A Conversation with Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk has become an Internet celebrity with Wine Library TV, his popular daily wine blog. The director of operations at the Wine Library in Springfield, Vaynerchuk is known for his bold, irreverent comments about wine.

Gary Vaynerchuk has become an Internet celebrity with Wine Library TV, his popular daily wine blog. The director of operations at the Wine Library in Springfield, Vaynerchuk is known for his bold, irreverent comments about wine. He recently launched his first book, “101 Wines: Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World.” He spoke with New Jersey Monthly about his calling and all things wine-related.

How did the Wine Library get started?
My dad opened a store here in Springfield in 1983 … It was on one level section, an 800-square-foot store. In 1989, we expanded, making it a 4,000-square-foot store with a Millburn Avenue entrance.

Were you always into wine?
We were very fortunate, we had a nice family business. I very much had a baseball card/lemonade stand entrepreneurial spirit, and so I got involved in my dad’s store. I hated wine at first, and then fell in love with it because peo-ple collected wine, and I—as a baseball card and sports memorabilia collector—understood that. That’s what made the first connection. I started reading intensely, from the ages of 17 to 21, about the wine, and learning about the flavors that people taste in wine. I started then drinking wine, and became a fixture in the store during those years. In 1998, we changed the name from Shopper’s Discount Liquors to Wine Library, which was the big culture change, and started really changing the image of the store¬—a lot more wine, toning down the beer and liquor, jump-ing from eight employees to 60 or 70. In 2002, we finished this project, moved in in 2003.

I turned 30 in ’05, and really freaked out. I said I’m making a lot of money, the business is doing well, it’s grow-ing in the right direction; but I have a void, you know? Because I was very much following Web 2.0, YouTube, things of that nature, and I started noticing that video blogging was an up-and-coming medium. I jumped in head first, and in February of 2006 started doing Wine Library TV. I’ve done five episodes every week since. We just taped episode 400, and we’re up to about 75,000 viewers a day. I’ve gotten substantial press, been on Conan [O’Brien], Ellen [Degeneres], Wall Street Journal, Time, et cetera.

Did you think it was going to get as big as it has?
Yes, I was very confident in my business savvy—to pass a Spanish test, no, to grow business to $50 million, yes. (We stopped giving out numbers in 2005, but we were at $47 million then and we’ve passed $50 million.) A lot of people now are doing a lot of profiling on Wine Library.

Everyone keeps asking that same question, and I feel so weird, because I don’t want to be that jerk, you know? I don’t want to be like yes, I thought hundreds of thousands of people would love me. But on the flip side, I knew that culturally, I knew what I was talking about, and I knew I was talking about wine in a totally different way.

Do you have a lot of educational training in wine?
I never had to take classes, but at 23 I was head buyer for the store, so by 25 or 26 I was head buyer for a store that was one of the biggest in the country. I’ve done enormous amounts of traveling, which has really allowed me to experience wines of a different level. I’ve tasted a $15,000 [bottle], and I’ve tasted wines 100 years old, so my status within the wine industry has allowed me access to opportunities that the best classes will never give you. It’s an amazingly interesting subject matter, so it’s something that I completely grew into. The first couple years I was all about the business, but then I finally had that breakthrough where I started understanding the wine.

What drew you to Web videos?
Wine Library TV is far from a business venture, it’s more of a personal journey. The idea was: can I change the perception of wine in this world, especially in this country? In this country you have to be entertained. I was lucky to have that capability, between my vast knowledge [of wine] and ability to entertain people. I thought I could really change the game. I just had a feeling that I understood where the world was going, I leveraged bloggers, MySpace and Facebook and Twitter. I just knew how to do it … I know tomorrow I could make the show twice as big if I change my style slightly, but I also know that wouldn’t be the true me, and I’m not willing to compromise.

Has your notoriety on the Web changed the business at the Wine Library?
Traffic in the store is bigger, with people driving from colleges, coming from Penn and Cornell and Columbia. A lot in the Ivy League sector. Not only that, but I’ve achieved rock-star status in my own store. I can’t even go downstairs anymore without getting weird stares, people taking pictures. It’s really been pretty intense.

Let’s talk about wine lessons for the rest of us. How would you suggest people go about choosing wines to serve at a party?
Always start with what you like. I hate that most wine shops don’t do that. You’ll say I want a $20 bottle of wine and they run over and give you something. To me that’s absurdity. Think about going to a restaurant—would you have somebody serve you what they like? People are okay with that with wine, not with food, which is ridiculous. To me it starts with what do you like, and once I have an understanding for what they like, I’ll try to open their ho-rizons by finding something completely different, but similar enough so they should enjoy it.

I have two rules. One, trust your own palate. Don’t listen to Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, or me, or anybody. If you like it, drink it, if you don’t like it, don’t. Number 2, try new things. So many people stick to the same three or four varieties: chardonnay, merlot, shiraz. What’s even worse than that is sticking with the same producers, Kendall Jackson, Yellow Tail, and then they just stay there. There’s a billion trillion different things to try. So that is really where I’m at.

