In this episode, number three of our 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2020, we’re exploring new and emerging spaces in the wine and drinks landscape.
So far, it’s been a crazy year, with challenges that have resulted in monumental change in so many areas. The wine, drinks and hospitality worlds have certainly not been immune to those shifts, and in these trying times, it’s worth considering where some overdue change has come, and new and unique positive opportunities have arisen and been formed.
From classes to tastings to wine clubs and beyond, there’s a whole host of ways to become more engaged in your vinous explorations and education, and no better time than today to dive on in.
In exploring that idea, we speak with two of this year’s 40 Under 40 Tastemakers, Cristie Norman and Will Blackmon, about how they’ve set new courses and found unique and authentic ways to support the wine community through sharing their passions, connecting with peers and bringing a new audience of consumers into the beautiful, varied and delicious world of wine.
You can read more about all our 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2020 here, or in the October 2020 issue.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Cristie Norman, Will Blackmon
Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, number three of our 40 Under 40 series for 2020, we’re exploring new spaces in the wine and drinks landscape. So far, without doubt, it’s been a crazy year for the world with challenges that have resulted in monumental change in so many areas. The wine, drinks and hospitality world have certainly not been immune to those shifts. And in these trying times, is worth considering where some overdue change has come and new and unique positive opportunities have arisen and been formed. In exploring that idea, we speak with two of this year’s 40 Under 40 Tastemakers, Cristie Norman and Will Blackmon, about how they’ve set new courses and found unique and authentic ways to support the wine community through sharing their passions, connecting with peers, and bringing a new audience of consumers into the beautiful, varied and delicious world of wine.
We are here today discussing new ground and current opportunities in the evolving and rapidly shifting world of wine and drinks and hospitality. And I have the enormous pleasure of being joined with one of our 40 Under 40 of 2020, Cristie Norman. Cristie, thank you so much for joining me today.
Cristie Norman 1:39
Thank you so much for having me, Lauren. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Lauren Buzzeo 1:43
Totally. So when we were talking about this topic for this podcast episode and considering the new ground and again, new opportunities that have come up as a result of this somewhat chaotic year that we’ve all faced so far, certainly your name popped immediately to mind.
Cristie Norman 2:03
It’s been quite a year, that’s for sure. We’ve been really busy with the USF [United Sommeliers Foundation] team for sure.
Lauren Buzzeo 2:12
Definitely. So there’s been a lot of change and a lot of, again, sort of chaos and new frontiers that we’ve all experienced in the world of wine and certainly in the hospitality industry. So you started off this year, working as a sommelier at Spago in Beverly Hills. Certainly that must have shifted pretty rapidly come late February, early March. Tell me a little bit about what that initial transition period was like for you and what you experienced as a sommelier in hospitality.
Cristie Norman 2:48
I’ve been on the wine team for about four and a half years, so I’ve seen it through every season, high and low. We’re always almost fully booked all the time, and there was a really sudden drop off in February because a big part of our clientele are very wealthy tourists, obviously the Beverly Hills crowd, which tends to be a little bit on the older side, our regulars and whatnot. End of February, it just really started getting slow like I’ve never seen it before. I’m one of four people on the wine team. I have an online business and so I’ve been there part time for the past two years. Very fairly, I didn’t have shifts because we were slow. It’s just how the restaurant industry works, right? You just have to ebb and flow with it. I realized really quickly as a floor somm myself—I’m somebody that works the floor, I’m not on salary, I’m on the management side. I was the first to be cut and I realized that I would be the last to be brought back. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that sommeliers are these really rich people that drink fancy wines all the time, but that’s really not the case. A lot of them are tipped out just like servers are. They work short shifts. Some wine directors do make a lot of money, but there’s also a large part of the wine community, especially those floor somms, those up and coming people that aspire to be wine directors that more or less work like a server. Unfortunately, when the higher ups see the bottom line, somebody who’s on the wine team seems expendable to a lot of teams. I saw that very early. Chris Blanchard, who is a master sommelier, he’s with Vine Hill Ranch in Napa, he and I actually were putting on a masterclass. I’ve run master classes and tasting groups at Spago for the last three years. We had this giant class, it was so amazing. We had a plan for months. We were going to do old Vine Hill Ranch plantings like dating back to the ’70s and we were so excited. We had about 45 people RSVP for the class, and this was slated to be on Monday, March 16, which was the day before or the day after restaurants closed. And so I had to cancel the class at 2 a.m. Obviously Chris and I are in close contact, and we’ve been friends for a few years, and he just texted me one night and said, I want to do something. Can we help the somm community? What are we going to do? And I said, alright let me make some phone calls. So I called Erik Siegelbaum in D.C. and Jon McDaniel in Chicago, Eric Crane in Georgia, Yannick Benjamin in New York—just really great, very knowledgeable and well connected people—Jackson Rohrbaugh and, of course, Geoff Labitzke MW with Kistler in Sonoma. We just formed this team and we started as a GoFundMe, and we transitioned and filed for our 501 c3 charity status, because we realized that this is going to be something that affects our community for a very long time. Our definition of a sommelier for our organization is someone who self identifies as a sommelier, so it’s not like we only will support people that are working in the restaurant. There have been plenty of people that work in tasting rooms and distributors, or people that are in distribution rather, that have gotten funding. People can apply for financial grants through our program. It has been very, very successful. I remember the first two weeks we had about $6,000 or something in the GoFundMe, and then all of a sudden, Kobrand was the first really big donation in April and they donated $100,000, which was absolutely amazing. Skurnik [has] raised, I think, $50,000 or more, and we did a really large auction with Acker, which has just been rolling. I think we raised over $300,000 just in the first auction with all the support from the wineries, especially in Napa and Sonoma. We just had a huge amount of community support. Unfortunately, again, this is going to be going on for a very long time, and we realized that all of these somms—it was it was bad at first, but now restaurants are closing permanently and jobs are being eliminated permanently. Being so close to the wine and somm community in Los Angeles, I really see it firsthand because everybody tells me when they need a job, or when something happens, they come to me. I talk to a lot of people, and they know that I might hear something and I always try to find something for them. Seeing how many restaurants have been closing, it’s been really devastating for everybody, and it took literally an entire month of working just to ratify a completely blind voting process to select these candidates because we didn’t want there to be any sort of bias. We didn’t want people to think, “Oh, I chose somebody because, you know, they’re in LA and I know them.” So we actually have one person who is outside of the wine industry, and she anonymizes every single application. So we don’t see their name, their location, anything about them in their essay gets redacted that could possibly be an indication of where they are. Just ratifying that process alone took two weeks. We just launched the Grand Cru grant program, which is essentially giving an additional grant to people who got a grant at the beginning because, again, things changed and we needed an update. So they can fill out a survey that’s optional, of course, and they can provide details about things that have evolved. They can get up to $2,500 paid directly to their creditors to pay their mortgage, to pay their car payments, stuff like that. Our motto kind of is to get the money out as quickly as we possibly can. We don’t want to have it in the bank account. And we are fortunate right now even though we’re in a pandemic, we were able to raise a lot of money through some amazing partnerships and people that really care. We really saw who showed up for us, especially at the beginning when we were just starting. We want to help as many people as possible, so we’re just trying to urgently raise as much money as possible to just get it out there because we want to retain these amazing sommeliers that have worked for so long in our industry. People are already starting to go in other directions, take other jobs and stuff like that. We also want people to know that there are somms and wine industry people that care. This is an ecosystem and just like we’ve supported some of our favorite brands for a long time, like this is a moment when they can show up for us. So we’re just giving them that opportunity and a lot of people are taking it.
