How critics and educators are working during coronavirus lockdown
The UK’s coronavirus lockdown measures have drastically changed the way critics, educators and authors work.
Strictly speaking, virtual tastings aren’t a new phenomenon. Last year, Scotch distillery group John Dewar & Sons hoped to attract a new audience of young consumers by hosting a live whisky tasting on Amazon with malt master Stephanie McLeod and FT drinks writer Alice Lascelles.
But what was once a quirky new venture has now become something of a lifeline for those who make their money by writing and talking about wine, beer and spirits.
As bars and restaurants are closed and people are told to stay at home, educators and critics have been forced to think on their feet to stay connected with their students and keep doing what they love.
We’ve spoken to educators and experts across the wine, beer and spirits industries to find out what they’re doing to stay in touch with their respective communities and keep busy while the UK is in a coronavirus lockdown….
Scotch tasting with World Whisky Awards judge Felipe Schrieberg
Author and World Whisky Awards judge Felipe Schrieberg is teaming up with whisky subscription club The Dram Team to deliver whisky tasting kits and host a series of interactive online events over the next few months.
The whisky writer is hosting a whopping seven tastings per week: Tuesdays through Sundays with two sessions on Saturdays.
Anyone in the UK mainland will be able to enjoy the whisky and tasting experience from the comfort of their own home as long as they can log into Zoom.
The tastings will be hosted on Zoom, with tickets and vouchers available to purchase on Designmynight.com and TimeOut. There will be 15 spots made available for each tasting session, which ensures the groups are intimate and allow attendees to ask questions without overloading the conference call.
The guests will then get a masterclass based on a selection of drams curated and delivered by The Dram Team, a whisky subscription club that delivers sample tasting packs specialising in unusual and varied whiskies. Tasting participants will receive 6 different whiskies to enjoy. Essentially, Schrieberg gets to keep hosting masterclasses despite being unable to physically connect with his clients, and the subscription service gets to add value to its product.
£2 from each ticket or voucher purchased on Designmynight.com will also be donated to the Trussell Trust, a UK food bank network providing food for vulnerable people.
Schrieberg told db that, although the project is in its early stages, he wouldn’t say no to hosting digital tastings when the current lockdown measures ease up.
“We’ve yet to still run the first one and this is very new ground,” he said, “but in theory, yes, we do plan to keep running them if all goes well, though maybe perhaps not 7 sessions a week.”
The Live Virtual Whisky Tasting Masterclass – the details
Price: £35/£65 for two
Ticket link: here
Voucher link: here
Starting Wednesday 8 April
Saturday: 5:00-7:00 pm, 7:30-9:30 pm,
A new podcast from an MW power couple
Susie Barrie MW and Peter Richards MW are using their time together at home wisely, and have launched a podcast.
Called Wine Blast, the pair interview creative characters from the wine industry, cook together, test each other’s knowledge and answer all of your wine-related questions.
Wine Blast has already been in the works since last year, but as many tastings and competitions have been pushed back due to the UK’s lockdown measures, it seems there’s no harm in branching into podcasts right now.
However, acknowledging that the industry at large faces one of its greatest challenges in history, Barrie and Richards have added a series of ‘Wine Survival Guides’ to the release of their first two full-length episodes.
These special editions are “swift releases enabling wine people from all around the world to tell their story as events unfold”.
The aim will be to capture small moments of joy wine lovers are taking time to savour during their lockdown conditions, such as learning how to play ‘magnum Jenga’, and the joy of online wine tasting.
Launch: Thursday 2 April
An online book club from author and Beer Masters judge Natalya Watson
Beer Sommelier Natalya Watson recently achieved her Advanced Cicerone certification, making her Britain’s most qualified woman in beer. Watson released her new book, Beer: Taste the Evolution in 50 Styles, on 19 March, just days before the UK government imposed new lockdown measures, which has meant that plugging the work through events and face-to-face masterclasses is no longer possible.
But Google Hangout has come to the rescue. Watson launched her first ever virtual book club last week to share her research with fellow beer fans, and has already had some keen followers, with 22 people tuning into her first live-stream on Thursday 2 April.
“I’m covering a different chapter of my new book each week,” she told db.
“In the chat, I gave a ‘director’s cut’ version of the chapter, so told them a few stories I had to cut out for space reasons and referenced a few of my sources to give a bit of a deeper dive into the stories in the chapter. Then we did a Q&A.”
Though the first session was nerve-wracking, Watson has received positive feedback from her book club, and now plans to run it every Thursday from 6:30pm GMT. You can find out how to join her book club here.
