Diego Esteban, 34, has a crisp bottle of red tattooed on his forearm. A map of Argentina is pinned to the walls of his Buenos Aires bedroom, crisscrossed with latitudes and color-coded districts, detailing the full expanse of the country’s vibrant wine industry. Its flag, complete with the Inca Sun in the middle, sits in clear view of his webcam’s backdrop.
In a previous life — i.e., before the pandemic — Esteban worked as one of Argentina’s self-proclaimed premier wine-tasting tour guides. He’d whisk clusters of curious travellers up through Palermo Soho and Recoleta, pouring inky Malbecs into eager glasses until the light grew dim. But this sort of business is untenable under worldwide lockdown orders where leisure travel, as an industry, is in the midst of a historic contraction. The entire travel industry has been sidelined during the pandemic due to unprecedented restrictions of movement, health and safety regimens, and a borderless economic crisis that has families everywhere tightening their belts and delving into their savings accounts. (Bloomberg reports that tourism might not approach its pre-COVID heights until 2023.)
Somehow, though, Esteban hasn’t missed a beat. Sure, vacations are canceled and honeymoons have been postponed, but he will still happily educate you on the nuances of the Southern-hemispheric grape, so long as you’re equipped with a laptop and willing to pay the $18 entry fee.
“I try to make it very personalized when I host tours, and I try to emulate that as best as possible when I do online experiences,” Esteban tells me, over a Zoom call, from the same chair that he orchestrates his virtual wine tastings. “How do you replicate not pouring the wine, and not serving them the food? In my case, that means I ask ahead about what they can get. Before you come to the class, I ask for them to send me a link to their local market and wine store, and I’ll make some suggestions. So instead of me giving you all the stuff, you’re making the decisions of what we eat and drink.”
Esteban did the lion’s share of his business on Airbnb; the company serves as a bazaar for visitors and travel bookies who want to, say, take in a flamenco show in Seville. But last April, as COVID became an unignorable reality, a swath of those vendors petitioned for the company to add some sort of digital-only portal so that sommeliers, musicians and dance instructors could migrate their services into cyberspace. Browse the offerings now and you will find a magician in Singapore, standing in front of a red velvet curtain, happy to perform an hour-long routine for $30 a person. Elsewhere, a young man with a floppy blonde haircut details a gristly taxonomy of London’s serial killer history while broadcasting live from the River Thames — perfect for Americans who called off a trip across the Atlantic in spring. And in Lisbon, a team of drag queens will crowd around a ring light, and demonstrate the artful way to brew a killer sangria.
None of these vendors are charging the same rates that they did when they could entertain tourists in person. In fact, Esteban tells me that when he first launched his digital wine-tasting course, the price of entry was a single dollar — quite the bargain compared to the $59 in-person experience. But they’ve still thrived as a balm to the chronic mournfulness of the pandemic era. We’ve all had those nights, in the doleful purgatory of coronavirus living, where anything other than the cycle of Netflix and despair feels like a party. In any other timeline, I’d rather die than sit through a virtual magic show. But in this current moment, I’m not surprised when Esteban says he’s making more money digitally than he ever did as a flesh-and-blood sommelier. (Five times as much, to be exact.)
Tourism might be dead, but his audience has never been more captive. In fact, Esteban tells me there are certain things he prefers about being a virtual tour guide. “You’re in your house, I’m in my house. There’s a little more sassy language, and stronger jokes. You can’t do that in a restaurant,” he says. “The reviews start flowing: ‘I love that Diego is throwing F-bombs and isn’t a snotty sommelier.’”
Time can feel elastic in quarantine, and that adds to the sense of intimacy Esteban finds in his new clients. No longer are they piled together in a caravan, swimming through the Buenos Aires streets, eager to finish as many carafes as the length of the tour allows. These days, he can really get to know everyone who signs up for his expertise. To that end, he goes around the Zoom lobby, asking each participant about their palate, so that he can point them in the right direction the next time they find themselves lost in the Argentine wine aisle. Ideally, he explains, everyone who leaves the call will re-enter the post-pandemic world as an expert on Argentine wine — a luxury that those previous excursions never allowed.
Of course, as we enter a new year still gripped by COVID, some of the fraught regulations set last spring are wearing thin. People are traveling again, even if that isn’t particularly wise. Argentina is getting some fresh tourists, says Esteban, despite the fact that the country is reporting around 8,000 new coronavirus cases a day. Argentine borders are still closed, but foreign nationals from surrounding countries can visit, which means that Brazilians make up for a huge part of Esteban’s professional clientele.
Not that Esteban is eager to return to his pre-pandemic hustle, mostly because he doesn’t find it efficient anymore. Consider the overhead: Esteban lived 45 minutes outside of Buenos Aires, which tacked on a massive transportation tax whenever he booked a new flock of travelers. He schmoozed out bargains with local wineries in exchange for bringing them business — splitting the profits, and sapping away from Esteban’s total revenue. Most importantly, the pandemic hit in low season, right in the middle of the Argentinian spring, when he wouldn’t be serving customers anyway.
It seems like COVID has strangled every industrial sector on earth, but ironically, Esteban was granted access to more patrons, and from a much more diverse playing field. “I can make so much more money from my house, in an hour, than an in-person tour,” he says. “I miss doing the in-person tours, but I’m already rejecting those bookings, because I have so many online appointments.”
The only question that remains is how long that dynamic will last. Once we’re able to board airplanes without fear again, are tourists still going to be signing up for digital wine tastings? Or will the forthcoming euphoria — in that far-off, fully vaccinated dimension — give way to a giddy burst of hedonism? All of us, jet-setting around the world, cackling with joy as we cancel our Zoom subscriptions in cathartic unison.
Honestly, who knows? The long-term effects that COVID may have on our collective psyche remain undetermined. In the meantime, Esteban is there to give his sponsors a small taste of ordinary life, with the hope that we’ll be able to seamlessly slip back into our ordinary lives when all this is over.