Gary Vaynerchuk: The wine world's new superstar

In a spartan room above a New Jersey liquor store, a revolution is fermenting. With his witty, irreverent, in-your-face approach to the time-honoured art of wine tasting, Gary Vaynerchuk, the 32-year-old son of Soviet immigrants,is a megastar in the making. He's a regular on primetime talk shows, he's penned a bestselling book – and he's broadcasting to millions of online oenophiles every week. Stephen Foley meets a man with a lot of bottle

Monday 04 August 2008 00:00

Gary Vaynerchuk swills, spits, pauses. Adopts a thinking pose, breaks a grin. Pauses some more. Then, thumps the table. Hard.

"THIS is why I do this show," he exclaims, winding himself up into full-on rave. "I just tasted a wine from Oklahoma – made by COLLEGE STUDENTS in OKLAHOMA, with OKLAHOMA grapes! – that, I'm going to tell you, beats the living SNOT out of 90 per cent of the California red Meritage wines that I've had under 20 US bones [dollars] in the last 36 months. That was a lot of numbers – did you follow that? Fifteen bones, under 20, 36 months. That's three years, folks." He holds up three fingers of each hand, looks at them, counts. "That was six... I'm telling you, I am baffled right now. Baffled! Mott, you have to taste this..."

He hands the glass to his cameraman, before resuming, full flow. Does he breathe between sentences? It doesn't seem so. "I am SHOCKED how good this wine is. Great blackberry flavours, dancing through a very obvious and well-structured mid-palate that so many wines, my friend, so many wines miss. Under-oaked, thank you – no oak monster, aargh! – this is an absolutely balanced effort. This is why we need to do blind tastings with wine douchebags. Bring them in, put this wine in a tasting blind and people will be humbled HARD, all day, all day."

It is impossible to transcribe a Gary Vaynerchuk performance without capital letters and exclamation marks. He's the same in person. He's an exclamation marks kind of guy. That'll be what he calls his "in-your-face New Jersey attitude". It is just the sort of opinionated, 13-to-the-dozen style that you need to stand out in the blog soup of the internet. And stand out Vaynerchuk does, as the first major wine critic of the YouTube generation.

The Thunder Show, his high-octane TV spot, broadcast on his website every weekday afternoon from the office above his family's suburban wine store, has amassed a following that now nudges 80,000 regular viewers. They even have a name: the Vayniacs. The brouhaha has earned him guest appearances on some of American television's most prestigious shows, and propelled his latest book, Gary Vaynerchuk's 101 Wines, to No 1 on the Amazon food and drink book chart. At 32 years old, his iconoclastic brand of oenophilia and warm embrace of the internet has shot him past older, more experienced and, dare one say it, stuffier wine critics.

The 500th episode of Thunder Show went up on winelibrary recently. I popped in to see Vaynerchuk recording No 490, in the tiny gap between a morning running the shop – now the hub of a giant internet retail enterprise – and an afternoon train to Boston for a book signing. What with also clinging to his promise to reply personally to all fans' emails ("I've got 847 in my inbox and I cleaned it up last night"), life is pretty frenetic. Little wonder he seems to speak in one never-ending paragraph, interrupting himself in parentheses, detouring for a second conversation with someone else in the room, and rolling from answering questions straight into the familiar opening lines of his show, as the camera goes on.

"We're trying wines from Oklahoma today," he says, pulling on a T-shirt sent in by a Vayniac, arranging some wrestling models on the desk in preparation for the show, and handing a piece of paper with the day's "shout outs" for Chris Mott to tape to the side of his camera. He shrugs. "This is a fan's request. I'm like, OK. Ninety-nine per cent of the wines on the show I've never tasted, so it's all improv like this. HELLO EVERYBODY. Welcome to Wine Library TV. I am your host, Gary Vay! Ner! Chuk! And this, my friends, oh this is The Thunder Show, aka the internet's happiest little place on earth."

Vaynerchuk broadcasts from a deliberately spartan corner of what is actually a pretty large office, part English boardroom – with plush leather furniture and a great big desk – part teenager's bedroom. Among stacked boxes and shelves of wine there are crates of action figures, the eccentric props for his show, and lots of sporting memorabilia, particularly of his beloved American football team, the New York Jets. Proudly displayed at the doorway is the invitation letter and a cheque covering the performance fee for his appearance on the Late Night with Conan O'Brien talk show, when he persuaded the host to suck an asparagus spear through a sweaty sock to explore different flavours and train his palate. A few weeks later, by the time Ellen DeGeneres was licking rocks and soil with him on her blockbuster daytime show, Vaynerchuk had gone mainstream.

