Tyler Balliet was at a $100.00-a-head tasting in New York when he saw three Millennials walking around with empty glasses, looking for a way to navigate the overwhelming choices on offer. Finally, one turned to the others and said: “Screw it. Let’s get drunk.”
The incident confirmed everything that Balliet believed about the wine trade – that it’s leaving consumers, particularly younger consumers, baffled. In 2005, Balliet and his wife Morgan First founded Second Glass, which sponsors tasting events like Wine Riot for the under-30s. Initially, Wine Riot events attracted 30 people. Today, they’re held in major cities, from Los Angeles to New York, attracting over 3,000 people at a time.
“People want to learn more about wine,” says Balliet. “This is invaluable to the winery – if people know about your products, they’ll spend more money. How do you create an event where people can learn about wine? Change the environment.”
Shake it up
Balliet presents himself as something of a wine industry outsider, having pretty much fallen into the business. “I was working in a wine shop in Boston and it was across the street from my house, and I showed up two days a week. I got to see how many young people were coming in,” he says. “They were buying wines and had questions, and I realized there weren’t that many resources to answer them.” He says that what the wine trade typically offers is a huge book or an expensive course.
There’s nothing earnest about Wine Riot. When people arrive at an event, they’re handed a shatterproof glass. The next thing they see is a Wine 101 booth, where paired bottles are lined up, offering the novice wine lover the chance to immerse themselves in a fast but effective form of wine education. So there might be a dry Riesling next to a sweet one, or a young wine side-by-side with an older vintage. “Then you walk through and see big posters, and get a handle on wine basics,” explains Balliet. Also on offer are 20-minute courses. “At the back we have a bubble bar. We have a Cava, a Prosecco, a Champagne. You taste them side-by-side and learn what the differences are.”
Technology is an integral part of the experience. There’s a photo booth where tasters can get their photos taken, and uploaded to social media. And, of course, an app. One of the things that annoys Balliet about tastings is the way that tasters are given paper for recording wine notes. “When you go to the wine store, you don’t take the piece of paper with you,” he says. The Wine Riot app lets tasters record their impressions on the spot. When they visit a wine store, they can simply call up the wines they rated favourably. The app must give some winery exhibitors heart tremors, because screens around the event show people’s ratings in real time. It will be clear immediately which wines are working – and which wines aren’t.
Balliet thinks there are many things the industry can do better. “Consumers are changing, but a lot of [wine] people are getting it wrong, because they’re talking about residual sugars,” he says. “Everyone uses wine jargon.” As he says, most other industries don’t operate like this. “People aren’t like this when they go to a band,” he says. “They can give you an opinion on the band pretty quickly. People can’t cook, but they can tell you whether they like the food or not.” He points out that the computing industry used to try and sell to consumers using technical specifications. “Then Steve Jobs came along and said, ‘It plays music and you can make videos!’”
The winery side
Wine Riot events can attract up to 3,800 people at a time. While they sound exciting for wine lovers, do they work for the trade?
“We have a lot of success stories that come out of the events,” says Balliet, but says that some wineries still show up unprepared. For example, when consumers ask where they can buy the wines, the person manning the stand doesn’t know. “The wineries that do well are the ones who show up with a marketing plan and the ability to move consumers to the next step, to the point where the consumer is excited and wants to buy.”
He’s certainly got the US industry excited. Balliet landed on Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list in 2010 and on Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 in 2013. Wine Enthusiast named him a ‘rising star’ and Stuff magazine called him ‘Prince of Boston’s wine revolution’.
For his part, he does his best to make sure that, at the very least, everyone has a good time. “We try to create a carnival atmosphere. We also try to ensure that, no matter what, you’re not waiting in line.”