Airing between regular episodes of the “VinePair Podcast,” “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at podcast@vinepair.com.

In this episode, host Zach Geballe sits down with online wine educator Natalie MacLean. Well before Covid, MacLean began investigating the ways in which online and wine education may intersect and has been offering classes for the last five years. Before educating, she worked for the high-tech startup that now hosts Google’s Mountain View headquarters. While this equipped her with a valuable understanding of how wine education could move into the online world, it also allowed her to take meetings just an hour from Napa and Sonoma. Here, she discusses scheduling her Mountain View appointments to align with vineyard trips, and why she believes the online landscape may be the perfect place to learn about wine.

MacLean emphasizes that online classes not only provide a gentle entry point for curious oenophiles, but also promote greater accessibility than in-person classes. Online options promote greater flexibility for those with mobility or scheduling issues, and better accommodate the introverted wine pro. She discusses what a hybrid option could look like in the future, and what consumers can expect online education to look like post-Covid.

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Both MacLean and Geballe touch on the advantages of online learning, and the communities emerging from virtual wine classes.

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Zach: 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. Thanks so much for your time.

Natalie: Hey, Zach, it’s great to be here.

Z: So let’s start with a little bit just about you. How did you get interested in wine and come to the online space as an educator and podcaster?

N: I think like a lot of people I stumbled into it, came in through the back door. There certainly wasn’t 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, Calif. And I was on that leave, and I needed to keep my brain alive. And so because I was in that high-tech world, I pitched a local magazine an article on wine on the internet. Because in the meantime, just before I went on that leave, I took 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 Paleolithic days of the internet, Zach, and mobile apps and that sort of thing, and the podcast. But I always liked bringing the two together to see what could happen because they’re such different worlds. And yet I think they’re so complementary.

Z: When you were in tech, were people in tech interested in wine? Was there a culture of that at that time?

N: Oh, absolutely. So Mountain View, Calif., 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 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 how I picked up my passion. It was something I could fit into kind of a crazy work schedule. People at this company slept under their desks like a lot of high-tech startups. But the wine was definitely 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 were all talking about how the internet can transform all kinds of businesses. So you can see how far back this goes.

Z: Yeah. And 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 or 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 order wine in many places. And some of that has to do with laws that go well beyond the winery. But I’m wondering — this is an interesting place to start, then we’ll talk a lot more about online classes, specifically —have you seen a recent change in the way that wineries writ large relate to the internet?

N: Absolutely. And I think it’s part of the digital Darwinism that Paul Mabray 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 realizing that you can use those tools effectively to connect with your audience — whether they are wine purchasers, or your former restaurant customers, or for educators like me, your students who love wine. But yes, to answer your question, the wine industry, I’ve been writing about wine for 20 years now, and it seems to make an inch progress every thousand years, it seems to me. But I think Covid has been an accelerant. 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.

Z: Very cool. And I do want to come back to this idea of Covid as an accelerant and bringing the future closer. But I want to step back for a second and ask you what, pre-Covid, as you saw it, was the sort of landscape for online wine education? What, broadly speaking, was out there and was most of it written material? Was there video content? What was the landscape a year ago or so?

N: 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 brochure-ware. So, “Hey, we’ve got a textbook. Let’s just digitize it and people will 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 organizations 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 would be just like, “Let’s just put it up there and our students can sort through it.”

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

N: Absolutely. Wine is such a sensory topic, as you know, Zach. I mean, 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 that, 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? But 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.

Z: Well let’s talk a little bit about those advantages, because I think we could 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. We’ve spent the better part of a year doing that, most of us. But what are some of those advantages over in-person classes or ways in which online classes and education can offer something that an in-person class can’t?

N: Well, 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 this, and 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 class, a wine class for the first time and be there tasting. I mean, I remember my first time at a wine tasting and the person was droning on at the front and everybody was 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 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. 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, but 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 miss the live tasting, you can watch the recording, which often doesn’t or didn’t used to happen with in-person classes.

