This article is a preview of the upcoming Root of Influence, a new media property from Ackerman McQueen.
“This tastes like chilled Nyquil,” says an absolutely baffled version of certified sommelier Whitney Adams. “It does, it tastes like what you take when you have a cold and you want to pass out.”
She’s gracefully agreed to participate on YouTube viral sensation Tipsy Bartender’s channel, where his 3.5 million subscribers show up for thoughtful advice on making watermelon kegs or Jolly Rancher shot glasses. The gag this time: “A Real Wine Connoisseur Tastes Shitty Wines!”
According to YouTube’s always reliable view counter, more than a million people watched, including Poppysfit, who didn’t take kindly to his favorite channel being invaded by this “connoisseur.” Lucky for us, he was also brave enough to bare his soul in full view of the world: “Have had some expensive wine and found it to taste as much like ass as the cheap stuff," he wrote in the comments section. "I usually end up mixing the cheap stuff with ginger ale and making a cooler out of it.”
Why would Whitney—who, by the way, isn’t a wine snob, and certainly doesn’t shill for “expensive” wines—make an appearance on a channel so clearly outside her wheelhouse?
Well, three years later, she still has loyal viewers who came over from those Tipsy Bartender videos.
In fact, an argument could easily be made that, despite being outnumbered in subscribers 3.5 million to 42,000, Whitney’s channel is far more valuable, with a much more engaged and passionate audience.
Tipsy Bartender got a couple decent videos out of the collaboration. She peeled off some of his audience. And these days, while he’s playing to an increasingly worn-out and diminishing crowd, Whitney’s viewers remain as engaged as ever.
“So, the viewers are loyal A.F.,” she said.
“A lot of guys came to my channel in the beginning because I’d done some videos with Tipsy Bartender. And a lot of his viewers are just like, bros. So a lot of guys would come to my channel, and over time the female audience kind of grew.”
These days, her audience has leveled out. It’s a little more female than male, she says, and the demographic leans young.
Her appeal as a wine “coach” is evident: when she talks shop, her years in the business shine through. She’s a subject-matter expert with self-awareness, a rare combination, especially in the (intentionally?) complicated world of wine.
Millions of people were introduced to that world through Somm, the surprise hit documentary that follows four men on their journey to becoming master sommeliers. The film laid bare the sheer complexity of the wine world to us outsiders.
The notorious test they have to pass requires a truly encyclopedic knowledge of all things wine: every wine region in the world, every grape variety, history, culture, and a super-human blind-tasting ability.
The somms-in-training torture themselves for years, giving up nights, weekends, vacations, birthdays, anniversaries, perhaps even life itself, so that they might be able to correctly identify the primary grape in Nemea, and where it’s produced (it’s Agioritiko. As for where it’s produced, well, Google it yourself if you care so much!).
Whitney isn’t a master sommelier, and you get the feeling she’d never want to become one. But she talks about wine with the breezy confidence of someone who knows enough to know you can’t know it all.
Whitney manages to maintain her credibility as a wine expert without sacrificing her unique sense of humor
Combined with unusually slick production values (her husband is a cinematographer, and her connections as an L.A. actress give her access to useful people and ideas), the channel has a professional sheen to it.
That sheen, though, does nothing to detract from the intimate authenticity of it all.
Even a cursory glance at Whitney’s videos, and the comments below, reveals the deep connection her audience shares with her. They often write deep, personal, long-winded (for a YouTube comment section, anyway) notes to her.
Her self-deprecating, easy-going personality make her feel instantly approachable—she’s someone you can feel comfortable confiding in, without fear of judgment. For anyone operating in the notoriously snobby wine world, that’s saying something.
“My friend has a YouTube channel with maybe 80,000 subscribers,” Whitney said. “She always tells me, she’s like, Whitney, your engagement is way better than mine. You know, because I’d be like, oh, I don’t have that many subs, and she’s like, don’t even worry about it, your engagement’s really good. And so I always have kept that in the back of my mind and I think, it’s not as important to me to have huge numbers as long as people are watching and engaging. That’s most important to me, I guess.”
Late last year, many of those subscribers noticed something troubling. Whitney stopped making videos. Not completely, but what had been a steady production machine for years slowed to a crawl.
Whitney's video about her miscarriage was heartbreaking, intimate and inspiring.
Here’s just a smattering of the outpouring of love, sympathy and appreciation:
Jennifer Ordonez: “I had to pause multiple times throughout the video, personally, just because of how close to home it hits.”
Sharifa Love: “Selfishly I'm so thankful for your transparency and openness, because my timeline overlaped [sic] with yours.”
Rachels Losingit: “I know I don't know you, but I have so much love for you!! I'm crying right along with you because I know all these feelings.”
And on, and on, they go. Hundreds of comments, just like those.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s clear now: Whitney’s audience isn’t just there for the wine. They’re there for Whitney.
Judging by the numbers, her channel isn’t a world-changer. But the engagement tells a different story.
It’s a great example of a responsible, long-term approach to content creation. Whitney never boxed herself in or undermined her credibility in pursuit of quick clicks. She created a real, lasting relationship with people who would likely follow her in all sorts of new and interesting directions.
“I’ve never been afraid to use the channel as a canvas where I can try new things,” she explained. “I’ve always just tried to push the boundaries and see whether my audience will follow me. Like, what if I tried this, it’s kind of an adjacent topic, but like, would they still be into it?”
This strategy has likely limited her from reaching a broader audience, and probably driven people looking for straight-up wine content away. But in exchange, she’s built a much deeper, more meaningful relationship with people who relate directly to her experiences and personality.
Her willingness to take risks and open herself up gave her audience a more three-dimensional perspective, and more chances to relate.
“Some people will comment and say, you can talk about anything, I don’t even care if it’s about wine, and I’ll watch it,” she said. “And so I think, it’s about just building that relationship where they understand your humor and they enjoy spending time with you.”
Some of those commenters found her separate podcast, “Reality Reality,” which she used as a platform to combine her comedic instincts with her love of reality shows.
That podcast, like the channel, came to a halt with her miscarriage.
But now, on the other side of personal tragedy, Whitney has a stable base from which to make her next move.
“I think with YouTube I always wanted to use it as a platform to connect with people, but also to post and better enable me to get more opportunities as an on-camera personality and as a host,” she said.
If she stays focused on the wine world, she has some ideas on where to go.
“A lot of the content I’m seeing is, a wine expert tastes $10 wine,” she said. “Either it’s like, saber a bottle of champagne with an iPad!, or it’s either like stuff for views, or it’s just crazy challenges, blind tasting, things like that. There isn’t just enough everyday type of stuff. What about like everyday drinking, how can we talk more about that and how it’s introduced into your day to day life in a casual way?”
Whatever she does, she’s easy to root for.
“When I first started in wine I was an outsider, an actress who fell into it,” she said. “Even at the first restaurant where I worked, we had hired a guy, a somm from a hot restaurant in L.A. to come and do our initial list, and he was such an asshole. I hate this guy to this day, he drives me nuts. … He was such a jerk! And I’m like, I don’t want you to serve me wine, you’re not fun. So I thought, I don’t want to be that type of wine person.”
Years later, she’s not that type of wine person, or a wine person at all—she’s a real person, and her audience thanks her for it.