Online Wine Classes Bring the Future Forward with VinePair’s Zach Geballe

Mar17th

Introduction

Where do the worlds of wine and high tech collide? Why has the wine industry been so slow to embrace digital offerings? Should you join an online wine class? Are online wine events here to stay in a post-pandemic world?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m sharing my interview on VinePair Podcast with Zach Geballe.

You can find the wines we discussed here.

 

Highlights

  • When did I start bringing my love for wine and tech together?
  • How did my high-tech job give me an opportunity to explore Napa and Sonoma Valley?
  • Is wine a part of the high-tech work culture?
  • How has the pandemic forced the wine industry to embrace the internet and digital platforms?
  • What was the state of wine education pre-COVID?
  • Can you truly engage the senses and have a full experience with online wine classes?
  • What are the advantages of online wine classes?
  • What benefits could you experience from an online class over face-to-face?
  • Is there a community aspect to online wine classes?
  • Are online wine classes here to stay for the long-term?
  • Why should brands and wineries include an online aspect in their offerings?
  • Should you take an online wine class?
  • What’s behind my belief in moderation through appreciation?
  • Which wines have I been loving lately?

 

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About Zach Geballe and VinePair

Zach Geballe is a wine writer and educator based in Seattle. He is a podcast host/producer for VinePair Podcast and the founder/wine educator for Disgorged Wine.

VinePair Podcast is hosted by VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter and sommelier and wine educator Zach Geballe. They discuss the latest news, trends, and happenings in the world of wine, beer, and spirits each week.

 

Resources

 

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Transcript

Zach Geballe 0:00
That’s a really good point. One of the real powerful things about online classes is the inherent flexibility that they can offer people.

Natalie MacLean 0:07
I used to have a lot of people who travelled for business in my classes because they could take the class from the hotel and raid the minibar. But now it’s regular folk who are taking the classes. That whole thing about flexibility, going at your own pace is one thing, choosing your own time to consume the content is another thing; it’s not one and done. With an online course; at least with the one I offer, it’s lifetime access. That slows the pace of learning down, which is really important for adult learners. We’re not geared to sit for two to three hours on one topic at night, usually after a long day of work. You can do a snack size, like all the videos in my course are seven to 10 minutes max, because you can not only consume them quickly, but you can go back and you can have this sort of layered learning experience.

Natalie MacLean 1:01
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? That’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please and let’s get started!

Welcome to Episode 121. Where do the worlds of wine and high tech collide? Why has the wine industry been so slow to embrace digital offerings? Should you join an online wine class and are online wine events here to stay in a post pandemic world? This week we’re turning the tables and Zach Geballe , the host and producer of the VinePair podcast interviews me. Zach is a wine writer, educator and certified sommelier based in Seattle and I’ll be interviewing him on an upcoming episode, so stay tuned for that. In the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, where you can find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube Live video every Wednesday at 7pm. That’s all in the show notes at Nataliemaclean.com/121.

Now on a personal note before we dive into the show, the weather is starting to turn warmer so Miles and I are taking more walks. Yay! I was preoccupied with my own thoughts as we walked toward the river a couple of days ago and I must have had a bit of a frown on my face. Miles is so tuned into me emotionally. He asked what’s wrong? You look chest fallen. I brightened up immediately. He’d done it again; making up a word that was better than the original. Last week it was those pesky snow squirrels. I think we need these more descriptive, more immediately understandable terms in the wine world. So what should we call malolactic fermentation? Okay, on with the show.

Zach Geballe 3:48
From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a VinePair podcast next round conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes in order to focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today I’m speaking with Natalie MacLean. She’s an online wine educator and the host of the Unreserved Wine Talk  podcast. Natalie, thanks so much for your time.

Natalie MacLean 4:08
Hey, Zach. It’s great to be here.

Zach Geballe 4:10
So let’s start a little bit just to find out about you. How did you get interested in wine and kind of come to the online space as educator and podcaster?

Natalie MacLean 4:18
I think like a lot of people I stumbled into it; came in through the back door. There certainly wasn’t like a wine writing school back when I was looking at this, but I was on maternity leave. I worked for a high tech company. It’s now the campus of Google down in Mountain View, California. And I was on Mat leave, and I needed to keep my brain alive. Because I was in that high tech world, I pitched a local magazine, an article on wine and the Internet , because in the meantime, just before I went on Mat leave, I’d taken a sommelier diploma. So I thought I can combine those two and stay alert. And they took it and it went from there. So that gave me the confidence to pitch other publications and so on. But I think too, what was really fascinating to me was the intersection between wine and high tech. And so I started early with a website. This is back in the Palaeolithic days of the Internet , Zach, and mobile apps and that sort of thing in the podcast. But I always like bringing the two together to see what could happen because they’re such different worlds and yet, I think they are so complementary.

