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Mutineer Interview with Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk

One man, a video camera, and the Internet have re-written all of the rules regarding the way we communicate about wine. The man is Gary Vaynerchuk, and through his daily video blog, The Thunder Show, upwards of 100,000 “Vayniacs” a day are tuning in to Vaynerchuk’s twenty minute wine monologue.

The idea of “demystifying” wine is spoken of with great loftiness and desire, but even wine’s biggest critic, Robert Parker Jr., didn’t demystify wine, he just gave people a cheat sheet with his interpretation of the answers on it. Vaynerchuk, on the other hand, is fundamentally changing the way people think about wine.

He is arming wine drinkers with the knowledge and confidence to enjoy the world of wine to its fullest, and he is providing the trade some desperately needed balance in an extremely traditional and closed industry.

We are excited to share with you the Gary Vaynerchuk Mutineer Magazine Interview, which took place in Santa Rosa, California on October 24, 2008. The transcription is unedited and uncensored, which, if you’ve seen Mr. Vaynerchuk in action, you know is exactly the way he likes it.

“I felt like I could create new wine drinkers, and I felt like that was a responsibility that I had to execute against; really it’s as simple as that.”

Alan Kropf: Describe yourself in three words.

Gary Vaynerchuk: Jets fan. Family. But I would start with family first.

You really pioneered video blogging as it relates to wine. What was your inspiration for the “Thunder Show” and what made you believe it could work?

I launched WineLibrary.com in 1997; I had been in the Internet wine business for a long time. I started seeing the Internet changing, and in 2005, I noticed there were some Internet shows like “The Show with Ze Frank” and Amanda Congdon’s “Rocketboom,” and they were doing well. I thought, “You know, maybe I should do something like this. This seems to be up my alley, and I want to try something new on the Internet.” I was bored at that point. I spent eight years of e-commercing shit, and so I was sitting there and thought about doing sports. I thought about other things actually, besides doing wine, but at the end of the day, it felt like I could do something nice for the wine industry. I felt like I could create new wine drinkers, and I felt like that was a responsibility that I had to execute against; really it’s as simple as that.
This industry has been very good to me. I came here with no money. My family… we were very poor, and the wine industry has been very good to me, you know. I want to give back to it, and the way I feel I can give back with my personality and my skill set is by creating more attention and excitement around it.

You have the slogan, “Changing the wine world, whether they like it or not”. Who do you mean by “they”?

“They” is perception to the normal person that doesn’t know about the wine industry. As a matter of fact, the wine establishment, as maybe people think that I refer to when I say “they” is pretty damn awesome. Listen, there are douche bags in every industry. There is not more douche bags in the wine industry just because we are in a stuffy wine world. “Whether they like it or not” would be the people who are traditionalists who don’t feel that wine can be talked about in reference to Big League Chew and racket balls. People who are uncomfortable letting wine breathe in a new world and step outside its boundaries. I refer to wine as racket balls, cotton candy, or a urinal, and I think that is very powerful to me because that’s what they smell like, and I want to break that pigeon hole, and so anybody that wants to contain wine in tradition, and be elitist and keep people out…that is “they”.

Talk about your experiences being on some of these major talk shows like Conan O’Brien…

Ultimately, I’ll be honest with you, I feel that it brings more exposure to our industry, and I think a rising tide raises all ships or whatever that damn saying is and also it is a very personal thing; my family is everything in my life, and being behind that curtain and knowing that my parents are about to see their son that they brought from Russia to America go out on national television, that is what was powerful to me, I was thinking, “What’s going through their mind?”, I mean, they did it. They left this Communist country, they came here, they wanted me to have a better life and here I am, their little boy going out on national television. I hope that it makes them happy, it makes me happy, and more importantly I hope that it brings attention to wine on a national scale, that wine can be more like food, where Rachael Ray and Emeril [Lagasse] have been ambassadors to allow all these celebrity chefs to open up these restaurants and monetize and make money against all these cookbooks and stuff. You know, I’d like to be a pioneer like that for my industry.

