I attended the opening night of Wine Riot NYC at the 69th Regiment Armory this past weekend, feeling
well-prepared for what I was about to encounter. It would be a regular wine tasting amped up a notch or two, with a sampling of wineries from all over the world. I learned upon arrival that Wine Riot is really a playground for the young wine consumer. It’s wine tasting that feels more like speed dating. If you are new to wine, the whole idea is to use this event to figure out your own tastes. But if you’ve been demurely sipping the stuff since your parents allowed you to at dinnertime, it’s an opportunity to discover something new and different.
I found Morgan First, one of the co-founders of the Second Glass company, standing at the entrance cheerfully greeting people, handing out water bottles, and conferring with the event volunteers that they were having a good time too. Though the event goers got to kick back and relax for the night, Morgan was overseeing everyone’s enjoyment, even filling in for a booth that was short one wine-pourer.
“For me right now, it’s totally game time,” she said. “There’s no relaxing here.”
Morgan and her co-founder, Tyler Balliet started Second Glass in 2008, pairing her event-planning experience with his wine knowledge. Now if we recall, 2008 probably wasn’t the best year for a start-up to get off the ground. However, their successful Wine Riot tasting events funded the creation of the Second Glass mobile app, allowing the company to grow even bigger. The app accompanies the event goer at Wine Riot, so they can note which wines they enjoyed the most. It eliminates the need for a consumer to carry around a flimsy paper list, and it keeps their selections on hand with them whenever they go wine shopping in the future.
Morgan and Tyler handpick the attending wineries from nearly every wine-producing region of the world, from Chile to France to Long Island, New York. The wineries come with highly educated employees with lots of information about their product. The vendors are professional, yet very friendly. They add something invaluable to the tasting experience. Sometimes when you taste a wine, you love it so much that you want to know the whole story behind it. The vendors are happy to oblige, since bringing a new person into the wine world is invigorating and satisfying, like introducing someone to a whole new genre of music.
“The whole idea was to have a touring event that connected wineries with young customers,” said Tyler.
“Young people don’t have a whole lot of resources when it comes to learning about new wines, and wineries really have all the answers.”
Everything about the way the Armory was set up that night was a treat for the senses. The venue itself was unique and interesting. The look of Wine Riot was akin to a school science fair, but had the atmosphere of the world’s most pleasant nightclub. The auditorium-like space worked well for this kind of event; there was plenty of air for interaction, yet it never felt too crowded. The DJ’s beats blended seamlessly with the wine-fueled chatter. If the founders’ aim was to make wine more accessible to the youth demographic, I should think that they were very successful at that (if only just because of the photo booth and temporary tattoo stations).
While the field of wine reviewing and critiquing is an integral part of the industry, the message of this event really seemed to be that wine should be enjoyable on your own terms, not what by the experts think is superior. This was very apparent in one of Wine Riot’s 20-minute educational “crash courses,” also set up in the same space as the tastings themselves. One of them had a “Price Is Right” theme and had the attendees taste four different wines, then guess the price of the bottle.
“It’s totally okay if you think the $4 wine is $150 and vice versa. You just got $150 worth of enjoyment out of
that $4 bottle. The more wrong you are, the more you’re actually winning at this,” said the course’s teacher Jake Westerfeld, from Cameron Hughes Winery.
It’s rare to hobnob with people your own age at a typical wine tasting. So to chat with younger people at an event like this over a sip of delicious wine, rather than a Solo cup full of foamy keg beer, was a refreshing change of pace. I even found the crowd to be pleasant; everyone was very outgoing and personable.
“People are not used to wine events being cool,” Morgan said. “It’s important for our event to be different than every other wine event out there.”
The bottom line at Wine Riot is, you’re here to have fun. You can choose to intensely discuss the wines’ flavor complexities with your friends if you’d like, but that isn’t exactly the aim. In Tyler Balliet’s words, “we’re trying hard to make wine accessible and show how cool it is. It’s a really cool industry, and a really cool product, but at the same time it’s just something that’s on your grocery list.”
To see where Wine Riot is headed next, check out their website.