Z: 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 from my perspective sometimes, pre-Covid as a wine educator for a restaurant company, and one of the challenges that I had was even with a captive audience of people who worked for the company, it’s hard to get people in the same place at the same time. And we’re in the process of talking about how to turn some of what I was teaching into multimedia assets. And obviously Covid put the kibosh on that. But it is really true that even people who we think of as having a “normal schedule,” their lives have a lot of different dimensions. And so I think you’re right that there’s definitely something about the online format that really can be flexible for people.

N: Absolutely. And just to add to your point there, Zach, I used to have a lot of people who traveled 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 “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 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 cannot 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.

Z: I’m curious, too, whether it’s in what you’re doing or maybe some other people are doing online classes that you’ve seen. One of the 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. I think one thing that people think about as being part of the fun of theoretically doing an in-person wine class is, obviously many of them are going with a partner or friend or group of friends or whatever, but they might interact with other wine aficionados in person. And is that something that can be captured online in these kinds of classes?

N: That’s a great question, Zach. So two things on that. First, what surprised me, pre-Covid is that the folks who are registering for my class and taking it, some of them were having 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. But 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 gentleman, 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 the experience. It’s the student who really co-creates with you often. And 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 to register 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, there is something about being in person that cannot be replaced online. Where all the senses and the eye contact, even the smell, not just of the wine, but other people, there’s a lot going on in person that cannot be replaced online.

Z: So in light of that, a thing that I’ve heard in talking to people, both 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. Obviously, wineries have been putting out three-minute glossy videos about their wines for a decade or more. But this idea that, OK, this has all been well and good, but at some point, hopefully people will be vaccinated. Covid will be not completely a non-factor but will be much less of an all-consuming concern for people. And are people going to want to do online classes anymore? And I’m curious, to start with, what do you think of that idea? Do you think that all of a sudden everyone’s going to just kind of be like “Nope, let’s go out”?

N: I’d be out of a job, Zach.

Z: Fair.

N: No, 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 un-remember the advantages that we’ve 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 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.

Z: Gotcha. And I’m wondering, in that idea of a hybrid model, one of the things I’ve seen and noticed just in the challenge of educating online is it’s not just the practical consideration of in a 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 couple or whatever isn’t getting a bottle of 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 U.S., 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 the model where some amount of tasting is happening in person just to control costs and things like that is desirable, but also giving people some kind of space. I’m wondering, though, too, if what you could see as almost more of — I’m going to say it this way and it’s not meant 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 class is being held are doing it in person. Is that something you would expect to see. or does that feel too segregated?

N: 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. So say they have an in-person tasting at the winery or the restaurant recorded so that your other club members or restaurant clients can watch it online. I would just hope that they can interweave the two, because the goal is stronger connections with your customers or your readers or your listeners or whatever it is. You want multiple touch points, 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 I’ve published a couple of 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.

Z: Gotcha. And I’m curious, this is going to be a little bit of a departure from the topic specifically about online education. 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?

N: I think 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, socialize, 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 programs. So I still see those sort of two tracks, two goals, fundamentally the same. But I think, in the 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 also, I don’t know if you’ve heard the stats lately, Zach, but 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 just have this fundamental belief that what you love, know, and understand, you don’t abuse.

Z: 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?

N: Oh my goodness.

Z: Yeah, curveball, sorry.

N: Oh, yeah, right! Is it cliche at this point to say, to even indicate, that you like Pinot Noir anymore?

Z: Eh. Cliches are often cliches for a reason. I think that’s fair.

N: There you go. Well I love the hedonism of Pinot Noir, so you get packed with flavor, but you’re not asleep on the sofa at 7. 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 I equally love German Pinot Noir, so, yeah, I’ve been loving that lately.

Z: Excellent. Well, Natalie, 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. And again, Natalie, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.

N: Hey, Zach, this was really fun. I hope we get to chat again. And I’ve got to get you on my podcast.

Z: We can arrange that.

N: All right.

Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced by myself and Zach Geballe. It is also mixed and edited by him. Yeah, Zach, we know you do a lot. I’d also like to thank the entire VinePair team, including my co-founder, Josh, and our associate editor, Cat. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

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