Since he began Webcasting his daily wine-tasting sessions in 2006, Gary Vaynerchuk has attracted a cult following for his unpretentious, gonzo approach to wine appreciation. In a typical episode Vaynerchuk samples four to five bottles, swishing each in his mouth before spitting into a metal New York Jets bucket. He has sipped wine outside during a blizzard (to test the effect of temperature on wine) and tasted dirt and rocks, among other natural “flavors,” for reference purposes. Despite his wackiness, Vaynerchuk has serious wine knowledge that he has developed while working at his day job running the Wine Library, in Springfield, New Jersey, a store founded by his father in 1983 under the name Shoppers Discount Liquors. When we asked him for his advice to consumers looking for a decent bottle of wine, he jumped in.
How should a consumer go about buying a bottle of wine?
Rule No. 1: Spark up a relationship with a wine shop that you trust. Rule No. 2: Really, truly, try to figure out what your palate is all about. If you’ve determined that you don’t like dirty old stinky wine—old-world flavors—you probably like new-world fruit bombs. Stick to Shirazes and California Cabernets or Zinfandels.
Identifying a wine’s flavors isn’t easy. How do you do that?
I’m not afraid to call a wine that tastes like Skittles or green peppers mixed with orange marmalade. I’ll say, “It tastes like chicken.” I mean, that’s not what people think of when they think of wine, but that’s what it tastes like to me and it hits home. If you try to make out the black cherry, black currant, cassis, then you’re just tricking yourself—you are trying to impress people and use terminology that other people use.
Tasting wine seems like an expensive process.
Not necessarily. New York City is a haven for free weekend tastings. Map out three or four events in the city and go out and try them. Localwineevents.com is a Website where your readers can go and check out all the local wine events in the city.
How do you choose a wine if you haven’t yet figured out your palate?
Even if it’s one wine you’ve had and liked, write it down on a business card and stick it in your wallet and show the waiter or the expert in the store. They should be able to give you something that’s going to hit your palate the same way.
If you’re picking a wine just for a good price, are you screwing yourself?
The world has changed—through technology, through wine-making techniques, the quality of wine is greater than it’s ever been. Whereas ten, fifteen years ago it was very easy to find lots of bad wine, it’s kind of hard now. The technology, the science—it’s like, are you kidding? We’re in the golden years of wine!
What’s the minimum you advise spending for some nice wine?
There’s great and extremely good wines at $8 to $15. At $8, $9, $10, it gets tricky. But $12 to $15? All day long. I can recommend you a bottle of wine at $12 to $15 for every day of the year.
What are safe bets for a sub-$10 bottle of wine?
I think Portugal is a screaming opportunity these days. There’s Provence and Languedoc—that region of France tends to bring good value in that under-$10 range. It really becomes a question of what part of the world: California? Forget it. Australia? Not what it used to be. Spain? Starting to lose some of its cachet under $10. France? Really hit or miss. Portugal? Phenomenal.
So you’re probably not an advocate of buying wine for its packaging.
Okay, let’s talk about cartoon labels for half a second—some people think anything with a dog or a car or a colorful alien is garbage, which is not true. Look at Big Moose Red. It’s, like, a $6 wine with a cheesy label, and it’s actually a solid wine.
Some wine stores post point scores. Are those worth following?
Many of your readers, they’re just walking into stores and if it says “90 points Wine Spectator,” they’re buying. That’s just the reality of the marketplace, and that’s desperately what I’m trying to change with the show. For people to realize, screw the Spectator, screw [Robert] Parker … and screw me! Try for yourself and develop your own palate.
How has the wine establishment reacted to your proselytizing?
It’s amazing how intimidating wine is; all the wine geeks want to keep everybody out. I get these real wine-snob dickheads who think I’m dumbing wine down. And now wineries are starting to get mad at me. I used to be their darling—because I’m a buyer—but some of them don’t want to sell to me anymore because I panned their wine on the show. That’s been really difficult. I get a ton of positive feedback, but I also get a little zing-zing.