Sommelier Tim Riley has his TikTok videos down to a science. Dressed in a smartly tailored suit complete with a bowtie, pocket square and silver sommelier’s pin, he appears seated in a wine cellar. A stemmed glass is usually set before him on a table draped in pressed white linen.
The liquid within, however, is never a lush Bordeaux or golden Sancerre. In one recent video, the glass glows with garish, yellow-green concoction. It’s Monster M3 Extra Strength, a Japanese energy drink, Riley informs viewers.
“There’s aromas of dried pineapple, of orange syrup, of sprite syrup, saffron and vanilla,” he says after a robust swish and thoughtful sip. His tone is spritely yet deadly serious. “On the palate, this is nearly full-bodied with nearly high acidity. This has a full, rich and powerful texture driven by nitrous oxide.
“This is a strange drink, but I kind of like it.”
Riley’s account, @bigsommenergy, is a major player on #WineTok, a wine-splashed subculture on the social media platform TikTok. He uploaded his first video in January 2021 and already has more than 108,000 followers.
The speed with which he found his audience is indicative of #WineTok itself, which has grown by leaps and bounds during the pandemic. According to data that TikTok shared with Wine Enthusiast, the use of wine-related hashtags like #sommelier and #winetok on the platform increased by nearly 50% to more than 56,000 from March 2020 to August 2021. Those hashtags’ monthly views were up approximately 125% during that same time period, seen by more than 37,000,000 people.
Founded in 2017, TikTok features user-generated videos on everything from botany and gardening (#PlantTok) to funeral homes and embalming (#DeathTok). Videos tend to be unpolished, giving viewers a voyeuristic peek behind the curtain on a range of topics. Snappy and engaging content is what tends to drive likes and shares, not the credentials of creators.
Amid the pandemic, a wide swath of wine professionals, many newly out of work, flocked to the site. Amateur wine enthusiasts also started Tok-ing their drinks as quarantines dragged on and bars and restaurants remained closed. Stuck at home without other forms of entertainment, viewers across TikTok tuned in. Between January 2019 and June 2020, TikTok users ballooned from 27 to 91 million active users, a figure likely boosted by pandemic quarantines.
What emerged is a new frontier in the wine world, one largely free of the hang-ups of traditional wine culture, with its formal reputation and pricey barrier to entry. Will #WineTok de-snobbify wine for good? Or is it a passing fad in a lightning-fast digital landscape?
From March 2020 to August 2021, the use of wine-related hashtags like #sommelier and #winetok increased by nearly 50% to more than 56,000.
“There’s a lot of gatekeeping [in wine], and that is not the way to grow an industry,” says Tyler C., whose account, @winewithtlc, has 69,000 followers.
Tyler, who prefers not to disclose his last name and employer, works for a major wine distributor and began posting wine-related content last November. Though gainfully employed throughout the pandemic, spending so much time at home in San Antonio, Texas, drove him stir crazy—and toward TikTok. Soon, he was filming videos on everything from quality wine finds at Costco to tips for pairing wine with Girl Scout cookies.
“My thing is helping people choose wines that are within their price point without them feeling intimidated or embarrassed, and then also broadening their horizons a little bit, too,” says Tyler. He estimates that 85% of his followers identify as women between 24 and 40 years old.
This is a younger demographic for wine. Last year, a survey by the Academy of Wine Business Research found that millennials and Gen Z account for just 34% of U.S. wine consumers, compared to the 57.7% share attributed to Baby Boomers and Gen X.
Riley also hopes to bring more people into wine with his videos.
“What I offer is an introduction,” Riley says. “Wine is a really complicated subject, and one that can be hard for people to break into.”
Talking about things like body, acidity and texture can make viewers more comfortable with wine terminology, he says. “This provides them an entry point into taking beverages seriously.” He plans to launch a “Wine for Energy Drink Drinkers” series on his channel, too.
Riley and Tyler have major wine industry certifications. Riley is an advanced sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and Tyler holds a WSET Level 2, and is currently studying for a pandemic-delayed WSET Level 3 and Certified Specialist of Wine certification.
Tyler believes his content and other videos like it are popular among these demographics because it busts the image of a wine connoisseur as “somebody who’s wearing a tuxedo swirling wine and being all pretentious,” he says.
He’s nonetheless caught off guard at times by the fervor of some followers, especially when they’re talking about him in relation to another WineTok personality, Jamie Griffiths of @jamiegriffwine. “Our followers will call Jamie the ‘Grandfather of WineTok,’ and then I’m like, the ‘Wine Daddy,’ ” he says, mildly embarrassed by the connotations of the term.
Jamie Griffiths is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based retiree with no formal wine training. Since he began posting his educational videos in November 2020, he’s amassed 33,600 followers. He says his viewers care less about certifications and more about content that doesn’t condescend to them.
“All we’re doing is drinking fermented grape juice,” he says. “How freaking hard does it have to be?”
“Accessibility is so important. Wine is just as approachable as beer and cocktails, but it’s not viewed that way.” —Michelle Chen, @legallywined
Michelle Chen, a Court of Master Sommeliers Level 2-certified former sommelier now working as a lawyer in Los Angeles, has a similarly democratic approach. Her account, @legallywined, has 28,200 followers and features breezy videos that seek to demystify wine.
“I’m a Taiwanese immigrant and I made a video about that,” she says, and adds that, when she broke into the wine world in 2015, it “was so intimidating for me.”
Chen doubts she would have started making wine-focused TikTok videos if not for the pandemic. Still, she says, they serve a purpose. Easily digestible TikTok content helps break down barriers to entry, Chen says, which more often impact marginalized genders, cultures and socioeconomic groups.
“Accessibility is so important,” she says. “Wine is just as approachable as beer and cocktails, but it’s not viewed that way. So I think WineTok definitely should be a growing space.”
In January 2021, Isis Daniel, the WSET Level 2-accredited wine professional behind @themillennialsomm, and a 2021 Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 Tastemaker, started regularly posting on TikTok. When the pandemic hit, she was furloughed from her job at a Northern Virginia wine bar and began channeling her energy into TikTok. Her account ballooned to 129,300 followers.
“I think that WineTok is amazing because I’m goofy,” says Daniel. “I make these videos where I’m able to fully be myself.”
Her TikTok videos are one part education and one part comedy, the latter often thanks to a character named Mrs. Suzanne, a white-wigged caricature of an arrogant wine drinker whose opinion of herself far eclipses any actual wine knowledge. Daniel isn’t sure how the bit might play in the broader wine world—comedy and wine education don’t often go hand in hand—but viewers on TikTok? “They loved it,” she says. “They were like, ‘We don’t know anything about wine and you are making wines fun and approachable.’ ”
TikTok is far from a digital utopia, however. In recent months, the platform has been accused of denying credit to Black creators and suppressing pro-Black political content. There’s also a concerning abundance of white supremacy-focused content on the site.
Some WineTok creators have noticed disturbing trends on the platform, too.
“There are things on TikTok that, as a Black person, make me uncomfortable,” says Daniel. “I’ve had videos where they said I had nudity or something and I didn’t have it, and I’m just kind of wondering what’s going on.” She says she’s heard stories of other BIPOC creators who have had similar experiences.
Still, Daniel believes in the power of WineTok. “It opens the door for inclusion,” she says.
What’s the future of WineTok? Will mainstream wine culture accept it? Plenty of wine brands, wineries and wine professionals are already on TikTok. Winemaker Branden Seymour of Washington State’s VanArnam Vineyards already has an impressive 41,000 followers. Operations including Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma, California, Tank Garage Winery in Calistoga, California, and Malibu Rocky Oaks Vineyard in Malibu, California, all have invested in their TikTok presences. Even Wine Enthusiast is in on the action. Still, the number of wine professionals on TikTok are far surpassed by those who aren’t.
Riley says he has heard “nothing but positive feedback from the wine community,” but he doesn’t know how seriously all corners of the wine establishment take TikTok.
“If I were the CEO of a wine company, I’d be happy that someone is talking to these people and introducing them towards serious beverages, which down the road leads to a more serious beverage buyer,” he says. “But, you know, none of those people are calling me up.”