Pivoting to Virtual Wine Tastings

After a month or so in quarantine, Happy Hours have new meaning.

I must confess that I’m very late to write this article because, for many weeks, I thought it seemed frivolous and inappropriate to write about wine in any meaningful way while so many people are suffering in innumerable ways, whether directly affected by the Coronavirus or the fallout reaching into every corner of society. While I’m fortunate to say that my family — nuclear & extended — thus far have remained healthy, I have friends who’ve lost loved ones, so I’ve been wary of setting the right tone.  

Admittedly, my day-to-day work in normal times is pretty joyful. I have, to my own and my family’s utter mystification, successfully married my passions with my vocation, an ever-evolving journey from journalist, to sommelier, to teacher, to speaker, to entertainer. I won’t bore you with the quotidian existential crises that arise from the constant “hustle,” because what I’m hustling is worth the joy it brings me. From what I’m told by many of those who connect with me, I am at my happiest standing in front of a room full of people who want to taste wine with me; placemats in front of each of them set with upwards of a dozen half-filled glasses, arranged just so. I jokingly describe myself as a “serial connector.” I feed on the energy of a crowd, and it fuels me in ways that are hard to describe, but “alchemy” might be one word that fits.

“I am at my happiest standing in front of a room full of people who want to taste wine with me …”

While I always have pages and pages of notes that I prepare in advance, all methodically written on 8.5 by 11-inch paper, divided and torn vertically by hand, I only glance down to look at them as a reflex. I already know what I want to and need to say, but depending on the mood and the feel of the crowd, I let storytelling get me to the points I must make. It may sound completely unorthodox (or crazy) and it is, but I can say with certainty that I have never repeated a seminar the same way twice. Even if the wines and the discussion is a duplicate seminar that took place a day, week, or year before, I will deliver what needs to be delivered — the message — but how I get there, I cannot plan – ever. It all depends on how that energy I’m pulling from the crowd moves through me.  

All to say, of course, that I’ve been grounded and feeling like a caged social animal. I’m dying to connect with those outside of my home. I’ve been volunteering to deliver groceries to elderly neighbors, but without testing, am fearful of endangering my family every time I leave my home. My wife, Toni, sensing all of my anxiety, encouraged me to test out virtual wine tastings using Zoom as a means of connecting. At first, I was apprehensive, but then, about five weeks ago, a colleague who owns an event planning agency, David Landgraf, of Make it Happen!, asked me if I’d host a tasting for a large group of New York-area corporate event planners. Given how I was feeling about appearances of frivolity, I suggested we call it a toast to our health, and rather than ask guests to buy wine, to use what they had in their homes, preferably something sparkling, so that I could explain the misconceptions between Champagne, Crémant, Cava and Prosecco. More than 80 people signed up, bubbles in hand, and it turned out really nicely.

So nicely, in fact, many of the guests requested we do it again two weeks later, but this time with wine. I connected with my friend Dustin Wilson, MW, who owns Verve Wine in New York City and San Francisco, to work out delivery and shipping. While there have been some shipping issues here and there (not to mention the utter ridiculousness of inter-state wine shipping bickering between, for example: New York, Illinois, and Texas), but it’s working. I’m suddenly getting requests from friends and clients far and wide; some to benefit local charities, others just to connect people who, like me, are craving connection.  

I’ve also begun testing out Instagram Live to host wine tastings, and a weekly podcast on Sundays at 5pm ET/2pm PT with my buddy and winemaker Josh Phelps called, “Sunday Sauce.” This has led to wineries asking if I could host IG Live tastings sponsored by them with their wines. It’s fascinating how it’s all been unfolding and evolving. Sure, I’m still feeling a bit uneasy about, well, everything. But, this is helping me and, from the feedback I’m getting, others too in surprising ways. I am grateful.