Lauren Buzzeo 10:11
And I think that it’s amazing that you’re paying attention to how you can evolve this foundation as well, as the needs either remain the same or change or extend themselves, if you will, with that Grand Cru. That you’re finding other opportunities to provide more support to the community. So the foundation has raised currently over $800,000, is that correct?
Cristie Norman 10:35
Yes, that’s correct.
Lauren Buzzeo 10:36
That’s amazing. And distributed funds to more than 750 sommeliers in need?
Cristie Norman 10:42
Yeah, and hoping to do more this weekend. We’re ready. It’s amazing because some of these huge huge foundations like the USBG at the beginning of the pandemic, when they were just getting millions of dollars and they had millions of applications. I can’t even imagine doing that. It’s amazing. And we’re learning and growing as we go; we really didn’t have a blueprint for this at all, so we’re just kind of making things up. But our turnaround time is about three to four weeks and we’re trying to get that as short as we possibly can so that the applicants hear back. Because a lot of these big foundations and grants and stuff you hear back five, six, seven weeks later, so we’re trying as hard as we can to get funds to people.
Lauren Buzzeo 11:30
So this must have essentially become your new full time job.
Cristie Norman 11:36
Absolutely. None of the board members take any pay. This is all completely on a volunteer basis. At the beginning, we were all working 40 to 60 hours a week on the foundation just to get it up and running. Now it’s a little bit more self-sustaining as word of mouth grows. Obviously, all these people that get get money they’re they’re sharing on their own platforms or in their personal lives, so, we have people kind of coming out of the woodwork saying, “Hey, we want to partner with you guys. Can we donate to you guys?” which has been absolutely wonderful. The thing that I saw in the wine industry at the beginning of this pandemic is that we really didn’t have an infrastructure and support system for our wide community. I’m not saying that the USF, the United Sommeliers Foundation can change all of that or change it overnight, but there’s a lot of holes and gaps where we don’t have any support for other things. As people, we have so many educational resources, we have so many scholarships for trips, but I don’t need a trip to to Spain right now. You know, people need money for their children, for their medical bills. People that are in dire need, that’s what we’re trying to support right now.
Lauren Buzzeo 12:51
I think that that somewhat speaks to that disconnect between the public and the sommelier community, knowing the reality of their situations. That it appears like a very glamorous and potentially luxurious position that sommeliers may be in. And, sure, there are undoubtedly perks whether you’re talking about informational, experiential travel or being able to taste wines either by visiting wineries or with your clientele, or whatever the case may be.But when you’re coming down again to paying those bills and living your life, it’s a very different story. And that disconnect needs to be reconciled and that community needs to come together to build that and it’s amazing that that’s what exactly the USF is showing to do.
Cristie Norman 13:37
The tastes of Krug don’t pay my rent. You know, it’s really cool, I love tasting Krug, I would never turn it down, but also it just doesn’t pay our bills. I think that we should not only care about somebody’s education and all of that stuff, which obviously I’m very passionate about as well, but we need to take care of them as people and as humans. And [we need] to make sure that, you know, they have resources to lots of different things and, and to make it low cost or free to get these opportunities and be connected to things. I think we have a lot of work to do. This is just the beginning,
Lauren Buzzeo 14:14
Without a doubt. And of course, the pandemic and everything that we’re facing globally has been horrible, but from our industry perspective, when you’re talking about new opportunities and areas of improvement, that there really can be new job creation and new consideration on how to move forward, this, to me, is a fantastic one that I think is long, long overdue.
Cristie Norman 14:38
Yeah, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Lauren Buzzeo 14:40
So you mentioned education, that’s obviously another passion of yours, and that’s definitely another important area about wine and drinks culture. But it’s also, I think, a great opportunity right now for a lot of people to receive more education while we’re all sort of sitting at home and not able to travel And that’s also a space that we’ve seen a lot of innovation and a lot of evolution in over the past year. Tell me a little bit about how you also got into that education space, what that means for you and how you sort of came about creating this online wine course for beginners.
