I got the chance to see the-man-the-myth wine guru Gary Vaynerchuk at the 2010 South Beach Wine and Food Festival. He hosted a seminar called “Pulse of the Wine World,” and I have to say that the man came through like gangbusters.
It’s safe to say now that Gary Vaynerchuk is certifiably famous. He’s reached critical mass. If you saw him on the street, you might recognize him. In fact, you might be one of the people mobbing him for a picture or an autograph. Why will you be tackling this man? Because he’s a wine guy, one of the first and most foremost internet wine guys, and these days, wine is big and the internet is everything. Take note Wine Spectator-cyberwine is the future, and the future started ten years ago. Remember the year 2000?
Gary Vaynerchuk is the Co-Owner and Director of Operations for the Wine Library shop in Springfield, New Jersey. He also hosts the Wine Library TV videos. You can watch him on-line, free of charge. He swirls the wine in his glass like a tornado, sniffs it hard, and tells you what he thinks. People like his commando approach to wine criticism–he’s a new voice in a field often crowded with upturned noses. More importantly, Trina and I like him, and we’re internet people just the same. But he’s also famous for something else–he’s a huge Jets fan, and that’s a tough road to hoe in Miami.
I can speak from personal experience. After the Jets beat the Chargers in the playoffs this year, I proudly wore my #28 Curtis Martin jersey out on the town. The Jets weren’t supposed to win, but they pulled off an upset in stunning fashion. The “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons, another internet hero of mine, repeatedly proclaimed there was no chance that the Jets rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez, could beat the Bengals let alone the Chargers, on the road no less.
But then he did. Sports are great in the way that they just refuse to be predictable. I felt confident in my white and green–everybody loves the underdog, right? Not necessarily. On the mean streets of West Dixie Highway and Biscayne Boulevard, my Jets jersey was showered with a chorus of boos, hisses, and frowns of disapproval as dark as a recently constructed South Florida condo. I realized then that Miami will always belong to the Dolphins, and the Jets will always be their mortal enemy.
I tried to explain that Curtis Martin was from my neighborhood in Pittsburgh–Squirrel Hill–and that he’s a local legend. Everyone has a Curtis Martin jersey in the 15217 zip code, even in the heart of Steelers country. Some people gave me a pardon, but I didn’t dare say that I actually liked the Jets. But here’s a secret-I really do like the Jets.
There’s an unwritten rule stating that you can’t root for two teams in the same sport, and this I disavow, just as I am decidedly using the passive tense here. I root for teams based on family ties and where I’ve lived. Blood is thicker than water and root, root, root for the home team-that’s how I see the sports world. The Jets are my grandmother’s team, because she’s from New York. She watched them win Super Bowl III and met Joe Namath long before he tried to cozy up to Suzy Kolber on national television. So I like the Jets, maybe not as much as the Steelers or the Buccaneers, but they’re still OK in my book.
Unlike myself, Gary doesn’t hide his Jets love, even in Miami. But no one greeted him with any boos or hisses. Why? Being famous helps, but it doesn’t spare you. Just ask Rex Ryan. A good sense of humor, however, can always get you out of even the tightest South Florida jam, even one as bad as that perpetual wall of grumbling steel and rubber you hit when I-95 turns into that three lane gridlock also known as US 1.
I knew he would drop a Jets reference at some point, and I was curious as to how he would sneak it in. Outright Jets fandom is universally condemned here, so Gary wisely bided his time. Humor is a crucial in a hostile environment, as I mentioned, and if you throw a little wine in the mix, you can consider your audience fully lubricated.
About an hour into the seminar, he told us that a Wine Library TV fan from MIT analyzed his wine scores and found that, on average, he rated wines 2.2 points higher when the Jets won on Sunday. Everyone in the crowd showed their approval with a hearty laugh. The Jets-Hah! I usually hate their guts, but not so much right now. How did Gary pull off this magic trick? He used wine, and wine can be funny.
So he let the people get a little buzzed before dropping the Jets reference, but this wasn’t a set-up, it felt sincere. Gary is one of the few people on the critical side of the wine world who have been able to fuse the profound and the profane in the wine experience. Observing the result first-hand, I felt like wine tastings should be this way all the time, but they’re not. By and large, the general public views wine as having a high-post, snobby image, and at first glance, it does. But upon reflection, wine comes from and is destined for the masses. Grapes are grown by dirt-plowing farmers, picked by ball-busting field workers, and fermented by wine makers who are usually hungry for their next job.
The economics behind wine further this point, and I’ve experience this first-hand on the sales end. The vast majority of wine bottles sold at the retail level cost less than $10. In fact, most of those bottles are under $8. People will go to $15 at a push, and to $20 for something really special. Anything beyond that $20 mark is a rare creature, yet the wine critics often don’t like to hunker down in these trenches. Read any publication, any positive review, any featured wine, and you’ll notice that it’s probably over $20. There’s a good chance that it’s over $50, and no joking aside, there are plenty of Top 10 lists where almost none of the wines are under $100.
There’s a disconnect here, and the wine hungry world comprised of real, working people has been waiting for somebody to bridge this gap. Gary Vaynerchuk deserves all the props in the world for being able to do that, just about as well as he bridges the gap between Jets and Dolphins fans. It’s not easy, but with a glass of wine, a good sense of humor, and an honest opinion, it can be done.
It was thoroughly entertaining to see him in full form. This crowd in this seminar was mostly comprised of two types of wine drinkers: people who were new to wine altogether, and people who had spent most of their life drinking the same type of wine. Beringer White Zinfandel, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay drinkers were the dominant voice.
But this was a great crowd. People sitting next to me asked me, in all honesty, why I was taking notes and what I was writing. I said that I was going to write about the wine and that it was kind of a job. Their universal response: “Man, I want your job!” That put things in perspective. This isn’t just a good job–this is a great job.
I don’t get that in most wine tastings, because there’s just so much more posturing. You never want to be exposed in front of your fellow tasters. I recently had my first glass of Goldeneye Pinot Noir. I told one taster, “I don’t think I’ve ever had an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.” He looked at me aghast and said, “Seriously?” Yeah, seriously. That’s a $50 bottle. I can’t afford that, and most people are in the same boat as me (for what it’s worth, it was pretty darn good). These people let Gary know that they were all new to everything in front of them. They shot from the hip in their tastings, diving into wine that they had never tried before, even if they didn’t like it. In many ways, this is the future of the wine world, and it’s good to see a high profile wine figure like Gary Vaynerchuk being excited to work with them. This is a guy who can go to any tastings he wants, and he can drink those $100 bottles of wine every day. He doesn’t have to cater to the $10 and under market, but he does. And it’s worth it.
Americans, and a great deal of the people on Planet Earth, are interested in wine. The total estimated retail wine sales for 2010 are $117 billion dollars. Most of this money isn’t going to come from the wallet-busting, high-profile bottles on a Top 10 List. It’s going to come from wine that proves itself through quality and value, and the folks who are going to spend that $117 billion are mostly new wine drinkers and people recently inclined to try new types of wine.