Awarded for: Morgan First and Tyler Balliet have cracked the code on wine education for younger consumers, providing immersive experiences that are fun and shareable.
“This place is just made for Instagram!” the visitor to Rosé Mansion exclaims about halfway through his visit. So far, this 21-year-old, along with dozens of other guests, has bounced on large rubber balls meant to symbolize red grapes, scratched and sniffed scents off the walls to learn how smell affects our perception of wine, gazed at an enormous flowchart to learn about fermentation, spent some time sitting on the throne of Cleopatra—who, we all learn, was a big fan of rosé—and of course, tasted several different wines along the way.
The crowd is in a downright celebratory mood as we make our way from room to room at this new attraction—part theme park, part museum, and part wine tasting—in New York City.
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Throngs of visitors have descended on Rosé Mansion, first after its opening as a pop-up in 2018, and now at its permanent Midtown Manhattan location, which opened in June of this year. Its popularity has confirmed the vision of its cofounders, Tyler Balliet and Morgan First, who believed that there were thousands of young wine drinkers interested in learning about wine in ways other than traditional wine tastings, seminars, and classrooms. The key was to make experiences that were engaging, fun, and shareable, either with friends in real life or through social media channels.
To further understand Rosé Mansion and how it’s affecting the wine industry, however, it’s probably best to hear about the person who inspired First and Balliet to open it. That was the “greatest showman” himself, P.T. Barnum, who revolutionized entertainment with his New York City attractions and circus in the 1800s. First and Balliet admired Barnum’s ability to create unique experiences that fully engaged guests.
Then, when Bodies: The Exhibition became a smash hit, the two realized that there was a market for a new genre of immersive learning experiences.
First and Balliet had been professionals for years—they founded Wine Riot in 2008, for which they produced over 50 large-scale educational wine-tasting events geared to a millennial audience—and they sensed a shift in the industry. “We just realized there were so many people that were getting into wine that just wanted simple, fun information,” First says. “If you want to grow the industry, you want to nurture those people entering it. Wine is really fun and there are really cool experiences, and so many people want to learn about it, and so we want to be the leaders of that.”
After its trial run as a pop-up on Fifth Avenue, Rosé Mansion opened at its current 32,000-square-foot space, taking over four retail spaces in a mall near New York’s Penn Station. Today the Mansion draws an average of 6,000 visitors a week. “I was recently at the US Open, and I realized we’ve had more visitors than can fill Arthur Ashe Stadium,” Balliet says, sounding a little bit blown away. And so far the Mansion has racked up some 70,000 Instagram followers. The entry fee is $45 on weekends and evenings, and $35 all day Monday and before 5 p.m. on other weekdays.
First and Balliet chose to focus on rosé because of its growing popularity, its rich history, and the way the category lends itself to storytelling. “Pink wine has been popular forever,” says Balliet. “So we get to tell stories about history. We can tell a story about science. We can tell a story about travel.” Adds First, “When you can tell people a story, then they remember it. They remember the education behind it.”
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The wines First and Balliet select for the Mansion are never sponsored, except when it comes to occasional larger events or parties hosted at the space. Instead, many of the wines are featured because cofounders themselves are personally familiar with the companies, or because the wines help tell the stories in the Mansion’s 14 themed rooms.
For example, the New York room recently featured local wines from the Finger Lakes and Long Island, including wines from Bridge Lane (and a very Instagram-ready painted scene of a lake and mountains on the floor of the space that gives a 3D effect when you photograph it).
Visitors to the Mansion usually spend around 60 to 90 minutes walking through the rooms, which empty into an enormous space called Rosé Land. There they can spend as much time as they like socializing with friends—a wine bar is stocked with rosés from all over the world, and a picnic area features tacos and snacks from Taco Dumbo.
First and Balliet say they are currently focused on further developing Rosé Mansion. But they don’t rule out expanding the concept to additional experiences, perhaps with other themes, in the future.
As one might expect, given the demographic of rosé drinkers, visitors to the Mansion tend to skew overwhelmingly female, and they also tend to be on the younger side. Some 90 percent of visitors currently are women, but as First points out, that’s down from 95 percent when they first opened; she and Balliet are hoping the number of male visitors will increase.
“So we’re getting there,” First says. “I think the thing that I really wish about more men coming is that so much of the experience is just about letting go and having fun, and I think as a society right now, we need to do that more as a whole. There’s a lot of pink, and that can be scary and men think, ‘Oh, it’s for girls,’ and it’s like, no. You can hear laughter from men and women echoing through the space.”
Balliet quickly chimes in: “We watched two guys leaving the space the other day—finance-y dudes in khakis and blue shirts—and one guy looks at the other guy and says, “Dude! That was like really fun!”
“‘But like actually fun!,’” adds First, laughing. “And I was like, Yeah. That’s what we want. We want people to walk out like, ‘Wow! I had fun. My stomach hurts from laughing. But I also learned something.’”
The next comment from the 21-year-old Instagram-savvy visitor as he continued to another room, would have been music to her ears: “But they do get you to learn something, which is kind of different. So many places just want you to take pictures.”
Andrew Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was Managing Editor of Beverage World magazine for 14 years and has worked for a variety of other food and beverage-related publications, and also newspapers. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewkap.