Wine reviewer Gary Vaynerchuk comes up with decidedly unorthodox tasting notes: dog poop, baseball glove and Skittles are some of the highlights. On his daily video blog, Vaynerchuk educates viewers on terroir by eating dirt with a Cristal chaser, demonstrates the concept of “earthy” by chewing on a sweaty sock, and spits into a Jets bucket with toy action figures at his side. So why do well over 20,000 people click on tv.winelibrary.com each day? Perhaps it’s because this 31-year-old New Jersey suburbanite casts his formidable knowledge of oenology in “everyman” terms. Or maybe it’s Vaynerchuk’s bracing enthusiasm; his passion for wine is so powerful that he started educating his palate before age 21 by tasting the fruits, vegetables and minerals isolated by wine experts. Now that he’s an Internet phenomenon, Vaynerchuk aspires to break down the barriers, smash the misconceptions and slay the “wine bullies” who he maintains build walls around the world of wine. Yet while Vaynerchuk’s methods may be idiosyncratic, he still sticks with numerical ratings: on Web blog #148, for example, he gives the ’99 Cristal 87 and the dirt 91.
Wine Enthusiast: We’re intrigued by the palate education method you demonstrated on “Conan” last week: stuffing dirt-seasoned grass into your mouth, tasting a sweaty sock wrapped around an asparagus stalk. Even after a passing flirtation with library paste in kindergarten, it never occurred to me that this might be a way to train my taste buds. How did you come up with it?
Gary Vaynerchuk: I don’t know how people can recognize tastes they’ve never actually had. How are you supposed to pick out a mushroom or a truffle flavor, or know what watermelon tastes like if you’ve never had it? So what I did from ages 17-21, when I was extremely fascinated by wine but wasn’t at a stage where I could drink it, was to do an enormous amount of tobacco eating, dirt eating and mushroom eating to learn those flavors.
WE: So when you did actually taste wine at age 21, was there an epiphany?
GV: The wine that made me understand that all these tasting notes were real and not bull crap was a 1985 Amarone where I tasted distinct chocolate. It was so powerful I ran out of the room and called, “Mom, I really really taste chocolate! Not like chocolate milk, this is chocolate!”
WE: What first sparked your interest in wine?
GV: I worked in my dad’s liquor store where we sold wine. But it was when I noticed people coming in and asking for specific wines to collect them, that it really got me excited. I was only 17 at that point, too young to drink, but I was collecting baseball cards very heavily and when I made the connection with collecting wine, I was excited. I mean, you could do everything with wine that you could do with baseball cards except put it in the spokes of your bicycle wheels.
WE: What do you think are the biggest barriers that prevent the average person from enjoying wine?
GV: History. I think people have been taught to be intimidated by wine. People are scared to trust their own palates. They trust themselves when it comes to food, but they’re not willing to do that when it comes to wine because they feel that that somebody [else] knows better. I’ve never seen anyone look for guidance on which toppings to put on pizza, but with wine, they’re not willing to embrace their own personal taste.
WE: You’re all over the web: you host a video blog, you’ve purchased the Web wine community Cork’d, and you’re on top of youth market spaces like Facebook and Twitter. Do you think young people on the Web are the new face of wine?
GV: There could be a dramatically bigger wine culture in this country. Just on Facebook, which has a very young 21-30-year-old demographic, I have 1,500 friends, and they’re from all different parts of the country. When I had a 22-year-old kid from Alabama ask me about Cahors, I knew this was a different era. These days everything has been advanced by 15 years, so what was traditionally a 35-40-year-old question about wine has now become a 20-25- year-old question. But I also think it’s a matter of talking to people on an even plane; not down at them. And it’s not only youth: A lot of people that watch me are 50, 60, 70 years old. We’re talking about 30,000-40,000 people every day, so there’s a big mix.
WE: At times your comments can be a bit, shall we say, irreverent, like the wine you gave points for being “not obnoxiously over the top and fake.” Does this make producers cranky? Do you care?
GV: I’m sure it does, and I do care. The producers put their heart and souls into these products. But I can’t sit there and lie to my viewers, so it’s a little bit of a tough spot. However, I scream and yell and banter so much telling people, “don’t listen to me, listen to yourself,” I think on some level they respect that.
WE: You review wines and also sell them. Do you consider this a conflict of interest?
GV: I do. But even though I’m coming off jokey and over the top, I think people realize I’m a pretty serious wine guy and I’m shooting from the hip. Sometimes we’re sitting on big quantities of wines I pan on the show.
WE:Which wine regions should we know better?
GV: I think the Douro is outrageously undervalued. Also Loire Valley reds. I think Chinon is one of the most overlooked wines in this world; it’s so disrespected for the quality that area is pumping out. Cava has got me very excited: it’s so overdelivering for its $10 price point it’s scary. I think Champagne has something to worry about.
WE: What wine styles do you think are underappreciated?
GV: Vegetal wines. There are so many people that prefer vegetables to fruits, me being one of them, I’m shocked wines that deliver heavily on green pepper, dill or celery sticks are not appreciated—hence, Chinon. I think Cabernet Franc, with its vegetal component, is underappreciated, especially when it’s done in an Old World style.
WE: At the end of your video blog, you say, “We’re changing the wine world.” What’s your ideal world of wine?
GV: You left out the best part. I actually say, “you with a little bit of me are changing the wine world.” I want to make sure that this next generation of wine drinkers is more open-minded; that they don’t look down on people drinking white Zinfandel. Everybody’s got a starting point and everybody’s got their own palate. I want to empower people to trust themselves, to think for themselves the same as we have in the food world. I’d like to see a culture that doesn’t “trend;” where marketing doesn’t dictate the drinking pattern. I don’t want this to be a place where “Merlot is hot.”
We’re at a crossroads in America: We have no middle class. We have Two Buck Chuck and Yellowtail, and then we have snobs. We desperately need a middle class in wine. It may seem far-fetched but I’d like to see people drinking 365 bottles a year, all different, and enjoying them not because anybody is telling them to, but because when it touches their palate it’s something they like.