The wine educator: stepping into the world of virtual wine tastings

Mandy Stevens is an experienced wine educator and she uses this skill in her role as a part-time wine training manager at Enotria & Coe and also for her own business Sipologist Social, which operates wine tasting workshops around London.   

Before the coronavirus outbreak she had never conducted wine tastings virtually, preferring instead to focus on the key face-to-face “social” element of her education style, but when the lockdown measures were put in place in the UK in March she quickly realised she needed to rethink how she could continue to connect with wine enthusiasts. 

Earlier this month she set up her first Sipologist Social virtual wine tasting event and DRN caught up with her to find out what worked and what she might need to tweak for her next sessions. 

Stevens says: “My main challenge was to decide if I need to have everyone drinking the same wine. That’s what we do right? Take people through each wine and educate them about it. But I don’t feel it is “essential” to be sending out bottles of wine right now so I went with the “join in with any bottle of wine open” approach even though it was the first time I have done a tasting like this.”

Stevens decided to cap the numbers for her first event at 15 people on the assumption that some might not turn up, and she ended up with a manageable number of 11. 

Each had their own bottle of wine, which they talked through one by one at the start of the session. Stevens was then able to work through the aromas and then tastes by asking attendees what they could pick out, while also supporting each one with her own knowledge so when talking about mouthfeel she asked those with red wines if they could pick up the tannins, and then separately on the palate she was able to ask those with whites if they could identify citrus or mineral notes. By having a selection of wines it was also a good way of being able to highlight the different tastes in cool-climate versus warm-climate wines. 

She says: “It actually worked really well, except for the couple who opened a rosé, only because I suddenly had more to talk about than the time I had allocated for that part of the tasting. Another couple had a Folle Blanche, which is unusual but luckily I had come across it before. 

“I think the learnings for me from the first session are that in the future I will specify what style of wine people should bring: whites, reds, sparkling or maybe by country. 

“I also know that it wouldn’t have seemed awkward if I said to the group that I needed to look something up, and in fact I may even have had time to do so without the guests even noticing in this virtual environment.”

Stevens asked her partner to join in for the first session so that she could ask him some questions in front of her audience. 

“I wasn’t sure if the group would want to engage with me so I thought that it might work well to involve someone else, but in actual fact I think he may have felt like a bit of a spare part! As it turned out it was easy enough for me to jump back and forwards between the people in the group and the conversation flowed well. 

“I did have a list of emergency prompts and questions if needed but it wasn’t really necessary, and in fact I am ok with silences; I’m not one of those people who have to jump in with comments every second.

“However, what was interesting was that when I did bring up one of these talking points, it swung the tasting into a new direction with so much more to discuss. And without the common wine to refocus on it was like a waterfall with natural and easy interaction.” 

Stevens has made her first sessions donation-only while she spreads the word about these and while she fine-tunes the way that virtual wine tastings can work for her business, but over time she is aiming to set a charge for clients to attend. 

She said: “We are living in unprecedented times and are having to adapt our businesses accordingly to keep up – and to show our customers we are still drinking, enjoying and offering advice on wine. 

“So many people out there realise that this is the obvious platform for wine education at the moment but like many I was faced with the dilemmas of how to get the wines to people and also how to tap into that consumer demand for engagement and experiences, without it being too disconnected. 

“This is the first time I have done tastings like this but it actually worked really well!”

Her next sessions are already filling up fast with many already fully booked. A sparkling wine session scheduled for the end of April has filled up so quickly that she has added a second date to the calendar, and she is now also seeing groups of friends signing up together, including members of a hockey club who have been unable to meet socially since social distancing measures were first introduced. 

Sipologistsocial’s next virtual events can be viewed here: http://sipologistsocial.com/whats-on/

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