Listen, I get it. You want nothing more than to drink overpriced flights of wine in the blistering sun. You long to get a little over-tasted while gallivanting around Prince Edward County, Niagara-on-the-Lake or the Okanagan Valley. But, sadly, COVID-19 restrictions mean that, for now at least, your girls’ wine weekend or family wine tour is cancelled. But, fear not! You can still share a tipple with your nearest and dearest, and taste some amazing new wines, from a distance. Here’s how to host a virtual wine tasting with tips from cool Canadian women in wine: Laura Milnes, founder of Crushable Wine Club, and Nicole Campbell and Krysta Oben, Toronto’s Grape Witches. (Psst: You don’t need to be an amateur sommelier to pull it off!)
Pick a theme, any theme
“It’s fun to pick a theme!” Nicole Campbell, co-founder of Grape Witches, which specializes in natural wine education, tells me. “That could include all one colour of wine—different rosés from around the world, for example—or all skin-contact whites, or different methods of sparkling wine production. Or all one grape, like Syrah vs. Shiraz.”
All of our wine experts stress the importance of having fun, trying new things—and supporting local. “The possibilities are endless. That’s the best and most exciting part about it,” says Laura Milnes, an Okanagan, BC-raised and Toronto-based natural wine expert who founded the monthly wine club Crushable. “I always like to stick to what’s in season and ask yourself: What’s abundant and locally available? I’m a staunch supporter of buying local.”
Campbell agrees and says that the pandemic restrictions have actually made it easier than ever to support local businesses. “There are more great wine shops and restaurants than ever. If you’re in a province with wine shops like in Alberta or BC, reach out to your favourite and ask for great bottles in a theme. Many provinces have relaxed liquor laws during COVID-19, which hugely helps the consumer. There has never been a better time to discover great wine in Canada and many restaurants are now able to sell take-out bottles to go. Your favourite neighbourhood wine bar would love to help too. Don’t be afraid to give them your budget, there are great wines at all levels.”
Above all, remember that the sky’s the limit when it comes to your selections of wine for the evening. “Ask yourself: What are some new releases? Rosé is already available and starting to come out,” says Milnes. “Or maybe do a comparison of Merlots from different countries. You could do a rosé, a white and a red and go back and forth, comparing and contrasting. You could do dessert wine. There are so many different approaches!”
Once you’ve picked your theme, select the wines and snacks (if any) and include those instructions in your Zoom invite.
Be prepared—but don’t take yourself too seriously!
“Number one: Be prepared. Do your research,” advises Milnes. “It really doesn’t take much time—reach out to the wineries [of the wines you’re tasting] for cool anecdotes or stories they can tell about the wines. Ask them if they want to pop on [your Zoom] and give a little shoutout, a little background.”
Milnes also recommends that the virtual wine tasting host prepare some unusual questions for the participants. “I always implore people to really take their time when they’re tasting [and think about] what is this making you feel? Does it evoke an emotion or memory or is there a particular song that it reminds you of? Is this a good date night wine, or is this a good wine to sit with by yourself while you’re cruising your ex-boyfriends on Instagram? What’s a scenario that the wine would really pair well with it? Just have fun with it, don’t make it so serious.”
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“Talking about wine flavours can be hard,” says Campbell. “There are many great skits about how ridiculous and pretentious wine people sound because, yeah, it can sound very silly to talk about tennis balls and lemon pith and old cigars. If you feel like you have a terrible palate or that they all taste the same or that it is super hard to talk about the differences in flavour, know that it feels hard because it is hard! Teaching your palate takes time and is a skill you build like any other. It’s super helpful to look at a flavour wheel, like this great one from Wine Folly. It may seem unnecessary, but somehow having a list of 100 flavours can help you learn to talk about what each wine.”
“Wine is so intimidating as it is, let’s take that away and make it fun and pleasurable,” says Milnes.
Set the scene
“Vibes are key!” says Krysta Oben, the other half of Grape Witches. “Put on some music while you’re setting the scene, and some dramatic lighting. A glass of water, and a glass for wine. Unless it’s a comparative tasting, you only really need one glass, and a little vessel to pour out any drops (or spit if you want to be extra professional).” Oben does recommend turning the tunes down during the tasting itself. “Silence is nice during the tasting so you can talk.”
“One of the wonderful things about a virtual tasting is how little you need,” adds Campbell.
