Catching the Next Wave in Wine: An Interview with 2013 Rising Star Brad Ball
“The biggest thing holding back the wine industry is the wine industry itself.”
Brad Ball isn’t trying to radicalize wine culture. He’s just trying to help it catch up with the rest of the modern marketplace. The 2013 StarChefs.com Rising Star and entrepreneur behind online retailer Wine Awesomeness and La Wine Agency has taken a family legacy in traditional hospitality and turned it into a career in next wave wine. That doesn’t mean Ball is abandoning traditional service, or your table, so he can Tweet every pairing (according to Ball, he and Twitter never quite got along). It does mean he’s using things like social media, a conversational tone, and the power of a multi-faceted online retail space to engage a thirsty, largely untapped customer base—and democratize the wine experience generally. Read on to see how Ball balances deep roots in tradition and with a hunger for what’s next, expanding wine culture without diluting it, and yes, even making good use of Facebook, all while gamely slaking Millenial thirsts.
Emily Bell: You grew up in the business, and got into wine fairly quickly in your career, and from there excelled fairly quickly. How did you know you belonged on the beverage side of the business?
Brad Ball: My father comes from a BOH background, while my mother ran the FOH operations. I worked on both sides, but really preferred the front at the end of the day. I really [enjoyed] the hospitality aspect and the interaction with the guests right from the start. When I started working with the wine programs at the age of 21, I knew I had found my calling. It appealed to me on every level: the history, culture, philosophy, science, and politics of it all. It’s such a dynamic industry.
EB: What were your first encounters with the professional world of the sommelier like? When did you realize you could/wanted to expand your reach?
BB: It’s very intimidating when you first enter into the sommelier world. My taste experience was still fairly limited at the beginning, so just studied my ass off while I developed my palate. Over the course of a few years, it all really started to come together with my stint at Aquavit in New York City when I was 24.
EB: You started Social Restaurant + Wine Bar because you noticed a lack of wine bars in the Charleston area—something no one might have noticed years ago. What’s changed about the consumption of wine that the casual, interactive setting of the wine bar is so popular, and so in demand?
BB: When I was living in New York, I loved the wine bar culture and every free night was spent in them. When I moved back to Charleston, I was shocked that nothing like that existed. Now, it’s everywhere in the United States, and that’s awesome! It’s taking wine off its pedestal and making it appealing to a much larger part of the population. Wine bars have been able to help change the landscape of wine in the United States by focusing on smaller producers from all corners of the world. It feels like it’s easier to find Jura than Burgundy by the glass anymore, and that’s pretty rad.
EB: Speaking of changes in the wine industry, it seems like traditionally, and in certain kinds of modern restaurant, sommeliers are expected to blend in, to be a component of the overall aesthetic and approach of a space. Whereas today, in many venues, sommeliers are not only allowed, they’re expected, to be personalities. Standing out, and attracting customers based on a larger personal brand. Is that accurate, based on your experience? And if so, can you speak to it a bit?
BB: It is definitely heading in that direction. Sommeliers innately have to possess a certain amount of charisma to be effective at their position and with the rise of celebrity food and wine personalities, it’s an easy and practical marketing tool. I think that it will keep heading in that direction, especially when you consider the career trajectories of Raj Parr and Paul Greico.
EB: Personal and professional branding are certainly specific to our age. But what tools (modern or old school) did you find most effective in creating your current platform?
BB: There is such range of tools that it honestly is difficult to properly manage all of them. Facebook is by far my favorite, and I’ve been rather obsessed with the App Delectable. For some reason, Twitter and I could never find a happy place, so I don’t really mess around with that anymore. Instagram has been my entertainment recently.
EB: Your online retail site Wine Awesomeness is a self-professed “rebellion,” a reaction to esoteric wine reviews, prohibitive pricing, and any culturally exclusive aspects of the wine world as such. Do you think that this kind of message—democratic, for the people—is more viable today than it might have been years ago?
BB: There’s no doubt! All the barriers are breaking down and the game has fundamentally changed. With Millennials set to be the single largest wine consuming generation the world has ever seen, the industry needs to take a long, hard look at what appeals to them, and it’s not Robert Parker. As consumers, Millennials are always wanting to explore what intrigues us. What’s most important is the message—not the scores, reviews, or even region. In that sense, the playing field has been leveled.
EB: Was it easy to raise money for Wine Awesomeness and La Wine Agency? Can you tell me about developing those platforms—how you got from inspiration to funding? Are investors more receptive to this more "radicalized," youthful, and/or just self-aware approach to the industry?
