When most people think of wine, they don't think of New Jersey. Or football. Or dirt.
Gary Vaynerchuk wants to change all that.
The die-hard New York Jets fan and director of the Wine Library, a liquor store in Springfield, N.J., is stripping wine of its stuffiness with his daily webcast, "Wine Library TV."
Swilling, rating and using such descriptors as leather baseball glove, cat pee and vomit to characterize wines, Vaynerchuk has hooked an average of 20,000 fans a day on his webcast. His goal: make a glass of Beaujolais as appealing to the average Joe or Jane as a bottle of Bud.
"It's been so exclusive and it's been trying to keep people out of it that it's fun for me to fundamentally break it down, and while breaking it down, really laugh at it in its face," Vaynerchuk said about the wine industry.
His passion for the stuff is as clear as a crisp Reisling. Facing a camera in his office above the sprawling sales floor of the Wine Library, Vaynerchuk goes off on chardonnays that cost the better part of a paycheck and gushes over merlots that sell for less than a six-pack. He insists a good bottle doesn't have to come with a big price tag. Check out his picks for 12 bottles under $12 here.)
"There are so many wines at $5 and $6 that are phenomenal, but people don't realize it," he said.
Novices: Drink, Note, Drink Some More
Vaynerchuk's tasting sessions range from the outlandish to the insane. In one of his most watched webcasts, he eats dirt and chases it with Cristal. Off camera, the 31-year-old is slightly more sedate, but his love for wine and getting the general public into it remains unbridled.
"I'm tired of going to restaurants and seeing people pass around the wine list like it's got the black plague on it because nobody wants to make that call," he said. "I have no interest in being Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. What I have interest in is for the next generation of wine drinkers to trust themselves, to have their own self esteem, to not worry about what other people think."
Aspiring oenophiles should sample as much as possible, Vaynerchuk said. He hates nothing more than people drinking the same thing because they don't know what else to get.
"The one thing that makes me so mad and pisses me off more than anything is people get stuck in ruts. They think, 'Oh, I like Pinot Grigio,' so they drink Pinot Grigio until their face falls off," he said. "The one thing you don't do is order the same crap over and over. If you don't do that, I'm thrilled."
So what should a wine novice do? Vaynerchuk said go to a restaurant, order something, write down the name of the wine and make note of what's good or bad about it.
"Too many people are intimidated, they feel they have to learn — I don't think you have to learn anything. I think what you have to do is take note of what you're doing," he said. "If you walked in right now with a business card, a piece of paper, a cell phone text, a message on your iPod, whatever -- if you tell me what you drank and what you thought, I can steer you one way or another."
The Establishment Turns Up Its Nose
Vaynerchuk's venture comes at a booming time for the U.S. wine industry. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that, for the first time ever, Americans preferred wine over beer. In February, the trade group VinExpo/IWSR predicted that by 2010, the value of wine consumed in the United States would grow about 18 percent, to $23 billion. That will make the United States the world's biggest wine market by volume, surpassing current leaders — and historically bottle-loving countries — France and Italy.
Though Vaynerchuk's goal is to expand wine's appeal, the industry isn't always supportive of his efforts — after all, who wants their vintage likened to cat pee? He said his relationships with some of his store's suppliers had suffered.
"It's been tough," he said, "because I've never known a world where my suppliers didn't appreciate what I was doing, and I live in that world now. I'm comparing wines to big league chew and to your leather baseball glove. I don't think that's what the establishment enjoys."
Then there are the critics who say Vaynerchuk's taking the prestige out of wine by marketing to the masses. But he's not about to stop his webcast anytime soon — at least, not until every football fan watches the big game with a long-stemmed glass in hand.
"The wine world wants to show you the prestige of beautiful vineyards and restaurants and high-end wines and guys in suits and ties," he said. "And here I am wearing my Jets jersey saying this wine's a mix between dog poop and strawberries. It's going to ruffle people's feathers."
As for Vaynerchuk's fellow football fans who refuse to give up their tried-and-true brew, the salesman and budding star wants them to know they'll pack on fewer pounds by switching to wine. He believes that if anyone can convert a nation founded on beer, it's him.
"I can do it because I'm that guy," Vaynerchuk said. "I am the average guy."
You can check out Vaynerchuk's webcast here. And tell us about your favorite wines by commenting on this story.