The Buyer
Tom Gilbey's 15 minutes of fame & entertaining a new wine generation

Tom Gilbey's 15 minutes of fame & entertaining a new wine generation

Andy Warhol might have promised we would all have our “chance to be famous for 15 minutes” at some stage in our life, but how many of us really do? Well, Tom Gilbey certainly knows what it’s like to have his “15 minutes” when the Instagram video of him tasting a wine at every mile during the London Marathon went viral resulting in him being in hot demand to appear on TV and radio shows around the world. Almost by accident he had managed to succeed where so many others have failed and find a way to connect with the masses with wine. When he is not tasting wine in his running gear, you can find Gilbey getting up to all sorts of tricks as part of his daily tasting posts on Instagram and TikTok trying to entertain and educate people at the same time. And by his own admission “making it up as he goes along”. Here he chats to Richard Siddle about what it’s like to be at the centre of a media frenzy, and also his serious goal to help bring wine and make it meaningful and relevant to younger generations.

Richard Siddle
20th May 2024by Richard Siddle
posted in People,

When we first arranged to meet up for a coffee Tom Gilbey quite understandably asked: “What do you want to talk about?”

Fast forward a few days and what I had scribbled down for a chat - his corporate wine events business and tongue in cheek wine education videos on Instagram and TikTok - had gone out of the window by the time I was sitting with a coffee waiting for him in a west London cafe. In fact, I half expected him to arrive with a scrum of photographers and newspaper folk in his wake.

Tom Gilbey tasting wine every mile during the London Marathon turned him into a media star

For in-between he had taken part in the London Marathon and had the rather unusual idea of tasting a glass of wine at every mile and trying to work out where it came from - and then turning it into a video pushed out on social media. A move that turned him overnight into a global social media star with over 4m views of the video and close to 500,000 likes and counting.

Gilbey’s social media videos might have reached the masses thanks to his antics at the London Marathon, but he has being quietly producing and posting them since the first week in January.

“We don’t sell any wine in January, or do any events, and were sitting around in the house in the new year thinking of what to do. Now I happen to take an ice bath every day, and on one particular morning, Fred, my eldest son, noticed the outdoor ice bath was actually covered in ice. He said why don’t we do a video of you tasting a wine getting into the ice bath. So we did."

How it all started. Tom Gilbey sitting in an ice bath…tasting wine.

And it worked. Soon Gilbey was picking up hundreds and then tens of thousands of followers, both in the trade, but crucially outside too. Now thanks to his London Marathon exploits his Instagram and Tik Tok accounts are at 225,000 and 130,000 (1.3m likes) respectively and growing by thousands every week.

“It’s been bonkers,” he says. “It’s been so hard to keep up with it all. But it has also been incredibly good fun.”

You only have to spend a short time going through some of his back catalogue - the ice bath tasting is particularly good - to see Gilbey has a natural talent of making you laugh whilst being interesting and informative at the same time.

“We thought we might be on to something here so started thinking about what other videos we could do that would be fun, entertaining and talk a little about wine,” says Gilbey. “The one criteria I have, is to make you laugh - a lot.”

A selection of videos on Tom Gilbey's TikTok account

Gilbey is quick to sing the praises of his eldest son, Fred Gilbey, for all the great work he does in not only coming up with the ideas he thinks will work with fellow mid 20 year olds on social media, but taking the videos, editing them and pushing them out on social media.

Manic Marathon
But it is one thing making funny hand held videos in your back garden, it is quite a step trying to produce something on the scale of the London Marathon. For one thing if you have ever tried to watch, never mind participate in the London Wine Marathon you will know it is jolly hard work.

So how on earth did he manage to arrange to have 26 bottles of wine waiting for him, one at every mile?

For that he has, once again, his son, Fred, to thank. For not only did he come up with the marathon idea in the first place he then co-ordinated 26 sets of friends to be stationed at each mile, wearing T-shirts and holding up a flag with “Wine Wanker” written on them. Each holding the bottle of wine they had chosen to take along.

It was Greg James on BBC Radio 1 who first picked up on the marathon video and then it quickly went viral being picked up by a host of major radio and TV stations and national papers including The Times, The Guardian, BBC Radio 4 Today, Heart FM, Talk TV and a host of others both in the UK and around the world.

Within a few days Gilbey had appeared, glass and wine in hand on BBC Breakfast, ITV’s This Morning with Alison Hammond and Dermot O’Leary and a rather chaotic appearance on the Joe Lycett show on Channel 4 that is apparently as unprepared as spontaneous as it appears on TV.

“The funny thing it was all by mistake,” says Gilbey.

Events and education

Gilbey admits he is hard person to classify in terms of what sort of wine career he has had. On the one hand he is a classic wine merchant, having worked for some of the big wine importers, including Jascots, before co-founding his own business, The Vintner, in 2010 that looked to sell the best 100 wines it could find at any one time. Before moving on from there to set up a corporate wine tasting events business, backed up by his own private wine merchants business supplying long standing private customers with a full range of fine and premium wines from the main classic wine regions around the world.

