A New Outlook on Online Tastings

A few months ago, I lamented about the concept of online wine tastings. Basically, I felt that they have become ubiquitous, but it did not seem that the organizers always had a plan or a goal in mind. In fact, it seemed like the purpose of many of the tastings was simply “well, everyone seems to be doing them, so we might as well, too!”

A crappy approach that usually led to rather crappy experiences.

After that first article, I received a bit of criticism from both bloggers and PR people, most of it justified. (There were some that honestly seemed like they were taking me to task because they thought I was trying to kill their golden goose, but I will leave it at that.)

The valid arguments were centered around two main themes:

  1. Online tastings are designed to create a bit of a buzz about the wine or region in question.
  2. The tastings are also intended to build and foster a sense of community between regions, producers, and writers.

As a result, I decided to get back up on the horse, so to speak and I participated in a tasting hosted by the Wines of South Africa.

And it was wonderful, easily the best online tasting I have ever experienced.

Why, you may ask?

Well, there were several reasons:

  • First, it was small–by my count there were the facilitators, about 12 wine writers, and the producers. Certainly not a “small” group, but there was an intimate feeling to it that was certainly refreshing.
  • Second, generally speaking, the event was technically sound. Sure, there were a couple of glitches, but by and large it went off without a hitch.
  • Next, the producers were all active participants. By “active” I really do mean engaged. All the producers were represented (despite the 12 hour time difference) and they really seemed committed to answering all questions.
  • I learned a ton about the wines and the region. Granted, I did not know a ton going in so just about everything was “new”, but still, the tasting and accompanying information was valuable.
  • Clearly more than any other tasting, the producers did not ignore tough questions. Apartheid. Yeah, I went there. And they handled it with aplomb. In other tastings I have asked about more mundane issues (e.g., Stelvin vs. synthetic closures) that go unanswered.
  • Last, the wines were really, really good. I guess that sounds a bit petty, but it is really important. I do not care if all the above points are covered in spades, if the wine stinks, so will the tasting. But they didn’t. To wit:

Groot2013 Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc: Retail $20. Sauvignon Blanc is the second most widely planted grape variety in South Africa, and has been steadily growing in both popularity and quality. Upon pulling the cork, quickly struck by notes of kiwi and an herbaceous element. Not “grassy” as so many Sauv Blancs can be as it falls more on the herbal, minty side. On the palate, bright and racy with great acidity, but there is also a roundness to it that no doubt comes from the three months that it spent on the lees. Particularly well done. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.

FMC2013 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc The FMC: Retail $70. This is a special wine, there is no doubt about it. When I first twisted off the cap and poured, I was captivated by the intense apricot, vanilla, and honey on this wine. It’s body on the tongue is remarkable while maintaining a vibrant freshness. OK, this gets a whoa. Maybe two. Of all its remarkable attributes, perhaps the finish is the most noteworthy as the wonderful flavors stay en bouche for at least a minute or two. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.

Cluver2014 Paul Cluver Gewürztraminer Elgin: Retail $15. I tend to get a bit nervous when I see a Gewurztraminer from outside of Alsace. I studied in Strasbourg for a year and my wine appreciation began there, tasting through countless Rieslings, Pinots (Blanc, Gris, and Noir), and Gewurztraminers (you will notice that I use the Alsatian spelling of the varietal, which has no umlaut). So when I see another region try to tackle the grape, I am more than a bit skeptical. This Cluver, however, erases any unease rather quickly with aromas of  lychee and melon, which are paired with a rich, slightly unctuous mouthfeel and just a hint of sweetness. No, it is not an Alsatian Gewurz, nor should it be, but it is decidedly good, in fact Very Good. 88-90 Points.

Creation PN2013 Creation Pinot Noir Walker Bay: Retail $30. I am not sure if I have had a Pinot from South Africa before, but if this is a good representation, I should certainly move them to the top of the list of wines to seek out. Characteristic tart dry cherry and noticeable smoke invite you in (and a bit of Brett), where there is a fine balance of fruit, tartness, and just the right amount of oak influence. This is certainly a well made Pinot, particularly at the price point and it seems to be right at the crossroads of the New and Old World styles: juicy fruit initially followed by plenty of depth and hints of earth. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.