Cristie Norman 15:18
I was at Spago when I was 21 years old, and I realized that wine education and income were not proportionally linked. Like when you make a lot of money, somebody doesn’t come down from the heavens and teach you everything about wine and tell you the difference between Pinot Noir and Cabernet—it’s just not a thing. And I was talking to a billionaire and he said something about Chablis. And he thought it was a red and I was like, oh my goodness. Okay, so this is a pandemic on its own. And I started making these low budget, comedy Youtube videos. It’s like a mix of wine education and comedy. They’re still up, they’re called Adulting With Alcohol online, you can watch them. I wanted to teach these many lessons to people. And I wanted to do it in a fun and funny way. And I kind of have my own kind of candor and style and I’m kind of corny, but whatever. Some people resonate with it a lot. So I did all these videos, and I realized that the wine industry really likes them. But people that weren’t in the wine industry didn’t understand all the terms that I was saying, so it’s like you can’t fully get the jokes and stuff. What I realized is I needed to put it together and in a course to build somebody’s vocabulary from the ground up. So I was saving for a house and then I decided to spend all of my money that I have and borrow some to create this online wine course for beginners. It launched last year, it was great. We’ve had people in over 15 countries, more now, I think. I think that our introduction wine programs, they are great and I’m not trying to be a certification. That’s what people I don’t think understand. This is for somebody who doesn’t know the difference between white and red wine. But it takes them all the way through everything that I think the average consumer should know, going out and eating and drinking and stuff like that. So it doesn’t go into geeky winemaking things. It doesn’t go into the details of the the names of the yeasts that we use. But we talk about things in a way to get them to understand it and so that they can start shopping by region and by place instead of necessarily by brands. That’s the idea that I had. So in the first beginning part of the course, I talked about what is wine, the differences between wines and there’s some terms and stuff like that. And then we go into the varieties and differences within those. And then the second half of the course is a country and there’s 16 different sections with three to five videos in each one. And the second half is each country with those varieties we already talked about, but in context of place and some of the history and some of the main things that you need to know about all of these regions and then at the end, it’s with food and wine pairing. I have a very particular way that I like to pair food and wine, I have like a philosophy, so I teach that. And it’s really meant to inspire people to go off and learn more. That’s the point. And it’s to not be a snooty person, you know, I don’t think that wine needs to be really bougie. And I’m speaking from somebody who has tasted all the crazy wines and stuff like that, but I can enjoy Beaujolais on the floor out of a coffee mug as well. I don’t think that wine should be that complicated. And yeah, there’s a time and place for it to be bougie and elitist and whatever. But I think that the my whole purpose was to increase the consumption of wine because I see all these millennials and they’re paying $22 for a cocktail, but they won’t spend $100 on a bottle of wine shared between friends, and I think that’s ridiculous. So my purpose is not to, like replace a certification program in any way. It’s just take be the bridge between that because I think that’s the hard part. It’s how do you get this busser that really likes wine and wants to learn about it to taking his CMS or taking WSET, or whatever. I’ve had literally hundreds of people tell me that they have signed up for these programs because my program is $150 and other programs are about $700 or more right now, just for the intro level. It’s enough skin in the game where they’ll finish it, because it does take between three to six hours and it’s got the quizzes, there’s an exam. It’s a lot of work, it really is. There’s a worksheet with every single video that you have to fill out, so it’s like enough money where they’re in it and they’ll complete it. That’s the thing. I wish I could give it away for free and have people finish it. Actually, when the pandemic happened, I gave it for free for all hospitality professionals that were out of work. I had like 7,000 people take it in a month and a half and that was crazy. I didn’t give them the certificate and pin that it comes with.
Lauren Buzzeo 15:25
I think I saw an Instagram around that time of like all the labels coming off that you needed to ship things out to.
Cristie Norman 20:06
It was crazy. So my course comes with a little pin because one of my directors of education, he works at UCLA and he was like, “Cristie, you need to give the kids something. You need to give them something tangible at the end.” So I have a little wine course graduation pin that you can get and I specifically said for all these people, you know, all I did was share it and a couple Facebook groups, literally like four Facebook groups I shared it in, and there were like thousands and thousands of people. I said specifically, I’m not shipping out certificates and pins. You get a certificate PDF pop-up when you finish anyway, but so many people wanted to buy it and so I actually did an offer for $10 plus shipping and they sold out like literally within two hours.
Lauren Buzzeo 20:08
Cristie Norman 20:15
It was cool. I wasn’t really making that much money on it. It’s fine, but it was just fun that everybody wanted the pins to wear, you know? But ultimately, my purpose with this is to serve millions of people. I’m getting it dubbed in Spanish, I’m getting it dubbed in Chinese, I would love for a really large part of the population take this. Because they will like wine. There’s so many people that take the course that don’t know anything about wine and then they text me a picture that they’re buying Sauternes at the store. I’m like, how is this happening? That’s so cool. I would love for more people to be doing something like this because as much as I speak to some people, I don’t speak to everybody. I encourage people to get into the beginner wine space. I do not want to monopolize this market. I think that that’s an opportunity for lots of sommeliers right now to do beginner education and teach on their own and grow this this consumer business. That’s what we need right now. We want to increase the consumption of wine? We got to take the time and teach people, man. We don’t do enough.
Lauren Buzzeo 21:55
Exactly and sommeliers are so knowledgeable. Of course, you’re more than equipped to be able to provide this information and the service and empower people to make their own wine decisions with confidence through this accessible and approachable wine information. For real people to start their own wine journeys and encourage them to dive even deeper after they take that first plunge, I love it.
Cristie Norman 22:19
I just want people to not be afraid. People are just so scared to look at a wine list. All you need is some basic vocabulary. It’s not that hard, man. And then you’ll learn as you go and you’ll learn things you like and you don’t like, but you always should know that just because you don’t like one white wine doesn’t mean… I say in the course, just because you don’t like one type of apple, or one type of pear doesn’t mean that you throw out all fruits grown on trees, right? Just imagine all the things you would never get to try if you had one bad apple that you didn’t like and you [said] screw all the lemons and limes and oranges. It would be ridiculous. That’s what I’m trying to get people to see, you know?
