Selling Wine the Web 2.0 Way

Fast Interview: Gary Vaynerchuk, one of the most successful personal branders on the new media frontier, grew his family business from $4 million in sales to $50 million. Here he talks about the power of social media and Web TV for building business and, you guessed it, your personal brand.

Selling Wine the Web 2.0 Way

Forget about essence of black currants — this wine tastes like a dead deer with cherries sprinkled on top. This is the kind of candid review uncorked by Vaynerchuk as host of Wine Library TV, an offshoot of his family’s New Jersey retail business. His daily webcast is quirky, opinionated (he described one wine as tasting like “a gremlin who hasn’t taken a shower in a while”), popular (80,000 viewers and growing) and inevitably digresses into the fortunes of his beloved New York Jets. Vaynerchuk will be a keynote speaker at this week’s Web 2.0 Expo in New York. His advice: hustle, connect with your community, be honest and be yourself.


What have you learned about building a successful web show?

You have to feed your community. That’s your differentiators from somebody that’s on television. One of my key successes at first was answering every e-mail. I’m way behind, but I still do. You’ve got to spend so much time on the community part and less time on the content. So many people are so focused on the product or the content — for example, with video bloggers it’s the lighting, the graphics and editing. I have taped all 600 shows of Wine Library TV without ever, ever taking another take.

No second takes?

It’s been one take every time. If the phone rings, so be it. No special graphics, nothing. I want to spend every minute of time working the community. Way too many people spend nine hours a day finishing an episode. That’s absurd to me. As a small business trying to build viewership, you can’t do that, no matter how great a show is. The big differentiator, and the big weapon, that people in new media have, is that they can be touchable and connected to their fan base. I want people to focus on that more.

Did you get into web TV because you wanted to have fun or because you thought it was a strategic business move?

Both. Something triggered in my mind that said I’m probably better off being Oprah than Target. I would say it was 90 percent business, and 10 percent fun. But it’s so fun. What gets me excited in the morning is building businesses.


Did your shows help sales?

At first, sales decreased substantially. I was the CEO and it was culture shock for this company to lose me. I wasn’t spending 15 hours a day trying to build Wine Library retail. My day used to be calling on CEOs and six figure clients and selling them tens of thousands of dollars of wine every day. That just stopped on a dime. But it’s climbed back up. That’s the kind of business you love, right? It doesn’t rely on you at all and is still growing.

Almost 70 percent of the wines that have been on Wine Library I’ve panned. At first, I knew people would think I was just shilling wine. But what they didn’t realize I had a much bigger global thought: I was trying to build personal brand equity. There are people driving four, five or six hours just to see where I tape the show and coming to Wine Library.

How big is your business?

We stopped reporting sales in 2005, but we were a $50 million company in 2005 and we’ve grown since.

You say you want to change the wine industry. What’s wrong with it?


The global brand of wine is positioned as something people are intimidated by. Wine has been put on pedestal. That’s what I want to change. I want people to really get excited by wine and know they have a good palate. I want to build wine self-esteem.

You described one wine as tasting like a pile of stinky clothes in college dorm room infested by loose hamsters. Not the kind of tasting notes we see in The Wine Spectator!

It’s authenticity. If a wine tastes like a Rubik’s cube to me — because I’ve gnawed on one or two in my life — then that’s what I’m going to call it. Or Grape Big League Chew. I just want to be real, because when people taste it they’re like, “Oh my god, this does taste like a Tootsie Roll!” The lesson there is authenticity trumps tradition.

What wine would you serve to the New York Jets?

I’ve been on record thousands of times — including my fourth grade yearbook — that I want to own the New York Jets. That’s actually what I’m working towards. I’d love to host them. Obviously every player is different. Brett Favre, he’s a good old country boy so he may need a rustic Barolo. Other players like Kerry Rhodes, he’s very into Hollywood and nightlife, may want a good bottle of Cristal. Different people have different palates so every Jet player would have to be individually dissected.

Why would you rather have a million friends than a million bucks?


That’s one of my favorite lines of all time. I’d rather have social equity than private equity. The ways a person can communicate have exploded. The biggest socialite in the world, how many people could she have possibly told to watch my show 10 years ago? Now you’ve got tens of thousands following on Twitter, blogs read by hundreds of thousands of people, texting, StumbledUpon, Pownce, Jaiku, video blog sites. Word of mouth is on steroids. If a million friends like what you do, they’re going to absolutely build your brand or your business to a totally different degree than what has ever been done before. Look at personal brands like Oprah — there is substantial business to be done by having brand equity and leveraging social media right now.

Why do you call this the golden age of personal branding?

There’s going to be a lot of people defined and built through the Web and through these tools. Look at Perez Hilton — he’s the gossip guy, right? He’s taken it. Where are the movie critics? Where is the sports center? Where is the financial show? There is wide-open space for a lot of genres to be built. I still don’t think we’ve had our first celebrity chef built through the web. Where’s the chef who’s got the skills and personality to set up a camera, tape a show five days a week, interact with a community, build a brand and then the Food Network is knocking at the door? That is going to happen. Now it’s a gold rush. Eventually it’s not going to happen quite as easily.

You’ve gotten consulting gigs at places like Facebook and Google. What do you tell audiences about social media?

This is not stopping. This is going to be part of society. People need to embrace it, understand it, figure out how to leverage it, and recognize they’re no longer in control of their message. The people now decide what the message is. That’s very disheartening and scary for many people. Many brands want to control every aspect of what goes on in their world. That is no longer possible.

Big brands can no longer control their image with PR.


Those days are over, my friend. You need to figure out how to be more transparent. You know what’s great about this? The good is going to win and the bad is going to lose. How great is that?

Why do you warn people against trying to be the next Facebook?

That’s such a warning sign to me. So many people see something successful and want to recreate it. If you take all that energy and focus on doing something your own way, something you’re passionate about, you’re always going to win. To really build a business you have to work super duper hard. You’ve got to have obnoxious passion for what you do. If you’re not passionate, you’re dead.