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09.2014

Massachusetts Beverage Business

Article By: Kirsten Amann

MORGAN FIRST and TYLER BALLIET

of SECOND GLASS are REINVENTING WINE  EDUCATION

ONE RIOT at a TIME


FOR THE NOVICE DRINKER, learning about wine can be nothing if not intimidating.  And for many young people, it has an air of the unattainable.  It’s not that there aren’t countless approachable wines available, there certainly are.  However, there has long been a real disconnect between the wine industry and the Millennial drinker in terms of education.  But as Second Glass founders Tyler Balliet and Morgan First are keenly aware, a whole new generation of enthusiasts is sipping and swirling right on the coattails of the baby boom generation.  The 18- to 35-year-old consumer represents a powerful buying demographic for whom traditional marketing strategies just won’t work. 

Roughly 28OO of these like-minded oenophiles will descend upon the Park Plaza Castle this October 25 and 26 for Wine Riot Boston.  Attendees will learn about sparkling wine at the Bubbly Bar, get an intro to the category at the Wine 1O1 booth, or experience any number of “Crash Courses” that dive deeper into regions and varietals.  There’s even a special mobile app that can help tasters keep track of all the information as the day wears on and all the sipping makes the details hazy.  Dubbed “two parts education, one part revolution”, the event offers fun, innovative, wine education for an important generation of drinkers.  It’s the kind of “riot” that is making the industry take notice. 

The brainchild of Balliet and First, Wine Riot turns five this fall, and in 2O13 will shepherd 15,OOO people through events in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, DC.  Ironically, this October’s event in Boston marks the 21st Wine Riot.  In 2O14 the company will expand even further, holding 2 events in each city and hosting 2O to 25,OOO attendees.  Balliet and First are currently being tapped to developed festivals in Hong Kong and London.  What has quickly and organically grown into a major national wine event began as a slim black and white print publication (also called SECOND GLASS) bootstrapped by Balliet and a team of enthusiastic friends, siblings and aspiring writers as volunteers.

Tyler Balliet developed the idea for Second Glass while working in retail at Bauer Wine & Spirits on Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay.  “At Bauer, I noticed there were young people coming in who wanted to learn about wine but didn’t have the right resources,” says Balliet.  He set out to fill that niche, first writing about wine for local publications THE WEEKLY DIG, THIRSTY BOSTON and BOSTON MAGAZINE.  Then the concept evolved – it would be a print publication dedicated to teaching its readers about wine in a fun and unpretentious manner.  Balliet financed the entire operation, maxing out his credit cards and looking to a group of loyal volunteers to help him with writing, editing, design, and delivery.  Morgan First, whom Balliet met at a Boston Young Entrepreneurs event, was part of that team almost from the beginning – taking time out of her busy schedule running her own business to help the fledgling publication grow. 

He may have been just 26-years-old when SECOND GLASS launched but even then, Balliet was no stranger to entrepreneurial ventures.  “When I was 16 I didn’t have a normal job – I threw hardcore shows.  I realized I knew all these hardcore bands, and, while I wasn’t really that into it, I saw that they had a following and needed places to play.  So I’d rent out a bowling alley for $3OO and sell tickets and 35O people would come.  I guess you could say I’ve been finding niches and filling them my whole life.”

Balliet met his entrepreneurial match in the energetic, enthusiastic and driven Morgan First who developed her first business, aptly titled 1st Publications, while studying at Emerson.  Her product, MAP Boston was a local’s guide to the city that sold over 1O,OOO copies in three years to Barnes & Noble.  “I started 1st Publications because I was passionate about helping cool small businesses connect with consumers who just did not know how to find them, and because I loved helping people push their own personal boundaries and education.  I found that Tyler was doing something really similar with SECOND GLASS, but in a way that could use technology instead of being bound to print.  I was really excited about it,” says First.  She worked closely alongside Balliet from the beginning and officially joined the team full time in 2OO8. 

Ari Friedland was also a part of the Second Glass team from the beginning.  “I was one of the first people to respond to Tyler’s Craigslist ad looking for writers,” says Friedland.  “I met him for a drink at Eastern Standard and things accelerated really quickly.  From then on I did pretty much everything, from taking almost all the photos to planning issues.  We were trying to make wine fun to read about, easier to learn about, and just more cool.  Wine is cool in and of itself, it’s just had this historically stodgy packaging that we wanted to move beyond.”  A noble mission indeed.  “We had no idea what we were doing,” he laughs.  “We were running all over town distributing issues to liquor stores, doing interviews, checking out restaurants that wanted us to write about them.  It was so much fun.  I’m comfortable walking into a wine shop now, principally because of Second Glass.”

It was First’s idea to throw a launch event to celebrate each new issue of SECOND GLASS.  “We contacted distributors whose wines we’d written about and realized it was so easy for them to send us a couple of cases of wine,” explains Balliet.  “When we saw how differently people reacted when they showed up and tasted wine in person and we knew we were on to something.” 

The team developed wine “Crash Courses” which they hosted at Downtown Wine & Spirits in Somerville.  “I taught something like 3O Crash Courses,” says Balliet.  “It was basically like a stand-up comedy routine Tyler did with the buyer at the shop,” adds First.  They developed creative concepts to teach about wine, like the “Summer Smackdown” where they pit country against country in a pseudo wine battle.  “But we always wanted to do a big event,” says Balliet.

The Wine Riot concept developed organically when Balliet started taking press trips to support his writing, where he began to connect with small winemakers all over the world.  “I went to Portugal, to Bordeaux for the harvest.  I began to see that there is a huge disconnect between people who make and sell wine and people who buy it in the store.  I realized that small wineries all over the world are struggling with the same issues.”  From this idea grew Wine Riot.

