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Thoughts on Taste Live, Twitter and online wine tasting

Last Friday, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the Taste Live (formerly Twitter Taste Live) online wine tasting in honor of Hospice du Rhone.  For the uninitiated, Taste Live is a community of over 1000 wine (and beer) enthusiasts who get together roughly every couple of weeks to taste wine (or beer) on a particular theme.  The tasters, scattered all over the world, share their thoughts and questions about what they're tasting over Twitter.  The Taste Live Web site compiles all the Twitterers' comments into an interface that is easy to assimilate at a glance. 

My first vision was sort of pathetic: hundreds of lonely wine tasters getting together virtually on a Friday evening to taste wines in front of their computers and communicate what they thought in 135-character bites.  But it appears that most of the participants get together at central locations (wine shops, wineries or restaurants) to taste together, share some camaraderie, and, oh yeah, tweet about what they're tasting.  A terrific diagram from the Taste Live "learn more" tab explains:


The Taste Live events are organized by time zone.  There were three separate tastings that happened last Friday: one in the UK, another on the US east coast, and the one that I was involved in, on the US west coast.  They all share a theme for the day (last Friday's theme was Hospice du Rhone) but feature a different selection of four or five wines.  Customizing the wines for each tasting allows the organizers to correct for the regional variability in wine distribution and availability, and to identify retailers who have agreed to stock the wines that will be discussed in their time zones.  Each tasting took place from 7pm to 10pm local time, so the east coast tasting was finishing up as we were getting started.

The west coast wine selections (chosen by Jill Bernheimer of Domaine 547 and Paige Granback of The Jug Shop) included two Tablas Creek wines: the 2007 Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and the 2006 Mourvedre.  Jill and Paige invited me to taste and tweet along with everyone else to help give some perspective on our wines.  

I, of course, was doing exactly what I'd visualized: sitting at home at 7pm on a Friday evening, trying to tweet about wine while simultaneously getting the kids ready for bed.  Not, perhaps, the most conducive environment for focus, but I still was able to contribute in a fairly consistent fashion.

My review of the event?  I thought that it had components that were excellent, including that the Hospice du Rhone team had invited some eminent Rhone Rangers winemakers (including Randall Grahm and Jeff Cohn) to sit in at the event's Sonoma epicenter and tweet about the wines they were tasting and about Rhone-style wines in general.  Plus, as a participant, you get some reach beyond just those who participate day-of because many of the organizers and participants are wine bloggers and blog about the wines they taste.  But it also had chaotic elements, with tasters in different places wanting to move at different speeds and people who hadn't bothered (or weren't able) to get the pre-selected wines contributing thoughts on wines that weren't on the list and weren't in front of anyone else.  There is really no capacity with the present technology to moderate of this sort of discussion, and Jill commented mid-way through that organizing wine tweets was like herding cats.  It was also difficult to answer questions that came up because of the decentralized, non-threaded nature of Twitter itself.  Tweets flowed in, hundreds in all over the course of the evening, including ones with some excellent questions for the producers involved, but by the time I was able to respond to a question, the twitterer might have already asked another question and typically we'd received dozens of other tweets in the interim.  Conversations become difficult and you end up with lots of not-particularly-interactive chatter.

So, I loved the concept, and was thrilled to have Tablas Creek included, but am not sure that Twitter is the right engine for this sort of tasting.  Twitter's 135-character limit for tweets is both a strength and a weakness, forcing contributors to be concise but limiting the depth of possible answers.  And the event will get increasingly unmanageable as its numbers grow.  We probably had somewhere around 100 contributors to the west coast tasting, and that already created such a rapid flow of tweets that correspondance was difficult.  If the event should grow to 1000 people it seems like it might collapse under its own weight.

Still, Taste Live is an exciting development in the world of creating wine tastings that are both thematic and decentralized.  As the technology gets better, both for moderation and for creating threaded discussions, I can imagine this becoming a really powerful way of sharing thoughts and experiences of wine.  Will it be via Twitter?  I'm not convinced.  But if you'd like to keep up with me just in case, you can follow along at @jasonchaas.