Zach Geballe 5:23
When you were in tech, were people in tech interested in wine, was there a culture of that at that time?

Natalie MacLean 5:29
Oh, absolutely. So Mountain View, California, as you may know, is about an hour away from Napa and Sonoma. So I didn’t work at the head office, but I would go there, like more than quarterly. And so I started arranging all of my meetings on Thursdays and Fridays, so I could drive up to Napa and Sonoma on the weekend, then fly back Sunday night or Monday. And I guess, for a lot of people who have a very busy job, there isn’t time to play golf, or do a lot of other things you might like to do, but you are going out to dinner with clients. And so wine is often a part of that. And that’s kind of how I picked up my passion. It was something I could fit into kind of a crazy work schedule. You know, people at this company slept under their desks, like a lot of high tech startups. But the wine was definitely a part of the culture. And more than that, I was kind of an Internet  evangelist. And so I’d be on these panel discussions, with often, not the founders, but people from companies like Wine.com, and Amazon, and so on, we’re all talking about how the Internet  can transform all kinds of businesses. So you can see how far back this goes.

Zach Geballe 6:38
Yeah, I mean, my sense of it, and I’m sure you have your own perspective, is that the wine industry until very, very recently, maybe like literally, in the last year, more broadly, has kind of resisted the Internet in large part. I mean, I’m sure you as an educator and podcast host and writer, suffered the same frustrations I do, where it’s often very difficult to find basic information about wine online, and God help you if you’re trying to actually like order wine in many places. And some of that, you know, has to do with laws that go well beyond the winery. But I’m wondering, you know, this is an interesting place, I think, to start in, and we’ll talk a little more about kind of online classes specifically. But have you seen a recent change in the way that wineries writ large relate to the Internet ?

Natalie MacLean 7:20
Absolutely. And I think it’s part of the digital Darwinism that Paul Mabrey talks about, they’ve had to adapt, adapt or die. And sadly, a lot of wineries and restaurants, as you know, have had to close due to COVID. But there’s also been a lot of resilience. And people have had to get through and past a couple of huge mental blocks, like getting used to using the tools, whether it’s Zoom, or Skype or whatever, and realising that you can use those tools effectively to connect with your audience, whether they are wine purchasers, or your former restaurant customers, or like educators like me, your students who love wine, but yes, to answer your question, the wine industry. You know, I’ve been writing about wine for 20 years now. And it seems to sort of make an inch progress every 1000 years, it seems to me, but I think COVID has been an accelerant. Like it’s almost brought the future forward by about 10 years. And I think, in some cases, maybe many cases, that’s been a good thing for the wine industry.

Zach Geballe 8:26
Very cool. And I do want to kind of come back to this idea of COVID as an accelerant, and bringing the future closer. But I want to step back for a second say, or ask you, what pre COVID, as you saw, was the sort of landscape for online wine education. What broadly speaking was out there? And was most of it, I would say print I mean, not really, but you know, written material, was there video content, you know, what kind of was the landscape a year ago or so?

Natalie MacLean 8:54
This is, of course, just my opinion in terms of what I’ve surveyed. But to me, it was like the early days of the Internet  itself. People didn’t use the medium for what it could do; it was more brochure ware. So hey, we got a textbook; let’s just digitise it and people will, you know, read through it online. And as we all know, reading online is quite a different experience, as is learning online. And so that’s mostly what I was seeing. Apart from just a lot of organisations not taking advantage of online, it was just uncomfortable. They weren’t past the mental block of using the tools, but for what there was, a lot of it was, as I say brochure ware. It’d be just like, let’s just put it up there, and our students can sort through it.

Zach Geballe 9:37
And was your sense that the biggest reason for this was that maybe the commonly held conception was that wine was the thing you had to learn in person, that it just was not possible to learn wine at a distance.

Natalie MacLean 9:49
Absolutely. Wine is such a sensory topic as you know Zach. It engages all of our senses and when I first started offering online courses five years ago it was like what are you going to do; text me the wine?  I mean, how is this going to work? Stay with me, this can work, because it has a lot of advantages which we can get to. But yeah, I think that was a huge perception, you know, how are we going to have this shared sensory experience, especially with something that is so communal, so connective, in its power to bring people together? There are ways and I think people have found those ways, whether they’re wineries, wine clubs, educators, and so on. There is a way to still engage all the senses, but you have to use the medium and its advantages; the online medium, correctly, for what it brings to the table, so to speak.

