Matt Bellassai has made a profession out of chugging wine. The social media personality gained fame as the character behind BuzzFeed’s 2015 video series “Whine About It,” in which Bellassai drinks an entire bottle of wine on camera while ranting in the BuzzFeed office. His drunken complaints got millions of views and earned him a People’s Choice award for favorite social media star.
Last June, Bellassai sat down with Food and Wine Magazine and admitted that when choosing the wine he will chug on his show each week, he has two criteria: “whatever’s cheapest and has the highest alcohol content.” So inured to the taste of the wine he consumes is Bellassai, that when the reporter asked what he would name a winery, Bellassai said, “I’ve also been asked what my motto would be if I was running for president or something and I say it’s ‘who fucking cares?’ So I think it would be along those lines. ‘Who Cares What This Tastes Like?’”
“Who Cares What This Tastes Like – Wines for Chugging, by Matt Bellassai,” the reporter suggested.
“I like that, I’m going to stick with that,” Bellassai concurred.
A person who avowedly doesn’t care what wine tastes like might be an unlikely choice as brand ambassador for a wine. And yet, just five short months after the Food and Wine interview, Matt Bellassai launched his own wine brand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not called “Who Cares What This Tastest Like.” Instead, it’s named after his new series, “To Be Honest,” and it’s distributed by the mail-order wine service Winc, formerly known as Club W.
If there are two things millennials love, it’s social media stars and delivery services. But the truth is, all celebrity-endorsed wine may as well be called “Who Cares What This Tastes Like.”
Bellassai, 26, comes from the suburbs of Chicago. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2012, Bellassai went straight to BuzzFeed to work as a comedy writer. But after the success of “Whine About It,” he decided to leave BuzzFeed and pursue his own video series, called “To Be Honest,” as well as a stand-up comedy tour. Both follow the drink-a-bottle-of-wine-and-complain format.
The videos “just sort of took off, and the culture of wine took over,” Bellassai tells me over the phone recently. That culture started to consume every part of his working life. “I felt an obligation to keep drinking wine in videos,” he says.
When Bellassai was doing the “Whine About It” series for BuzzFeed, he followed a regular shtick. He would pick a talked-about topic (holiday parties, co-workers, texting), then drink a bottle of wine while explaining why that thing is “the worst.” The videos regularly racked up anywhere between 1 million and 7 million views on Facebook. In “To Be Honest,” he also talks about things he thinks are “the worst” (cats, cooking, squirrels). “To Be Honest” videos generally get around 500,000 views on Facebook, but there are a few outliers that hit his old numbers (“Reasons 2016 is the Absolute Fuckin’ Worst,” “Reasons Cats Are the Absolute Worst”). All of his four videos about learning how to be a master of wine have yet to crack 100,000 views.
But Bellassai is hardly the first celebrity to have his own brand of wine. Nikki and Brie Bella, twins who made their name as a WWE wrestling tag team, have been working on the release of their Napa wine. Drew Barrymore has a Pinot Grigio, and Fergie has a red blend. On the social media front, renowned joke stealer Josh Ostrovsky, a.k.a. Fat Jew, has White Girl Rosé, and Violet Benson, the woman behind the Instagram account Daddy Issues, has Fun Wine. And this is far from an exhaustive list.
By and large, these wines are not considered serious wines. None of them would appear on the same wine list filled with renowned Burgundy or Napa wines. But then again, these wines are not supposed to be world-class wines. The wines are supposed to sell based on the celebrity alone, and if the wine is at least drinkable, people will buy it again. When VinePair had six sommeliers blind-taste White Girl Rosé, the response was generally that it is a wine that would sell well, and that it was “not God-awful.” And that is exactly what celebrity wine is supposed to be. It isn’t relying on taste; it’s a lifestyle product, relying on the feelings a consumer has about a celebrity.
In fact, we’re probably going to be seeing a lot more celebrity wine. Today’s wine merchants require a much different approach to selling wine than in the past. Millennials now drink half the wine purchased in the U.S., which means that marketers need to find a way to appeal to them. And celebrity endorsements are a safe bet. According to the research in a paper published by the London School of Marketing called “The Power of Celebrity Endorsements Today,” even an endorsement from a minor celebrity is enough to get people to buy something. People will purchase a product from any famous person they identify with.
What’s more, they will then recommend products their favorite celebrity endorses to other friends, a Nielsen consumer insights study found. The study, which was conducted in 2011, found that 64 percent of people who follow celebrities on social media also follow related brands. A celebrity’s followers are also more likely to offer their opinions to fellow online consumers. Of all the categories of products out there, food and beverage was the fifth most likely category people were likely to recommend on the strength of their favorite celeb, only behind movies, music, TV, and other websites.
A wine company with a celebrity collaboration isn’t just reaching that celebrity’s audience; it’s reaching friends of that audience. That matters when, as the Nielsen study found, consumers are exposed to 3,000 commercial images a day, and will subconsciously absorb more than 150 of those images, and only 30 of those will reach the conscious mind. The internet celebrity winemaker was both an obvious, and brilliant, marketing tool.
There are multiple levels of celebrity endorsement, according to the market research company Euromonitor International. A celebrity can license a name (think George Foreman and his grills), endorse a product (like Justin Bieber shouting out 1800FLOWERS in a tweet), or brand a product entirely (Dr. Dre’s Beats by Dre). Matt Bellassai is in the last category.
Just as Dre stands out in a saturated headphone industry with his ready made audience of music lovers, Bellassai stands out in the saturated wine industry with his ready-made audience of people who want wine they can chug. Bellassai’s wine, To Be Honest, retails for $13. Winc, the distributor, is taking an 1,800-case (21,600 bottles) bet that Bellassai’s audience will follow him into the bottle.
Off camera, Bellassi is honest, open, notably sober, and savvy. He says he gets what his fans are going through when trying to choose wine. “I am a huge consumer of wine, and when I go to the store I am susceptible to all of the things that people who don’t know much about wine are susceptible to,” Bellassai told me over the phone. “Knowing who the audience was who was watching my videos, it’s an audience who really enjoys drinking wine,” Bellassai went on. “It was really a no-brainer that we were able to put this together and say, ‘Hey, if you’re drinking wine anyway, here’s one that I got to make.’”
Though he admits he doesn’t know anything about wine, and that taste is far from the most important thing he looks for in a bottle, Bellassai was involved in choosing the final blend of To Be Honest, which meant working “really hard to make a wine you could drink an entire bottle of in one sitting,” as he told Ad Week.
To Be Honest is a red blend composed of 37 percent Cabernet Franc, 30 percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Grenache, and 13 percent Merlot. All the grapes are from the Paso Robles, California region and it sits at a hefty 14.6 percent alcohol by volume. During the blending process, Winc would overnight sample bottles from California to Bellassai’s home in New York City and hold tastings over Skype.
“I thought that it’d be important that we’re making something really accessible to people, but also making something that sort of didn’t take itself too seriously,” Bellassai told me.
Mission accomplished. Bellassai’s wine might be called To Be Honest, but his original name, Who Cares What This Tastes Like, would have been more apt. When you open a bottle of To Be Honest, the label of which is black with hot-pink writing, the aroma of alcohol overwhelms all else, and it doesn’t blow off when you pour the wine into a glass like it does with other high-alcohol wines. When you taste it, the wine lacks any acidity to balance out its extreme heaviness. It’s mass-produced juice that tastes like it was forced into becoming alcohol. More than anything else, To Be Honest tastes like a budget wine you would buy with a fake ID. It is, when all is said and done, a wine for chugging.
It’s not something I would ever buy. But then again, it wasn’t made for me.