Generations of British TV viewers who have marvelled at the descriptions conjured up by Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden as they swill a new wine will find Vaynerchuk taking the language of wine-tasting to a new level. Panning the first of the Oklahoma creations before him, he finds in it a hint of "roadside brush, where you get some twigs and minerality from rocks, but where you also might get a dirty Band Aid or a half-busted Coke can". Whatever that might mean, it's not good and he screws up his face – but disarmingly adds that this is just his taste, just his palate.

"I want to change the wine industry," he says after Mott turns off the camera, as ever after just a single take. "I want to bring it to the masses and I want people to realise it can be a lot of fun. I want people to trust their own palate. I don't think there are so many rules.

"Why I'm here today is because I listened to that exact advice. Instead of wanting to learn about the classic Bordeaux and just about California, I was curious about South Africa and Spain and Australia, which became big platforms for me years down the road in the industry. I've got a very different palate to a lot of people, I love vegetables, I want to drink V8 juice before I drink apple or orange juice." He is snacking from a pot of raw vegetable chunks as he says this.

"I'm very comfortable in my own skin and I want to show people that if I can have 'wine knowledge' then they can, too. It's very important to me."

The Vaynerchuk family arrived in the US when Gary was three years old, emigrants from Belarus in the old Soviet Union, with no money and no English. His father, Sasha, opened the first of two liquor stores in the early Eighties, and later put 14-year-old Gary to work shovelling ice in the basement on weekends, work he hated. It took several more years before he would succumb to the lure of wine, but the sports-mad teenager was already showing an entrepreneurial streak. Trading baseball cards, he made a tidy profit on an initial $1,000 loan from his father, and was soon pulling in $1,000 a weekend. That might well have been his calling, but for a flash of realisation that collecting and trading wine might be just as fascinating.

So wine Vaynerchuk learnt. Marketing, though – that's in his DNA. When he was first allowed on to the shop floor, to help flog a chardonnay in the pre-Thanksgiving rush, he was suddenly hooked on the flush of a sale, the joy of interacting with customers – and having an audience.

"I love people," he says, not for the first time in our interview. He means it. "I want to touch people. Not in inappropriate ways! Just a hug or a handshake! I love gathering people together, I like getting people pumped up. I love leveraging new media – Twitter and Facebook, all these things – just so I can interact with more people."

The irony is that Vaynerchuk was a wine expert before he ever drank a glass of the stuff. Having gorged on wine literature and scoured the pages of Wine Spectator as if it were a sports magazine, teenage Gary knew the theory – but in the state of New Jersey, you have to be 21 to practise. "I really did not drink any wine. I might have had a sip here and there, but I would tell you I probably did not even consume a full glass. When I tell you my mom and dad did a great job, they did a great job. If I had not grown up in the liquor industry, I probably would have never drunk alcohol in my life."

Having come of age, though, he was pretty soon taking over the operations from his father, rechristening the store as The Wine Library and pioneering sales over the internet. As business exploded from $4m a year to $50m, he commissioned a bigger, three-storey supermarket-style building around the original store. You can still see the line on the floor where the old walls were eventually knocked through.

Cynics charge that The Thunder Show is all about shifting inventory for The Wine Library, and it was certainly conceived to bring shoppers to the website, but Vaynerchuk insists he often criticises wines that can be found on the shelves downstairs. The venture is bigger than The Wine Library now, anyway. Vaynerchuk is a one-man brand.

His new book is a list of the 101 wines that most excited him in the past year. It is, he says, unashamedly "a legacy play", an attempt to preach his gospel and end the tyranny of the cellar snobs. "I knew I would hit other people I would never hit with Wine Library TV. There's a lot of people out there who will read a wine book but would never watch internet television, so that was important. I can convey my message of getting people to try new wines, and expanding the wine world, and trusting your own palate. That's why the opening line of the book is 'This is not a wine guide'.

"I definitely sold enough to pull another one out of my ass. As long people still want it and read it, I think I will be doing it yearly. I also did it for my mom to have the ability to run around town and tell everybody I was an author."

There's no doubt Vaynerchuk's parents are proud. His father has told reporters he expects junior to replace Oprah Winfrey as supremo of the daytime chat show sometime. Vaynerchuk himself has a very specific ambition: to own the New York Jets.

"Do I have a date in mind? You know, I think it's going to take 15 years, realistically. They are going to cost me a couple of billion dollars, so I need to really hit it out the park. But I think I can."

Its early days, but the Vayniacs are in little doubt that they've caught a phenomenon in the making. That Oklahoma wine, for example – the "this-is-why-I-do-this-show" wine from the Chapel Creek winery tended by the mature students of Redlands community college – it sold out within days of Vaynerchuk's endorsement.

"I actually didn't realise the show had aired and when I came back from an errand that afternoon, there was already a couple on the doorstep who had driven 50 miles to make sure they got a case before it sold out," says Andrew Snyder, the Redlands leader who sent the wine to Vaynerchuk for review. "We only made 40 cases of that particular wine, and we had no idea what we were getting into. We have been inundated with phone calls and emails, and demand from at least 20 different states, which has turned our business upside down. He has an impact, that's for sure. His disciples believe in his palate."