Meanwhile, Watson is still working with brands she has partnered with on masterclasses in the past, and forging new partnerships along the way. Tomorrow evening (7 April,), she is hosting an online tasting session for the staff at London beer shop group Mother Kelly’s “as a way to bring them together over a beer and do a bit of beer education”, and next week, she is due to host another beer tasting for Belgian brewer Duvel via Instagram Live.
Watson said adjusting to the “new normal” has made her realise how important relationships are in the drinks industry.
“I’ve been chatting with family and friends a lot more, but didn’t realise how much I missed catching up with industry colleagues, especially now as so many of us are in the same boat with work simply ‘evaporating’.”
She’s also keen to start her own bespoke tastings for smaller groups, inspired by the work of US wine educator Dini Rao.
“She’s been offering online wine tastings for years and I actually had a call with her in January to pick her brain about doing something similar for beer… so now might be the time!”
Virtual Book Club – the details
When: Thursdays at 6:30pm GMT
Length: 30 minutes
Sign up: here
WSET courses with DB’s Man of the Year Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith has worked in the wine trade for more than 15 years. He won the Man of the Year prize at our Drinks Business Awards in May 2019, and has also been named Wine Scholar Guild Italian Wine Educator of the Year 2018. He is the founder and owner of West London Wine School, which has educated over 1,600 students through the WSET Level 1, Level 2 (intermediate) and Level 3 (advanced) certificates, and owns boutique bar Streatham Wine House in south London.
Now, the school offers online-only WSET classes, streaming courses that offer an in-depth look at the history of wine online, and interviewing winemakers all over the world.
“Up until recently, we believed that in-person classes was the only way that we could provide tastings and courses to students that truly embodied our ethos,” Smith told db.
Now, his school is running tastings and seminars online to keep his class up to date with their studies, and selling wine cases alongside them to cater for students who wish to brush up on their tasting notes.
Students can take online versions of WSET Level 1 and 2 Award in Wines through West London Wine School, and Smith’s team are currently working on adapting Level 3 to a digital format.
L1 and L2 will run over three and eight weeks respectively. Students will join a virtual classroom with a West London Wine School tutor each week and there will also be ‘office hours’ Q&A.
The online WSET courses start at £115 for Level 1, while Level 2 costs £285. Find out about these here.
As well as this, Smith is also hosting a series of digital lectures and workshops, including six-week courses on the History of Wine, Tour de France, and a tour of Italy, with one on Spain due to launch soon.
“We have created a 12 bottle case of wine for each of these to supplement the learning and taste two each week,” he said.
Smith is also streaming 45-minute long interviews with winemakers from around the world to showcase their wares and offer an insight into the day-to-day runnings of a winery. “It’s not just purely the tasting; there’s much about the winery itself, the location, the history, terroir, climate, etc etc – all the information you would expect in a wine tasting.”
Homebound oenophiles can order a curated 6-bottle case of wines brought up in the winemaker seminars, “and three are tasted each evening,” he said, although given the circumstances, they’re not considered compulsory. “Due to smaller tasting samples being unavailable, the actual ‘tasting’ element is supplemental,” Smith said.
“Yes, tasting the wine is a huge draw for many who attend, however it is not the only reason people come to us. We specifically design each session to only cover 2-3 wines maximum, so if anyone wants to taste along in the moment, they are not committing to opening 7+ wines.”
You can find out more about West London Wine School’s online courses here.
Free online wine tastings with East London Wine School
On the other side of the capital, Samantha Alder runs the East London Wine School. In normal times, Alder’s school runs WSET classes from Levels 1 to 3, as well as a run of paid consumer-friendly tastings and workshops throughout the year.
Alder said she will host free wine tastings with quizzes at the end of each on Saturday nights on a Zoom account, and is encouraging her audience to invite their friends and family.
Each session will go live at 6pm GMT each Saturday, and will include a tasting of two wines that should be reasonably easy to find in a local supermarket or off-license. This weekend (11 April), Alder will talk attendees through the merits of Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon. A week later, it will be Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.
Alder also said the wines you drink at home “don’t need to be the same as ours, we’ll choose the wines you can get from the supermarket or local shops and we won’t be going crazy on the prices.”
After the tasting, there is a quiz which contains a good mix of wine-focused questions, “some geeky, some about films that might feature wine, a picture round, lots of fun.”
Many schools have taken their courses online, but rather than charging people for her team’s expertise, Alder told db she’s decided to provide simpler classes for free.
“I’d rather try to keep people engaged, give them a bit of fun, some learning, a distraction from staying home alone,” she said, arguing that in the long run “people’s wellbeing” is her priority.
“If people want us to do more fine wine tastings online we can do, but to kick off we’re going for fun.”
When: Saturdays, 6pm GMT