Wine and the web have always gone hand in hand — just ask anyone who’s ever experienced “Prime-nesia” after clicking “buy now” on Amazon in a moment of alcohol-induced folly. 2020, however, is the year that thrust this special relationship into the spotlight. Take the rise of the virtual happy hour, with the Japanese even coining a new word, on-nomi, to describe drinking together online with friends.
Wine retailers, too, have jumped onto the virtual tasting bandwagon, hoping to find new ways to engage customers amidst the pandemic’s economic fallout. Many of their virtual productions, however, have a makeshift quality about them, a result of hosts new to Zoom and its idiosyncrasies.
Not so Vivant, which launched last December and bills itself as “the world’s first live-streaming wine experience platform”. Through its attractively designed, UX-ed-to-the-max interface, Vivant redefines how consumers learn about wine, catering to a new generation of wine lovers who are used to accessing information and entertainment on demand, wherever they are. It also seeks to move the industry towards sustainability by focusing exclusively on organic and biodynamic wines from responsible winemakers.
An annual membership gets you unlimited access to Vivant’s live experiences, 30- to 60-minute sessions hosted in real time by Vivant’s trained wine advisors. These cover iconic wine regions, taking you through the geography and unique characteristics of the area, as well as specific varietals and winemaking techniques. Experiences centred around the five key French wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and Champagne are already available. Alsace, as well as regions in Italy, Germany and Spain, will be added progressively this year.
“Our ambition is to recreate the magic of visiting a wine region without the carbon footprint of stepping on an airplane,” says Michael Baum, Vivant’s CEO and Founder.
Participants also get to “meet” each region’s sustainable winemakers through introductory videos and taste their wines too, using “experience kits” comprising either six 10cl tasting tubes or three 75cl bottles of wine. Both of these are available for an additional fee and can be shipped globally.
Unlike most other virtual tastings, Vivant’s sessions actively encourage viewer participation using proprietary applications like the Interactive Tasting Method, which helps you professionally assess a wine’s qualities (appearance, aromas, structure, and so on) using scrollers, “flavour wheels” and more, while quizzes and global leaderboards encourage friendly competition.
While Vivant is most assuredly for profit, Baum, an American technopreneur who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, has greater ambitions for his new platform, namely pushing the wine industry to adopt more sustainable practices.
He was the first American to buy a winery in France’s prestigious Burgundy region when he purchased Chateau de Pommard and its 25 hectares of vines in 2014, which he has since transformed into a showcase for biodynamic viticulture.
“I think it’s only logical that naturally produced wines taste better,” says Baum, who became smitten with Burgundy wines during a year-long stay in 2012. “The production of great wine starts in the vineyard, after all. Grapes that are free of systemic pesticides and herbicides are free to express their full, natural potential, which in turn contributes to the taste of the wine. This has now been proven in a number of studies with more than 200,000 professional blind tastings,” he adds.
According to Baum, less than 3 percent of the wine we drink today is produced responsibly, a statistic he’s working to change. All the winemakers Vivant collaborates with must pledge to keep their vineyards free of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. They should also package and distribute their wines responsibly, and commit to workplace equality and diversity.
It’s not particularly surprising that Baum has encountered his fair share of resistance, especially in an industry where steadfast tradition is prized.
“It’s true that the industry can be very old-school, but we are seeing a new wave of wine lovers, educators, and winemakers who are demanding more from the industry,” says Baum.
“Covid-19 has accelerated technological evolution in many industries,” he adds. “One year ago, we began talking with winemakers in the old-world; some were hesitant to be involved in a cutting-edge platform like Vivant. But these same producers have come back to us. Undoubtedly, they have seen our development but also understand the importance of leveraging digital to reach consumers directly. The global pandemic has made this painfully clear.”
Baum also ensures his platform walks the talk — under its initiative, 1% for Wine, one percent of all membership fees and wine purchases goes towards funding innovative new research and ideas for a sustainable wine industry.
“Our goals are not for Vivant, per se, but for the industry as a whole,” adds Baum. “By 2030, we want to see at least 10 percent of the world’s wine being produced responsibly.”
Other membership-based virtual wine experiences
01 | Park90
The talented team of sommeliers at Regent Hotel’s Park90 was out of the gates running after Singapore’s circuit breaker kicked in. Park90 quickly organised weekly themed masterclasses covering a wealth of topics spanning Bordeaux blends to Champagnes, sending wines in advance to participating members so they could taste along.
Classes were conducted by Park90 sommeliers with guest appearances by noted wine writers and consultants. Esteemed winemakers such as Eddy Leiber-Faller from Domaine Weinbach and Philipp Wittmann from Weingut Wittmann also joined, with some bringing guests virtually into their vineyards. All slides and Zoom recordings were also provided to participating members after each session.
02 | 67 Pall Mall
When it comes to virtual wine masterclasses, plush London wine club 67 Pall Mall is the one to beat. For just £10 per month (and no joining fee), viewers worldwide could access its ambitious lineup of virtual events (more than 250 since last March) featuring a starry guest list of the fine wine world’s greatest — think Lafite, Gaia, Harlan, Inglenook and Montrose. It too ships tasting samples — which can include precious first-growths — worldwide. “We use what we call the “fishtank”, a large argon-filled glass box to prepare the samples,” says COO Niels Sherry, who’s currently based at 67 Pall Mall’s soon-to-open Singapore arm.
While its eyrie at the Shaw Penthouse isn’t due to open till September, it will (like London) have an impressive 6,000-label strong selection, with about 800 by the glass. It is also in the process of setting up a 4K-ready TV studio in Singapore to shoot wine content for 67 Pall Mall’s wine channel, due to open in May.