August 6, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work, socialize, eat and drink–and the way we teach and learn. During lockdown, kitchen tables transformed into classrooms, but it’s not just schoolchildren, parents and teachers who have had to embrace change.
Wine lovers are among the beneficiaries of this move to online learning. An impressive range of webinars, tastings, talks and courses makes it easier than ever to discover new wines and ‘meet’ winemakers from around the world, all without leaving home–or sharing a spittoon.
When coronavirus forced restaurants and bars to shut, clever operators adapted swiftly and moved their operations online. Few operators are slicker than 67 Pall Mall, the exclusive private members’ club for wine lovers based in London’s St James’s.
The club, founded in December 2015 by former City of London trader Grant Ashton, is housed in a Grade II-listed former bank designed by Sir Edward Lutyens. With plans to open branches in Singapore and Bordeaux, things were going swimmingly. Until coronavirus struck.
“When the club closed, we had 130 people on the payroll and no income,” explains Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn, mastermind of the club’s wine program. “We didn’t want to make people redundant so we figured out pretty quickly that we had to do something to maximize revenue, even if it’s just keeping our heads above water and breaking even. What we did have was a solid base of 3,000 members and great connections with wine producers all over the world–and our members were just sitting at home bored. So we thought, ‘Well, look, let’s link them together. Let’s get our wine trade buddies to start doing webinars.’”
he plan caught on quickly. “It did start off furtively–we were doing just three or four online tastings a week. Then we figured out a way to do the bottling of 75ml samples under argon gas.”
The tasting samples are decanted from larger-format bottles onsite at 67 Pall Mall, the basement of which has been turned into a makeshift bottling line. “Within a couple of weeks, all the furniture had been stripped out and both floors were turned into a bottling factory,” Sayburn explains. Club members order their packs of 75ml tasting samples from the club’s website and have them delivered to their homes before taking part in the hour-long tastings via Zoom.
The club was soon running five webinars a day, tutored by leading winemakers, merchants and writers. One of the most exciting webinars featured all five Bordeaux first growths from the 2000 vintage, plus 2000 d’Yquem. “The tasting packs cost £650, sold at cost price–and we sold 80 of those. It’s not very often that you can get taste all 2000 first growths plus d’Yquem, side-by-side,” Sayburn says.
The profit is calculated simply on volume. “For every pack we send out, we make £25-£30. Whether it’s a vertical of Vin de Pays de Côtes de Gascogne or a vertical of Château Lafite, we’re making the same profit per box.”
It’s a new revenue stream that the club will continue with long-term. “We will live-stream our events with winemakers and journalists and make the wine packs available in advance. As we come out of lockdown and perfect our bottling and packaging, we will be able to ship long-distance to the USA, South America, Australia, New Zealand and China.”
You don’t have to pay for a full annual club membership member to take part in the webinar series: online-only ‘virtual’ club membership costs just £10 a month. Coming up in August are webinars from acclaimed California winemaker Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, the wines of Spain’s Ribera del Duero region presented by Tim Atkin MW, and Bordeaux ‘second wines’ tutored by Jane Anson.
If your interest is piqued and you want to go pro, the gold standard for professional qualifications in wine, spirits and saké is the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. All of their courses are now accessible online, from Level 1, for beginners, to the Level 4 Diploma, aimed at professionals working in the industry.
Throughout lockdown the WSET has been running a series of well produced free webinars on grape varieties, wine regions, sake–even cheese. Videos of past webinars are available on the website and the series continues in August with sessions on Sauvignon Blanc and the wines of Alsace. For a dip-your-toe-in-the-water experience, these are hard to beat.
The pandemic doesn’t have much to recommend it, but in these times it pays to be grateful for small mercies created as businesses have changed to adapt. That, at least, is something to raise a glass to.
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