Excelsior2013 Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon: Retail $9-10. Under Stelvin. A bit hot on the nose (14.5%) but big fruit–red berry a-go-go and a bit of licorice. On the palate, I was shocked, yes shocked. This does not taste like a bargain wine. At. All. Initially, I thought this tasted like a $30 Cab easy. A day later? The fruit comes out even more and it masks the depth a bit, but this is still a wine that I would buy by the case, easy. Will it change your life? It might. Particularly since it will make you seriously consider a trip to South Africa. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.

LAM Pinotage2013 Lammershoek Pinotage LAM Swartland: Retail $20. I have a love-hate relationship with Pinotage. For the most part, I see it as what it is: a hybrid grape (a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) that seems to highlight the worst aspects of both its parents. I have had countless Pinots and at least a score of Cinsaults and generally speaking, each on its own is generally better than the offspring. Then there is this wine. It certainly has that Pinotage funk on the nose, but it is extremely light in color and agile on the palate, there is ample fruit, good acidity, and then the funk. I have to say that this is perhaps the best Pinotage I have had, but, well, I am not a fan of Pinotage and would likely not buy it. If, however, you are a fan of Pinotage? Buy it, Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.

So I think I may have turned the corner on online tastings. Or at least I see their worth when they are done right, and clearly, if this tasting is any indication, the Wines of South Africa and Colangelo & Partners Public Relations know how to do online tastings right.



About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Chenin Blanc, Cinsault/Cinsaut, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Sauvignon Blanc, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to A New Outlook on Online Tastings

  1. SAHMmelier says:

    I want to try that Chenin. I’m glad to read you have turned the corner!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jill Barth says:

    Any tasting with Ken Forrester is worth one’s time 🙂 I’m curious about the Lammershoek — sounds like an interesting flavor; I’m always up for testing my zone with something unique.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Glad you’ve opened your mind. I am giving a presentation next Monday morning at the Vinisud 2016 Med Wine Expo in Montpellier about how to utilize virtual tastings to promote a wine brand. Lots of evidence and experiences that if well run they are quite positive for the winery/wine region. Cheers!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. wineismylife says:

    That is a nice selection of SA wines.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m waiting for my invites, but I’m still dreading the day I get roped into such a cluster. What a drag. I mean, really, tasting all those samples, time differences, unanswered questions and messy tech glitches. Argh! The PR people. Ugh! I’m not sure I’m convinced but once someone invites me to a virtual tasting, I’ll let you know my opinion profusely. 🍷😜

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That Sauv Blanc has me intrigued, and it’s in my price range! (Well, OK I every once in a while splurge but only for really special occasions…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am with you, sister! I know it might seem like I drink a lot of expensive wine at times, but I rarely pay all that much for them. If it is above $20 out of pocket, it better be darn good! That Chenin was really, really good, but I am not sure I would pay $70 for it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fiona says:

    I so enjoyed reading this and am so glad you enjoyed these wines, even the pinotage 😉 . I’m not familiar with that label, but sometimes cellars have labels for a particular export order. That said, Swartland wines used to be wines to avoid. They have seriously improved. The Excelsior, which surprised you is, by the way, just up the drag from us. Just saying. That was a very nice selection of cellars and wines – on a range of levels. So delighted that you found the entire experience, including the engagement with the winemakers such a good one. WOSA does great work.

    BTW, Paul Cluver (Snr) and now Jnr have a few very interesting projects that deal with the apartheid legacy. If you’re interested, I can find and send you some links… The Elgin Valley is an interesting one. Worked with a community college there a few years ago and with farmworkers. Before he retired, The Husband’s head office was in that valley….