Lauren Buzzeo 23:00
I try to explain this to my five year old son all the time, but he hasn’t really quite picked up on it. But I think that it is of note that this is an evolving space. You said yourself that this isn’t an official accreditation or course that has to be so stuffy and so serious and so expensive and therefore prohibitive, and somewhat exclusionary to a lot of different people who can’t afford those opportunities. But this is the space that we need to bring more consumers into wine in, again, an accessible and easygoing way for the enjoyment of it all.
Cristie Norman 23:41
Absolutely. I mean, if this was a cash grab, I think I would have done things really differently. But I need to charge something for it so that people will actually finish it and be committed to it because it’s really about what they’re gonna put their energy on and focus on. I want people to value it, but it doesn’t need to be outrageously expensive. It just doesn’t. The information is online, they could learn it themselves for free, honestly, but I just deliver it in a certain way that I think that is really conducive for somebody to absorb. It allows you to stop and start whenever you want, so that if they need to take a break after the France section—dude, me too. It’s a lot of words sometimes, you know? It allows them to stop and take breaks and take notes and do the comprehension questions and really absorb it on their own schedule in their own time.
Lauren Buzzeo 24:32
For sure. And then, I guess after you take that introductory course, or you dive into the wine pool and you want to dive a little further, I think another area of education and exploration that I know that you’re particularly passionate about is the idea of tasting groups and peer tastings. I know that you have your own tasting group model that you help locally with a lot of people. Tell me a little bit about that and what that means to you.
Cristie Norman 24:58
Kind of at the same time as I started the wine course, I realized that the somm community in Los Angeles—because our city is so disjointed, it was very difficult to get people together. I was part of a really advanced, like people that were taking their masters certification, I happen to get into their group as an intro. I was just observing. Eventually they started to let me taste. And what I found was that, you know, we do this thing called blind tasting, where you have three white wines and three red wines. They’re pre-poured, you don’t know what they are. You taste each one and you have four minutes and 10 seconds per wine to deduce what what the wine is where it’s from, the vintage, all that stuff. It’s very difficult to learn how to do that, and I realized for myself, it took me a very long time to get it because I was with such advanced people that the basics weren’t really broken down to me. And the advanced people—not because they’re exclusionary, they aren’t—but if they’re studying for something really hard, obviously you don’t want to have people that are far beneath you that are constantly asking questions, if you’re really seriously studying. It just makes sense. You want to study with people that are in your bracket of knowledge. So I chose to create this tasting group at Spago. Spago generously let me host it there. And essentially, I would have somms that would come in. If they were studying really seriously, they would come earlier in the day. Then I’d have a small group later in the afternoon for people who are just starting to learn where we would discuss it. Ultimately, we would get one bottle of wine over 10 to 13 people. It was really great. It made it low cost for everybody. When I was going to tasting group back in the day, I was spending $60 to $80 a week buying wines at retail, trying to bring something good. I also didn’t know what wines to bring, so I thought it was really important to have somebody who’s choosing the wines for these people and facilitating that kind of education and conversation. I started this group about two and a half years ago with eight people and we do about one Master Class a month, and then we have blind tasting almost every single week. It’s grown to over 300 people that have come to our events, all sommeliers or wine directors, people in the trade that are there to increase their level of knowledg. We had Ken Wright come down from the Willamette Valley to teach a Willamette Valley class. We had Scott Gould with Bond did a Bond class. He donated like 30 bottles of Bond by Harlan, because I had never tasted them side by side and we were just chit chatting and we had like 65 people there—wine directors and somms tasting these wines. It was a really cool experience. But when the pandemic hit, obviously at the very beginning I was very busy with the United Sommeliers Foundation, but I decided to transition virtually. So I talked to a couple people. Jason at Wild Ginger up in Seattle gave me kind of a roadmap of the bottles of which to buy and how to do it and the funnels that I needed and stuff like that. Essentially, I am siphoning One full 750 bottle into 11 and a half small two-ounce bottles. It allows me to have one mentor and 10 somms every single week for blind tasting. I have like 700 or 800 bottles now that we’ve purchased and it’s all pay what you can. I really started doing this not because people are that serious about their education right now, but because it’s something that it’s part of their identity. I found that somms, like a lot of people, were expressing to me that they were lost. Of course it is when you’re not doing the thing that you’ve been doing for so long. And so I wanted to start tasting group again, just to bring back that familiarity and that safety, knowing that they have their wine community. We’re here, we’re learning. It’s 25 minutes or an hour or whatever that they don’t have to be thinking about other things. They can just focus on the wine that’s in the glass. It’s been incredible because we’ve been doing it for about 20 weeks now and some people just started at the beginning of the pandemic and they have grown so much. It’s amazing just to see how great they are at tasting. It’s just mind blowing to me. People are so much more consistent and dedicated and they come every Sunday. I have a little pickup time when I sit outside with an ice chest and people come and pick up their wines from me. I’m dead serious. And then we had last week, Kobrand donated $100,000 again, so I wanted to choose something from their book and do a masterclass. We had a Olivier Humbrecht do a wines of Alsace class through his wines. And we had 78 somms with wines. So like seven bottles of each, basically. We had another 40 or so just watching on the Zoom from all over the country. It’s been hugely successful, so we’re adding lots of new masterclasses. My boss, Philip, he’s doing a how to run a profitable wine program class, because Philip is an incredibly successful person, not only as a sommelier, but also in how he structures things. He really knows the business and how to make money. I asked him if he would do a free webinar and he’s like, absolutely, let’s do it. We had about three times more people sign up as we can host in the class, so we’re gonna have to do it a couple times. But I think it’s really important right now for everyone in their own space to be creating educational opportunities if they can. It’s easy, honestly. If you’re a well connected person, if you have had some experience and knowledge in this industry, it’s very easy for you to create these opportunities for people to learn. It just takes a little bit of effort. Honestly, people volunteer to help me, that’s how I do it. I don’t do it all by myself. I have pickup locations on the west side. We had somebody at Del Frisco’s who’s the somm there, she she generously took 15 flights with her back over there and people in Malibu… I’m trying to make it a little easier, but if you request support, people are there. People really want to learn right now, I’m telling you. So this is a good time to help out your fellow somms.
