In the before, right now I would have been vacationing with my best friend – sitting on the terracotta patio of a Tuscan villa sipping on lucious Barolos and Brunellos. As it stands, there’s (obviously) been a change of plans and instead I’m sitting on my porch having finished a virtual wine lesson, led by Tail Up Goat co-owner Bill Jensen. While nothing can quite match a Sienese sunset, the lesson was delicious, entertaining and, for now, the closest I’m going to get to the tasting room in a vineyard.
Tail Up Goat ceased operations completely on March 16, after the owners prepared and sent food home with all employees. Employee and guest safety were the owners’ primary concern. They estimated it would be at least two months before doors opened again, but to a very different kind of business – one including a wine market.
Stay at Home Wine School was Jensen’s gut response to living in the “upside down,” a way for the team at Tail Up Goat (this writer included) to stay in contact and an option to spend one hour a week focused on something we all love – wine – rather than on the peril at our doorsteps.
“The idea for class initially was a way for staff to connect,” Jensen says. He has used his role as beverage director at both Tail Up Goat and its sister restaurant, Reveler’s Hour, to consistently provide learning opportunities for employees.
“I thought about all the wine training we do at both restaurants and thought about trying to keep people engaged throughout this process and keep everyone connected. Wine education seemed like a natural fit.”
Jensen says his wife suggested opening the Zoom lessons to the public, a decision that was met with immediate fanfare from loyal regulars. As the quarantine weeks turned to months, the Wine School gained structure and participants. One of the things guests love about Jensen’s method to wine and pairing is that it’s approachable. The same energy translates to his Wine School sessions, which are now attended by more than 200 participants, including people from the DMV all the way to Austria.
Initial sessions included suggestions on wines to purchase, but are also flexible enough to feature “whatever people had on the shelf.” For the first few lessons, Jensen explored varietals, starting with chardonnay, until gradually switching to styles of wine. Mother’s Day had a #RoseAllDay theme (complete with chugging Sutter Home straight from the bottle), while another session focused on wines of the Virginia region, with vintners from local wineries like Early Mountain Vineyards and Walsh Family Wine joining as guest panelists.
“It has been a really fun audience,” Jensen says. “Some of the people are new to wine and are seriously studying. Others are in the trade. It’s a wide spread and I try to structure accordingly. It’s a topic I love, so there is no shortage of ideas for class. It’s also been fun to see how interactive it has become, with people rooting for particular topics.”
Lessons commence with the reading of a poem (a tradition Jensen also invokes for special dinners in the restaurant, his version of a “secular grace”) and involve a mix of history, geography, tasting notes and tall tales. The chat box is full of both convivial banter and serious questions from attendees. Extensive notes and a full recording are sent to all after the session.
In addition to keeping the Tail Up Goat team connected to their guests during the Covid-19 quarantine, donations contributed by attendees to the free Wine School bolstered an employee relief fund for the restaurant’s laid-off workers. In a recent email to Wine School participants, Jensen thanked patrons for their generous contributions and noted the support has “sustained and uplifted our staff in the midst of this unprecedented disruption to our industry.” Moving forward, any donations to the program will benefit Miriam’s Kitchen, a local organization that helps fight homelessness and food insecurity.
With some estimating that 20 percent of D.C.’s restaurants and small businesses are likely to remain permanently closed in the post-Covid world, those that reopen are doing so under an entirely new set of constraints and to a vastly different landscape.
As Tail Up Goat emerged from closure in mid-May, it was indeed with an entirely new model. In addition to take-home dinner kits and to-go cocktails, options from the wine school are also available. A Wine School starter kit, for example, includes a unique bottle of wine for the week’s lesson and pairing snack (like marcona almonds) for $25.
“Wine class will always be free, but we’re shifting emphasis,” Jensen says. “For one, we’re now running it out of the restaurant, instead of my living room. Things will get a little more specific because we’ll be a little less constrained by what retailers have available, but my hope is that it will remain relatable to people wherever they may be joining from.”
Local liquor laws are relaxed amid the pandemic, allowing restaurants to also serve as liquor purveyors, which Jensen says could turn into a long-term opportunity for struggling restaurants.
With people like Jensen who have spent their lives learning about wines from all over the world able to share both the knowledge and the product with consumers in an accessible way, we just may begin to see burgeoning wine regions and unrecognized producers come to the forefront of consumers’ minds, stimulating the economy in unforeseen ways.
“Retailers aren’t super inventive about the kinds of things they stock, so hopefully this will get people to take more chances and restaurants can drive that diversification.”
If the laws remain liberal, Jensen is hopeful that in a year or two this new model “could create a stronger set of businesses than existed prior to this crisis.”
For now, the summer of riesling is coming, and patrons can keep sipping from a safe social distance during Stay at Home Wine School.
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