Vaynerchuk is the first to argue that he has a unique taste in wine. He argues everyone's taste is unique and buyers should follow their nose, not the latest fashions. He lashes out regularly at the craze for heavily oaked Chardonnay, the attack of what he calls the "oak monster", and then against "Hollywood darling" pinot noir. He is constantly searching for new wines, rising regions, under-appreciated grapes.

"I just get inspired. I come in and I think, what's going on in Austria? What's going on in Germany? I want some champagne tonight. It's like scratching my own itch."

The iconoclasm comes with some snippiness from the wine establishment, and from the sorts of wine snobs that he dismissed as "douchebags" on his show. There was a mini-furore last year when Vaynerchuk, in an off-the-cuff remark, declared that "Pinot Grigio sucks". Older bloggers responded with retorts such as "something tells me that Vaynerchuk has spent little, if any, time in north eastern Italy". Vaynerchuk, though, is steering well clear of personalising any rivalries, and is actually impressed that the wine establishment has not pushed back against his style in a big way.

"I think I had a lot of street cred in the wine industry prior to this. I'm sure that behind closed doors there's definitely some things being said about my style. I'm not sure everybody wants to hear wine being referred to as – whatever I just said on the show. Knowing my personality I thought it might cause some ruckus, but I've been pretty impressed that people have accepted it."

So here we have a new, youthful face of wine criticism. The question is, what now between here and that purchase of the Jets in 2023? The Wine Library's growth spurt has muted a little, stymied by patchwork of liquor laws across the states that prevent the store from shipping to large areas of the country.

Brand Vaynerchuk is in demand beyond the wine world, in any case. He is expecting to come to the UK in October for Fowa (the Future of Web Apps conference in London which showcases web technologies of the future) where he hopes to deliver his insights on the world of internet marketing. He is also edging into the area of motivational speaking, touting for gigs and appearing recently on business television with the advice to budding entrepreneurs that by being "transparent and real as possible", they can create a "hoopla factor" to boost their prospects.

Television is also tempting, if problematic. "If there's a deal I can't say no to, if NBC says Tuesday night at 8pm before Heroes, my ego will probably not allow me to say no. But I believe internet television is the future. I am fascinated by television, I could go there but I would lose enormous amounts of control. Perhaps 15 per cent of what I just did probably wouldn't be allowed, and that's a problem, a big problem."

He has called in two of The Wine Library's young buyers to get a second opinion on the extraordinary Chapel Creek red that left him, as he put it, baffled. "Guys, can you do me a favour, grab a glass and taste that wine there. I need you to tell me I haven't lost my mind."

They say it is "fine", even "interesting", hardly a ringing endorsement. That, though, is fine with Vaynerchuk. People disagree about wine. People can totally disagree, and no one need listen to those who talk down to them about their tastes. This is the Vaynerchuk way.

Check out these corkers: Gary's pick of the bunch

Keeping it real in Friuli

"If you could see this wine now, you would be saying, 'This is seriously weird shit!' The colour of this wineis like aging copper. In fact, I sometimes call it the 'penny wine'. It is definitely not a colour that would encourage many white fans to put this in their mouths; it looks more like battery acid or apple cider than wine...

In some respects the colour is reflected in the smell: there is almosta rusty nail aroma, which is followed by some spoiled papaya. Not sold? You throw some rusty nails and papaya in my mouth and I'm excited."

Radikon, Oslavje, 2002. Friuli, Italy

A white for red lovers

"Too many people get a little bit of wine knowledge under their belt and suddenly feel like they need to start dissing white wine. So, here is a white that I think could totally bring those hard-core red wine drinkers back to reality.

If you only like red wine with your steak, I challenge you to pop this with your fillet mignon or other rich foods. You may realise how serious white can be."

Ascheri, Montalupa Bianco Viognier, 2004. Piedmont, Italy

Warming up to Riesling

"If you were starting a winery in California and asked me which grapes to plant, riesling would not be in my top 10, maybe not even my top 100. Rieslings belong in California like Germans belong on surfboards. Yet, this producer has been getting the best from grapes since 1984, making some very good, varietally representative riesling, at a price that I simply can't resist.

Show me a wine that hits my sweet spot for everyday value while expressing the true character of the grape, and I'm a buyer."

Gainey Vineyard, Riesling Santa Ynez Valley, 2006. Santa Ynez, California

The power of pink

"Part of me hates it that rosé is suddenly so trendy. The problem is that a lot of rosés are pretty basic, simple and not all that exciting. No wonder pink wine gets a bad rap. But boy, did this wine just blitzkrieg my palate."

Slowine Rosé, 2007. Overberg, South Africa

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