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It’s wine o’clock: Virtual tasting sessions take the country by storm

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A Scottish events organiser and a wine merchant tell us why online tastings have proven to be a corker during lockdown.

As 28 wine lovers from all over Scotland and beyond pour themselves a range of reds and whites, the tasting leader runs through the characteristic of an Australian chardonnay, rounding off with a presentation on the country’s wine-making regions.

It’s a standard scene that you’d expect at any wine tasting evening. Diana Thompson’s event, however, is anything but typical, as none of the participants have actually left their sofas to take part.

Diana, founder of Wine Events Scotland, is holding the entire tasting online, over video chat app Zoom – an ingenious way to keep her business going at a time when gatherings are banned, as well as provide much-needed social interaction for people stuck at home.

And the virtual tastings have been so popular that Diana is considering keeping them going alongside face-to-face events when lockdown is lifted.

“I started the online tastings last week and they were sold out so quickly, so I put on more”, she said.

“I wasn’t expecting them to be so popular. In more “normal” times people have said that they often want to attend these events but they don’t always want to have to travel. This is especially true of people with young children who would need to get a babysitter, and then would need to take public transport because of the drink-driving laws.

Diana Thompson

“Doing it online from the comfort of their own home takes care of this, and they can make a nice meal to go along with the wine, and can finish the wine off after the tasting is over. Some people also like to sit in the garden on a sunny evening and enjoy the wine along with the session.

“It also means the events aren’t Edinburgh-centric. I’m based there, and normally the people coming to the tastings would be from around that area. But at the latest online session that we held last week, we had people from the Highlands, Aberdeen, Yorkshire, Cornwall and Hertfordshire. The events can now be opened up to people all over the UK and on average we have about 15 at each event.”

Diana has more than 30 years of experience in the wine trade and set up Wine Events Scotland in 2016 to provide a platform for Scottish wine merchants to promote their products.

As part of that she runs the wine tastings, as well as a number of corporate, trade and private events and presentations at food festivals.

When lockdown was announced she initially panicked, as it meant she could not carry out any of her usual work due to events having to be cancelled.

“I thought, oh my goodness, what am I going to do”, she laughs.

“My whole business is based around events and people meeting up face-to-face. I then had a think about what people might want to do while they’re stuck at home.

“That’s when I thought of the virtual wine tasting sessions, but I had to make a few tweaks. Normally at wine tastings people try out lots of wines, but don’t take the whole bottles home. With the online tastings I’d have to send them the bottles, and they’d end up with about 10 of them open at the same time, which isn’t what you’d want because the wine would either go off, or it would encourage people to binge drink.

“So I decided to split the tastings into two sessions, done over two weeks. You buy your ticket from my website and then you get three wines sent to your home for the first sessions, followed by another three the following week.

“You also get a special wine saver pump and stopper, which pumps the air out of the bottle and preserves it if you don’t want to drink all of it in one go.

The virtual wine tasting kit, including a special bottle stopper for preserving leftover wine.

“The tastings are based around a particular subject, for example a region where the wines are made. There would be a tasting and a presentation about the region including pictures, then a chance to be sociable and chat while having nibbles.

“It’s all very informal, because what I aim to do is de-mystify wines. A lot of people think they have to spend a lot of money to get a good wine and feel that they can’t talk about wine unless they’re very knowledgeable about it, but that’s not true.”

Diana explained that the virtual tastings have allowed her to bring on board the wine-makers themselves, who are based all over the world and can easily take part in the Zoom sessions by talking about the production process of the wines – something that wasn’t possible at the face-to-face events, due to the distance.

And the online tastings are proving to be a crucial life-line for Scottish wine merchants too, as they provide an outlet for advertising and selling their products at a time when the “normal” way of doing business has ground to a halt.

One of them is Inverbervie-based Woodhouse Wines, a wine supplier selling premium wines at a discounted price after buying them at auction from venues that have surplus stock.

Owner Jonathan Simpkin is now doing home deliveries to keep the business going and is also providing some of the wine for Diana’s tasting sessions after having to suspend his own events due to the lockdown.

“I’ve worked with Diana for a long time as well as hosting my own event to showcase my wines, usually in hotels, offices and at people’s homes for private events around the Aberdeenshire area– but obviously that had to stop during lockdown”, Jonathan said.

Jonathan at one of his previous wine events.

“Already before the lockdown I was considering doing some YouTube videos for people who couldn’t physically get to our tastings. It was on the backburner, but when all this happened I had to act quickly to get the online side sorted.

“Diana’s events were very much an opportunity to continue trading, because she had all the systems for doing online sessions already set up.  We’re actually very busy with orders now. As well as supplying the wine for the tastings, people then have the chance to order more of the wine for themselves. I’m personally doing the deliveries, all over the UK.

“These are strange times, so people want to do something normal like sit with a glass of wine and talk to their friends, even if it’s just over video call, when they can’t meet up in a pub.”

To find out more about the tasting events or book a ticket, visit: