Millar's Tale: Zooming out

A year ago, on March 12 2020, my company hosted our last tasting of the year. The theme, chosen in December, was 'Party Fizz for Spring'. Four days later, the streets were empty.

The weekly Theatre of Wine tastings were the fulcrum of a working week, gathering staff and customers around a shared table, free of Coravins or Enomatics, to pull corks, twist Stelvins, and share wine and cheese in a manner that was both contemporary and timeless.

In the weeks of mania that followed, it took time to react and adjust, but tastings have always been at the heart of what we do, and we were determined to find a way to keep them going. Necessity was the mother of innovation and soon we were up and running with a new bit of software called Zoom.

A year later, with audiences for our virtual tastings regularly reaching 150+ participants, and bigger merchants like the Wine Society gathering over a thousand tasters for winemaker events, it is clear that Zoom, and others like it - which had been more or less unknown in the wine world - were now a lifeline to an industry previously built on in-person tastings.

Yet innovation is not always better than what we had before. Sometimes, it's just different. Video calling is here to stay for wine, but I'd rather be a wine merchant than a Zoom executive in three months' time. I feel Zoom might have better off in the long term if the pandemic had only run for a few months, and then we would have returned to normal life and been happy for the extra facility of video conferences in our lives. But as the months have gone on, you sense a deep desperation to get off video calls and return to real life as soon as possible.

So where now for video calling? For personal interactions, there will be a triggering element to booting up these programs up once normality returns. They are indelibly associated with a tough year and the inadequacy of virtual experience. That's not a positive brand association. Like a face mask, many will hope to never have to see it again.

On the other hand, for large scale corporate events, Zoom has proven very useful and is here to stay. Before Covid, corporate budgets were being tightened up in many areas, and getting people together in one location for an in-person corporate tasting was looking increasingly lavish. The gap for a more cost-effective way of gathering people was clear and will be even more so thanks to the increase in post-Covid working from home, away from central venue hubs.

And for the wine trade, it seems that Zoom will have its uses, but having jumped on innovation out of necessity, we may find ourselves returning to tradition for efficacy. The in-person tasting is a proven institution of the industry, and while it can seem staid at times, and is certainly less accessible for those outside London, it still brings producers, buyers and sellers together inimitably and – for the most part - effectively. It also forms an invaluable opportunity to taste much more widely than Zoom can facilitate, allowing those in the industry who want to develop their palate to supplement knowledge with experience.

In the end, conducting our professional lives through Zoom has been more about need than desire, and when we are free to meet up and mingle freely again, much of its utility will be lost. But not all. Our flirtation with virtual tastings hasn't proved to be a love affair, but it isn't a one-night stand either.

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