Interview: Matthew Horkey Making a Living as a YouTuber

In a rare interview, Matthew Horkey tells us what skills you need to be successful, how he engages with the platform and why wine is the next big thing on YouTube.

Reading time: 16m

Matthew Horkey
Matthew Horkey


Brief profile

Matthew Horkey describes himself as a YouTuber. His YouTube Channel has had more than 1 million views since 2015. His Vivino account is one the the biggest accounts on the platform (30,000 follower). With his older brand, Exotic Wine Travel, he is present on Instagram (7,677 follower) and TikTok (4,304 follower), both channels are, however, not actively played. Moreover, he is author of several books. 

Meininger’s: What kind of topics do you cover?

Horkey: The audience has to stay engaged for your videos to perform. Videos on the channel range from blind tastings, to travel VLOGs, to cheap vs expensive wines, to reaction videos (a big trend on YouTube). There are also some videos coming up that are the equivalent to ‘think pieces’.

Meininger’s: Do you see yourself developing a personal brand as a wine critic? 

Horkey: Early on in my wine career, I was naive. I thought it was so easy to be a ‘wine critic’. Being a wine ‘critic’ takes an enormous amount of experience and context. The more I get into the profession the more respect I have for tasters that have really put their time in. I haven’t been going to En Primeur for twenty years, I don’t have that Rolodex of vintages in the back of my mind.

However, today I realize that it’s impossible to be a critic [of the entire wine scene], because the handful of real professional critics have to specialize in a region. The world of wine is way too big. However, it’s the culture, travel, and people that make the world of wine so colorful to me. So I don’t have plans to limit myself to a certain region. I don’t see myself as being solely a wine critic, I see myself as being a YouTuber.

Meininger's: Interestingly, you dont seem to use scores. Why is that?

Horkey: When I read writing, I do want to see scores. It means someone puts their butt on the line and stated an opinion. In the early days of the YouTube channel, I also assigned a score. I have gotten away from that as people commented they didn’t want to see scores, and my reactions would tell them everything they needed to know. This has only been through the last year and a half though. I have been posting on YouTube every week for seven years. Blind tasting videos do particularly well on the channel and I do use scores in those videos as it’s the only way to establish a hierarchy in the flight. The funny thing is that now people are asking for scores on the channel again. 

"The more I get into the profession the more respect I have for tasters that have really put their time in."

Meininger’s: You describe yourself on Instagram and Linkedin as a YouTuber. But arent you also an Influencer? Whats the difference?

Horkey: I see myself solely as a YouTuber at this point, as it takes a tremendous amount of time. It is like a sports career: Athletes don’t let emotions interfere with their training. They work to improve themselves each and every day and do the work even when they don’t feel like it or see immediate results.

You have to treat YouTube the same way. Every single detail has to be taken into account. You need to become a master at coming up with topics that people in your niche find interesting, then create a captivating title, and then get good at creating thumbnails that make people want to click. I have friends with huge channels; they spend a tremendous amount of time coming up with the thumbnail before even shooting one piece of footage. Topic, title, and thumbnail is crucial.

To have any inkling of success on YouTube you have to become comfortable on camera. You have to find your own voice - on video, people can see right through inauthenticity. This takes repetition and you’d better have thick skin.

How to measure content

Horkey: The backend of YouTube gives you more pieces of analytical data than most know what to do with. They give you the exact demographics of your audience. They give you what you click-through rate is when people see the video on their homepage vs getting it recommended somewhere else. They give you all the data including exactly the points where people click off.

You have to constantly look at the data to see what people don’t like. You have to ruthlessly edit videos to not waste people’s time and get to the point. You have to spend time consuming YouTube to see what is working on the platform.

Meininger's: What other skills to you need?

Horkey: There is at least a minimum level of production quality needed, as YouTube is more competitive than ever. I taught myself everything. I spend countless hours watching channels on lighting, cinematography, and storytelling. I learned everything about the settings of my camera so I can give off the best stylistic feel. I learned how to be competent at audio engineering. I taught myself how to edit in professional software.

Meininger’s: You also describe yourself as an author and speaker. How much of your income comes from your activities as a YouTuber?

Horkey: As of now, 100% comes from YouTube and connections it makes. YouTube is a powerful tool for personal brand. It’s a free platform that helps you expand your reach. I have gotten several speaking gigs or private tasting gigs just because people had watched my videos. After consuming video content, people feel connected to you, which can lead to some amazing things.

Meininger's: The videos are also on Instagram, where – as exoticwinetravel, you have around 7,600 followers. Judging by the number of Likes, (usually under 100) it looks as though this platform works far less well for you than YouTube. Is it true that you have to focus on one platform rather than several?

