In the age of YouTube, consuming alcohol in front of a video camera is often a prelude to public humiliation across multiple time zones. But for Gary Vaynerchuk, drinking on-air has so far yielded only glory. Since February 2006, Vaynerchuk, who co-owns with his father a cavernous wine shop called Wine Library in Springfield, N.J., has been hosting a daily video blog devoted to wine education. It is called Wine Library TV, but it plays like Wine Geek Gone Wild: The 31-year-old Vaynerchuk, a native of Belarus sadly besotted with the New York Jets (his ambition in life is to own the club), brings a hyperkinetic style to the normally dry business of judging syrahs and merlots.
The show has become must-see underground TV: Five episodes are uploaded each week, and Vaynerchuk claims each one pulls in about 30,000 unique viewers. He is the first wine guru of the Web video era, and his cult is growing: He was recently the subject of a glowing profile in Time, and tonight he gets his biggest break yet, a guest slot on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. He's made a name for himself by promising to stand the culture of wine on its head. But that's not really what he's up to.
There is no mistaking Vaynerchuk's affection for the camera, and the attention he's receiving these days has only left him craving more. (After he and I spoke last week, he e-mailed to ask if he could get some "front page action" in Slate and also invited me to share his e-mail address with readers. With pleasure: It's email@example.com.) The show itself is comically derivative. His standard intro, a shouted, high-pitched "Hello, everybody!", echoes the greeting that Chris "Mad Dog" Russo barks out at the start of "Mike and the Mad Dog," a sports radio talk show. He also displays the manic energy and playful narcissism of fellow Jerseyite Jim Cramer (Vaynerchuk refers to his fans as "Vayniacs" and "Vayner Nation"); the He-Man patter of Emeril Lagasse ("This wine is really bringing the thunder!"); and the quirky mannerisms of Amanda Congdon. The homey set, the amateur quality of the production, and the fairly high quotient of goofiness also conjure thoughts of Wayne's World.
Every show has a theme; usually, they're devoted to a particular grape, region, or style of wine. After introducing the day's topic, Vaynerchuk will sample a handful of wines, giving each one the full snort, swirl, slurp, and spit treatment. He brings a refreshingly informal manner to the job. Vaynerchuk says the show is tailored for what he calls the CKC, or "college-kid crew," and there is a whiff of Sigma Phi Epsilon about it. He frequently quotes prices in "bones" rather than "dollars" (as in, "This wine goes for 15 bones"), and when he lifts a glass to his nose, he often hisses, "Let's give it a little sniffy-sniff," his tone vaguely suggestive of an extremely white white kid impersonating a rapper. After sloshing the wine around his mouth, he expectorates into a silver dump bucket bearing the Jets insignia, a flourish that further underscores the point: This is not a Sotheby's tasting.
To the casual observer, it might appear as if Vaynerchuk is dumbing down wine, or at least trying to show that all the highfalutin talk and arcane rituals are just BS. And Vaynerchuk seems eager to cultivate the rebel image. In a recent interview with New York magazine, he struck a populist tone, complaining about how "all the wine geeks want to keep everybody out." Likewise, he told Time that he wants to "punch the wine bully in the face." (Alas, he didn't actually name the wine bully.) His signature sign-off? "You, with a little bit of me, we're changing the wine world, aren't we?" (It's a rhetorical question.)
But if you look past the frat-house antics, what you find is a serious oenophile trying to get his viewers to embrace wine in all its variety and complexity. Consider, for instance, a recent episode devoted to Beaujolais. Vaynerchuk began the broadcast by taking an oblique swipe at Georges Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau, which he referred to as "the stuff you see at Thanksgiving that sucks." Duboeuf's Nouveau is released to much hype on the third Thursday of November each year and is pilloried by lots of collector-spitter types (and some journalists, too). A true snob-busting populist would have told the audience to ignore the elitists and keep drinking the Duboeuf if it makes them happy. But Vaynerchuk didn't do that: Instead, he indicated to his viewers that the wine really is bad and went on to point out that the Nouveau mania is partly to blame for the fact that good Beaujolais is woefully underappreciated in the United States. He then introduced some examples of the good stuff—three first-rate Cru Beaujolais. Sure, he mispronounced Chateau Thivin (it's Tee-vin), and one could quibble with some of his descriptions (part of the appeal of these wines is that they don't bring the thunder—more like a gentle, soothing rain). But no wine buff could take issue with his selections, his admonishment—"We've got to stop dissing the gamay grape" (which Beaujolais is made from)—or his conclusion—"These wines are out-and-out steals."
If Vaynerchuk were truly intent on exposing the wine world as a giant, self-perpetuating put-on, he would routinely bash pricey, prestigious wines and insist that chardonnays and cabernets from the bargain bins can offer just as much satisfaction. He does tout many inexpensive wines, but his tastings have included lots of high-end stuff, too (first growth Bordeauxs, grand cru Burgundies, brunellos), and while he has panned some of these wines, he has praised many others. Likewise, he doesn't mock standard wine nomenclature; he uses it, abundantly. When assessing wines, he typically recites a litany of pastoral aromas. His descriptions can be as fanciful as the next wine critic's—he claimed to detect "silver needle oolong tea" on the nose of one wine and said the finish on another was redolent of a "nice dark chocolate bar, with like 80 percent cacao." Vaynerchuk isn't upending the culture of wine appreciation; in his own, exuberantly demotic way, he is initiating his audience into that culture (while draining just a little of the pretention out of wine).
The show has not enjoyed unqualified acclaim. It is often noted that Vaynerchuk is working both sides of the checkout counter, reviewing wines that he happens to sell. But as he points out, he trashes a lot of those wines. In fact, he claims that WLTV has hurt his business more than it has helped; I doubt that, but I don't think the conflict-of-interest charge has much merit. A more valid criticism is that he talks out both sides of his cabernet-stained mouth. In the New York interview, he said he wanted consumers to stop relying on expert opinion and to start trusting their own palates. But when he introduces a wine on the show, he invariably cites the score it received from Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer, or Wine Spectator. And, of course, if he sincerely wanted to wean wine drinkers of their reliance on critics, he would start by removing Parker, Tanzer, and Spectator scores from his own store. Yet the Wine Library peddles ratings with gusto. Vaynerchuk readily acknowledges the hypocrisy: "I know we're part of the problem," he said. But he went on to explain that he has to separate his feelings from his interests: As much as he wishes it were otherwise, the public insists on using scores, and as a businessman, he has no choice but to yield to the market.
I suspect he was just telling me what he figured I wanted to hear. But I'm OK with the hypocrisy because a) he is a mensch; b) if I were a wine retailer, I'd probably do the same thing; and c) his show is brilliant. Behind all the gags, Vaynerchuk is conveying the essential truth about wine: It is an immensely rewarding hobby, but it is also a complicated one, and there is no quick-and-dirty method of mastering it. His singular genius is to have found a way, employing modern technology and a pop-culture sensibility, to give wine a more accessible sheen while actually presenting it in all its daunting intricacy.
When I made this point to Vaynerchuk, he heaved a dramatic sigh and said, "Thank you—you get it." Here, too, I suspect he was probably telling me what he thought I wanted to hear (he's nothing if not eager to please); he certainly gave no indication that he plans to drop the revolutionary rhetoric. And that's OK, too: WLTV is a great advertisement for Vaynerchuk, but it is an even better one for wine.