Zach Geballe 10:38
Well, so, let’s talk a little bit about those advantages, because I think, you know, we can talk disadvantages, but I think that most people listening can, at this point, pretty well understand what some of the disadvantages are to being at home, looking at your computer, trying to do something. Like we’ve spent the better part of a year doing that, most of us. So what are some of those advantages, either over in person classes or ways in which online classes and education can offer something that an in person class can’t?

Natalie MacLean 11:04
I learned this, especially over the past year, certainly, over the five years I’ve been teaching wine and food pairing. But over the past year, I’ve seen a lot more of thisAnd that is people from very small towns taking advantage of courses, because maybe they don’t even have  a wine course offered in their town, people with mobility issues, who feel more comfortable at home, those who are just shy, I mean, I totally identify with that as an introvert. It’s like, I don’t know if I want to sit in a wine class for the first time and be there tasting. I mean, I remember my first time at a wine tasting. And you know, the person was droning on at the front. And everybody’s writing these notes and I thought,” Oh, my God, what am I doing here”. So I just started writing my grocery list. And I remember those feelings of just, I don’t know, embarrassment, and not knowing what to do. So online, offers a toe in to get used to what a wine class could be like, and that it could be fun, and not so socially pretentious, and so on. So and then you have all kinds of other cases, depending on who the person is taking the classes. I have couples taking my class as date night. So it’s a two for one benefit and it’s something they can do together. And, of course, it’s something they can do safely from home; they don’t have to get a sitter, they don’t have to find parking and they don’t have to necessarily commit to one day or particular day a week. Because a lot of these online courses, have a mix of pre recorded materials, and then live tastings. And even if you missed the live tasting, you can watch the recording, which often doesn’t or didn’t used to happen with in person classes.

Zach Geballe 12:43
Well, I think that’s a really good point that you make, which is one of the real powerful things about online classes, is the inherent flexibility that they can offer people; because I think of this, you know, from my perspective, sometimes pre COVID, as a wine educator for a restaurant company. And, you know, one of the challenges that I had, was even with a captive audience of people who worked for the company, that it’s hard to get people in the same place at the same time. And, you know, we’re kind of in the process of talking about how to turn some of what I was teaching into multimedia assets. And obviously, you know, COVID put the kibosh on that. But it is really true, that even people who we think of as having, you know, a quote, unquote, normal schedule, their lives have a lot of different dimensions. And so I think you’re right, that there’s definitely something about the kind of online format that really can be flexible for people.

Natalie MacLean 13:30
Absolutely. And just to add to your point there, Zach , you know, I used to have a lot of people who travelled for business in my classes, because they could take the class from the hotel and raid the minibar. So they were already of the mindset, using the tech, and being on a laptop and whatever. But now, it’s more quote unquote, regular folk, who are taking the classes. And I think too, that whole thing about flexibility, about going at your own pace, is one thing, choosing your own time to consume the content is another thing. But the third important aspect I think about online education is, it’s not one and done, you don’t take a course and then you probably don’t see the instructor again, or you can’t access the instructor. With an online course, at least the one I offer, and I see others doing this for sure, is lifetime access. So that slows the pace of learning down, which is really important for adult learners. We’re not made, we’re not geared to sit for two to three hours on one topic at night, usually, after a long day of work. You can do it sort of snack size, like all the videos in my course are seven to 10 minutes max, because you can not only consume them quickly, but you can go back and you can have this sort of layered learning experience of going back and over them again and again.

Zach Geballe 14:47
I’m curious too,  whether it’s in you know, what you’re doing or maybe some other people doing in online classes that you’ve seen, you know, one of the I would say kind of potential advantages and disadvantages of online education, is that while it does afford for people who might be in smaller towns or communities or otherwise sort of unable to participate in an in person class in a non COVID time, of course, I do wonder if you’re able to kind of foster community within any kind of live setting. You know, I think one thing that people think about as maybe being part of the fun of theoretically doing an in person wine class is, you know, obviously there presumably, while many of them are going with a partner, or friend or group of friends or whatever, but that you know, they might interact with other wine aficionados in person. And is that something that can be captured online in these kinds of classes?

