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Web sensation Vaynerchuk is a wine-loving whirlwind

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

When Gary Vaynerchuk, host of the wildly popular wine video blog Wine Library TV, talks about wine, he doesn't mince words.

"Wine is my life," he tells me on a road trip from Austin to the Houston area last week. "It's in my blood. It's in my DNA."

I'd met up with Vaynerchuk after a book signing at Grape Vine Market in North Austin in support of his first book, "101 Wines that Bring the Thunder," which came out last month. About 60 people showed up in the middle of the day to hear what this fiery 32-year-old son of Russian immigrants had to say.

But only about half of them were there to hear him talk about wine.

Last time he had been in Austin, in March, he was talking to audiences about marketing and the Web as a participant at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, and organizing impromptu wine after-parties via Twitter, the online social networking site.

Both wine lovers and tech lovers flock to Vaynerchuk these days to hear him explain the difference between tempranillo from Argentina and Spain and why online social networks are the next great step in marketing.

He knows a thing or two about both.

He learned about wine from years working at Wine Library, the wine store in Springfield, N.J., that his dad started in 1983, which has grown into a three-story, 40,000-square-foot megastore. Along with online sales that constitute two-thirds of the store's overall business, Wine Library brings in more than $45 million in revenue a year.

On the drive to the Woodlands near Houston (our wine sipping had to wait until the evening), Vaynerchuk explains what prompted him to leave the day-to-day operations of a booming wine business to record 10- to 20-minute wine tasting reports that he gives away for free every day on the Web.

"I felt like wine was broken," he says. "A lot broken. People thought it was more serious than it needed to be, that it was stuffy or uncool."

He already had the developed palate and wine knowledge, so he started doing wine tastings in front of a camera, with a sweatband on his arm and spittoon emblazoned with a New York Jets logo beside him, letting his infectious charisma and positive, never-ending energy do the rest.

Wine Library TV took off, and now tens of thousands of viewers a day - many of them die-hard fans, self-described Vayniacs - watch Vaynerchuk give wines a "sniffy sniff" and hear his latest quirky, but dead-on description of taste or smell (think rubber kickballs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and first-generation fruit rollups).

Vayniacs are a dedicated bunch. He gets more than 200 comments a day on his blog. At the Houston wine tasting we were driving to last week, a man from Louisiana shaved a goatee he'd had for 25 years as a crazy thing to do with his favorite crazy wine blogger. A man in Colorado was planning a Wine Library tattoo this week.

You could say he has serious fans.

But he knows a lot of people think he's faking it. The friendliness, the persona. The rabid passion for the Jets. The love of New Kids on the Block that inspires him to belt out every lyric to "Step by Step" in the car. He doesn't care.

"I'm never going to run from myself," he says. "It's just so easy to let go and be real." He lives and breathes authenticity and transparency, two of his favorite marketing concepts.

Driving along an empty patch of U.S. 290 en route to the Woodlands ("Texas has so much land," he had noted earlier), he fantasized out loud about placing billboards in desolate parts of the country with a picture of his face and the words, "Yup, I'm here, too."

Vaynerchuk's always at work, even if it's just through his iPhone, checking - and replying to - the thousands of e-mails and Tweets (Twitter speak for message updates) he gets a day.

Keeping a two-way conversation with the community he's building is as essential to what he's cooking up as the video blogs themselves. Answering their questions, helping them choose a Chilean cabernet sauvignon, updating them on where he is and what he's doing via Twitter, setting up public meetups so fans can meet one another face to face.

He draws in more followers by giving them a digital piece of himself.

"I like to look at technology as bringing more people together," he says. "Then the old guard says, `But it's not real.' It is real. When I send an e-mail, I feel that hug."

He's the kind of guy who'll make friends with everyone in the room, then befriend the valet runners, waving hors d'oeuvres their way during the party.

Outside Hempstead, his wife of four years, Lizzie, calls. They met online, appropriately enough, and he laments not seeing her as much as he'd like.

He has a lot on his plate these days. Appearances on talk shows with Conan O'Brien and Ellen DeGeneres, business and marketing conferences and wine festivals. The day after our trip he had an early morning flight to New York to tape Bravo TV's "A List Awards," which airs tonight at 9 p.m. He's up for the "Cewebrity" award.

He and Lizzie chat for a moment, then hang up, and he gets another call a few minutes later as we're pulling into an Arby's in Waller.

A journalist from Men's Health on the line wants to ask a few follow-up questions for a story. We order a ham and Swiss (me) and a crispy chicken fillet combo with a Mug root beer (him), which we scarf in the parking lot while he wraps up the phone call.

No gig, no interview, no e-mail is too small. He answers everybody's questions and has questions of his own. At that night's event, he stayed hours after most people had left, getting to know some of the Vayniacs who showed up to meet him.

He's as humble as he is ambitious. "If even just one person shows up, I'm happy," he says after we're back on the road, hitting the last stretch of highway before entering the Woodlands.

Being in an immigrant family, "you have the taste of zero, of being an outsider," he says. It's kept his priorities straight.

"I shoot for the moon but am content with the health of my family."

Kids will force him out of his busy schedule one day, but for now he's pushing ahead, flying 10 times in 12 days recently for events across the country.

But he's not shy about what it is exactly he's aiming for.

"I'm trying to change the culture of America, period," he says. "Trying to make people more thankful for what they have and more happy," he says.

"Wine is a vehicle."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504