In addition to hosting The Thunder Show, you are Director of Operations at the Wine Library. When you took over operations, what changes did you make to increase the success of the store?

I got very serious about the wine program. We were called Discount Shoppers Liquors, so we were very much into beer and liquor. I moved the beer cooler, which was 2,000 sq. ft. of a 4,000 sq. ft. store, so I moved that and made it 300 sq ft. and that opened up a lot of room for wine, so I expanded the selection dramatically because of that. I bought differently, my dad bought mainly main brands like Sebastiani and Kendall-Jackson, I started bringing in Loire Valley reds and Tannat and Cahors and Bondol. I educated myself and my staff. I employed people that knew about wine or cared to know about wine, and I launched technology. I launched WineLibrary.com and built an email service from 1997.

Gary Vaynerchuk

Vaynerchuk doing his thing on the Thunder Show

How did you come up with the name “Wine Library”?

I didn’t. I was the one who pushed us for us to change our name, but my dad came up with the name Wine Library. He came out to California, and a lot of the people referred to their cellars as “wine libraries”. I wanted us to be called “Wine Online”, which was so controversial because people didn’t know what “online” meant. And it would’ve been cool for search engine optimization, because anyone that searches “wine online”, ya, we would’ve done well. But ya, that’s what I wanted to be. I’ll be honest with you, “Wine Library”, “Wine Online”, “Wine on the Vine”, all these different names, whatever, I just wanted to change the name and start building brand equity in something, because Discount Shoppers Liquors was a co-op. We were a part of eight other stores, all independently run, all different prices, all different selections, all different service, but people looked at us like a McDonald’s or a Burger King, and I was desperate to get us to change the name.

Talk about your “Super Tastings”.

So “Super Tasting” is something that I do each year, which is probably one of the most fulfilling things that I do. We basically have a ‘thank you tasting’ for our customers, it was almost called the “Thank You Tasting”. We do it in October on the Monday and Tuesday of Columbus Day. We pour about 900 wines, all very high end, starting at fifteen bucks but going all the way up to like Gaja and First-growth Bordeaux. It’s an $85-$95 ticket, it’s crazy inexpensive, and every single ounce of profit goes to charities. So we lose money when you factor in the time of our staff…it’s my way to thank our customers and thank the world for being good to me, so it’s a good, good thing.

What are the most important qualities you look for in hiring and developing the qualities in your Wine Library staff?

If they are a good human being. First and foremost. I probably fired the five or six most educated wine employees I’ve ever had. Wine education is important, but who they are as a human being and their ability to play nice with the other boys and girls, is my number one thing. After that is their customer service. First internal, how they get along, then customer service, then a distant third is their wine knowledge.

Was it hard to realize that vision?

It took a little time for me to weed it out, but it was always where I wanted to go with it, and now that people know what a great work environment it is, it attracts great people.

Going back to the show, talk about it in its current state.

It’s a very mature show now. I had a lot of thoughts coming [to the Wine Bloggers Conference] tonight. I do a lot of speaking on the Internet circles, the global Internet, and in that space I’ve become a bigger and bigger brand. In this world, I’m kind of the establishment in some weird way, you know? I’m very curious to see the vibe of the room tonight. I don’t want to be the bad guy because I’m one of the bigger bloggers. It’s gotten me to become very curious, I mean, it’s a very mature show. We’re almost at our 600th show, but it’s very exciting for me to do it. I still get excited. I still have so many categories I haven’t touched. I haven’t done enough on Long Island wines, and I still haven’t tackled Bandol the way I want to, and I haven’t even touched Uraguay. So, I feel fascinated that I’ve done so many shows and there is still so much to do. I wonder how much longer its got. You know, I think about that all the time, and this is pretty intense. I mean, most people have a tough time blogging everyday, and I pump out a 20 minute video every day. I’m not even quite sure how I do it sometimes, but I love what I do, and that drives me through. So, I hope I do it forever, in whatever state that means.

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