Horkey: There are over 2,700 posts on the Instagram account. During some turbulent times, I took several months off from posting there and the algorithm was never kind to the account again. Before that, the engagement and like count was very high. After that, I posted on and off on Instagram, as I was focusing on YouTube. In the last year, I have just been posting the short form content I created for YouTube to Instagram. I spend a few minutes everyday uploading content and creating stories on Instagram. I do not spend time on the platform interacting with other creators or consuming content there.

Instagram at the moment focuses on reels and is content-driven more than creator-driven. That means, you aren’t always seeing the content from the people you follow. The feed favours reels that are getting views. Currently, for every social media platform, you need to know the audience and create specific content for that platform. As a one-man-band, I do not have the wavelength to make specific content for every platform. Right now, the reels in wine that do well is not content that I am interested in making, plus I do not have the bandwidth.

So again, Instagram and – still less Tiktok do not get the same attention when it comes to brainstorming as creation that YouTube does.

Meininger’s: And how about TikTok?

Horkey: I have a small TikTok account but do not make TikTok specific content. I simply repurpose the content I have created on YouTube onto TikTok because TikTok is a volatile platform with a lot of potential for virality. You never know when that one video takes off and can really lift the account. I also do nto spend any time on TikTok consuming content.

"I’ve been consistently posting to YouTube for seven years. However, the first five and half years I had no idea what I was doing and just threw videos up there that I am not proud of."

Meininger’s: How do you go about the production and editing of these videos. Are you working alone, or with assistants?

Horkey: I do not have the budget to have assistants at the moment and work entirely by myself. I’ve been consistently posting to YouTube for seven years. However, the first five and half years I had no idea what I was doing and just threw videos up there that, honestly, I am not that proud of. About a year and a half ago I started taking YouTube REALLY seriously.  Just one month ago the channel hit one million total views of which 500k happened in 365 days. Six years to get the first 500k views and one year to get the next 500k - it’s a reflection to the commitment I put in over the last year.

Meininger’s: What is the optimal length of a video?

Horkey: For both traditional YouTube videos and YouTube shorts the answer to your question is simple - The video needs to be as short as possible but as long as it needs to be. Some topics cannot be covered in under five minutes while others should be under five minutes. YouTube is a true open market and viewers pay with their eyeballs. If your content is not good for that viewer they don’t even click and your video does not get pushed anymore.

Mastering the first 30 seconds is key, YouTube even gives a statistic in its analytics that shows the audience retention in the first 30 seconds. That little window is where the viewer determines if they will stick around or click off the video.

The most viewed ‘traditional YouTube video’ on my channel is just over five minutes long and it’s about the Coravin Pivot. I also have a video about traveling through Chateauneuf du Pape that is doing well and it’s over 22 minutes long. So it really depends on the content and if you are actually filling the time with valuable stuff, telling a good story, and moving the viewer along to keep it interesting.

"Blind tastings create a natural story that holds people’s attention."

Meininger’s: Is there a secret to making a successful wine clip, and can you tell in advance which are going to attract the largest audiences?

Horkey: YouTube is unique because you have to build your audience. If you find out what your audience wants, you create more of that type of content. If you stop giving the audience what they want, they don’t come back to watch your videos - it’s like any other type of relationship.

YouTube experts say that you have to make at least 100 high quality videos before you can really start to put the date together and understand what exactly your audience wants.

That being said, I now know that blind tasting videos ALWAYS play extremely well with my audience. In essence, they create a natural story that holds people’s attention. The more that people watch a video, the more YouTube will want to promote it. There is a clear objective, an introduction, conflict (the tasting), and resolution (the reveal). I have a huge video coming up about Grand Cru Bordeaux vs California Cabernet Sauvignon which I am really excited about.

Meininger's: What proportion of your videos are produced in wine regions?

Horkey: I have many styles of videos, some shot at a single location when I’m not on the wine trail while other videos are shot ‘in the field’. Regardless, I have to take footage when I’m on the wine road to overlay my sit down, taking videos when I am not traveling. This makes videos a lot more interesting and helps the viewer get into the story you are trying to tell them.

Meininger’s: And how long would you plan to stay in a region when producing a clip?

Horkey: I have done some videos where I only had several hours per producer (but they were focused one on one videos). You don’t always get the best shots but if you do take enough footage, you can put a story together in the editing room.

The video I am most proud of is a sponsored video I did for Avignonesi and Biondi Santi. I spent two weeks there. I was able to plan shots and go back on location to get shots I needed (different interviews, sunset, sunrise shots, shots of the cellar) in addition to tasting. 

