All Hail The King
A new age of wine media is coming. Does the establishment stand a chance?
June 3, 2021 — As a relative newcomer to the industry, I read, watch, and listen to wine media with a fervor that I hope will compensate for my lack of experience. So, when a friend of mine recently began singing the praises of a Youtuber I’d never heard of who goes by the moniker wineking, I had to know more.
A quick scroll through the channel’s viewer comments only increased my curiosity. Effusive would be an understatement. Here’s what one user had to say (translated from Korean):
“It’s like a great revolution in the wine world. Moreover, the fact that this is a channel operated by Koreans and that Korean subtitles are released, this is comparable to the level of the Korean version of BTS [Internationally acclaimed K-pop boy band].”
The Bangtan Boys of wine? Okay, just who is the ever-elusive wineking?
While a basic Google search promptly directs you to the YouTube channel, a bit more digging and the man behind the channel begins to emerge. The creator of wineking is Jay Lee, an unassuming young man with a striking smile and goofy air — not the vibe you’d expect from someone who, according to his online bio, “holds three master’s degrees in wine,” and has lived in “eight countries and speaks eight languages.”
But Lee’s most impressive credential — by a long shot — is his number of YouTube subscribers (243,000 at last count) and the millions of hits on his more popular videos. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the subscription rates of several big name wine media outlets: Wine Folly 57.2K; Wine Spectator 19.1K; Jamessucklingtv 16.5K; Wine Enthusiast 3.8K. Taken together, their subscribers equal only about one third of wineking’s viewership.
What makes this all the more surprising is that he’s amassed this following while operating largely off the radar of wine industry insiders who pride themselves on spotting trends before they become mainstream.
Above all, wineking’s success highlights the rapid changes taking place within wine media as digital platforms increasingly replace traditional sources for wine education and community. Meanwhile, droves of new consumers around the world are being welcomed into the fold.
For an industry long stifled by exclusivity and the tastes of a select few, this evolution is being embraced by many with open arms.
Lee, a Korean currently living in the United States, is uniquely primed to captivate Korean and anglophone audiences alike. When he’s not creating content for his bilingual YouTube channel, Lee serves as partner at GreatWine2U, a wine e-commerce operation based in Irvine, California. The company’s other partner is Peter Koff, a Master of Wine, who is also heavily featured on wineking. While wineking predates Lee’s involvement with GreatWine2U, the channel really began to take off around the time that Lee moved to the US and joined forces with Koff.
But make no mistake, Lee’s wineking title has been earned, not bestowed. If this new age of wine media is teaching us anything, it’s that the Peter Koffs of the world are no longer experts in the field by default.
So, what has contributed to wineking’s success? And what are other channels lacking?
In part, Lee has gained traction by operating outside the parameters of traditional wine education. His channel dials up the entertainment aspect that is often overlooked by other wine media outlets. Many episodes incorporate “gotcha” moments that put wine professionals on the spot while letting viewers in on the secret. In one such episode, Lee conducts a blind tasting for Koff and Patrick Farrell, also an MW, which pits a decanted jug of Carlo Rossi Cabernet Sauvignon (equivalent to a $2 750ml bottle) against a 2001 Mouton Rothschild (easily $500-$1000). While we as viewers know which is which from the beginning, Lee has us hooked wondering if the seasoned pros will be able to tell the difference. (Spoiler: they can and do).
In another episode, Lee conducts an experiment in which he manipulates several identical bottles of Cotes-du-Rhone, adding “super-premium” sugar, oak staves, oak chips and oak essence to respective samples. Watching Lee, Koff, and Farrell deconstruct the experiment sheds light on industrial wine’s additive-heavy production methods in the clearest terms. Viewers are treated to all the best parts of high-school chemistry class without any of the drudgery.
Despite his involvement with GreatWine2U, Lee primarily uses his platform to entertain and educate, which has likely helped endear viewers to his channel. In fact, he often assumes the role of self-appointed consumer advocate. In an episode entitled, “Tasting mid-price wines,” Lee calls out importers and retailers, urging them not to increase prices in response to their wines being featured on his channel, arguing that it’s “not fair to the consumer.” Accessibility is a cornerstone of the wineking philosophy. As such, many of the wines featured on Lee’s channel are widely available and relatively affordable.
And while Lee may be in the business of selling wine, his YouTube channel appears to make no attempt to funnel viewers to his e-commerce site. In fact, I could not find any information about GreatWine2U on the wineking channel.
While Lee is busy increasing access to wine and wine education, more implicitly he is also calling attention to the homogeneity of the wine industry as a whole.
During the last few months, as energy has been re-directed towards uplifting the voices of BIPOC individuals who make important contributions to the world of wine, wineking is the voice and perspective we need.
Surely not everyone is thrilled by the influencer generation’s increasing sway within the industry. The democratization of wine education throws long-held hierarchies into question. Some might argue that by simplifying wine, we risk diminishing the very thing that makes it special.
To such skeptics, all I can say is that making wine less intimidating isn’t the same thing as removing nuance. I too initially approached wineking with trepidation. But it soon became apparent that, far from trying to bulldoze the industry, Lee is merely infusing it with a new kind of magic. The door is being opened, not closed.
All hail wineking.
Tessa Schrupp is a recent graduate of Colby College, who got hooked on all things wine after completing a harvest in Sonoma during the smoky fall of 2020. She lives in San Francisco.
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