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Cyber wine

Published:  23 July, 2008

There I was in the kitchen, grumpy because I felt I was having to give up my precious Sunday evening to do some sort of virtual wine tasting. Being an editor, the boss, you learn the brutal art of delegating. After all, you can't do everything. Indeed, all those stress guides tell you to prioritise and delegate, but I had left it too late. Last thing on the Friday, there was hardly anyone around so I was left with six bottles of wine, a website and an access code. Drat!

I'd rather be combing The Sunday Times or The Observer, but there I am, logging in, in a huff. Or trying to log in. After a handful of unsuccessful attempts, I think, Great - I've tried,

it won't let me log in, I'm out of jail.' Then, just after 6.45pm,

I get in, and gloom sets in.

Four blokes appear on my monitor, gathered around what looks like someone's dining room. I recognise Ben Llewelyn, Enotria's director of business development. Okay, so they're involved. Then a French winemaker, Vincent Chansault from Domaine Gayda, who I can barely hear, a food writer, Peter Begg, and a guy called Alan Stevens, who apparently used to work at Which?

The tasting begins with a L'Archet Sauvignon Blanc - not bad at all - followed by a MandraRossa Fiano. Some of the wines are obviously supplied by Enotria, so that explains Llewelyn's presence. As the wine starts to flow, so does the banter from the participants. Woman Rider' logs on. Who's she? Images of a Catwoman-like dominatrix flick through the imagination. From the tone of the banter I deduce that, like myself, few of the participants are spitting: the typos in my own inane comments are a dead giveaway. I suddenly realise that I'm quite enjoying this.

James Booth, the panel chairman and MD of Virtual Wine, is reading out some of the comments. They're having to play it pretty straight, unfortunately. One of the participants announces that everyone has got their clothes off'. I wonder what Woman Rider' is up to. No stripping in the Davis household, though.

At the end of the tasting I realise that not only have I enjoyed it but, frankly, I'm a bit drunk. I loved the last wine - the L'Archet Syrah - and I try to buy some. Unfortunately, I find that I can't get through, which seems to defeat the whole object of the exercise. Anyway, as I reported in a subsequent leader in Harpers, the virtual tasting turned out to be a bit of a hoot. I wonder, Could this truly be a new way forward?

Another night, another tasting

A month later I have another go. This time there is an Italian theme, and not only is Llewelyn back to lead the tasting, he has brought a colleague, Davina Boyle - a self-confessed Italianophile'. Also present is Angelo Garafalo, an Italian restaurateur, who looks like he hasn't slept for a week.

The same dining room and table pop up on my monitor, but this time we are also presented with a map of Italy and

a regional overview. In a preamble to the session, James

gives some tips on tasting wine. When Ben is asked why he appears to have white trainers on while being otherwise conservatively dressed, he shuffles uncomfortably and mutters something about his wife having a baby. Is he going to run

to the hospital, or to her bedside? Anyway, this time I'm

more circumspect about swallowing. The 2004 Pinot Grigio Colterenzio (8.50) from Alto Adige is a pleasant surprise, being fuller and richer than you'd expect from most Italian Pinot Grigios. Certainly it is better than the 2004 Botromagno Gravina from Puglia (6.75), which disappoints. The 2003 Brolio Chianti Classico (11.50) turns out to be the star of the evening, just shading the Pinot Grigio. The other wines were 2004 Fontanafredda Bricco Tondo (7.25; 100% Barbera), 2003 Planeta Segreta (8; 60% Nero d'Avola, 20% Syrah,

20% Merlot) and 2002 Umani Ronchi Jorio (8.25; 100% Montepulciano).

Who and what?

So, who is this James Booth, and what is this Virtual Wine all about? I met up with him in the City of London. Thirty-two years old and already running three companies, Booth, like so many, got into wine by accident. An exchange between twinned towns, and the 15-year-old Booth found himself at Domaine Louis Rmy in Morey St-Denis in deepest Burgundy. Having got the bug, he obtained degrees in French and Management at Nottingham University, before spending 1993/94 in Burgundy working with Jean-Marc Brocard in Chablis.

Quickly realising that there is not much money in wine - the best way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with

a large fortune' - he got into the City of London.

After attending a wine tasting presided over by Serena Sutcliffe MW, Booth got the idea of providing a wine-buying service for friends and colleagues. Grape-juice was formed four years ago, and two years later he offered wines for drinking new. In short, for 120 a month, members get two cases of claret, a case of white and a case of red Burgundies, and then there was a discretionary case' of wines for everyday drinking.

It's a service for those who want to drink quality wine but have no knowledge or time,' says Booth. Membership is at 50, and we look after storage and admin. We update [members] every year, telling them when they should drink the wine and/or helping them find a buyer.'

Booth sources his wines from the likes of Berkmann, Liberty, Enotria and Charles Taylor Wines. Last August, Grape-juice merged with Domaine Gayda, a property near Carcassone in southwest France, sourcing and making wines from all over the Languedoc and supplying many UK restaurants. Not content with that, he launched Virtual Wine last September as a joint venture with a production company, Insitu Productions.

So, what's the deal? Well, the next event is a tasting of French wines on Sunday 29 January. For 125 you get a case of wine - two bottles of each of the six wines to be tasted - delivered to your door. You then log on just before 7pm, and away you go.

For more information, visit