The Guy Who Broke Wine

Gary Vaynerchuk catapulted onto the scene in the mid-aughts as a brash, fast-talking antihero. The wine world hasn’t been the same since.

It’s not until episode 58 of Wine Library TV, the wine vlog that became a sensation in the late aughts, that the show really discovers what it’s about.

Up to that point, it had seemed like a corporate executive’s idea of what a wine Web series should be. Dressed in business casual, Gary Vaynerchuk, a young salesman who ran a 37,000-square-foot wine shop in Springfield, New Jersey, would face the camera, speaking in a calm, bedside manner about the emerging Bordeaux market or cult California cabernets. But in episode 58, entitled “I’m Not Pissed” posted on July 25, 2006, he appears agitated. He apologizes for a series of missed episodes, explaining that he’s turned down two network TV show offers. “I just don’t believe in TV as the future media of the world,” he says, voice rising. “I’m not going to let four guys in a suit who are 63 years old tell me where the world’s going, because I know a hell of a lot better.”

Looking back today, Vaynerchuk, 43, sees this as a pivotal moment in his own career. “There’s only 58 pieces of content on the Internet where I’m not my natural self,” he says. “I was scared crapless because I was the lead sales guy, the face of this business that was selling to very conservative Wall Street individuals.” In 1998, Vaynerchuk had assumed control of the store from his father, a Belarus immigrant and careful businessman, and almost immediately set out to expand its reach. Unorthodox and ambitious as hell, Vaynerchuk realized that an emerging streaming video platform called YouTube could unlock new audiences for cloistered niches. “I was completely convinced that online video was going to be a big thing. I knew it was a medium that was going to matter,” he says.

“Vaynerchuk became a personality—one that combined a streetwise insider’s view with the caustic banter of East Coast sports radio and the sugar-buzz energy of a Looney Tunes character.”

In the wine world, where a bourgeois sense of decorum still reigned, the show was unprecedented. Outside those traditional confines, Vaynerchuk activated and energized new audiences. “He was a force,” recalls wine writer Alice Feiring. “People liked it. He got a lot of people who were beer drinkers into wine because he was entertaining and spit into an NFL bucket.”

Vaynerchuk became a personality—one that combined a streetwise insider’s view with the caustic banter of East Coast sports radio and the sugar-buzz energy of a Looney Tunes character. He wore New York Jets jerseys and wristbands, decorated his set with action hero figures and rattled off tasting notes that sounded like Bukowski poems (a classic example starts at 12:19). Smelling a wine became taking a “sniffy-sniff,” Wine Library TV became “The Thunder Show” and—most famously—the thousands of viewers tuning in each week became “Vayniacs.”

Guests included winemakers such as Nicolas Joly and Heidi Barrett, importers like Kermit Lynch and authorities such as sommelier Rajat Parr and British wine writer Jancis Robinson. Even when they appeared bewildered at the show’s antics, their very presence was a growing sign of Wine Library TV’s growing legitimacy. “I was quite excited about this new medium,” says Robinson. “He was making wine glamorous to a whole load of people who would never have picked up one of my books.”

Though decidedly un-C-suite, Vaynerchuk’s message resonated with C-suite types and tech-savvy first adopters. “A stunning percentage of my viewers back then were, like, 37-year-old senior executives at Hewlett-Packard,” says Vaynerchuk.

Peter Masters, a software architect and engineer who began collecting wine in the ’70s, stumbled across a Wine Library episode one day and was struck by Vaynerchuk’s lack of pretense. “He gave the impression that he was just a guy sitting there in front of a camera, very amateurishly, with a couple of bottles of wine, giving his first impression and spitting the wine in front of you, which is not something most people get to see,” Masters recalls.

Just as platforms like YouTube were broadcasting the vox populi, wine media too was beginning to pull away from the monoculture of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. For someone like Masters, whose personal tastes had, by the 2000s, also diverged from authorities like Parker and Wine Spectator, Vaynerchuk’s approach was refreshing. “It was a little bit of how the sausage gets made,” says Masters. “You felt like you were in the back room of the wine store.”

At the time, the process of wine grading was opaque. The top critics handed down their scores and pronouncements from on high; readers never knew exactly how they came by their opinions, or what it was like to sit with them at the tasting table. In disarming contrast, Wine Library TV felt fully transparent.

