well in their own ways.

Georgian Wine Trade Tasting

First up was the Georgian Wine Trade Tasting at Trivet Restaurant in Bermondsey. On paper one of the most interesting tastings around regardless of context and it turned out to be so. To manage numbers, organisers split the day into two tasting sessions – morning and afternoon – and on arrival each attendee (and it was a good split between journalists, sommeliers and buyers) was directed towards a table where personal spittoons, booklets and glassware could be collected.

The rules were simple; discard full spittoons in the large bins, keep hold of your glass and be mindful of other people’s personal space. The tasting itself took place across two rooms – in Room 1 importers and agents poured the wines and offered invaluable detail about the wines of this fascinating country, while Room 2 was a ‘free pour’ room with tables full of bottles from producers seeking UK representation.

I didn’t expect to find a free pour element but everyone was respectful of the space and there seemed little reticence to handle bottles which had been handled by others. All worked very smoothly and the numbers were managed nicely so it didn’t feel busy but it was busy enough that there was an irresistible buzz in the room and the opportunity to catch up with trade colleagues and chat (at times for length) with exhibitors.

The hardest thing was working out how to navigate the room with three things in two hands; spittoon, booklet (plus pencil) and glass. It was an awkward juggling act at times fraught with jeopardy as no-one wants to drop their spittoon all over the floor. Thankfully exhibitors were understanding and made space on their tables for the extra paraphernalia.

The icing on the cake was the offer of lunch on the outside tables when the tasting session had finished; a further opportunity to catch-up and dissect the tasting, and also to experience some of Trivet’s fine food.

Key takeaways: Well planned, lots of space, free pour element made things even more relaxed, personal spittoons can be tricky to carry around, nice touch with lunch, Georgian wine producers love wax closures.

Wines From Spain Annual Tasting 2021

A long and enjoyably quiet stroll alongside The Thames took me to Westminster for the second tasting of the day, the Wines From Spain event at One Great George Street in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament.

This was a completely different format: Bookable sessions in the grand upstairs room where participants had their own tables complete with booklet, spittoon, water and – crucially – QR codes. Via an app and using QR codes and/or searchable producer/wine names from the booklet we could ‘order’ four wines at a time to be delivered to the table and poured in front of our very eyes.

Overall the format worked well and it was possible to taste through wines quickly and without the hassle of waiting for somebody else to finish at the importer’s table before muscling in. It lacked the energy and fizz of the Georgia event, however, and felt more like judging than tasting. The room was pretty silent and everything a little sterile (I appreciate that may well be the point!) at times.

That said there’s a lot to be said for having the power at your fingertips to plan and organise which wines to taste side-by-side from a hefty collection in the book. It made things quick and removed the part of every tasting where you waste time tasting wines of little interest foisted upon you by a winemaker/importer just to be polite.

Key takeaways: Slick and efficient, could be very precise about what you tasted, nice to have that personal ‘sommelier’ service, felt a little sterile, less opportunity to go off piste, interesting selection of wines, great venue, Txakoli rocks.

And so what are the conclusions?

It was great to just get out and taste. Having missed in so many ways attending wine tastings, formerly my bread and butter, it was a joy to be reunited with catalogues of wines to taste and to rub shoulders with fellow members of the wine trade again.

Both events offered workable ways of hosting safe and enjoyable wine tastings and with September not far away I think we can expect to see a busy month of tastings and events using these formats and others.

On balance the Georgia tasting was the winner for me – but that’s largely because it was more familiar, closer to past tastings than the Spanish format. I must say though that having bottles brought to the table and poured for you after a long day of tasting has its merits too.

With both formats, behaviours had to be relearned and I expect the trade to adapt quickly and easily to a future challenges as tastings and events open up again this autumn. Bring it on.

Aside from his writing, Chris Wilson is making wine at his Gutter & Stars winery in Cambridge.