Wine in the time of coronavirus

Trade fairs postponed, flights cancelled, tastings shuttered. Robert Joseph asks if now is a good time to re-think the way the wine trade does business.

Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash
Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash

Sixty-six days, or roughly nine and a half weeks. That, apparently, is the time it takes a human being to change their behaviour pattern.

Thanks to the coronavirus, it’s also the likely period where wine trade fairs, tastings, competitions and business meetings will be cancelled. That means that I, and countless other wine professionals, will be grounded.

Will it get us out of the habit of flying? At first glance, it seems unlikely. After all, it’s hard to imagine us doing without the possibility of pouring wine on our stands or sampling it on others. Or of making a blend from a few components, or of sitting around a table to discuss the latest harvest, prices, labels and shipping details. Maybe book publishers and distributors can switch to virtual meetings, but wine has to be physically experienced and surely there’s no way to do that at a distance.

By chance, I happen to have witnessed an early attempt at distance-tasting. Around 30 years ago, my scheduled meeting with Philip Shaw, winemaker of the then highly successful Rosemount winery in Australia overlapped with a conference call he had booked with Tim Mondavi, who was in charge of production of what was still his family’s wine business. The two companies had decided to launch a joint venture and needed to decide on the final blend. 

These were the dark ages before the advent of FaceTime or Skype or Zoom. The American and the Australian had to rely on speakerphones, which almost inevitably led to some farcical misunderstandings as they tried to coordinate the addition of five (or whatever) percent of vat 11 rather than vat seven. 

Yet, and this is the essential point, in the end, after 45 minutes or so, they achieved what they had set out to do without either of them having flown half way across the planet. Today, that exercise would be a lot easier. Not only could the two men each have seen what the other was doing; they could even have involved colleagues in other, equally remote locations.

I can’t remember the precise circumstances, but at around the same time, BBC Radio Scotland asked me to do a remote tasting of my own. Sitting in a London studio, I had to share my opinion on three samples of wine with an interviewer I never actually met, and an unknown number of listeners across the nation. While seating me at the microphone and handing me the glasses, the assistant producer, asked me not to reveal the fact that I wasn’t answering the questions face-to-face in Edinburgh. This worked well enough until I realised that the order in which my samples had been poured differed from the interviewer’s. But, like Shaw and Mondavi, somehow or other, we made sense of it in the end.

Today, we live in a different age. If – thanks in part to video games – surgeons wearing  thanks in part to the video games industry surgeons wearing virtual reality headsets can help colleagues carry out operations in hospitals thousands of miles away, we should be able to manage remote blending sessions and also – why not? - walk through the winery and the vineyards and even take a close look at the soil and how the grapes are ripening.

I travel too far and too often to talk at distant events. Could a hologram do it for me? Well, three years ago, the French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon effectively gave a live speech in two cities at the same time, appearing in the flesh in Lyon, and as a hologram in Paris. In 2016, the professional services company Accenture hosted an employee event at which two of its most senior executives also appeared by hologram and even had a virtual fireside chat in front of the audience.

But surely wine competitions would be harder to organise? Funnily enough, I’ve taken part in a remote version of that kind of event too. In Australia, I was one of five or so judges, at a major Shiraz competition which involved me tasting 60 or 70 wines by myself at Chateau Tahbilk in Victoria, while my fellow tasters sampled them in similar isolation elsewhere. It was a long time ago and I have no recollection why it was organised in that way, but again, it seemed to work pretty well.

If all of this seems a little far-fetched, so, not so long ago, did driverless cars. We are all confronting a climate crisis that calls for some pretty radical thinking. Perhaps, over the next 66 days, the coronavirus will help us come to some pretty radical solutions.

Robert Joseph

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