“I began to see that when it comes to wine education – sure there are books, and even print publications like ours – but most people don’t want to read about wine.  I totally get it.  I mean, that’s how I feel about tomatoes.  I love tomatoes, I even grow tomatoes, but I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book about tomatoes.  It’s just not going to happen.  But I will cook with them, eat them, and enjoy them.”  Much like how most consumers enjoy their wine.

“People want a little bit of info.  And when it comes to reaching young people, we wanted to figure out how to use technology to do that,” he continues.  As the idea for an event that represented the mission of Second Glass, to make wine education fun and accessible, evolved, Balliet learned how much the younger wine-drinking market was growing.  “At first winemakers didn’t understand.  They thought the ‘kids’ just wanted to get drunk.  What we’re actually dealing with are highly educated people that want to learn about wine so they can buy wine.  People come to Wine Riot to learn and our job is to create a different kind of event that can help them do that.

“I’m passionate about wine but more passionate about people in the industry, especially small wineries struggling against the challenging export laws.  And I think the coolest thing is telling the stories about wine.  I teach about history, politics, science, and economics when I teach about wine.  We get to help people discover the world, culture and science through the guise of drinking.  That’s what sets us apart from other wine events.” 

More than just a walk-around tasting event, there is something unique and fun to do for every hour at Wine Riot.  Booths are set up throughout the event complete with maps of wine regions, suggested wine and food pairings, and more, which essentially feel like walking into a classroom.  A Wine 1O1 booth teaches attendees basic wine words by showcasing examples of wines that are dry or sweet; oaked or un-oaked; young or mature; etc.  And The Bubbly Bar is an entire section of the event focused on demystifying the complex world of sparkling wine with examples of every different style – from Cava to Prosecco to Champagne.  A special Wine Riot mobile app helps attendees remember their favorite wines, while generating 13,OOO wine reviews per event.

Winemaker Jake Beckett was one of Balliet and First’s early participants, initially with family business Peachy Canyon, and more recently with his own winery Chronic Cellars.  “We were part of the first Wine Riot and since then have attended five nationwide.  “All have been a blast,” says Beckett.  “If I could do every one I would.  The events are an awesome scene with a huge educational aspect that just allows people to geek out while having fun.  There’s an elevated energy to Wine Riot that really speaks to whom they are marketing to.  Standard big consumer tastings tend to have a slow start with people walking around the show, then it builds to this kind of wild drunk Fest.  Wine Riot has good, high energy throughout with people more there to taste and learn than get drunk.” 

“There are attendees from all walks there and definitely people I haven’t seen at shows before,” Beckett notes.  “They’ve done a real service to the wine industry because they are exposing wine to more people.” 

“We’ve always had a team of committed people helping us grow,” says Balliet.  He and First are presently restructuring the company to be able to expand even further.  “People are trying to get us to do Wine Riots in Hong Kong and London,” comments First.  “So we need to assemble a team on the ground in each city who can execute that.”  Their home office, which is based in Los Angeles, has just five employees with 12 total on staff.  Balliet and First credit their success to their very big network.  “We’re able to tap different people in different cities for all manner of requests and support.” 

Did Balliet and First ever think that Wine Riot could become so big?  “When I was writing the business plan, which is actually pretty funny to look at now, I built it to scale,” Balliet states.  “I never wanted a business that couldn’t be huge.”

“In the beginning I didn’t have the sense that Second Glass would turn into a huge event organization,” says Friedland, “but even as we saw the print model shift, we knew there still was a sizeable niche.  And what has been amazing about Morgan and Tyler is their ability to harness the potential of technology to create new niches.  I look forward to seeing how Second Glass grows in that regard.” 

Aside from international expansion, the future looks bright and busy for Balliet and First.  The team is presently working on a book which will be a comprehensive wine buying guide that shares the mission of the original publication.  “We also want to get back into doing more content,” says Balliet.  The print publication is now defunct and the focus of the website has changed somewhat over the years – though it’s still rich with wine information.  “We did some videos to promote our recent “Muscadet, Shuck Yeah!” event in Boston, which was a primer on Muscadet and oysters.  I was reminded how effective these videos can be, as well as fun and easy to create.” 

The duo also have their sights set on reinventing the wine competition.  Tyler elaborates: “When you think about it, there’s no such thing as a ‘best wine’.  How could there be?  There are great date wines, picnic wines, fish wines – current competitions are too focused on superlatives.  You can judge 1OOO wines in a superlative competition and only 2O will be recognized.  It’s just not qualitative enough.”  Their revamped competition concept would assemble a team of 15 young Millennial wine experts as judges and all content would be turned it into a mobile app.

Balliet has now replaced press trips with speaking engagements about wine marketing all over the globe.  “People want to know who Millennials are and why they process information differently.  He spoke to the topic recently on a panel called “Meet the Mavericks” at the London International Wine Fair, was a panelist at Riesling Rendezvous held at Chateau St-Michelle in Washington, and last year was part of the Millennial Wine Marketing Circus that traveled to wine regions up and down the California coast teaching how to reach the 21- to 35-year-old market.  The pair was recognized in INC’s “3O Under 3O” in 2O1O and Balliet was featured in WINE ENTHUSIAST’s “4O Under 4O” earlier this year.  He has also been nominated for their Rising Star award, which celebrates the industry’s “most influential up-and-comer who is already making waves.”

As this young, entrepreneurial duo looks into the future, they continue to be driven by their original goal which Tyler sums up: “To innovate and educate.  Look, there is something like 7O wine events a year in San Francisco alone, but the problem is that they’re all really boring.  Our job is to create a different kind of event and wine drinking experience.” 

Less snooze fest, more riot.

We’ll drink to that.

Wine Riot Boston takes place October 25th and 26th at the Park Plaza Castle.
Tickets and more information at 
secondglass.com.

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