Tom Gilbey has changed careers from working for wine importers and distributors to running his own wine merchants and events business.

The idea of using videos for wine education goes back to Covid and the great switch we all made to hosting and watching wine tastings online. It was a new learning curve for us all and one that Gilbey had to embrace quickly if he was to keep the corporate wine events business going.

Now he is in a position where he can offer both live, in-person events and online tastings. It’s a juggling act, he says, to find the right business model. Particularly when you factor in the new working from home culture, train strikes and bank holidays meaning there are only effectively a couple, or three days a week when you can put on a live corporate event.

Which is where his traditional wine merchants business comes into play and his new found career as a social media wine influencer.

Best time

He says starting the home wine educational videos “has been the most fun time I have had in the wine trade - the whole ‘Marathon’ experience has just super charged what we were going before,” he says. “It feels for the first time like I have the wind to my back, rather in my face.”

He says he is also now in the very unusual and somewhat uncomfortable position of being recognised in the street by people who don’t always know why they recognise him.

But he says one encounter with a young “geeky soul” was a bit of an epiphany moment for him.

“This young lad came up to me, who must have been about 22 years of age, to say he had just started going out with a young lady and he was very keen to impress her by taking her to nice restaurants, but was always terrified about what wine to order. But thanks to watching some of my Tik Tok videos he knew exactly what to order,” he says.

“That made my day. I was absolutely thrilled. I am a 52 white, middle aged male working in the wine trade and did not know who my audience might be,” he says.

Tom Gilbey is excited about being able to connect with a 27 year old version of himself

“I am now connecting with my 27 year-old self who just wanted to know about wine. I just love that. I still have all my Jancis, Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke wine books and I have never actually met any of them. There is a part of me that is still that 27 year old and these videos are helping me connect with him again,” he explains.

Surprisingly Gilbey, despite his success and profile, feels very much like an outsider in the wine trade and more likely to quietly taste in the background at big trade events than look to press the flesh with any of the industry’s big personalities.

Which is why he was “really humbled” when wine writer and commentator, Robert Joseph, spoke so highly of the impact that Gilbey has had with his Marathon video with average wine drinkers in a recent article for Meininger. 

The success he has had with the Instagram videos has made him realise what a broad church the wine sector can be. It can cover all people, of all ages, from all walks of lives and backgrounds, he says. “I love all the messages we get. You get such a high engagement on Instagram,” he says.

Honest and frank

Some of Tom Gilbey's Instagram videos delivered in his unique frank, honest style

What really makes Gilbey’s social media videos stand out from the rest is they are completely open and honest. They are simply his untainted opinion. No money has changed hands. This is exactly what Tom Gilbey thinks. Not what he is being paid to say.

It makes them stand out a mile in a social media world where there there is such a blurring between honest opinion and a sponsored post.

“I really don’t want to be paid for anything,” stresses Gilbey. “I don’t want to go on any trips. I will pay to go to places I want to go to myself. What would a 27 year old like me to do? I want to see what they want to see.”

He adds: “What sort of wine show would Keith Floyd like? That would be the show to make.”

Gilbey says he also particularly likes the approach that wine writer, Hannah Crosbie is taking, with her new book Corker: A Deeply Unserious Wine Book.

“She is the person I look at her who has had a big impact. She is very cool,” he says.

He wants to look at what he can do to offer wine drinkers all the tools and gadgets that go with wine but at far more affordable prices. “Let’s get a wine stem that is £10 a stem,” he says.

He is also keen to widen his corporate and consumer wine events up to a younger and more diverse audience and get to show them fun, interesting, quality wines that won’t break the bank.

“I have got lots of students who are following me, so I am thinking of doing a tasting with wines say I can buy from Lidl and Aldi.”

A new journey

Tom Gilbey is excited about finding new ways to connect with a younger generation about wine that makes it fun and interesting and relevant to them

He also knows he needs to take stock and allow at least some of the dust to settle around himself. But he knows the wine business he wants to run in the future is going to be different from what he has done in the past.

“I am now more interested in going on a journey with the 27 year old me,” says Gilbey. Which might mean stocking up more on diverse Greek wines than adding another Mersault to his private customers’ list. Or relying more on UK importers for the classic wines and freeing himself to go out and source the wines his "27 years old self” wants to drink.

With that he is off, rushing to pull another video together with his son Fred, and catch up on his latest media requests - he has even had to take on an agent to help him manage enquiries and make sure he does not say 'yes' to things he should be saying 'no' to.

Or at least what the 27 year old Tom Gilbey wants to say 'yes' to.

* You can find out more about Tom Gilbey's wine business at his website here.

* You can catch up on his Instagram videos here and his TikTok videos here.