Lauren Buzzeo 31:08
Totally. And that sense of community, again, is just such an amazing thing. How everyone’s really coming together to support one another. So I guess I’m also curious if you have any tips or advice for people who aren’t necessarily professionals in the wine community for where they might turn or look to if they want to engage in a tasting group format like that. Do you have any suggestions?
Cristie Norman 31:35
All you need really is eight to 10 people that want to taste wine. I would, honestly, go on Facebook groups. I would go on Facebook groups or start your own Facebook group. I started this this LA Somm Community Facebook group at the beginning of the pandemic. People flock from from all over and I meet so many new people. I think that people are really engaged on Facebook, even though I don’t actually post on Facebook very often, but I’m there for the groups. As an admin of several groups myself, I can see how many people look at the posts. And if I have 130 people in a group, I usually have over 100 people that have seen it, which is super high engagement. I think that’s the space if you want to create something, speak it out into the universe, and people will come. They come out of everywhere, you just have to speak it and you’ll attract what you want.
Lauren Buzzeo 32:32
I think you’re a superb example of projecting out into the universe and speaking it out and seeing what comes back and doing amazing things with it. You’re definitely an inspiration. And I want to thank you so much for your time and everything that you’re doing in the in the wine space right now to keep everyone moving along as best as we can during these crazy times.
Cristie Norman 32:53
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. It’s an honor to be on that list. I honestly thought it was a phishing scam when you guys first emailed. That’s why I didn’t respond. You know I’m not lying. I was like the last person to get my photo done because I did not respond for a long time. I texted like Julia, Connie, and all these people, “Is this real?” Matt Kaner, “Is this real?” I was very surprised, but I really do appreciate it. We have a lot of work to do and this is just the beginning, at least for me, for sure.
Lauren Buzzeo 33:23
Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time and for responding to the email and we’re excited to see what else comes out from the courses to the tasting classes to the USF and everything that you’re doing. Thank you.
Cristie Norman 33:37
Appreciate you, Lauren.
Lauren Buzzeo 33:41
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For our next installment on the 40 Under 40 podcast series, we’re here today talking to the Wine MVP, Will Blackmon. Will, thank you so much for joining us.
Will Blackmon 33:44
Thank you for having me. This is this is exciting. This is fun and terrifying at the same time, but more fun than terrifying.
Lauren Buzzeo 34:42
I love it. It’s a perfect mix. It makes a great interview. So let’s get to it. This episode, we’re looking to talk about new spaces in the drinks world and what exactly that means and what sort of new ground and new territory are we covering in this currently crazy upside down world, but a beautifully evolving world of wine and drinks culture. So I thought that you were a perfect person to have on and talk about this because, again, The Wine MVP, you’re on the cutting edge of a lot of new content curation and opportunities to bring consumers into the world of wine in a very exciting and new way. I wanted to get your take on how this all sort of came about and what it means to you. So, to start off, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came into the world of wine.
Will Blackmon 35:37
I’m from back east. I’m from Providence, Rhode Island, a small area there. I was introduced to wine just by watching my father drink it. That’s that’s how you do it.
Lauren Buzzeo 35:48
Will Blackmon 35:48
Yeah. Which is funny. I was a kid, that’s what my dad enjoys, what have you. So then, as I got older, towards senior year in college, my roommates and I we enjoyed it at the time. We had wines that I can’t remember that we would drink. I remember I used to love Viniho Verde, it was Cosal Garcia. That’s probably the only wine label that I will remember—hopefully not, but I enjoyed that one a lot. It was seven bucks, it was semi-sweet and had a little bit sparkling to it as well. My interest didn’t really grow until I got drafted in 2006 to the Green Bay Packers. That same year, we signed Charles Woodson, who is someone whose game I admired and really love watching him play. We play the same position, defensive back. Just hanging out with him, going to dinners or whatever, is when I found out not only did he enjoy wine, but he was also in the wine business himself. I thought that was super fascinating because like most new consumers of wine, you think that this is a field or realm that belongs to someone else, that’s untouchable. That, you know, players like me or people like me—how did you even get into that space? When I found out that he was not only a phenomenal football player, but that he was doing this, I was like, man, that is that is super cool. He would take the whole group to dinners when we would go on road trips, and we would enjoy really nice wines. I didn’t know what they were, I just knew they were expensive. That’s how just my general knowledge was. I feel like at the time I loved sweet white wines and red blends, right? Fruity red blends, because it wasn’t too structured where it was too bitter or too tannic. I didn’t really understand or appreciate those at the time. What really was the catalyst for me to acquire a lot of knowledge on that side is a funny story. I would go to a lot of corporate events in Wisconsin at the time. And a buddy of mine who was a real important man in Milwaukee, he enjoyed Burgundy. He was like, oh, man, he said Burgundy is the best. Like, this is wonderful. I would try them and be like, yeah, sure, this is good, you know? It tastes good, cool. I was also around a group of people that were swirling the wine and telling me how to evaluate it, telling me what the legs mean. Come to find out come to find out everybody was full of it, you know, once I really knew the truth about this stuff. A week later, I go to a restaurant by myself. And I get the wine list and I’m looking for Burgundy. At this time. I’m thinking Burgundy is a brand. So I’m looking for the Burgundy, like where is this damn brand. I can’t find it. I see this section that says Burgundy. I open it, and it’s like 40 different wines. I’m like, “What the hell is this?” So I’m like, alright, let me just pick one of them. So I picked it and then the sommelier brings the wine, drops it off, and he starts to walk away and I raised my hand, I’m like, “Sir?” He’s like, “Yeah?” I said, “This is not Burgundy.” He goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “It’s white.” He’s like, “Yeah, it is.” I’m like, dude, no, it’s not I had Burgundy like a week ago, this is not it. We had this like mini argument. He goes, okay, listen, and he starts explaining to me like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the two main grapes. It was white Chardonnay, whatever. And I was like, wow, okay. That’s when I was like, okay, French wines is is a different ballgame. That really sparked my interest to go ahead and study and I went on Wine Business, I went on your guys’ site, I looked at everybody’s magazine and try to figure it out on my own. It just didn’t work. Wine is so hard to study on your own. I wasn’t really big on that. It wasn’t until Jason and Christina Wise, who are good friends of mine now, when they came up with Somm the documentary. That’s where I really saw a whole different way of evaluating and understanding wine. It was a straight format on how to do that. That’s kind of where, you know, I was like I want to be able to learn something like that. Unfortunately, MS Peter Neptune, he has a wine school about where I live in Orange County that offers the WSET and so right after my offseason in ’17, I went right over there and took that damn class because I was so fired up and ready to learn some stuff. I jumped right to level two and in the passing that, and ever since I did that, that changed everything I thought about wine.