The only rule of virtual wine club: There are no rules
You can go the formal tasting route, if that’s your jam. “For glassware, the standard for a formal tasting would be a little ISO tasting glass,” says Campbell. “But we love tasting everything in a classic white wine glass, something like this—not too big, not too small—including sparkling, this is a great general glass and something we use in our homes for everyday.”
“Traditionally, there are no snacks with a tasting other than plain crackers or bread to cleanse the palate as other flavours distract from the pure experience of the wine,” says Campbell. But, the natural wine connoisseur adds: “If you are studying for a sommelier exam or want to start a formal wine blog, yes totally follow these rules. But if you want to discover wine joyfully with your friends, we encourage you to throw them out the window! Wine is about enjoyment and a virtual tasting should be fun.”
Taste between three and six wines
“When I do my in-person tastings, I never pour more than five or six. More than that and people are going to start feeling the effects of the alcohol, and you’re going to lose their attention,” says Milnes. “For a virtual tasting, I would limit it to even less than that because Zoom calls can already be challenging. So I would limit it to three to four bottles.”
Campbell agrees that you want to cap your tasting at six wines, max, but stresses that there are no hard and fast rules. “There are no rules of how many wines to taste, but start with more than two. Three can give you a good idea of a grape, or a style, and four, five or six wines lets you do a really deep (virtual) dive into a place or region, or lets you include a variety of wines from around the world,” Campbell says.
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Make sure to include at least one sparkling wine
“We love sparkling with almost everything, and nearly all of our tastings include at least one!” Campbell tells me. (I feel seen, because bubbles!) “It feels so celebratory, but it’s nice to remember that sparkling wine can be an everyday wine too, whether it’s Cava or Pet Nat or you’re splurging on some Champagne.”
Consistency is key
Milnes’ biggest piece of advice when deciding which wines to virtually taste with your pals is to keep things as consistent as possible. “Because we don’t have the luxury of being together in-person, try and keep it as consistent as possible,” she says, adding that it’s important to not just buy the same wine but the same SKU (which guarantees the bottles are from the same batch). “There are always going to be differences in terms of how people are tasting. The actual composition of the wine reacts differently with the PH of your saliva. Trying to keep things as consistent as possible across the board [helps]. Same wine, same SKU, same food, so that you can really feel as connected as possible, despite the fact that it’s through a screen.”
Sip from lightest to heaviest
Campbell recommends drinking the wines you’ve selected from lightest to heaviest, generally speaking. “We like to start with sparkling—for fun!—then move through the lighter whites or reds, and finish with wines with more body, structure or sweetness, like fuller-bodied reds or tannic skin contact whites.”
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Have fun with your snacks—but don’t let them take focus away from the vino
“Wine and food are so dynamic together. There are lots of tutorials online, but it’s a great experiment to see how different wines pair with acidity (like a lemon squeeze), heat (like a little chili taste!) or different types of cheese,” says Campbell. “Food transforms a wine and this is a wonderful thing to explore.”
That said, the Grape Witches are fans of keeping the nibbling to a minimum during the tasting itself. “We’re not fussy, and although we love snacks, they can get in the way of concentrating on a wine and make it really drag if there isn’t a strict moderator enforcing a time limit,” cautions Campbell. She recommends breaking out the eats when the tasting itself is over. “Snacks are great for later, when you’re still catching up with friends on your Zoom call and finishing the last sips of wine.”
“But don’t forget to talk about snacks! It’s great to imagine what you would like to eat with a wine,” Campbell adds. “Ask your guests: Would you chug this wine on its own? Would it be nice with salty snacks like anchovies and chips? Does that big red wine cry out for something grilled? How does the wine make you feel and what would you like to cook with it?”
Milnes is a bit more laissez-faire when it comes to a little mid-tasting nosh. “Maybe you could do a natural wine tasting paired with McDonald’s or something. That’s just so unexpected and hilarious. A good friend of mine, who is a natural winemaker in BC, re-created an entire McDonald’s meal with local ingredients, down to the french fries and the Big Mac, and they paired it with his rosé. I thought that was awesome.”
Shop some of Laura, Nicole and Krysta’s favourite Canadian wines here, including several wallet-friendly natural vinos. Bonus: I have included some of my own *non-expert, completely amateur but absolutely beloved* faves as well. Chin chin!
Shop Delicious, Affordable Canadian Wines
2017 Viognier (Summerland, BC), $24.99, lightningrockwinery.com
"Jordan Kubek and Tyler Knight are some of the most humble and sweet people you'll meet in the BC wine industry currently. This comes through in their resulting wines that embody the essence of purity and honesty." —Laura Milnes, Crushable