Consider the spittoon. It’s never been the most pleasant element of wine tasting. But dangerous?
Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, large drinks industry tastings are fraught with public health risk. It’s actually hard to imagine a less safe activity than hundreds or even thousands of people talking loudly to each other in close proximity in enclosed spaces, after swirling and spitting liquids into shared spittoons. At a paper products or industrial machinery fair, it’s possible to arrange masked and distanced meetings around a new line of farm equipment. Not so when evaluating wines and other drinks.
“We canceled our annual wine show as have all of our competitors because no one really wants to sample or be that close to another person,” says Corey Bronstein, senior vice president and general manager of New Jersey-based Allied Beverage Group. Major wine fairs worldwide have been called off since the beginning of the pandemic, and all indications point to the cancellation of most portfolio tastings or large-scale wine, spirits, and food events in the U.S. until at least the end of 2020.
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What can replace these valuable interactions between producer and buyer? SevenFifty Daily spoke with a number of industry insiders to learn what they are planning for.
Facing Extreme Uncertainty
Judging by the number of people who declined to comment for this article, it’s safe to say that very few importers, distributors, and event organizers know what the future will look like.
With different cities, states, or countries establishing different rules and guidelines, the work of organizers is exceedingly difficult. “As we all know, there’s a wide range of tolerance levels depending on local restrictions,” said Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits vice president and wine division general manager Steve Slater. Asked about what specific measures that could be put in place to increase safety and allow large or even smaller tastings to take place, another company spokesperson added that it was “premature to be able to detail exactly how these will be executed at this time.”
“The uncertainty of constantly changing regulations and guidance and interpretation of metrics and risk tolerance create a broad range of possible long-term outcomes for wine events,” says James Tidwell, cofounder of the Texas-based wine education event TexSom, whose 2020 Sommelier Conference was canceled in late June. In other words, writing a reliable game plan is exceedingly hard, with rules and safety guidelines changing every few weeks or months.
“Right now, four months seems like a long time away,” says Patrick McAteer, Texas statewide fine wine manager for Republic National Distributing Company, whose fall tastings have all been put on hold. “It remains to be seen what the attendance levels could be. How many people would want to come? How many would rather stay away?”
International Trade Fair Organizers Crossing Their Fingers
Meanwhile in Europe, after COVID-19 cases dropped and stabilized in the summer, there is cautious optimism around some upcoming wine events. Guía Péñin, the main Spanish wine guide, is working to hold its yearly Top Wines from Spain show, scheduled for October 26 and 27 in Madrid. Some 400 wineries and thousands of visitors are expected. Mar Mirón, the director of communications for Guía Péñin, insists that final decisions will come in September, depending on the country’s infection rate, as well as the health and safety guidelines established by the venue and the local and national governments. “The great majority of the clientele is from Spain, so that’s easier to manage,” says Mirón. “We think the situation will be okay in Spain in the fall, but we’ll decide according to how it evolves.”
The Spanish guide did cancel an event planned for New York City in the fall, largely because producers were unwilling to cross the Atlantic, but those same producers are desperately hoping the Madrid event is a go: “Wineries really need to sell wine, so fingers crossed,” Mirón adds.
Others are working on contingency plans. Michael Degen, executive director for the Domestic Trade Fairs Division of Messe Düsseldorf, the massive venue that hosts ProWein every year, says that final decisions about the March 2021 edition and its various components will be taken about six to eight weeks before the actual date: “In Germany, we are optimistic that we will be able to set up ProWein more or less as it was before.”
The organization is considering options for using a greater number of halls to make distancing easier, if necessary, says Degen. He adds that Messe Düsseldorf also hopes health and safety measures can be aligned with existing ones in retail and other public venues, to simplify things for participants.
Finding New Ways to Connect with Buyers
With the pandemic currently more dire in the U.S., importers and distributors have been relying on virtual tastings and events to reach the trade. While helpful, online tastings can hardly reach more than dozens of participants, so they’re far from a replacement for events drawing hundreds of sommeliers and retail buyers at one time. “It’s clearly more like a private event than like a traditional tasting event,” notes Allied’s Bronstein.
