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Who is Gary Vaynerchuk?

A first impression, and a proper introduction from old school "Vayniaks" Gary Mele and "Sugar" Ray

I went to the NJ Tech Meetup in July 2015 looking for an interesting member to profile for the blog.

Gary Vaynerchuk was speaking. I had barely heard of him prior to this, but there was a packed house to see him, so I took that as a decent sign. As he felt out the crowd, his chat built up. It became apparent that while Gary has the energy of a 6 year old hopped up on sugar at a birthday party, he also the chops of a seasoned businessman.  He also cursed like a sailor, and essentially scolded the audience for about half the talk. As a first impression, it was a bit confusing.

He walked the crowd through his track-record and some of his current thinking on the current business ecosystem. He showed some vulnerability. He showed some humor. He showed some honesty. Everyone was there to see Gary, and they ate it up.  I was looking for a different story.

At one point, he called out two two of his longtime fans in the audience, Gary Mele and “Sugar Ray”.  Ray got up and  adamantly told the audience (it almost felt like a warning) that “he WILL own the New York Jets!”  

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“Well listen… You better fuckin’ take care of your health, cause I need some more time, and you’re old, so get your shit together Sugar Ray.” 

Ray responded, “And I want to publicly thank you for taking the time to calling me up with my wife and wishing us well on our 50th anniversary.”

Here’s a room full of people interested enough to pay money to listen to Gary, but Gary is interested in these two guys.  I was curious about the backstory, but that wasn’t in the cards that evening… this exchange was the inflection point for a 15 minute rant.  Gary turned up the heat. 

“If you think those guys, from that generation, want to hear your bullshit whining that you ‘don’t have time’, GO FUCK YOURSELF.”

I knew right then that Gary and I had a lot in common, and he kept going.

“But honestly, I’m real serious about this…please.  Please go talk to your grandparents.  And go ask them to introduce you to 4 or 5 of their friends. And go ask them how they rolled in life.  Like, what was tough when there was war, and depressions, and real shit.  And you’re crying that you don’t have a thousand fucking… Periscope followersGET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.

I had a feeling no one in the audience would actually follow this advice. So I did.

I walked up and introduced myself to Gary and Ray after the event. They gave me their emails, and proudly referred me to Episode 88 of the Daily Grape, the viewer appreciation episode that they instigated and were featured in. When I got home, I watched it. 

Mele brought on a bottle of wine he had made as a kid with his family. It had been aging for 50 years (!), and it was the last bottle he had. (!!) 

 I thought, “damn, this show must really mean a lot to this guy.”

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Mele thanked Vaynerchuk for all he’d done for the audience, and talked about watching how he’s done business, mixing the old school with new school.  I emailed Mele and a couple weeks later, I found myself sitting down with them for a chat in his shop, Fashion Carpets  in Clifton, NJ.

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My goal was to chat with these two guys to get some stories or advice to share with the NJ Tech Meetup blog about their perspective on blending the “old school and the new school” ways of business. We chatted for about an hour.

Gary Mele said he was from an Italian family that had always been in the flooring business since before linoleum was invented. He went to Embry Riddle and Florida Tech to get trained in aviation, and flew for a small private airline for a few years. As he was starting his flying career, the Vietnam War was winding down, and pilots with thousands of hours flooded the market. The timing wasn't right, so he got involved in the family flooring business and has been doing it ever since.

"Sugar Ray" worked in IT for Prudential and retired in 2002. He now works part time at HR Block through the tax season and keeps busy helping Gary out at Fashion Carpets one day a week the rest of the year.   

Mele explained that they got into listening to Gary Vee in 2006 while planning for a trip to Italy. They were visiting the winery that produced Wine Spectator’s wine of the year, and decided to do some research before their trip. 

 Side note: This trip is where Ray picked up his sweet nickname.  There is no way I can do this story justice, but figured it's worth noting... Ray and Gary were getting a personal tour of the winery by the owner. The grapes were just coming in and getting processed, and Ray asked "is this where you add the sugar?"    

 They ended up finding Gary’s first show, Wine Library TV. They were skeptical at first, but they started to realize “it wasn’t just him selling wine, but he was about educating the viewers how to taste wine, what it’s about and the nature of it.” They started watching around episode 200.

They kept following along with new shows, and it began to take off.  “He was really the first wine blog out there. He started to get noticed, he was on Ellen, Late Night, etc.  as ‘The Wine Guy’.”    

Mele and Sugar Ray would trade off favorite anecdotes, backtrack the story, and correct each other on dates and details, like old friends do. They told the story of attending their first book signing for 101 Wines in Ridgewood, NJ, with maybe 60 or 70 people, then Crush It at a small bookstore in Montclair.

They talked about his content, his style, and about his transition from being “The Wine Guy” to getting involved in tech world with Angel investing and forming and growing Vaynermedia.

Mele told one last story about a time when Vaynerchuk had a customer from Westchester order a case of wine for a party.  The case came in later than expected, on the day of the party, and Vaynerchuk told the story of how he personally drove the wine to the customer, and earned a customer for life.  

Mele said “That’s the type of thing that got us interested… not just from a wine standpoint, but a business standpoint as well.”

They shared a few more anecdotes, and while these quotes are pulled out of order from these stories, they convey the theme they were driving at… 

“We thought he was full of himself… but he’s really not.”

“Everyone tries to find his dark side, but he’s real.”

“We’ve been around along time, and we saw the authenticity and sincerity that was there in what he was trying to do… he wasn’t all smoke and mirrors, just trying to sell you something.”  

Sugar Ray summed it up…

“People want to feel special.

And they're willing to pay a little bit extra, and come back to you all the time, if you treat them like a person instead of a number..."

"You build a relationship. That's the difference.”

In his online bios, you may read the description:

“Gary Vaynerchuk builds businesses”. 

But if you can get past the first impression, or interact with people like Mele and Sugar Ray, you’ll realize that that’s only half the story:

Gary Vaynerchuk builds businesses by building relationships.


Hit up Gary Mele and Sugar Ray...



Contributed by:

Gil Olsen