Those are my two core things. That’s what I try to incorporate with every dinner that I do. You look smart, your guests will be happy, and it will be a totally different experience. Everybody’s been to a dinner party with cabernet, Bourdeaux, and chardonnay, but how about a tannat? Or a verdejo? Or a Cahors, or a viognier? Never. That’s where I want to go.

How do you relate your wine choices to the food you’re eating?
I do talk about food, but it’s secondary for me. That’s the traditional thing—to choose wine based on food. I be-lieve a lot more wine is a lot more flexible with food than people give it credit for. I’m not a big fan of the rules: chicken and this, and white wine with fish, and red wine with beef. I think that’s complete insanity. I think that’s just another rule that’s in place to keep people away from this awesome product. It should be about exploring new things, breaking the rules, finding out what you like. It’s a journey, don’t let the rules slow you down.

What should people think of when pairing food with wine?
The biggest thing you don’t think of.

Meaning what?
The first thing that comes to mind with a wine dinner party, and you counter that in your mind. The last thing you’d serve is the best thing you can serve. I did a substantially serious wine tasting with importers and exporters and wine sommeliers from around the world in New York. And the food I paired it with was White Castle sliders, hot wings, licorice (black and red) and twizzlers, éclairs, and a very heavy green brussels sprout and bacon dish. The wines we were serving were in the range of $200 to $1,000 a bottle. Of the thirteen people who went there, seven people told me on the spot it was the greatest wine tasting they’d ever been to. And two people emailed me a month later and said in hindsight that was an amazing experience.

How do you get people to explore new wines?
It really comes down to personality. You’ve got to understand the personality of the consumer. Some people are just not comfortable trying a new varietal when they have the boss over. I respect that. I disagree, but I understand where they’re coming from. But unless you’re buying a wine that you know exactly what it tastes like, you’re not necessarily going to know what that cab or merlot tastes like anyway. So it’s really a personality thing. For me, I’ve really got to feel out the person. If they’re one who’s willing to explore and try new things, then it’s a home run. If they’re traditional and comfortable and staying in boundaries, it becomes more difficult. You try to push them as far as you can, though you ultimately have to give them what they want. As much as you want to be a guide and a yoda-like character to learning new and amazing things, you’ve also got to stay in a comfort zone.

Is there a certain price point at which you can’t go wrong?
No.

So there are bad wines that can be overpriced?
Yes. Which is what makes wine intimidating for people. Here in America, you buy a thousand dollar handbag, you know it’s a good handbag. You buy an expensive car, expensive house, you know it’s a good car or house. We’re not used to spending money and not knowing what we’re getting. But you know, wine is art. And you know what, I’ve seen people spend $500,000 on a painting that I don’t get at all.

By the same token, if you spend $12.99 on a bottle of wine, can you still wow people?
Absolutely. You really can, but you’ve got to get outside your comfort zone. You have to go to southwest France. You have to go to Portugal. You have to go to the Rhone, parts of Spain, Greece. You’ve got to go to non-marketed areas. Napa Valley charges 30 percent more because it says Napa Valley on the bottle. So you’ve got to under-stand that. And that’s the real truth.

Is there a part of the world that you are just discovering?
Greece is where I’m starting to spend more time learning and focusing. And parts of eastern Europe. These are places that are going to mean something in five to ten years. I like to stay on top of the curve. That’s how I like to roll.

What are you most excited about right now?
I’m excited about the people who work for me. I really take an enormous amount of pride in the fact that we get thousands of emails and letters a year about our staff and how awesome they are. In comparison to 20 a year com-plaining. When you look at the volume we do, that’s pretty absurd. Mainly because I fire anybody who can’t be nice. I probably fired three of the most qualified wine people who work for me, because they don’t know how to play with the other boys and girls. They’ve got the customer part down, but it starts with knowing about how to play.

I’m exicted about the fact that I’m really starting to make a dent in the wine culture of America. It’s really obvious to me that I’m starting to have a little bit of an impact. The legacy is very exciting.

What about Jersey wines?
I think the laws that don’t allow Jersey wineries to ship the wines within the state of New Jersey or out has totally crippled the N.J. wine scene. It’s very sad to me that I live in a state that’s only one of two states in America that have this law. That’s completely [the result of] special-interest groups and it’s really sad. I think once the laws are changed and they have the ability to grow their businesses because of it, and then in turn put the money back into the vineyards, things will improve. Otherwise Jersey is going to be in the bottom five wine states in the country. It’s very sad to me. It’s 2008. You need to be able to ship product.

Despite your busy travel schedule, are you sticking with Jersey?
This is really a Jersey thing. I was born in Belarus, Russia. We came here in ‘78, and dad did a great job very quickly with no language. And now here we are.