Gary Vaynerchuk gives some wine lovers hives. On his now-famous series of hyper-adrenalized Web videos, Wine Library TV, nicknamed "the Thunder Show," on tv.winelibrary.com, he brings a sports-talk sensibility to the ritual of swirl-and-sip. He howls at the camera. He gives each glass a "sniffy-sniff" and deposits his mouthfuls into a spit bucket in the shape of a New York Jets helmet. (He's a huge fan.) Winning wines "bring the thunder." Over-oaked wines prompt references to the "Oak Monster."
Yet, as outlandish as he is, his Thanksgivings are a surprisingly traditional affair. Around 20 members of the extended clan gather at Gary's parents' house in central New Jersey for football on the tube (of course) and his mother's roast turkey, stuffing, chunky cranberry sauce and sweet-potato pie crowned with marshmallowsand lots of it. (Those recipes inspired the F&W ones here for sausage-and-bread stuffing, cranberry sauce and twice-baked sweet potatoes.) "Classic Russian-immigrant mentality," says Gary, 34, the family's eldest son. "We have, minimum, seven times more food than needed." Yet his rise is not the classic Russian-immigrant success story.
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The Vaynerchuks came to the US in 1978 from what is now Belarus. Gary's father, Sasha, took a job as a stock boy at an unremarkable liquor store called Shopper's Discount Liquors. He taught himself English, Gary recalls, reading the boxes he hefted. Sasha worked endless hours and eventually wound up co-owning the store. Gary started helping out there, filling bags of ice, at age 14. He despised this job. But it all turned out OKin fact, substantially better than OK. Gary took over the store in 1998, changing its focus to wine and its name to Wine Library. In 2006, he launched Wine Library TV, which has made him the most visible wine pundit on the Web and brought renown sufficient to place him on that fulcrum point between "famous in wine" and "actually famous."
"I know it turns some people offthe drive, the ego, the self-confidence, whatever you want to call it," Gary says, business-casual in his office in a polo shirt, albeit one accessorized with a purple "Bringing the Thunder" wristband. Still, "whatever you want to call it" has resulted in rabid fans"Vayniacs"along with multiple TV appearances, more than 850,000 Twitter followers and a best-selling business-strategy book called Crush It! It has also brought Wine Library riches, even though the store is located next to a Grease Monkey oil-change outlet in the definite non-hotbed of Springfield, New Jersey. According to Gary, a focus on selling wine online, which accounts for half his shop's business, has brought annual sales to more than $60 million. In 1998, before he took over, they were under $4 million.
On the last Thursday in November, though, Gary will face no business decision tougher than choosing the right wines. For recent Thanksgivings, he says, "I've been really nerding it up." Last year, he brought the family Loire Valley reds made from the Cabernet Franc grape, from France's beloved-by-wine-geeks appellations of Chinon and Bourgueil. "The Loire Valley is grossly underestimated," he says. "The prices are fair, and the wines are real"by which he means they're honest expressions of the varying appellations they come from.
But after the big meal, it's back to work for Gary, whose ambitions have significantly outgrown wine retail. He now spends most of his time writing books; preparing for his new Sirius XM radio show, Wine & Web with Gary Vaynerchuk; and working on VaynerMedia, his business and Web consultancy that he formed with his brother, which advises the likes of Campbell's Soup, PepsiCo and, yes, the Jets, on business and social-media strategies. "I realized I had other things to talk about" besides wine, Gary says. He also wanted to avoid the way another noted Jersey character found himself "pigeonholed." After all, as he puts it, "Tony Soprano would have a tough time getting another gig."
Jon Fine is a New York writer and former media columnist. He wrote about "natural" wines in F&W's June 2010 issue.