    Liked by 1 person

    • I approach Pinotage like I do most hybrids: I just don’t get it. I understand they were “invented” for a reason usually, but they are no longer needed. The best Pinotage is no where close to as good as the best Pinot Noir or even the best Cinsault….

      WOSA was wonderful. If they tell me to jump, I will simply say “How high?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fiona says:

        Point taken. And we were discussing it just this evening. Su Birch (WOSA) I met a gazillion years ago when I was representing another product, on a SA pavilion, in Japan. She won’t remember. Point is, I’m glad and not surprised. 😉


  8. Valeriekq says:

    Thanks for this, Jeff.

    I am developing a virtual tasting program for one of the Piedmont producers I work with and I’ve been polling some bloggers and wine writers about the best approach. Your write-up isn’t the first I’ve heard of poor planning and lack of goal / focus. I want to do my first with a smaller, more intimate group, so there is an opportunity for interaction and learning all around (that includes me as the marketing pro!)

    The producers in the Langhe and Roero are so small that it is important to me that we retain the feeling of intimacy, so that factors in as well. It’s definitely one of the things that makes tasting in the region so special. Lots to think about still!

    Grazie Mille e buon weekend! Val

    Liked by 2 people

    • It would be great. No it would be fantastic if the organizers would identify a goal and then (and this is key), let the writers/bloggers know what the goal was/is. Then, I could decide if I wanted to help achieve that goal. Some organizers want “buzz” on Twitter, others want you to produce an article, some want engaging “conversation”, others want all three. Fine, tell me that ahead of time and then I can decide if I want to join in. I don’t mean it in a snarky way at all, but if I know what you want, then I can better understand the expectations and if I am willing to meet them (personally, it is hard to both talk about the wine in real time and take sufficient notes to write about it later, but that is just me).


      • Valeriekq says:

        Doesn’t seem snarky to me at all. How can we know what’s expected or desired if it’s not communicated!? If the goals I define do not fit in with yours, then it doesn’t make for a mutually beneficially relationship. Personally, I see more value if all parties are gaining something – and, that includes the end user who is reading the blog or publication.

        To play the other side, I’ve struggled with writers and bloggers who simply don’t pay attention to what I’ve laid out. I try to provide thorough information upfront so I can be clear about what I hope to gain for my client. And, I always try to offer story ideas that are a resource for readers or something that fits with the writer’s content. To me, shameless self-promotion helps no one. In that vein, I ask that writers don’t commit just because they see they are getting free stuff. If something doesn’t work, no problem. Just communicate that to me so I understand and can explain to my client. It puts a bad taste in my mouth to be treated like I’m being demanding when it’s clear the person didn’t fully read my pitch.

        I hope I don’t sound snarky now! I just think there offenders on both sides. I like working with people like you, Jeff, who want that info from me.

        To better communication! Val

        Liked by 1 person

      • Val, I agree with all you said with one small exception: you said “I always try to offer story ideas that are a resource for readers or something that fits with the writer’s content…” I know there are many ways to define “story ideas” and that we are likely still in agreement, but I see far to many writers that simply regurgitate (or worse, cut and paste) “stories” that were written by others. As you can tell, that does not appeal to me much at all. I like to write my own stories: be it about the wine, the tasting experience, something from my past. I have a hard time writing a story about the winery/winemaker/etc. unless I have actually visited the winery or met the winemaker. Maybe it is just me but I need to feel there is a degree of “authenticity” in my writing. If I am just relaying information provided by the winery/PR people I feel that is disingenuous (and I would be doing it because I got something for free).


  9. melsmosaic says:

    Pinotage is my favorite varietal. I picked up Lam a couple weeks ago but haven’t opened it yet. Look forward to trying it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I haven’t had good luck with South African wines and it could because many of the ones I tried were Pinotage… The cab and pinot sound intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Some great wines in that line up – lucky you! I have taken part in a couple of online tastings with BIVB and found them to be excellent for many of the reasons you outlined – they were expertly organised and were successful in creating a sense of intimacy despite participants being located throughout Asia. If you get the opportunity to try one I would highly recommend it 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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