Lauren Buzzeo 41:03
That’s awesome. That’s a whole new playbook that you’ve had to dive into that, like, I can’t even imagine.
Will Blackmon 41:08
It was a new sport, straight up. It was a whole new sport because it’s different languages and terminologies. It’s different, you know, like I can learn new playbooks because at least it’s within the same field. But this is a whole different story. It reminds me of when I lived in England for two months last year and they were trying to get me to learn cricket. I was like, whoa. They’re like heroes over there in the cricket world. I’m like, man, I’m trying to understand that. I remember in college, I would watch like field hockey games and I was like why does the whistle keep blowing? Why can’t they just play? But it was cool and what really made it become a passion for me. So how I fell in love with football, my dad had all these old films and VHS tapes and I would watch those and really look at the people who paved the way for the game and the history of the game, how it was made. I was like, man, this is super cool, I want to be an NFL player when I grew up, you know? It was kind of the same thing watching Somm and watching these documentaries and seeing history and how it was made and all this stuff. I was like, damn dude, that would be so cool to to be in that world. I was never one that fell in love with the luxurious lifestyle. Like, yeah, that’s cool. But I really love like the deep down, the heart of wine and where it where it come from, how it’s made, how it changed people’s lives, how it changed history, the wars and all that stuff. I think that’s super fascinating.
Lauren Buzzeo 42:45
Sure, it’s not necessarily the more hedonistic aspect of it, if you will, or the pleasurable aspect. And while that’s nice, it’s more, like you said, the sport and the stories and the craftsmanship and the skill behind it all. There’s a lot relating the world of sports and the worlds of wine. I can see how you would make that connection and form that sort of partnership without even realizing it. So, tell me, you took the WSET class in 2017 in your offseason?
Will Blackmon 43:14
I believe so, somewhere around there.
Lauren Buzzeo 43:17
How long after that did you go from dipping the toe into the pool to full on swimming? How did that progression go to where you are today in terms of your involvement in the wide world now?
Will Blackmon 43:30
I’ll tell you what, WSET is swimming. That’s a 400 meter butterfly race, for those who swim. That was not easy by any means. But what was cool about that, though, that really was the catalyst because as soon as I got back to DC when I was playing for the Redskins, now Washington Football Team, they’re in Ashburn [which is] about 15 minutes from Leesburg, Virginia, and there’s a bunch of wineries in Leesburg in Northern Virginia. We had practice and right after practice I remember I bought boots to work in a vineyard and I would drive to Leesburg to Fabbioli Cellars and he will let me hang out and just be in the vineyard, be in the cellar and be everywhere around the tanks and the vats and do stuff because I really wanted to get my hands dirty and understand viticulture. My first day, I remember it was it was pouring raining and I kind of looked at as a sign. I was like, okay, if I don’t come while it’s raining, he’s not going to take me serious, it’s kind of a test, which is probably me hyping my own self out, which was probably never something he even thought of. But, anyhow, I’m like, this is probably a test and I’m driving in the rain and usually wineries when you drive to them it’s all dirt. I’d just gotten a brand new car—I spoiled myself and got a Masarati—and [I was] driving that through the mud and rocks and gravel. And, damn it, I made it and I was trying to let him know like I’m here because I really want to learn, I really want to be successful and understand this whole business. I was not just swimming, I was deepwater fishing.
Lauren Buzzeo 45:24
Did you have to clean out any tanks?
Will Blackmon 45:27
I did not. I was actually helping planting because he was doing custom crush and growing for people. So he got some new vines to help trim and sort and all that stuff. So that’s really what I did. I did not clean any tanks, no.
Lauren Buzzeo 45:39
Nice. Alright, so let’s talk a little bit about how you came into your collaborative partnership with the Wine Exchange and how you came up with the whole premise for The Wine MVP program with them. Tell me a little bit about that partnership and what exactly that idea and that kind of concept is today.
Will Blackmon 46:02
How it originally came about, I initially wanted to have my own wine label, like most people.
