What does virtual wine taste like?

When Associate Professor and Enology Specialist James Osborne learned he would have to take his five-credit Wine Production, Analysis and Sensory Evaluations class online, that question must have entered his mind.

A course that relies on the sensory evaluation of wines, the challenge to move it online in a matter of two weeks amidst the new social distancing protocols put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 seemed impossible.

But canceling the class was not an option for Osborne.

“Not only is this class required for graduation, but it is the culmination of years of theoretical study,” Osborne explained. “It’s where students get to apply all the organic chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology they have learned to the practical process of winemaking. I wasn’t about to take that off the table for my students.”

Like so many during these uncertain times, he stepped out of the traditional structure of the class and re-thought how it might work virtually.

As a required course, it serves as a capstone style class and is made up of mainly seniors – many of whom are non-traditional or post-baccalaureate students. A key objective of the course is for students to gain experience in evaluating and describing wines as they would in a winery setting where decisions are often made based only on the winemaker's palette. Ideally, students get to interact with each other, tasting wines together, learning from each other’s experiences, conducting lab work and getting hands-on experience. Over the course of the term, students typically participate in a number of sensory exercises, tasting 30+ different wines, evaluating wine aroma, flavor, and texture profiles and learning how to recognize faults, flaws, and other qualities in a wine.

Osborne knew he couldn’t ask his students to go out and buy 30+ bottles of wine. Even if they were available to everyone living in different places, the cost would be prohibitive. So, necessity being the mother of invention, Osborne made sure that all 18 of his students had a sample of the 33 different wines – in 20 milliliter vials.

That’s 594 vials containing 20 mls of wine, carefully poured, labeled and shipped to each student in his class in three states.  

Every vial has a numbered label, and a sticker on it confirming that it is “not for resale.” While finding a retail market for 20-milliliter vials of wine may seem ridiculous, Osborne needed to make sure he was adhering to every conceivable federal and state guideline associated with mailing alcohol. And then each box of wine samples was carefully packaged, labeled and shipped.

“It is so important that students are able to taste the wine, but it’s just as important that they taste it together,” Osborne added. “We learn so much from hearing how other people describe their unique sensory experience of the wine.”

So, with the wine shipped, the next question was how to taste it together while not actually being together.

Currently, Osborne is still working out those kinks and he plans his first sensory tasting class at the end of the April, following several weeks of recorded lab sessions and live class instruction via Zoom.

“My hope is that everyone will be able to line up the different samples of wine (3-4 at a time), and via video chat share their experiences together,” Osborne said. “We may experiment with small break-out rooms, as it’s more difficult as the instructor to see everyone at once and call on students to participate. We’re just making this up as we go a bit, trying to learn from what others are doing.”

While Osborne still believes the in-person experience is ideal, particularly for the lab work and the practical wine making which is not a part of the online course, he does recognize some unintended additional value the structure might provide.

Noting that many commercial wineries have started to introduce virtual wine tastings with their wine club members, Osborne added

“We may have inadvertently found some added value in giving students the experience to share their tasting experience online, as they may very well do the same in their future careers.”

Asked if he can imagine this course moving online in some capacity in the future, when not required by social distancing protocols, Osborne paused.

“Maybe. I can see the sensory evaluation piece as a one-credit E-Campus class open to all students. But I’d rather see my students in real life, in the lab, watching all their reactions and interactions”

This is a sensory class. The foundation of which is all the human senses. But Osborne is setting out to show that we can, in fact, taste virtual wine.