Saturday, February 14, 2009

How many frogs must Gary Vaynerchuk kiss?

Watch this video. It's the latest in the string of increasingly popular wine celebrity Gary Vaynerchuk's appearances in mainstream media TV programs. This one is the Feb 13 Valentine's Day episode of the MSNBC's Today Show. Gary is great - he holds his own against the professional TV hosts, but that is not the point I want to focus on here. The point of this post is to make you think about the average American lay-person, and how the mass media attempt to reflect that lay-person's outlook on wine through the types of content they deliver on a program like this. Was it entertaining? Yes! Was it stupid? YES!!! Why? Read on.

In order to understand my irritation with this program, it helps to appreciate that I have watched every single TV appearance that Gary Vaynerchuk posted via his website or his facebook page (he and I are connected on facebook). They all share the tone - a wine-ignorant (or pretending to be ignorant) host, and a super entertaining wine geek ("Gary Vee") seemingly revealing the mysteries of wine flavors and food & wine pairing to the hosts and the audience. Gary does his shtick - using all-time favorite expressions like "let's give it a *sniffy sniff*", "this wine for $12 US *bones* brings serious thunder", and so forth - those are a lot of fun! And the suits on TV always have the same response - "this smells like rubberball? why would I want THAT in my drink?!". They grab the wines, dumbfounded expressions on their faces, weak attempt at contemplation, no time to smell, no time to think... let's keep it moving... "oh this Riesling is sweet - I don't like it", "this Sauternes is thick - I don't like it".

The whole thing actually ends up being kind of insulting to anyone (I would think) who actually gives a rat's ass about what wine tastes like, what thoughts it could provoke, what pleasure it could give. Why is it so shocking that this drink may insist that you slow down for a few seconds and actually *think* about what it is you are smelling, tasting, sensing?! Why is that so strange to the talk show hosts?

Gary Vaynerchuk makes his slogan abundantly clear when he does events like this, that growing one's brand through mainstream media is the way of the past. Today one must use the internet to grow faster and reach wider than ever before. Looking at the quality of content he delivers via his "alternative" media, i.e. his online videos vs the "performances" on the national TV, it's clear to see the shallowness and bafoonishness of the latter, yet Gary is proudly growing his brand through whatever means he can - indeed, it would be crazy to turn down the lay-user bits on national TV in favor of something more meaningful and dare I say - serious. Perhaps the more meaningful appearances will come later ("60 minutes"?). But for now, I get the distinct feeling that Gary acts like a business person #1, entertainer #2, and wino #3 (in that order, though I imagine his natural tendency is to be the reverse).

Him aside, the way MSNBC (and other) hosts treat wine is a mirror on the audience that watch these shows. Gary Vaynerchuk is used for entertainment of what almost seems like a circus. The audience are laughing, Gary gets national exposure so he can grow ever closer to the Martha Stewart-dom of wine - everyone wins, right? Maybe. But I sure wish wine were presented with more respect than that. This mass media coverage is 180-degree opposite of the way wine is portrayed in the over-dramatised yet somehow inspiring Japanese drama Kami no Shizuku that I blogged about previously or Sideways. Those TV show hosts remind me of the dumb-ass Jack character - Miles' friend. Hilarious and stupid. Those movies though obviously skewed in some ways, give us deeper appreciation for wine, they inspire us, raise our emotional and intellectual curiosity about this amazing drink. The big network TV shows really seem to achieve quite the opposite.

Well, Gary Vee's popularity is growing, and he is getting more serious treatment by the mainstream media. Drilling down into this dichotomy between the condencending way they present wine to lay-drinkers that I think just seems plain ridiculous to even moderately thoughtful drinkers, the key point Gary should make, IMHO, is that people should take 2 seconds to think about what it is they are drinking. Just a little bit of pause-and-think will teach people a lot, and ultimately give them more pleasure. It would be great to see the talk shows actually act just a tad more knowledgeable about wine, rather than bafoonish.

That said, Gary is clearly on his way up, seemingly unstoppable, a brilliant 33-year-old, born in Russia, delivering a fabulous video series through his Wine Library TV video blog, and driving one of the internet's highest grossing wine businesses (if not *the* highest, based on my estimates). But one does wonder - how many frogs will he have to kiss before the mainstream media present him and wine with some respect, and not just respect for him, but respect to all of us - the lay people in the audience and the not-so-lay people who do hopefully stop and think about what they drink.

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