Natalie MacLean 15:34
Mm hmm. That’s a great question, Zach. So two things on that. First, what surprised me pre COVID is that the folks who were registering for my class and taking it together, some of them were having in real life meetups afterwards, they got to know each other. And they, of course, had to be within the same region to do this. But it really made me happy that some people connected so well, that they started little in real life tasting groups outside the course. But the course was the connective tissue. And another thing that some people were doing was using the course, they’d take the recordings, invite people over and have a guided tasting. This one gentlemen, you never know how what you put out in the world is going to be used just like a book. It’s the reader who makes experience, it’s the student who really co creates with you often. And that is he would take a module, just like a 10 minute module, say on pairing wine and cheese. And he streamed it up to his television. And he invited seven or eight friends over, and they would stop and start the video. So my talking head was on top of his dresser or whatever it was, and they listened, they would taste, they already had the wines and they would talk about what the module was. And they found it a really fun way. And of course, that was a seven for one benefit. He was the only one who registered for the course. And I am totally good with that. Because I think that’s a great way to do it. But to your point, I mean, there is something about being in person, that cannot be replaced online. You know, with all the senses and the eye contact, even the smell, not just the wine, but other people, there’s a lot going on in person that cannot be replaced online.

Zach Geballe 17:15
So in light of that, you know, I think that I’ve heard in talking to people, and this is both online, people who provide online educational content, but also the kinds of entities that might be interested in continuing down that path, whether they’re wine accrediting bodies, or even individual wineries or brands, things like that, who might be on the one hand, certainly intrigued by continuing to develop online content, and especially things like classes where there’s a little bit more of a cohesive product, as opposed to just you know, here’s a, you mean, obviously, wineries have been putting out three minute glossy videos about their wines for, you know, a decade or more. But this idea that, okay, this has all been well and good. But at some point, hopefully, people will be vaccinated, the COVID will be not completely a non factor, but will be much less of a kind of all consuming concern for people. And are people going to want to do on line wine classes anymore. And I’m curious to start with, you know, kind of in this area with, what do you think of that idea? You know, do you think that all of a sudden, everyone’s going to  just kind of be like, nope, let’s go out.

Natalie MacLean 18:22
I’d be out of a job, Zach. I think that they’re here to stay. But I think once COVID is wrestled to the ground, there’ll be a hybrid model. I don’t think we can unremember the advantages that we talked about with online courses. And I think they can be such a strong partner, beyond a supplement, I think they can be an equal partner to in person tastings. So for the people you can’t reach or who can’t travel or who need that flexibility; the way you can reach them is through these online efforts. And maybe you’re working in tandem, so that your first year intro course is online, but your advanced students really want to meet in person. I think there’s all kinds of ways to do it. What some wineries have done when their tasting rooms were open, but limited capacity, is they were starting to treat it like a restaurant experience where you had to make reservations. And it was smaller groups, more personal service, which is really nifty. And I think, just as they might like to continue that, as opposed to just the crowded bar scene at the tasting bar, I think the online class experience can be a really natural hybrid partner with the in person.

Zach Geballe 19:39
Gotcha. And I’m wondering, you know, in that idea of a hybrid model, one of the things I’ve seen and noticed and just in the challenge of educating online, is not just the sort of practical consideration of in an online, purely online setting if people are tasting wine, everyone has to have the wine, and that’s actually more of a challenge than you think for the listener who hasn’t really thought this through. Because in a normal in person course, each person or each, you know, couple of whatever isn’t getting a bottle of each wine. But often to make that work in an online setting, you kind of have to do that. And furthermore, at least here in the US, there’s also the challenge of if you have people in different states, there’s going to be very different access to certain wines, or you end up picking wines that are very, very broadly available, but might be kind of less exciting for that fact. So I think that there’s some way in which you’re right, that a model where some amount of tasting is happening in person just to control costs, and things like that is desirable, but you know, also giving people some kind of space. I’m wondering, though, too, if what you could see is almost more of a, I’m going to  say it this way. And I don’t mean it hierarchically, but like a tiered system where some people are engaging with the content in a purely remote online fashion, and maybe some people with more time or more easy access to wherever the classes being held, are doing it in person. Is that something you expect to see? Or does that feel too segregated I guess,

Natalie MacLean 21:04
It could be, it’s going to be interesting to see how that unfolds. But I would love to see more intermeshing of the two, like so say you, they have an in person tasting at the winery or the restaurant, record it so that you know your other club members or your restaurant clients can watch it online. I would just hope that they can interweave the two, because the goal is right, stronger connections with your customers or your readers or your listeners are whatever it is. You want multiple touchpoints. Kind of like what Jeff Bezos of Amazon calls the flywheel. You need to have multiple touch points with your customers if you’re going to keep them in your circle. So in my case, you know, I’ve published a couple books, I have the podcast, the courses, mobile apps and a website. So they may come in through one door. But I hope to keep them in my home, if you will, through other means of engaging them. And I’d love to see that happen with the intermeshing of online and in person classes and tastings.