In the wine world, though, it was common to cast Vaynerchuk as a boorish and self-serving anti-establishment figure, a bull in the china shop of connoisseurship. “In 2006 to 2008, 98 percent of the industry thought it was a joke,” says Vaynerchuk of the wine graders. But even back in episode 58, he decried the top-down influence of major critics. “As often as I said ‘Parker 93’ or ‘Tanzer 97,’ I said, ‘Trust your own palate.’” He constantly cited scores as a standard of measure but also seemed to take particular relish in disagreeing with them and dismissing the benchmarks of the day, like in this classic Vaynerchuk takedown of California legends  Opus Ones and Insignias.

“There’s a shitload of sommeliers that are running real programs that are sommeliers today because they watched Wine Library TV.”

“It made it OK for you not to like a wine that someone recommended,” says Masters. “If Gary can do it, and he’s just a regular guy who happens to taste hundreds of wines a week, I can do it, too. I can ask questions about these critics. That was what the whole Internet was supposed to be about.” While he didn’t shy from professing his individual tastes, he never became a style leader like Robert Parker. More than selling specific wines, he was selling viewers on the idea of wine. “Parker was influential in wine,” says Feiring. “Gary was influential in the way people thought about delivering a wine message.”

It’s an assessment Vaynerchuk himself subscribes to, estimating that while his show often moved big quantities of wine, his power over macro trends was minimal. Where he really sees his enduring influence today is in sommeliers. “There’s a shitload of sommeliers that are running real programs that are sommeliers today because they watched Wine Library TV,” says Vaynerchuk.

It’s something even Wine Library TV’s critics would agree with, and one of the aspects that most attracts their ire. “He opened the door for people to talk about wine in really sort of bro-y, meaningless terms,” says wine writer and PUNCH senior contributing editor Jon Bonné. “Now everyone decides they’re going to take this weirdly populist view of wine, make it into ‘juice’ and they’re going to ‘crush’ a bottle.”

The difficulty today, Bonné points out, is in finding a kind of language to talk about wine that’s not snobby or overly technical, but also not careless. He derides the casual, slangy dialogue Vaynerchuk gave voice to for not treating wine as a legitimate cultural product, the end result of a centuries-long agricultural tradition. Yet “one of the reasons that type of talk has come forward is that we don’t have a really good wine vocabulary for the 2010s,” Bonné admits. “The problem is when all you want to do is break down the system, but you don’t have a system to replace it.”

Vaynerchuk views his accomplishment less as a destruction of the system and more as an opening of its doors. “Changing the vocabulary of wine has been the best thing to happen to wine because it leads to more acceptance,” he says. “Things work best when people feel safe.”

Bypassing the industry gatekeepers, Vaynerchuk entered through the back door and left via the front, having become one of the wine world’s most visible faces. His traffic swelled to what he estimated to be as many as 80,000 daily viewers and made TV appearances on Ellen, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon. By the end his interests were shifting from the message (wine) to the medium (the Internet!). He put $200,000 into Facebook, an investment worth around $12 million last year, and was a co-founder of the restaurant reservation app, Resy, which was recently purchased by American Express. He delivered impassioned keynote addresses on small businesses and marketing and wrote books like Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World.

Most of all, he proved what he set out to prove in episode 58: that entrepreneurs with enough ambition and mettle didn’t need the 60-year-old guys in suits if they wanted to have their say in the world. By Wine Library TV’s final regular episode (#1,000) in 2011, Vaynerchuk had formed a launching pad for a career as business consultant and speaker, social media influencer, venture capital investor and media company CEO.

Today, Vaynerchuk runs VaynerMedia, a digital agency that works with brands like JPMorgan, Amazon, Budweiser and Diageo. And things have come full circle with his recent launch of Empathy Wines, a direct-to-consumer wine subscription service that, like Wine Library TV, bases its appeal in a sense of transparency. But perhaps the most surprising thing about Wine Library TV’s legacy is that for all the excitement it generated around the possibilities of new forms of wine media, the show’s success hasn’t been replicated on other platforms. Who on Twitter or Instagram is what Parker was for print newsletters, or Vaynerchuk was for YouTube—a voice able to penetrate the mainstream?

The democratic polyphony for which Wine Library TV was a catalyst seems to have led where the Internet often does: more voices, but harder to tell apart. “Who’s a voice?” says Feiring. “Today there is a plethora of noise as opposed to voices. But back then, there wasn’t even a lot of noise.”

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