Josh Ostrovsky, a.k.a "The Fat Jew," recently traveled to Nashville to convince local wine distributors to carry his signature brand of wine, called White Girl Rosé. He jokes that he won them over with a lap dance.

"This sh-t could not be more hands on," says Ostrovsky, referring to his New York City startup, White Girl Wine. He later quipped: "I wish it was just my name attached to it."

Winning over wine distributors is a new kind of activity for Ostrovsky, who has roped in nearly 9 million followers on Instagram for posting humorous memes and viral videos. (A recent photo of a young man posing with a goat, for instance, has racked up more than 187,000 likes on the site.) Ostrovsky is so popular, in fact, that he can reportedly command as much as $6,000 for a single piece of branded content. His annual income from advertising alone is estimated to be several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But last summer, Ostrovsky, along with co-founders David Oliver Cohen, Tanner Cohen, and Alexander Ferzan, decided it would be fun -- and smart -- to launch a wine label. They named it "White Girl Wine" in honor of  "White Girl" Babe Walker, a faux female persona invented by the Cohens, who tweet under the handle @WhiteGrlProblem. (Sample tweet: "I feel fat and disgusting and tired and sad but like in a cute way.")

Since then, Ostrovsky and team have sold more than 30,000 cases of the label's signature rosé and Babe sparkling wine. The company works with third-party distributors, including Fresh Direct, Drizly, and MiniBar.

On Monday, White Girl Wine officially launched its own e-commerce store to retail the beverages directly. It also launched an app, called "So Us," where customers can order up rosé on-demand, and create memes combining their own photos with the founders' favorite quotes, such as: "This Is So Us," "Stay Basic," and "Best Friends But Not Really." A bottle of White Girl Rosé costs $14.99, and a 4-pack of Babe costs $12.99. 

"We're pretty much the first company offering direct-to-consumer free shipping on small quantities," Ostrovsky says, adding that he wanted to entice more customers by making it easier for them to order from one portal. Wine fans can also customize that portal with various photo filters and captions. The move isn't necessarily a lucrative one, but "we're passing on the savings [of] cutting out the distributor."

To be sure, White Girl Wine is not Ostrovsky's primary source of income. In addition to endorsing brands like Stella Artois and Burger King, the influencer also has a modeling contract with plus-size agency One Management, a radio hosting gig with Apple Music, and last year published his first book, Money Pizza Respect (Hachette). In 2015, he signed with talent agency CAA for representation in all areas. 

Still, he classifies the chunk he earns from White Girl Wine as significant, and candidly shared with Inc. the many challenges he encountered last year, as he began to parlay his social media celebrity into a private business.

Coming up with the idea

Prior to launching the label, Ostrovsky had put his name on a number of consumer products, from t-shirts to oven mitts to several varieties of sex toys.

"The response was always really good," Ostrovsky says. "So we said, let's use our platform and put something out there that people can consume on a consistent basis."

They decided on wine when they caught wind of a massive rosé shortage in the Hamptons last summer. Rosé, in particular, is more of a "lifestyle" than a beverage, Ostrovsky says. But the founders quickly discovered that they couldn't simply retail the product themselves, and would need to sell through distributors. They describe the current system as "three-tiered:" A manufacturer in Pixely, Calif., called Caciattory Fine Wines, produces the rosé blend, which is then sold to a distributor (e.g., FreshDirect) which then retails the product to customers. The proprietary e-commerce store, according to the founders, has been a year in the making, and required ongoing conversations with lawyers to become officially licensed.

Another challenge for Ostrovsky, who is used to having virtually limitless creative control on social media, has been adjusting to the safety restrictions for marketing alcohol.

"I'm a constant liability," he says. "The Fat Jew brand is predicated on doing insane stuff."

Ostrovsky says he'd ideally like to build a rosé water park. He's not legally allowed to do so, however, because it would be seen as encouraging customers to drink irresponsibly.

What's more, even as the retail wine industry is on the rise -- last year, U.S. sales reached $38 billion, a three percent increase from 2014 -- the founders saw slowing demand for their product in the winter months, because rosé is typically consumed during the summer. To make matters worse, the label didn't have distribution in many warm weather regions (currently, it's only licensed in 12 U.S. states).

"The biggest issue with sales in the winter is that we ran out of wine," co-founder David Cohen recalls. So White Girl Wine switched to a larger New York City distributor. The founders also threw some tropical, rosé-themed parties in order to drum up more interest on the ground.

"People were like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe someone is actually trying this,'" Ostrovsky says, referring to his efforts to market the rosé product in frigid temperatures. "And that has set us apart from other brands."

Whence, White Girl Rosé

In August of last year, Ostrovsky found himself embroiled in controversy. A number of comedians began to speak out against him for re-posting their original jokes without attribution. 

"My name, handle and face had been removed," remarked Patrick Walsh, a comedian and television writer, in an interview last year with Rolling Stone. Walsh had been outraged to find a joke of his re-appropriated on The Fat Jewish Instagram page.

Ostrovsky later agreed to tag all of his his jokes with the original teller's social media handle, and he retroactively added credits to his previous posts. Still, he insists that 'stealing' is the wrong way of looking at it.

"It was just kind of a big, general conversation that had been brewing on the internet," Ostrovsky recalls. "Some people believe in the creative commons, some people believe in attribution." 

Even in light of the controversy, Ostrovsky says his business didn't take much of a hit. And where credit is concerned, customers can find the "Cacciatory Fine Wines" tag line on the back of every bottle of White Girl Rosé.

The 'Fat Jew' Josh Ostrovsky on What It Takes to Get Millions of Online Followers
Published on: Jul 25, 2016