The Future Of Wine Online
By Jonathon Alsop, Boston Wine School Founder & Exec. Dir.
BOSTON MA USA March 15, 2022 When Covid crested and created the world of online wine tasting and education two years ago, one of the fears people had was that online classes would be sad, pale placeholder versions of the real thing and this new format would by its nature somehow debase, demean, and degrade the experience. Here at the Boston Wine School, I’ve found exactly the opposite, which means online is part of our learning model from now on.
No matter what we do, it will never be sad and pale no matter what the circumstances around here, and right now, we are creating the same sorts of deep learning experiences and vivid moments where the lightbulb goes on over people’s heads just like in person. This is probably the most critical component in making this new format work for us: we insisted from the beginning that it was going to be just as fun, just as informative, and just as life changing as ever, no matter what the format.
Second most critical is a video presentation tool called Prezi which allows us to use Powerpoint and other presentations without having to share the whole screen and break eye contact with people. We set out to satisfy these two curriculum criteria – one, that it be awesome, and two, that everybody be engaged – just like we would with any format, from eight people to 800.
Also newly important is the realization that online replaces in-person only for a small number of students. Maybe a million wine lovers live in Boston proper, but that means there are 300 million people who might come to class but the only thing stopping them is they don’t live in Boston. About a third of our online students are from around Boston, but the rest are from everywhere else. We found this geographic dispersion especially with our corporate clients: at first, they transitioned things already on the calendar to online, but as we saw how many people could be involved who could never be involved before, events became national and international.
Alcohol is always a problem to be solved, especially when you’re crossing state lines, which makes the whole innocent thing sound so dirty and impure in the first place. Shipping cheese and charcuterie by the bushel is no problem, and we can order from many different sources depending on the menu, but shipping wine falls into this legalistic realm of local, interstate, and national regulation.
We don’t – slash – can’t sell wine anyway, especially on a national scale, so we partner with Lifetime Vintage in Manhattan who has a great inventory of half bottles and ships the class wines everywhere in the USA it isn’t a felony – I’m looking at you, Kentucky! In the case of other “out of network” states like Utah and Alabama, wine class becomes part scavenger hunt, except I research the destination retailer ahead of time, and students shop for their own wines.
We solved this shipping problem by complete coincidence in the months just before Covid while we were busy trying to solve something else, so the timing – through no fault of my own – was perfect. Had we not had a nationwide solution already in place or had we not come up with one overnight, online classes would have only been local for us, a fraction of their size, and consequently impossible.
As Covid’s tide ebbs right now, we are at the beginning of offering tiny in-person Covid-smart classes and wine dinners to see where everyone is with their appetite for learning about wine and food elbow to elbow again. Maybe this is my PTSD talking, but the overwhelming feeling is that in-person could go away any second Covid discovers there are yet more letters in the Greek alphabet, so part of what makes classes Covid-smart is being ready to convert to and from other formats whenever we have to.
We hear the people yearn for a return to normal, which I’m willing to do so long as we can retain the effective and efficient forms that the abnormal times forced upon us.