Lauren Buzzeo 46:10
Will Blackmon 46:13
Like Charles. Like, like Drew Bledsoe, like all these guys have their own wine labels. And I asked all of my mentors and people I knew in the wine industry who’ve been around forever. They were like, you can have the best grapes, you can have the best winemaker, the best vineyard, the best product, they said, you still have to be able to move it. You still have to be able to sell the wine. And if you don’t sell the wine, then you’re stuck with a bunch of wine and you’re not making any money. I was like, okay, if that’s the case, let me learn the retail side. A close friend of mine, his name is Phil, he recommended I go speak to Tristan and Kyle at the Wine Exchange. Those are his good friends, he’s known them for years. So I go over there and I walk in. It’s just funny, this football player walks in and he’s like, “Can I get Turn here and learn some prices?” They’re like, I guess so, like go ahead dude, whatever you want to do, man. So I’m literally in these in this store for four hours just looking at prices and kind of looking at who’s buying what and it’s the weirdest case study that I have done. I did it like two days in a row and by the third day I remember they asked me to come to the office. I literally thought I did something wrong because I was taking pictures of all these prices and bottles. I was like, oh, shoot, maybe I’m getting in trouble. Maybe they I’m a spy for like Wally’s or somebody, comparing prices. So I went to the back and I was like, damn, dude, I’m ready, just lay it on me. And he’s like, “Hey, man, what do you want to do?” I said I want to have my own wine label. They go, “Well, you already have like friends that you help pick out stuff for and what have you. You should probably facilitate that and be more of like on the concierge side. Speaking of Wally’s, they mentioned Christian Navarro and what he does in LA. And that’s easy to talk to guys and get them to understand what I’m doing, that’s the difficult part. So I started doing that. I started curating high end wines for friends and former teammates and stuff like that. Especially around COVID, I’ve started doing wine cellars because everyone’s at home. Initially I created a handle called @NFLwineguy. I thought it was super cool and catchy and I had to because I would talk about wine on my main Twitter handle @WillBlackmon everyday and nobody gave a damn. They were like, shut up and talk about football. We drink beer and whiskey, like get out of here, you know? I’m like, well, it is Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Anyhow, I created NFL Wine Guy, and immediately about two thousand people shifted over there and I have a crowd. And I can facilitate this crowd. I was trying to create some kind of club or whatever, just a community to talk about wine. So, a buddy of mine, his name is Mike Jones, he called me. He’s like, hey, I pitched a story to my boss about writing a story about you, about an NFL player who’s becoming a sommelier, if you will. And I’m like, yeah, cool. Come on out. I’ll take you through my day and what I do and let’s do it. So he came out, did the story, and the next week he called me to fact check, to go over some things before he released his story. I’m like, sounds good info looks good, release a story. The next day—and this is important, that’s why I’m backtracking—the next day, my phone is literally going through the roof. I’m like, ready to throw this thing in the middle of the street. Why are so many people calling me right now? Unless the team’s trying to get me back to play football, which I doubt it, why is my phone going off? I thought somebody in trouble. But come to find out, I thought he wrote the article for The Athletic and it was going to be a column online. He put it on the front page of USA Today Sports. When that happened, I got people from Burgundy, people from Bordeaux, Stan Kroenke who own Screaming Eagle, everyone is calling me [to see] what’s going on. So that really hit the catalyst like, man, I need to move. I need to get something. Because I was like, oh, I’ll probably launch something sometime later, mid-2020 and I was like, no, I need to do something next week. I spoke to the NFL about NFL Wine Guy because of the acronym NFL and I knew there would be some licensing things. That’s where myself and our creative director Patrick Meyer came up with the one MVP and just thought it was universal for all sports. Because maybe guys would think, oh NFL Wine Guy, he just talks to NFL guys, but I thought the Wine MVP worked across every every platform, genre, whatever it is. That’s when I started doing more of the personal concierge side. But everyone is not going to buy these high end bottles, everyone’s not going to spend $100 and up on wine. So how can I create some kind of way that they can have access to these premium wines that’s reasonable, and have some educational piece attached to it? That’s where I came up with the Wine MVP subscription club. In order for me to have access to wine immediately—my license would have taken forever it would have cost me a fortune to do all the distribution over all that stuff—so it was wise for me to partner with someone like the Wine Exchange to be my vendor partner to so I can get the wine fulfillment from them. They’ve been around for 30 years, they’re great advisors to me, and also I have direct access to a lot of distributors and importer being associated with them.
Lauren Buzzeo 52:06
That definitely makes a lot of sense. And I love this story about the name because I think that not only is it a great point that you’re saying you want it to be inclusive of all sports and all preferences, but it also I love that you’re presenting the idea that everybody can be an MVP. It’s not necessarily just about you, right? You’re trying to make everyone a Wine MVP through through your subscription box and through the educational opportunities. You’re trying to bring them along on this ride with you.
Will Blackmon 52:35
That’s exactly it is. This is not a situation where it’s I’m the teacher, you’re the student. This is not anything superior. This is honestly it like, let’s do this together. Let’s learn together. Let’s let’s understand this whole thing. If you don’t like it 90%, but can give me 1% to convince you, then let’s try this, you know? I feel like the more people will understand it, the more inclined they are to try it. It goes back to what we just talked about, like cricket. I knew nothing about cricket. I knew a little bit where I’m enough to be curious and will want to know more because it’s such a great game and people celebrate it. So now I’m more curious as opposed to feeling excluded. I want people to be more curious and feel included. That’s why I’m big on, no, we’re not going to have our pinkies up. We’re not going to exclude people. We’re not going to say this is not for you. This is for everyone. It’s just fermented grape juice, relax. But there’s still there’s still some cool stuff. It’s still a passport in a glass, is what I tell people. You can learn so much, you can go places and you’ll be more inclined to want to go somewhere just based off of wine. That’s really what I’m doing. When I’m passionate about something I want to share that passion. I coach football too, on the side. I coach the same way that I thought was beneficial, understanding strategy situation football. It’s not all about who could run the fastest. Understand the game as a whole grand scheme of things. [It’s the] same thing a wine. It’s not who can buy the most expensive wines. Understand all of wine because, yes, there’s some great first growths but there are some rockin fifth growth there are some rockin wines in Bordeaux you never heard of that you can get for way less. Josh Allen, who plays quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, he asked me what I can get him and I was like, what do you want to spend? I could find you something really rad for $30 or something rad for $3,000. It’s whatever you want to get, you know? So that’s kind of that’s my whole vibe and approaches. I really want it to be approachable and consumer. I feel like I know that my place in this is to truly just mend that gap between those who truly don’t understand it. Millennials—that’s a demographic. They they enjoy luxury goods, like they’re driving Teslas, they get in Gucci, they get in all these high end brands but when it comes to wine, either the brand’s too old, the brand’s too rich, they’re too stuffy, they don’t know. That’s just how the message is being brought to you. Come to the Wine MVP where the message is different. It’s the same product the message is just different and it’s still fun and cool. I think that’s what makes the club unique. I’m putting in classic brands like Spottswoode, Catena, things that have been around for over a hundred years … but they’re still super cool and rockin’.