In Poliziano (Vino Nobile) doing a video (Photo: Serena Martineau)
In Poliziano (Vino Nobile) doing a video (Photo: Serena Martineau)

Meininger’s: Lets get down to the financial aspects. Does all of your income as a YouTuber come from regions and producers? And can you make enough for these activities to live on and drink good wine?

Horkey: There is no ‘secret’ to making money on YouTube. You can find everything that you need on YouTube itself. YouTube is the HARDEST platform to master but it has the biggest opportunities. As Thomas Edison said, the problem for most people is that opportunity comes dressed in overalls and looks like work.

You can make money on YouTube the following ways:
  • YouTube ads embedded directly in video (this goes through google Adsense and they take care of everything and deposit a check to you every month)
  • Selling an ‘ad-read’ in your video. This comes from you negotiating a deal with an outside brand and works the very same way commercials do in traditional media. They can be as simple as a shout-out or curated content
  • Creating your own products and selling through the videos. I created a whole video series on Croatian wine, visiting producers and shooting the regions. In those videos, I gave my book a shout out and linked the book in the description box of the video
  •  Affiliate marking, a company gives you an affiliate link and when people click on that link and buy a product, you get a commission. At one time, I was an affiliate partner for Coravin and while my Coravin videos had only a few thousand views that was translating into over 10,000 Coravin products sold every month - from which I got a commission.
  • Using YouTube as a marketing platform to drive people to your physical business. Today, everyone knows Gary Vaynerchuk. They don’t know he started on YouTube creating a silly show about wine while he was working at his father’s liquor store, Wine Library. That silly little show (WineLibrary TV) was paramount in the growth of that store. Now it’s very well-known and impressive to boot (I’ve been there).

I have a friend who is a real estate agent in Dallas. He doesn’t have a huge YouTube channel but he makes videos about living in the Dallas area. That leads to leads and eventually real estate deals, he has already closed on $92m worth of real estate in 2022.

Once your channel is established however, the real magic happens. Good videos continue to rack up views (and revenue) while you snooze. The videos and your channel start to work for you. It’s a big uphill battle to climb but one that’s a lot of fun.

Once you have built enough credibility with your audience and given them enough value, they really want to support you and make sure you succeed. That’s why you see channels of all sizes selling merchandise like tee shirts or hats. If the creator is good enough, people want to get behind him/her.

At this point, I am scraping by, but I work on my own schedule on my own terms. I don’t have kids or a family I need to take care of, which allows me to cut costs. The potential is infinite though on the platform. I have friends (outside the wine sector) that make six figures a month in Google Adsense revenue (embedded ads on YouTube) alone. An acquaintance has nearly 500K subscribers and it's a channel about plumbing!

If you look at the comments on some of the largest YouTube wine channels like Wineking, Konstantin Baum Master of Wine, Wine Folly, and Andre Make of Bon Appetit, you’ll see hundreds if not thousands of comments. Some of these videos have hundreds of thousands if not millions of views. There are people out there that want to learn more about wine and good creators are more relatable. The creators on YouTube that really break through will become incredibly powerful. You can see this on Wineking, when his channel started blowing up he went out and got wines and sat down with two masters of wine to critic the wines blind. Local shops would report that they sold out of wine.

The same thing happened with Gary Vaynerchuk in his early days of doing WineLibrary TV. It pushed his father’s shop to new levels of revenue.

Meininger’s: How do you find clients? How ready are most regions and companies to hire a YouTuber?

Horkey: There are over 995 videos on my channel and only four long videos were sponsored. There were 16, one minute videos sponsored on Croatian wine and that was through the Croatian Chamber of Commerce, not the producers themselves.  The other ways I generate revenue are mentioned above. That being said, it’s no different than any other business. You have to meet and shake hands with as many people as possible. And as you know, wine is a relationship business. People have to like and trust you.

Meininger’s: How do you negotiate with them? Are they paying a flat fee, or is there a link to the number of views, or any other metric? What is the ballpark cost for a winery or region to have you produce a clip?

Horkey: As of now, it is one flat fee and honestly I am very much undercharging because I am working to get my name out there. I also state in contracts that I have COMPLETE creative freedom, they are merely paying for time on my channel.

I do not wish to share the fee at this time as it is going to change. Go to a professional wedding videographer and see what the quote is for a wedding video. Unfortunately for me, mine is substantially less than that.

Meininger’s: Is there any way for them to of measure the return on their marketing investment in terms of sales or tourism?

