James Abraham, a 40-year-old member of the Army Reserves, enrolled in a digital wine course while deployed in Eastern Africa last summer.
“It was entirely self-paced,” he says of the program, which took him about two weeks to complete. “You were able to customize how you studied and scheduled your time.”
Abraham had always wanted to study wine but never had the time or budget for formal coursework. “It was definitely because of quarantine,” he says. “I like expanding my knowledge base, and since this was online and free, it was easy to do.”
Many wine-curious people are pursuing digital education during the novel coronavirus pandemic. For those whose finances and schedules permit, guided group tastings or classes can provide much-needed connection while quarantined.
Larissa Dubose is an Atlanta-based wine professional who works as a senior on-premise manager for luxury wines. In her off-hours, she runs The Lotus and The Vines, a wine education site that offers merchandise and a la carte tastings.
“I can pretty much count on two hands the number of guided tastings I did before last year,” says Dubose. “Now, I’m doing at least two or three a month.”
Dubose’s clients range from corporate groups to friends who had to cancel plans due to pandemic restrictions.
“I’ve had the girlfriend who turned 40 and they were all supposed to go to Grand Cayman,” she explains. “So, we had a tasting where you travel the world from the safety of your home, and no one has to drive anywhere afterwards.”
Wine consultant and educator Kelly Mitchell also began to host virtual tastings last year. She believes the ability to customize coursework and commitments encourages nascent wine enthusiasts.
“In our BC, Before Coronavirus, lives, the pace was so fast for most of us,” Mitchell says. “Consumer wine interest has had a chance to flourish in this environment and, because of that, virtual tastings really took off.”
“There’s this complete access we didn’t have before. That definitely helps when we talk about making the wine world more diverse.”—Larissa Dubose, The Lotus and the Vines
The staff at New York City wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels can attest to that. Following the shutdown of bars and restaurants in March 2020, it created digital versions of its on-site classes. The format enabled instructors to increase their class sizes from 16 to 40-plus attendees, and to widen their reach.
“We’ve cultivated new regulars from places like Boston, Santa Fe, D.C., Oklahoma, Miami, Chicago, etc., who have never even been to the wine bar before,” says Sarah Stafford, director of events and communications. “We also have had several family members join from different states for various classes.”
Last September, Wine Enthusiast debuted Wine Enthusiast Academy, which offers a virtual entry-level wine course in partnership with Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). The class filled within days of opening, which organizers credit to the lack of geographic restrictions for enrollment.
Increased chance for connection has personal and professional implications.
“There’s so much information you might miss out on because you couldn’t get to an actual event,” Mitchell says. “But if you can attend that really meaningful panel virtually, and that’s an option to you for not a big cost, now there’s a way to address your thirst for that information. I hope that it will still be an offering that conference organizers will consider after the pandemic.”
Unfortunately, the pivot to digital challenges educational institutions with heavier footprints. Enrollment at New York-based International Wine Center (IWC) was down 50% in June 2020 versus June 2019.
“For wine schools that specialize in face-to-face, in-person instruction and training, the pandemic has been as harmful as it has been to fine restaurants,” says Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, president of IWC. She’s eager to welcome students back when they “feel safe in returning to normal circumstances. Hopefully, that day will be sometime in 2021.”
However, for people like the Army Reserves’ Abraham, who describes himself as “very familiar with online learning,” virtual formats are welcome.
They can increase accessibility in nuanced ways, too.
A winery’s virtual tasting might be hosted by the company founder or lead winemaker, “somebody you might not have even been able to speak to if you actually went to the winery,” Dubose says. “There’s this complete access we didn’t have before. That definitely helps when we talk about making the wine world more diverse.”
Virtual education doesn’t lower the barrier to enter the wine world, it changes it. If you previously felt uncomfortable asking sommeliers questions in restaurants, for example, you might be emboldened via Zoom. This builds confidence and enthusiasm for wine knowledge across the board.
“It’s that wine bug. Once you start to learn a little something, it’s a rabbit hole, you just want to keep learning,” Dubose says. “I’m excited to see more people getting interested in wine, whether they’re enthusiasts or professionals, and taking their courses.
“I think the sky’s the limit. It’s a really beautiful thing that popped out of a really ugly year.”