Lauren Buzzeo 55:51
That’s right. It’s all about having the information, making it accessible, making it digestible and allowing people, again, the information and the opportunity to make their own choices for whatever they’re comfortable with and whatever their personal preference is. That goes for varieties and stylistic preferences, as well as price points and budgets. So this subscription box, I have to assume that you’ve had a lot of success especially over this past year. It’s a very timely model and offering for a lot of consumers to get into right now. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen business shift over this past year?
Will Blackmon 56:33
It’s actually been fun. It’s funny because I mentioned that at first I was doing just wine cellar inventory, like Matt Ryan, the QB for the Falcons, I did his cellar. Reggie Bush and Justin Tuck, just to name a few, but then we launched the subscription club right in the middle of all this, where everyone is home and has to order stuff. So yeah, it’s two premium wines for $79.98, shipping included, and I just think it’s done well. Especially how I’m really going at this at a really slow rate. I’m not doing a ton of advertising. I haven’t spent any money on advertising. It’s all social media because I really want to create this in a way where it’s sustainable for a long time. I’m not over saturating people with all my content, I’m not collabing with everybody in the world. For some people that works, I have nothing against it. I’m just saying that’s not the style that I’m going for. I still want to I still want to keep the integrity with the brand. I want to get everybody excited and then have them be over me within the next few months.
Lauren Buzzeo 57:45
That’s what feels authentic to you, right?
Will Blackmon 57:47
Exactly. So I’m going bit by bit, piece by piece. Eventually, maybe sometime around the holidays, release a second tier, and stuff like that. Slowly growing the brand on its own, and that’s what’s been going on. Where we are now, due to circumstances and how little we’re doing, I’m very happy.
Lauren Buzzeo 58:14
Nice. So you talked a little bit about possible opportunities in the future in terms of maybe another tier or an expanded box, do you want to maybe share anything else that you might have ideas or hopes or dreams for in the future in terms of this evolving nature of the current wine landscape?
Will Blackmon 58:34
Yeah, so a way to keep enhancing and building the wine community. I became a partner in the startup aviation company called J3 Jet. It was founded by Joe Daichendt, who’s an aviation businessman here in Orange County, and basically, in Napa, they have one FBO, which is a fixed base operator. It’s basically a private jet company, private jet airport. In other words, a gas station for private planes. It’s funny because I was learning that side [of it], they’re like, yeah, we’re basically a gas station if you really think about it. They voted last year to open up a second one. That’s when Joe created the company to go ahead and submit a proposal to win the second one. He brought me on board because it’s a Napa and I have relationships with wineries in Napa. The biggest thing that we have going is JSX, JetSuiteX, is a semi-private plane owned by CEO Alex Wilcox. He fully is on our side saying that we win this FBO, then we can have his planes go inbound-outbound direct from Orange County to Napa. The reason this is great is because, obviously due to what’s going on, visitation is not the same in Napa right now. The ones that are there are either the locals, which doesn’t mean much because come to find out locals aren’t the ones spending money, it’s visitors. I think 75% of revenues is from visitation. Also, the ones that are there from out of town are the ones that had the means to do so. So this is a situation where it’s a semi-private plane, you’re not going through the airport. We are around so many people and it’s direct from Orange County to Napa. This is a way to get people directly to Napa because right now—I was just there a few weeks ago—onsite is not the same. Yes, DTC everyone’s doing well selling online and what have you, but these wineries want people in person so that they can get them in the wine club, and this is a I think this is a fantastic way to do so. So I was meeting with all these wineries and they all found this value for them. So that’s the next venture and part of this is what I’m hoping for. I just want to add to this I’m not trying to be the alpha male in the business trying to take over and be dominant and just rule out everybody. I think this community is so fun and great connections. There’s so many avenues too, and if I can just be part of it and help, that’s all I want to do. I’m in this with no ego, which is why I’m putting in the work and learning the education side. I’m in Sonoma State business school right now to learn the business side of the wine business and just continue to grow, grow, grow. This is part two, this is my new career. This my new passion. This is this is not a hobby, this is real deal, this is life.
Lauren Buzzeo 1:01:53
I think that, again, that authenticity, and that intent really comes through and that’s why, I think, ou’ve had so many people so far join you on the ride. So Will, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. We wish you much, much continued success. We can’t wait to see what happens next with The Wine MVP.
Will Blackmon 1:02:12
Thank you so much. It’s an honor. It’s super cool just to be mentioned. I think when we first spoke, and you gave, told me the news, I was like it’s so funny. Because when I saw Derek on the cover three years two years ago, I kept that magazine cover. I just had idea, like this would be so cool just to even be like mentioned in this thing. I don’t know how to do it, I’m just gonna go, go, go. And here we are. It’s cool.
Lauren Buzzeo 1:02:44
You figured it out. The new class of 40 Under 40. Will, thank you again.
Will Blackmon 1:02:53
Thank you so much.
Lauren Buzzeo 1:02:57
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. It’s hard to deny the passion and energy those who have for wine and feel inspired by their efforts to bring more people along into this delicious world to experience their own wonderful wine journeys to. From classes to tastings, to wine clubs and beyond, there’s a whole host of ways to become more engaged in your fitness explorations and education, and no better time than today to dive on in. Be sure to visit winemag.com/podcast for more about these opportunities, as well as more on Cristie and Will and the initiatives that drive them. You can also read more about all of our 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2020 online, or by picking up a copy of the October issue out now.
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The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers!