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May 22, 2020

Post Covid-19. A new trend emerging in wine tasting?

A wine business owner’s perspective.

“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.” -President Theodore Roosevelt

For many of us, there is no gratifications simply watching the stars; we want to reach for them and that requires some form of levitation even though we are born without wings. No, we did not keep our feet on the ground for very long.

What does it take to reach for the “stars” in an extremely-competitive business like wine retailing then?
. Get the wines listed on dinner menu in major hotels, restaurants and airlines?
. Get a few wine retailer- of- the -year awards?
. Have a nice shopfront and the most expensive and hard-to-get wine list in the country?
. Collaborate with Michelin- starred restaurants if the affiliated restaurant has not attained any star yet?

And what else?
Yes, cold-hard cash, lots of it. You need that to get started and to reach your intermediate goals.
You will need the rest of it during a crisis, you will soon find out.

But credit to yourself, you also need a good strategy for it to work. Now use your connections and play
the chess piece right and it will soon pan out. Banks will soon be impressed by your fame, numbers and projections; they will start knocking on your door.
With a bigger coffer comes bigger things.

“If you aim high enough, it is hard to fail completely.” -Larry Page

Sure.
But then came the Covid-19 pandemic. This is not part of the plan.
In fact, it is off the scale in any contingency plan.

It is like a meteorite that struck earth in what was to be a defining year, the year of the Tokyo Olympic, 2020. A situation serious enough for the Games to be postponed for the first time in its history.

Larry Page may be right when he made the above- mentioned statement as far as he himself is concerned. But for yourself, ask:

“Are you satisfied with the part that did not fail?”

For some, what is left for salvaging can be quite ignominious. Depending on what and how much is leveraged, powerhouses in other industry collapsed one after another during this period.
It is not over yet at the time of writing.

For the F&B business, it has been tough from the get-go.
High rental, keen competition and manpower crunch sap your energy from the very beginning. But you have overcome some of that with a good HR department and profit-sharing system with the building owner, haven’t you?

Flushed with cash from your backers, there is only time for business expansion.
More restaurants and outlets opening, wine workshops, roadshows and a few PR stunts in the form of charity are already in the pipeline. What can go wrong?

Let’s make some senses out of it.
Restaurants, retail shops, wine schools, etc can only thrive with droves of people coming and interacting with each other. They ring the cash register. It’s surreal but out of a sudden people are cut off from each other physically because of a lockdown.

The affiliations are gone in a matter of days.

Left with the internet for social interactions, we begin to ask and answer our own questions:

Does a takeaway taste differently from one that is eaten in-house?
Well, it can be quite subjective. Like it or not, Michelin- starred restaurant food will be a
standard feature in takeaways. It will be a fraction of the dine-in cost.

Does it make any sense to pay so much more to go to a wine
school while all the classes are conducted online now?
It’s a no brainer.

Does it make any sense to pay for a virtual tasting and vineyard tour?
We use google map and YouTube all the time while sipping wine made by the winery.
With or without the pandemic, it’s free. Well, not the wine.

“The only thing that is constant is change.” Yes, you heard it before.

“Eventually, we will emerge but to a whole new world.” You heard that before too.
Wine exhibitions, wine tastings, wine classes, wine retailing will need to evolve.

If virtual or online wine tasting is really not value for money, then “social distancing tasting”
should be the next best thing in the “newly-emerged world”.

But how to conduct a wine tasting with social distancing? Yes, it is possible.

I have always favoured what I called “isolation tasting” even before the pandemic.
It is just another synonym but what it basically means is this:

ichiran-1     ichiran-2

The famous ICHIRAN ramen cubicles in Japan. The noodle chain aims to give customers the opportunity to concentrate on tasting rather than talking. It may look like a test centre but once the eating starts, any uneasy feeling is replaced by a mix of anticipation and exhilaration. Try it and you will find that it’s a rather enjoyable experience; the taste of the broth has never been better.

If imparting knowledge is a serious business then why not give attendees the same experience in wine tasting? In such a setting, the speaker keeps his or her distance. Any verbal interaction initiated by either way should not stray beyond the 5 wines served on the table.

Each attendee gets equal attention. It is difficult to get small talks and gossips going between the speaker and the attendee or between the attendees if the room is setup in this manner.
Rambunctious activities -a near impossible.

The advantage of this type of session over an online one? All attendees attend the tasting under the same set of physical and environmental conditions. No mixed-up of wines, different glassware used, stuffy room, windy room, etc. These are conditions which will influence what you can get out of the wines. A fee for such an arrangement is more than justifiable.

Once the session ends, the attendees leave.

I will leave you to think about it but many of the physical wine classes are nothing but merry- making, business- seeking, connection- establishing, information- gathering sort of opportunities.
All vested in the name of education.

Don’t waste your time searching for any classroom- type wine course, they are all available online now and with great cost saving.

If you need a physical tasting, go for an “isolation tasting” if there is one in the future.
If you are happy with what you have tasted, press the button to get the best price; key in the bottles that you want for delivery to your house.
If you are an importer, press to indicate your interest to communicate further via social media.
All done without any pressure or hassle. Isn’t that wonderful?

Now, I am not saying that this is the way we should socialise on a daily basis.
What I am suggesting is that if you really want to concentrate on the wines and get the most out of each wine tasting session without any undue interferences e.g. a wine representative chatting you up on the side hoping for another meet up and sales, this type of tasting will help you achieve your goal.

On the other hand, if you are chatty and amiable, like making friends and hear any story under the sun in any situation then this kind of “isolation tasting” will probably be hellish for you. But just remember, if it can be Covid-19, it can be Covid-any number.
You may need to put the gregarious you on hold from time to time.

Will we ever get to see what I hope to see?

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.
They must be felt with the heart.”
– Helen Keller

Well, the best and most effective way isn’t always the most beautiful way. But it sure takes a good heart to give this choice to all the passionate wine lovers.

The author, Benny Chia is a Certified Specialist of Wine & Spirits (CSW, CSS), Society of Wine Educators(USA). He also holds a M.Sc. in Biochemical Engineering from University College London, UK.

All views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity.