Interview: Wine Riot co-founder Morgan First

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Wine Event Producers

Photo of Balliet and First thanks to Second Glass

The Second Glass crew started as a print publication, took their vision online in October 2008 and hosted their first Wine Riot in Boston, in April 2009. Co-founders Tyler Balliet and Morgan First are now barnstorming the nation, bringing their popular wine party to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., all in an effort to “make learning about wine as much fun as drinking it.” On the eve of their L.A. debut, which will be at Santa Monica Place from March 25-26, we spoke with Morgan First, who better explained the company’s concept and approach.

How did you and Tyler Balliet team up?

I was actually running another company in Boston and Tyler came to a meeting of the Boston Young Entrepreneurs. He was printing the first issue of Second Glass. We met and I liked what he was doing. I was running my own company, a print company that I wanted to sell. I said, “You want to take this digital. I want to help out.” I helped out for about a year, sold my company, and we took [Second Glass] online, took it to the next level. We founded the company, officially, in October 2008. Our first big Wine Riot was in Boston in April 2009. We held four successful wine riots in Boston, two per year, and then decided to take it national. We’re doing five cities this year and launching the tour in Los Angeles.

Boston came first, but why Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and D.C.?

We were really targeting big cities that had a young population, big wine cities. We also strategically chose Los Angeles instead of San Francisco because there were so many wine events in San Francisco…A) we’re competing with a million people, and B) there’s too much noise. I’m also from Los Angeles and Los Angeles is an important wine market…Chicago is a young population and young wine population, and it’s also a city wineries wanted to be invovlve with. Same with New York and D.C.

How did the first Wine Riot come about?

We started doing small events as launch parties for the print publication…Tyler had this grand plan of Wine Riot because he had been going to wine events that were boring…they had no music, and the average attendee was a 45-year-old dude, which is fine, but it wasn’t something young people were interested in…We have a DJ and a photo booth and really try to make it a fun experience.

What was the first Wine Riot like, compared to what you’re doing now?

The first Wine Riot had a print guide because we didn’t have the whole mobile app in place. It had bits of technology and the website. This Wine Riot is the first time we’ll have an app, so you can take tours of the event, see the floor plan from your phone and see all the wines after the event. We’ve added Wine Intelligence Units, people who work with wine stores and their buyers. If you’re at the event, turn to the mobile app and say, “I want to tour Chardonnay.” Or you can turn to the Wine Intelligence Unit and they can essentially take you on a tour of the event.

What do you look for in a Wine Intelligence Unit?

Someone who can talk about wine in a relatable way and doesn’t make people feel less than, because of their knowledge. A lot of people have a perception of wine store clerks. Some are good and some are bad. We partner with the good ones that make you feel confident about things…”You’re interested in sweeter wines? Let me have you try a sweet white and a sweet red.”…These are really people who are interested in people are excited to have you open and explore…The Wine House will have a bunch of people there.

Why wine and not beer or cocktails?

The reason we started this company, my business partner Tyler was working in a wine store on Newbury Street in Boston 21-35 year olds were coming in and weren’t asking questions based on what they read in wine magazines, like “What’s the difference between the ‘03 and 04 burgundy?” They were asking things like, “Is this cool? Will this get me laid? Will this impress my girlfriends’ parents?” Tyler, my business partner, was into wine and saw a trend. Then I came on board and as I was learning more about wine. We did a bunch of research and found, in the past, there weren’t as many wine labels accessible. Now you have South America and Australia producing all these really affordable bottles and people are excited…so we created the company for people to find new wines, remember what they’re drinking and essentially share that experience with friends. There are also already plenty of cool beer events and plenty of cool cocktail events.

What will it take for you to consider Wine Riot L.A. a success?

It’s already it a success. We’ve already sold a ton of tickets and people are really excited. To make it really a success, a bunch of people will come and try a bunch of wines they haven’t tried before and record it to their phone, so the next time they go to a wine store…they can confidently tell people about it. In Boston, people told us they used the wines they tried at Wine Riot as a shopping list…they all of a sudden had this list of wines, and even if those weren’t there, they could say, “I know I like this wine, could you point me to something similar?”

How do you decide which wineries to feature?

We work really hard to have wineries from all around the world. We strategically pick wines from France, Italy and Spain. The wineries pay to be at the event, so there are wineries that we don’t allow. We pick the ones who are all really excited, engaged and do events all the time. They can discuss Prosecco and explain that rose isn’t usually sweet like white zinfandel…We also try to make sure pretty much all the wines are distributed in the states we do our events. For the most part, the wines are available in Los Angeles, available at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods because we want to make sure the wines are easy to find so you don’t try these wines once and never get to try them again.

How interested are people in receiving education at a wine party?

We’ll see if this holds true in Los Angeles, but we work really hard to make sure it’s come across as an educational and drinking event. It’s exciting to see how many people ask questions. Vendors tell us that people ask more questions at our event than other events. The photo booth is there because it’s fun, but it’s also there to bring down the pretension level in the room. At typical wine events, it’s easy to feel like everyone around you knows everything. But we know people have tons of questions, like, “Gruner Veltliner, is that the region or the grape?” Part of the reason we have the photo booth, it’s a fun party even though it’s okay to learn. We want you to go ahead and ask any questions you have. “What does the year on the bottle mean? “If you say it tastes like blueberries, are there blueberries in the wine?” Then the crash courses happen on the side, and a lot of other events charge for the crash courses. Want to stop in for 20 minutes and learn about Loire Valley wines, or about German Rieseling? I think I like it, but I don’t know. Stop in and find out. We try really hard to make them engaging, and you’re also drinking during the crash course, so it’s not like a boring lecture. We’ve seen in the past – we pitch it as a party with wine, but one where you can learn – but if you wanted to get wasted, you could get way more drunk for $50, so people come wanting to learn.

Second Glass currently has offices in Los Angeles and Boston, with San Francisco on the way. In terms of Los Angeles, First said, “The idea is that we’re doing Wine Riot and we’ll do a bunch of other events here in the coming months.”


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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