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Virtual wine tasting making lockdown bearable

More people turning to online wine events in lockdown.

Despite spending each weekend separated from friends and loved ones, Victorians are still finding ways to maintain their social lives. Zoom meetups, government sanctified walks and Netflix have been some of the ways people spend their free time during lockdowns. But many are also turning to cheese platters, bottles of wine and a laptop to take part in virtual wine tasting.

With the seemingly never-ending lockdowns, wineries and small boutique restaurants have had to pivot to online alternatives to keep their businesses afloat. Victorians have been latching on these alternatives to simulate the traditional face-to-face social settings at home.  No longer do you need to travel to isolated vineyards or deal with the social pressure of drinking with strangers. All it takes now is to turn your camera on, put yourself on mute and drink.

Whether it’s for household birthdays, family get-togethers or simply a way to fill the void of unrelenting boredom, these businesses have noticed a significant rise in online tasting participation and subsequently an interest in wine education. In the 2019/2020 financial year, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) registered 14,000 candidates for online courses, compared to 5,000 the previous year.

Northside Wines is one of the many small businesses that has taken on this online project. Owner Jacob Davey launched his first virtual wine tasting event Misc Wines last year. The initiative allows customers to have the wines delivered to their door and join the tasting online over Zoom or Skype.

During Melbourne’s first lockdown, Misc Wines delivered up to 300 wine packs per week. With around 50 percent of attendees being returned customers, Davey says the virtual tasting is something people really enjoy.

“It gives them an excuse to jump on Zoom or Skype with their friends and organise a get together within your own personal circle where you can all have a bit of fun and competition and drink some wine,” he tells upstart.

Twenty-year-old student John Cox says he was “dragged” into a virtual wine tasting course by his “wine snob” parents. Having never participated in the traditional face-to-face wine tastings, Cox says he wouldn’t have even come across the online event if it wasn’t for lockdown.

“It’s definitely a bit of escapism,” he tells upstart. “You’re hearing other people’s stories, seeing views from vineyards in the middle of nowhere. It’s also tenure of nature hearing about the processes. It’s just an escape from the normal lockdown.”

With more participants taking an interest in wine events, the demographic of wine enthusiasts has diversified, allowing event holders to broaden their market. A study by Wine Intelligence found that Gen Z Australians are now drinking more frequently than millennials after increasing their wine consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Australian regular wine drinkers increased their average number of on- and off-premises wine-drinking occasions by 1.5 per month, Gen Z increased theirs by 1.9 to an average of 9.3 occasions.

Developing this community of engaged customers through tastings has been a vital part of businesses’ approach to building trust with their clients, as restaurants and wineries have taken such a heavy blow from lockdown restrictions.

Last year, the Australian Urban Research Infrastructure Network (AURIN) recorded 15 percent fewer jobs in the food and beverages industry compared to before the pandemic. Victoria’s accommodation and food services saw a 10.2 percent fall in jobs since August last year, and the industry is expected to be one of the slowest recovering sectors in the state.

Jacob Davey says the virtual wine tasting program has offered some much-needed financial support for his business and helped in ways the face-to-face setting doesn’t.

“You have a broader market that you appeal to from a business point of view. We sent out over 200 packs last week, and it would be difficult to get 200 people into our venue and do it in person,” he says.

“Our motivation is that it [Misc Wines] keeps our lights on, and it keeps the staff employed at the end of the day.”

But the transition to online programs hasn’t come without challenges. For Davey, turning his business online meant teaching himself and the staff e-commerce overnight and re-allocating the workers to do deliveries instead of working behind the bar.

“Not being overly tech-savvy people … the logistics side of it becomes a huge challenge. A lot of logistics companies can’t be relied upon at the moment, and our product is quite perishable,” he says.

Despite the great success Misc Wines has had, Davey says he’s unsure whether Northside Wine’s virtual wine tasting events will still be around once Victoria comes out of lockdown, due to the fluctuating order numbers.

“We gave it about a month after lockdown two ended, and we went from doing 300 packs a week then in the space of a fortnight, down to about 20 to 30 packs a week. And most of those were parents with young children who haven’t got the luxury of going out to dinner a couple of nights a week,” he says.

While it’s too early to tell if such events will still be around online once Victoria enters post-pandemic normality where pubs, restaurants and wineries open up again, it has given Victorians a social outlet that people need during lockdowns.



Article: Luke Lay is a second-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on @Lukelay10

Photo: Four Shades of Vine by Maksym Kaharlytskyi available HERE and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified.

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