BB: We have been very lucky because raising capital hasn’t been too difficult. There are always investors for the right ideas, but you have to make sure everything is super tight—a fleshed out business plan, a well-rehearsed pitch, and the personnel to execute. There’s no half-assing when you’re asking somebody to invest money into you.
EB: Creating an online retail space/wine club like Wine Awesomeness seems like a unique (and uniquely modern) way to keep a customer base engaged. You guys even have recommended music in your “Book of Awesomeness.” Can you tell me what the community is like?
BB: What makes Wine Awesomeness particularly interesting is that there are four founders, and I’m the only who knows anything about wine or the industry. I feel like this gives us a huge advantage of what the capabilities are. We write our own copy, create videos, and shoot photography, all in-house. WA is up to 12 employees with only two wine peeps on staff, while the content department is twice that size. We joke that we are content company that monetizes through wine. Really though, the reception to WA has been great! NYC is our biggest market, with the majority of those members working in cool startups such as Warby Parker and Thrillist, but our members run the gamut from Millenials to Baby Boomers, rural to urban, and everything in between.
EB: Studying for and engaging the wine world professionally is a linguistically challenging affair. You’ve taken the opposite approach with your own branding, a conversational, even playfully aggressive tone. Do you think that opens wine up to more people, more potential customers? Or is it a matter of wine culture simply getting out of its own way?
BB: It really is. The biggest thing holding back the wine industry is the wine industry itself. Most people’s image of wine is stodgy and pretentious, so we are attempting to change that perception. We set out to create a lifestyle brand centered around wine with the intent of garnering a bigger audience.
EB: You seem to be an ambassador of sorts to the younger generations (over 21, that is), actively recruiting new wine drinkers with the varietally expressive, sustainable selections you offer through La Wine Agency. Is this kind of playful proselytizing to new/uninitiated markets good business, or a passion, or both?
BB: With both La Wine Agency and Wine Awesomeness, it’s a combination of both. We love to have fun with our branding but the juice is always serious. First and foremost, the wine has to be well-made and proper, which allows us to be a bit more outlandish in all the other aspects. Plus, why should the beer guys have all the fun?
EB: Good call. Especially in a lower-cost, casual consumption setting, is buying power among young wine drinkers up?
BB: Definitely. At Social for instance, the average by-the-glass price point has risen by nearly $3, and we are seeing more engagement from our younger guests. We also do half glasses and flights so that also allows them to explore the world of wine. Consequently, our selections have become more esoteric.
EB: Does democratizing the consumption and cultural "ownership" of wine, integrating it into the everyday, make for steadier business? It also seems like a key principle in your outlook.
BB: There’s no doubt. You used to hear people ask if you want to grab a beer and catch up, and now it’s more of question of whether it’s a glass of wine, beer, or cocktail. It’s heading in the right direction for us on this side of the industry.
EB: Any advice for young sommeliers? Clearly traditional aspects of wine culture (serious base knowledge, attentive service) shouldn’t be abandoned. But what about freedom of imagination in defining a professional future? How did you get to a place where you were (confidently) breaking down boundary lines, and is that possible for others?
BB: First and foremost, you have to have the base knowledge and tasting experience, so taste, read, and travel as much as possible. Once you have strong understanding of wine, then you have the freedom to put your spin on it in a meaningful way. Also, another key piece of advice is to make sure that you have an understanding of the business of wine. Most sommeliers know how to run a program and that’s about it. Possessing a working knowledge of the industry will paint a broader picture as to why it functions in the manner that it does and will allow you to know how to massage it in a way that benefits you and your program. The buying part is easy ... doing it in a smart and effective manner is much more difficult.
EB: As mentioned, you grew up in the industry. Now you’re not only experiencing, you’re driving changes to the accessibility and experience of wine. From your perspective, what’s next?
BB: Wow! There so many things going on right now in wine, from new technologies to emerging regions to the overall dynamic of the industry. On the technology side, the Coravin preservation systems could change by-the-glass programs around the world. Also, the emergence of keg wine is going to become much more commonplace over the next few years. Regarding wine regions, Portugal is on the brink of a renaissance, with the potential quality sky high. I have also been loving what’s going on in Australia, South Africa, and the United States with these younger winemakers putting more emphasis on balance and finesse over power and extraction of the previous generation. Lastly, the overall dynamic seems to be shifting. Most of the United States’ original importers and distributors are slowly fading away, while there is a new crop picking up the reigns. I’m excited to see how this all shakes out.
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Sommelier Brad BallSocial Wine Bar
188 East Bay Street
Charleston, SC 29401