Wine from the cloud

The shock of COVID-19 is transforming the world. Robert Joseph asks what it’s going to mean for wine.

Photo by Arlington Research on Unspla
Photo by Arlington Research on Unspla

Most people reading this will never have lived through a war that affected their neighbourhood. Very few of us have had to wonder whether the nice old lady who lives on the corner of the street will survive the next few months. Or asked the same question about some of our friends and family, or simply pondered when they might next see toilet roll on sale – though, on reflection there must be many survivors of the Soviet era for whom those last thoughts are familiar.

In any case, that is where we are today. As President Macron of France, has said we are all now confronting an enemy that’s “invisible, elusive, advancing” and more formidable than any most of us have ever known.

Thankfully, sooner or later, however awful the damage and destruction they inflict, wars all end, but they have a tendency to alter behaviour patterns. Women and people of colour may still be struggling for full equality, for example, but the crucial roles they played in World War Two, certainly accelerated the process during the middle of the twentieth century. 

This struggle will bring its own changes. In response to COVID-19, major corporations in countries and regions that have not yet gone into lockdown, have divided their workforces into ‘red teams’ that work in the office and ‘blue teams’ that work from home. After two weeks, they swap places, hopefully reducing the chances of one or two employees spreading the virus across the company. Unlike freelancers who are used to crawling in their pyjamas from their beds to their desks, many of these people may be discomfited by the experience of not meeting colleagues at the photocopier or water cooler. But they’ll get used to it. As may the office managers who calculate the savings to be made on rent, heat and light when only half as many employees need to be accommodated at any one time.

For all this to work, there will be growing reliance on video conferencing services like Zoom, GoToMeeeting, Cisco Webex and ClickMeeting. This week, my friend, the digital marketing consultant, Polly Hammond, and I held a get together for around 150 members of the wine industry. The speakers – Andre Ribeirinho, Jane Anson, Felicity Carter, Ian Ford, Isabelle Legeron MW and Stevie Kim – came from around Europe and the US, while the audience came from an even broader range of countries. And, give or take a glitch or two, it all worked so well that I wondered why so many of us spend so much time travelling. Why don’t wine producers hold weekly sessions for distributors and sales staff? Indeed, why don’t they hold them for consumers who’d love a bit of advice on food-and-wine matching?

Over the next few weeks, I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of talk about the internet tasting groups the Chinese call ‘cloud wine’ and the Japanese know as on-nomi- online drinking. And I can see wineries – especially in California where winery tasting rooms have just been closed by the state Governor – exploiting existing technology to offer packs of test-tubes of wine for digital tasting. 

But, to be honest, I see these as side lines. Wine will always be a social activity that involves drinking, rather than tasting, and in company rather than alone. Video conferencing, however, is going to grow exponentially. All those Blue Teamers working from home will spend much of their time ‘virtually’ in the office. There will even be a virtual water cooler where they can catch up with colleagues.

Compared to some other industries, wine has been slow to exploit the potential of this technology, despite its relatively low costs, and the global nature of the sector. The focus on the need to sit at a table and break bread together or to walk through the cellars or vineyard has blinded us to the more basic need to communicate with as efficiently as possible. But COVID-19 and the need to fight climate change which it has overshadowed, will force us all to rethink.

One of the truths most people learn about warfare is the crucial importance of having good lines of communication – of goods and information. When the war against this virus is over, we’ll all have other, more commercial, campaigns to pursue against other, more human, adversaries. And communication via cameras, computers, phones and screens is certain to play an unprecedented part in those battles. Now, for all of us who are already, or will soon be under house arrest, is the time to start playing with the technology.

Keep well.

Robert Joseph

If you would like to see the tele-conference on what the COVID-19 pandemic means for wine, you can view it here.


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