Isabelle Legeron, founder of Raw Wine, which holds fairs in cities like London, Berlin, Montreal, New York, and Los Angeles, is looking to find ways to leverage the event’s “large digital footprint, with over 50,000 unique visitors a month using our website.” However, there are limitations, she says: “Natural and low-intervention organic and biodynamic wines can change profoundly from year to year, meaning their tasting profiles can be totally unique, so tasting and understanding the vintage is really important, and this is the hardest part to make work digitally.”
Is it possible to scale from dozens to hundreds in a single virtual wine event? That’s the idea behind Hopwine, a virtual wine fair that found a practical way to allow buyers to taste wines from participating producers at home. For the event’s first edition, in May, Tyméo, a Bourgogne-based PR agency, teamed up with Lyon’s Vinovae, a company that created a proprietary system to safely repackage wines in small 20 milliliter samples that can then be easily sent anywhere. By using neutral gas to protect the wine as it’s being transferred, the samples are stable for two to three months, according co-founder Mathieu Lojkiewiez, who had been working on this model long before the pandemic.
Hopwine put up a website in early March and quickly saw registrations from wine producers start to grow rapidly. “We stopped at 150 producers, because of the logistics involved in repackaging and sending samples, and turned down about a hundred more,” says Lojkiewiez. “Then we had over 3,000 visitors during the week of the virtual fair starting May 18. We selected 700 people who seemed like serious buyers—about half from France and half from other countries including the US, Canada, China and the Philippines—and connected them with the producers.”
A second wine fair is being considered for next year, and Hopwine is also thinking about creating more targeted events around specific regions, to keep things more focused and give smaller producers a better chance to get noticed. “We can’t replace physical wine fairs, but we can deliver a solid first contact,” says Lojkiewiez. “As an event organizer, if physical wine fairs were my only revenue stream, though, I’d be worried.”
Seeking Smaller, Short-Term Solutions
Scott Lauck, owner and founder of distributor Synergy Fine Wines, based in Colorado, believes smaller, more focused events will serve as a workable solution. With modifications like timed entry in smaller groups, individual spit cups, individual boxes with crackers and water, sanitation stations, and more open floor plans, sales reps could connect with buyers and showcase new wines and vintages.
Adjusted expectations will help, too: “We used to get annoyed at a six or seven minute wait at the really cool coffee shop. Now, we’re just happy we can get a cappuccino,” says Lauck. “Maybe in the current context, buyers would be satisfied with a 20 minute block of time to taste 20 wines from a particular region.”
Harmon Skurnik, president of New York distributor Skurnik Wines is also planning for smaller format tastings. “At our office in New York City, we have a bar where we regularly hold tastings, with clients coming by and visiting producers as well. With adjustments, that format can resume well before trade tastings return,” he says.
Skurnik also doesn’t believe that large tasting events are absolutely essential to keeping the industry running, at least in the short term. “To be honest, it’s a minor inconvenience compared to what our brothers and sisters in the restaurant industry have been going through,” he says. “On a temporary basis, it’s not that much of a missing piece. I’ve been going to Vinitaly every year for the last 20 to 25 years, and it’s a great opportunity, but if I don’t go, or if I don’t taste out of barrel this year, I’ll survive. I can still do business. If the lack of large tastings becomes the new normal, we’ll need new ways of working, but I don’t think that will be the case.”
Timed entry is something Legeron and her team are considering for Raw Wine, as well, to avoid having everyone on site at the same time. “Outdoor would definitely help,” she also thinks, “but it means you need reliably good weather, which is when growers are the most needed in the vineyards.”
In the longer term, Legeron is confident that “we will return to a traditional way of tasting wine during festivals and fairs. There is a unique atmosphere that gets created during these events, with so many people you know gathered in one place, and that is part of the vibe and the buzz. It is also a very effective way of working.”
As ProWein’s Degen puts it, “there is such a strong desire to meet again that we’ll have to find a way to do it.”
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Rémy Charest is a journalist, writer, and translator based in Quebec City, Canada. He has been writing about wine and food since 1997 for various Canadian and American print and online publications, including Chacun son vin/WineAlign, Wine Enthusiast, Le Devoir, Le Soleil, EnRoute, Palate Press, Punch Drink, and Châtelaine, and has been a regular radio columnist for CBC/Radio-Canada. He has also judged national and international wine competitions, notably the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, the TEXSOM International Wine Awards, and the International Rosé Championships.