Zach Geballe 22:06
Gotcha. And I’m curious, this is going to be a little bit of a departure from the topic about specifically online education. But I’m curious too, or maybe it’s related to online education, I don’t know we’ll see. Is your sense that what people are looking to get out of wine education has changed? Or is it still the same thing that it’s been, at least since you got started?

Natalie MacLean 22:27
I think that some of the fundamental goals are still the same. So for consumers, it’s often a deeper appreciation to enjoy wine more, enjoy life more socialise, even online. And for the professionals; because I do have quite a few sommeliers and winery staff who take my course, it’s to get more of the credentials, the skill training for their job. So because I focus on food and wine pairing, they tend to take that, because it’s not covered in great depth in a lot of the formal accreditation programmes. So I still see those sort of two tracks, two goals, fundamentally the same. But I think, you know, in a time of COVID, people are just looking for some sort of micro mastery or something to break the tedium, to use their time wisely, I guess. And, and also, I don’t know if you’ve heard the stats lately, Zach , but you know, wine consumption, alcohol consumption, is on the rise with COVID. And I know that I’ve talked about this openly in the past, but some students too, are looking for a way to find moderation through appreciation. And I welcome that too. Because I really think that’s an important aspect of what we can do when we educate about wine; it’s not just the pleasure, but helping people understand it more because I I just have this fundamental belief that what you love, know, and understand, you don’t abuse.

Zach Geballe 23:57
Well, let’s leave it with one question that I just want your take on, which is what lately have you had that you really like wine wise?

Natalie MacLean 24:06
Oh, my goodness. So curveball. All right. Is it cliché at this point to even indicate that you like Pinot Noir anymore?

Zach Geballe 24:16
Cliché is often for a reason. I think that’s fair.

Natalie MacLean 24:18
There you go. Well, I love the hedonism of Pinot Noir. You know, so you get packed with flavour, but you’re not asleep on the sofa at seven, so I like quite a few. I’m pretty promiscuous when it comes to Pinot Noir. So I love cool climate California Pinot Noir ; of course I’m here in Ontario so I love those from the Niagara and Prince Edward County. But you know, I equally love German Pinot Noir. So, yeah, I’ve been loving that lately.

Zach Geballe 24:44
Excellent. Well, now, thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it and your insight into the sort of wine education space online. We’ll put the link to Natalie’s website in the show notes here if you folks are interested in checking it out. She’s got quite a lot of content that you can take a look at if you’re interested. Again, Natalie, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

Natalie MacLean 25:02
Hey Zach. This was really fun. I hope we get to chat again and I got to get you on my podcast

Zach Geballe 25:07
We can arrange that.

Natalie MacLean 25:08
Alright.

Adam Teeter 25:11
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcast; it really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself, and Zach Geballe. He does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout out to my VinePair co founder Josh Malin for helping make all this possible. And also to Keith Beavers, tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Natalie MacLean 26:07
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Zach Geballe. In the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class and where you can find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube Live video every Wednesday at 7pm. That’s all in the show notes at Nataliemaclean.com/121. You won’t want to miss next week when we chat with Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, who has been an afficionado of both wine and White House history for most of his life. He served as Ronald Reagan’s post presidential chief of staff and has published a gorgeous new book called Wine and the White House. He joins us next week from his home in Washington DC.

In the meantime, if you missed Episode 42 go back and take a listen. I chat about pairing wine and veggies, how to chill a wine quickly and the link between resveratrol in wine and depression. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.

Some carnivore friends I know say that salad is what food eats. I wouldn’t go that far. But I do recognise that vegetables can be a problem when it comes to wine because they’re far more challenging than say meat, where you have the obvious proteins to bind with tannins. You have more austere flavours, more bitter compounds that are really hard on wine. Let’s start with wines to avoid. I think the main offenders when it comes to veggies are robust red wines; think Cabernet, sometimes Shiraz. These full body full flavoured wines often overpower vegetables. Their tannins can clash with wine as well. So if you love red wines, what I’d suggest is choosing smooth, soft textured fruity reds, such as Pinot Noir, Gamay and Sangiovese.

If you liked this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone who’s interested in the tips that I shared. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your class this week.

Natalie MacLean 28:36
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full bodied bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at NataliemacLean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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