Taking Flight: Wine tastings go virtual

Until you can safely visit a vineyard, take advantage of wine tasting experiences online

by Diana Ballon

Published in Travel Life Magazine in Spring 2021

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I sip a 2014 Malbec while the Flying Somm— sommelier and pilot Ryan Sullivan—describes the region where the grape is grown. It’s from Argentina’s wine mecca, Mendoza, on a vineyard that lies hundreds of miles inland, at an altitude of 1,170 metres.

Sullivan speaks to us, and several other couples, via Zoom as part of a virtual wine tasting. For an hour we are transported, first to France, where we enjoy a 2019 Pure rosé from Pays d’Oc and then to Argentina, all while enjoying a delicious three-course dinner catered by Daniel et Daniel.

Ryan Sullivan

As Sullivan shows us, drinking wine is part of an experience, whether conjuring memories of a place we once enjoyed that wine—perhaps on a piazza in Italy, or simply at home with the person we love.

During Covid, virtual wine tastings have emerged out of necessity, but it’s a trend so popular it promises to continue once the pandemic is over.

There is a “growing trend from [Ontario VQA] wineries to offer online experiences or tastings… free,” says Magdalena Kaiser, director of PR for VQA Wines of Ontario and Wine Country Ontario.

You can do virtual tastings via Zoom, or join video chats on Instagram Live offered by wineries or wine distributors. You can also have wine along with cheeses or entire catered meals sent to your home before your tasting. Or you can simply screen recorded tastings with wine you have bought yourself.

For the last several days, I’ve been trying various forms of virtual tastings to sample the range of what’s on offer.


For a private tasting, I chose Ontario’s Hidden Bench Estate Winery. Six test tube-shaped bottles of wine arrive before my scheduled tasting, so I would have them ready for my time with sommelier Melissa Marynissen the next day. Marynissen explains that virtual tastings at Hidden Bench mimic what the winery had started offering on site last June. Rather than guests choosing their own wines, the winery chooses six wines “curated to highlight our portfolio and guide people to what we are really proud of. Normally people pick what they know, and what they are used to. But having a curated selection means being open to getting out of your comfort zone, and trying and maybe discovering something new.”

For me, that meant discovering that I did like Riesling, at least I liked their 2017 Estate Riesling, with perfectly balanced sugar at the front of the palate, sweet golden apple and bosc pear in the mid-palate, and then a long pleasing bitter finish.

The winery had “already been moving away from the tasting bar model to a more structured tasting experience, but COVID pushed us more quickly [in that direction],” Marynissen says.

Other virtual options involve larger events with many people logging onto a hosted tasting, like the tasting through the Flying Somm, and another through Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Two Sisters Vineyards.

On Friday of the Valentine’s Day weekend, my husband and I joined 50 other couples to learn about the art of food and wine pairings from their estate sommelier Dieter Unruh. We were sent three glorious bottles of wine before the event—Lush sparkling rosé, a 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon and
a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon ice wine. To accompany them, we had prepared a mushroom tart and osso bucco, using the recipes sent to us by the winery.

While less intimate than a private tasting, the wines from Two Sisters were exceptional. I had sampled many Cabernet Franc’s from Niagara, but these did not prepare me for the layered complexity of their Cabernet Sauvignon.

Saturday’s event with the Flying Somm focused more broadly on wines and wine tasting, and offered serious wines and wine knowledge while remaining relaxed, fun and non-judgmental.

Torontonians Katherine and John Doyle joined four other couples to create a “wine tasting circle,” with each couple hosting a monthly wine experience, choosing the wines they want to profile and suggesting food pairings to prepare ahead of time.

Their kickoff event featured the Okanagan’s Little Engine Wines and began with a short performance by a West Coast vocalist followed by a recorded tasting from their master wine maker and slide show from the vineyard.

For a listing of wine events, check the Wine Country Ontario website at winecountryontario.ca/ event-listings/.

For a private virtual tasting with Hidden Bench, visit hiddenbench.com/visit/ tastings/.

For virtual tastings at Two Sisters Vineyards, check out twosistersvineyards.com and then click on Tastings & Tours.

For tastings with the Flying Somm, see www.theflyingsomm.ca/ virtual.