My Guardian column this week about wine wizard Gary Vaynerchuk:
Before you read this, do me a favour and go to WineLibraryTV.com Be prepared for a jet engine in your face. That blast of personality is Gary Vaynerchuk, a 32-year-old merchant who has made more than 450 daily wine-tasting shows online – just him, his glass and a spit bucket.
The show, with its audience of 80,000 a day, has transformed Vaynerchuk into a cultural phenomenon. He has appeared on two of the biggest TV talk shows in the US and in the Wall Street Journal and Time. His book, Gary Vaynerchuk’s 101 Wines, comes out next week and the day he announced this on his internet show, his fans immediately pushed it to No 36 on Amazon’s bestseller list. He has a Hollywood agent. He makes motivational speeches. And he has only just begun. Gary Vaynerchuk is on his way to becoming the online Oprah.
This isn’t as simple as using online video to sell wine, though the family store is now a $60m-a-year enterprise. Vaynerchuk is also transforming retail and making it social. He has realised that a store should be a community and so he uses every tool available online – a social wine rating site called Corkd.com, his videos, his appearances on other popular online shows such as Diggnation, his ubiquitous presence on Facebook, and answering countless emails every day – to make and connect with as many fans as possible.
One day, a few weeks ago, Vaynerchuk announced on his online show that he’d throw an event for his video friends at his store in New Jersey. More than 300 people showed up. He calls himself “the social media sommelier”. “Social business,” he says, “is the future of our society.”
Vaynerchuk is on a mission. “I want to change the way that people think about wine and change the way that people do business … This is how I will be remembered.” His secret is generosity and passion. Now that may sound like a line. But I’ve witnessed Vaynerchuk in action. I’ve bought my wine at his store for a few years and watched his sales people eager to help customers find a better, cheaper bottle. I watched him at the South by Southwest conference, where he gathered instant parties via Twitter, having strangers – now friends – sample from the seven cases of wine he had shipped down. I do think this guy’s for real. Authenticity, Vaynerchuk argues, is a necessity in the transparent, social, web 2.0 world. “You’re not going to be able to have multiple personalities,” he says. “Your personal brand is now completely exposed to the world, 24/7. Everyone is media now.” This leads him to a grand conclusion: “So now good is going to win.”
See, he does sound like Oprah. And he acts like her as he constructs his empire. He says he is building – as he calls it – “brand Gary Vaynerchuk”. Online, he issues opinions, not only about wine but about life, like this: “I’d rather have a million friends right now than a million dollars. Your social equity is far greater than your financial equity.”
He even has an inspiring personal story: he came to the US from Russia at age three, a young entrepreneur who made a $1,000 a week selling baseball cards at the mall. When he had to work in the family store as a kid, cleaning shelves, he hated it until he realised that wine was as collectable as baseball cards. And now he has used his expertise, passion and personality – and the power that online gives anyone to speak to the world and make friends anywhere – to turn himself into a star.
As I left the office where he tapes his show, he handed me a copy of his book. Then he went to a “meet and greet” with a fan who just wanted to be near force Vaynerchuk. All this is possible with just a dream and a webcam.