Horkey: If wineries or wine regions have webshops, they could easily put links in videos and track the clicks and/or sales. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence too, I have had many wineries email me and say that people have directly visited the wineries after seeing them on my channel. 

Since I am in full control of the sponsored content that goes on my channel, clients should think of this more as a piece of marketing that lives on YouTube forever (which is the second largest search engine in the world). It’s almost the same concept as a product being placed or featured in a film.

Meininger’s: How do you promote/drive traffic to the clips?

Horkey: YouTube is different in the fact that for the most part, a view on YouTube is worth more than views on other platforms. On TikTok, IG Reels, and often even Facebook, videos are thrown in front of you and and just a few seconds acts as a view.

On YouTube, to get a view, a person has to look at your title and thumbnail and decide that they want to watch the video. If people are not clicking the video or clicking it and the video is not what they expected, they leave. If this stuff happens, YouTube will not promote your video anymore on the homepage nor suggest it.

Over 70% of the views on YouTube come from the platform suggesting content to the viewer to watch. This is the way to explosive growth. Think about it, if I send you a video to watch, you might have resistance, you may or may not watch the video. But if you are on YouTube and in the mood to watch videos and the YouTube algorithm knows what you like and keeps serving up the types of videos you want to see, you will click and watch more and more.

If you try link your videos externally, people may click on them but if they are not in the mood to watch a video, they will click off. This ‘tells’ YouTube it’s not a good video and they will not recommend it anymore. Therefore the video will fall into the abyss of tons of YouTube content. People do not want to go across platforms. I have been helping a friend with a sizable IG following who just started a YouTube channel and is disappointed with the performance of his channel. It’s simple, people are on IG to consume a certain type of content, people are on YouTube to watch videos that they want to watch.

Even if you have a sizable newsletter, you could link your video and send out to the audience and people may or may not click on it. Then they might not be in the mood to watch it, this hurts your performance.

On top of that, there is 500 hours of content loaded to YouTube EVERY minute in 2022 thus far according to earth However, over 90% of views on YouTube go to the top 10% of channels. That means you have to work your tail off to create videos that people want to see. Take for example Mr Beast, who is one of the largest YouTubers of all time with 104 Million Subscribers! It took him years of loading constantly before getting to his first 1,000 subscribers. I know it took me three years of loading one to two videos a week to get to my first 1,000 subscribers.

Meininger’s: You review wines and you work with wineries to promote their wines. How do you handle potential conflicts of interest?

Horkey: Four long videos of the 995 videos on my channel have been sponsored and it’s clear in the beginning of the video if you watch it. The FCC requires you to tick a box that there is sponsored content in the video. Otherwise, there are potentially large penalties.

"I am NOWHERE near where I want to be but I am proud of the journey I have taken thus far and the people I’ve met along the journey, you included."

Meininger’s: What are you most proud of having done as a YouTuber?

Horkey: The videos in my first five years of the channel were TERRIBLE. During those first five years, I didn’t care. I was traveling and learning about wine, I was using YouTube as a way to document. Learning how to craft a video and falling in love with the process is what I am most proud of. 

The other most rewarding thing is the comments that people leave on videos. You can see on videos I have done over the last six months, the comments have real substance. To me, that is what separates YouTube from other platforms, people that connect with a creator really connect. The comments are of more substance than any other platform. And despite the rise of TikTok, YouTube is still kind in terms of video consumption on the internet.

My video about Avignonesi and Biondi Santi has become a finalist in a contest to collaborate with Casey Neistat, who is considered to be one of the greatest YouTubers of all time. He singlehandedly took on Apple in its early days with a viral video and produced a sponsored video for Nike which became the companies all time performing video. This contest was judged purely on content quality, which makes me proud that my channel is moving in the right direction.

Finally, I have a few videos coming up that are a surprise and have real potential to take the channel to the next level.

"Wine on YouTube has just begun. It was only in 2020 that the first English speaking channel on wine reached 100,000 subscribers."

Meininger’s: And finally, how do you see the future of wine YouTubing? Can you see yourself offering VR versions of what you are currently doing?

Horkey: Wine on YouTube has just begun. It was only in 2020 that the first English speaking channel on wine reached 100,000 subscribers. Since then, channels have blown up like Konstantin Baum Master of Wine and Andre Mark from Bon Appetit. In the last two years, there have been several wine videos that have received millions of views.

There are large channels in just about every niche on YouTube. All the large creators I know are completely puzzled why there isn’t a GIANT wine YouTube channel yet. That is going to change in the very near future.

I do keep up with VR and think it’s very interesting. I am open to seeing how it develops and to participate in the movement if I see it a good fit. At the moment, I have no immediate plans however.




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