Many, many wine personalities talk about wanting to make wine more accessible and simple for consumers; few deliver in the manner that today’s interview guest, Andrea Robinson, has. She’s practically raised the task of simplifying wine to an art form.
After ditching a 9-to-5 day job (“surely there is a special place in Heaven for the person who lured me off Wall Street (Remi Krug, in fact)” she noted), Andrea became a Master Sommelier and (to put it mildly), never looked back.
Andrea’s list of accomplishments since her days on Wall Street is long and storied enough to turn the most stalwart over-achiever greener than a bottle of Vinho Verde:
She was the first woman ever chosen Best Sommelier in the U.S. by the Sommelier Society of America; she was the first appointed Dean of Wine Studies for COPIA; she was appointed Master Sommelier for Delta Air Lines (overseeing all of the in-flight wine choices for its Business Elite cabin); she received the Wine Literary Award for ‘Exceptional Contribution to the Literature of Wine’ and in one year (2004) was inducted into the James Beard Foundation‘s “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America,” selected as ‘Wine & Spirits Professional of The Year’ by Bon Appetit Magazine, and received the ‘M.F.K. Fisher Award’ by Les Dames d’Escoffier International; No, we’re not done yet – in 2002, the James Beard Foundation named Andrea ‘Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional’.
We’re still not done: I didn’t mention the two TV shows she has hosted, or the fact that she’s written eight books (with her first, Great Wine Made Simple, garnering a James Beard Award nomination). Normally, you’d be justified in already being sick of her, but in Andrea’s case her engaging personality can soften even the most jaded temperament – an aspect of her successful approach that comes shining through in the interview that follows.
Presumably, Andrea isn’t busy enough, and so has decided to launch a new website, a new line of stemware, a wine DVD / video series, and is making a push behind her on-line brand by running a contest to incent wine lovers to connect with her on twitter and Facebook. She (somehow) found time to answer my questions, in which she provides her thoughts on wine education, Sesame Street sing-alongs, and reveals some of her favorite wines.
Andrea told me “I like dry wine (and sweet, and everything in between), but not dry interviews!” – but as you’ll see below, suffering a dry interview isn’t a likely possibility when she’s involved. In fact, Andrea is not shy in voicing her views on wine education, winemaking styles, and wine critics – all of which you’ll get a glimpse of in our interview.
1WineDude: You’re a Master Sommelier, author of several books, a TV show host, have held numerous Beverage Director positions, have been a Dean of Wine Studies, are the recipient of numerous culinary-world accolades, and now you’re launching a wine pairing/rating website, a new wine course DVD, and a new line of stemware. At what point did you master the technology of human cloning, and how many of you are there, exactly?
Andrea Robinson: Hmm let’s see: CMO, CTO, COO, CFO, CPA (cut, paste & assembler), mom, wife (put those last two first). I guess that makes me a Jill of all trades, master of none unless you count the sommelier part – but nobody ever “masters” wine, thank Heaven. I love the entrepreneurial life but sometimes it does get loony! That’s when the best creative moments come and you incubate a new project with a purpose – like the stemware which has the chance to simplify the lives of wine lovers immeasurably, without compromising their wine experience one iota. Regarding human cloning I am waiting for my husband to figure that out and I am confident he will shortly. He is scary-smart.
1WD: The wine stemware market is arguably a bit over-crowded and difficult for consumers to to navigate. What led you to make the jump into the stemware world now, and what’s the story behind the development of your wine glasses?
AR: Pre-CISE-ly! Wine is complicated and expensive enough without having to add a wing to your house to accommodate all the “right” glasses, and a computer algorithm to help you remember which glass goes with what wine (“is there an app for that?”). Or spend exorbitant sums and then lose a tasting buddy every time someone breaks a glass. Oy vey.
I think we all “got it” that a great glass makes a HUGE difference in our appreciation of a wine. But since my first Riedel tasting years ago, I never bought the concept of where the wine gets delivered on your tongue as the key factor. This varies among drinkers, not stems. It also varies according to the fullness of the glass. So I became a student of what were the key factors and came to the conclusion that there are clear “best practices” (and worst) in glassware design, around how the shape concentrates and optimizes the scent – the key driver in “taste” and pleasure, I believe – and character of the wine, and how the stems feel in your hand. My husband (a wine collector with a great palate) and I devoted a lot of time and tasting to isolating those best-practices, and that’s how we created the proto-types, then spent 2 years or so testing against all the fancy and popular stems with thousands of wines in every grape, style, price, appellation and age category – and with lots of other expert palates. We honestly didn’t know what the outcome would be but were quite amazed and thrilled to find that the performance with all wines was broadly great. And the shapes look and fell pretty snazzy, too. Then we found a great manufacturing partner, Stolzle, whose proprietary lead-free crystal is best-in-class in terms of clarity, quality and break-resistance – for a great price. As a small company we don’t have to charge a fortune for the stems to fund a bunch of overhead.
Why now? Well who knows what’s next – vintage-specific stems? I just want to break down the barriers to wine enjoyment – the glass of all things shouldn’t be one. Having said that there is a small group of very important folks – elite collectors and many fine restaurants – for whom the “right” glass as the old-school defines it, is part of the ritual. I get that. But there is a trade-off in wine optimization that is so dramatic even I wasn’t expecting it, especially for the huge stems that are like drinking from a decanter. They emphasize the oak and alcohol in young wines, kill varietal expression, and suck the life and subtlety out of bottle-aged wines. The proof is in the tasting: if you pour the same wine in multiple glasses and compare them (blindfolded so your pre-conceptions don’t come into play), you will see. Mine aren’t the only stems that perform well, but our final designs for The One were truly universal in their performance with all the major wine types.
[ Editor’s note: I received samples of Andrea’s white and red wine stemware, and while I haven’t tested them with every variety combo under the sun, I can confidently say that they perform solidly when compared to most restaurant-quality stemware out there. They’ve also become Mrs. Dudette’s preferred wine glasses, which means I have to keep them now no matter what I think of them… ]
1WD: You’re a panelist at the upcoming Americas Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, and seem to be launching more on-line video content as another step in a wine career that moved through wine education, service, and “traditional” media. For many who are blogging about wine, they are going the other way around, starting with blogging and then trying to break into service, education and other media. How and when did you decide to get more involved in the on-line wine world, and what will we see coming down the on-line pike from you?
AR: I am decidedly more high-touch than high-tech. However, I launched one of the first-ever robust online pairing tools and first “populist” user-ratings systems on my original andreawine.com web site nearly 10 years ago, before sites like CellarTracker existed.
Education, service and traditional media tap into my passion for sharing the story and highlighting the human side of wine. It’s thrilling to witness and even sometimes orchestrate wine epiphanies, and to foster the appreciation for the artisanship, tradition and gentle agriculture behind the product.
Today’s online world lets us reach out and touch a mass audience with a long-tail product like wine. We can do this with video cost-effectively and while you can’t smell and taste it (yet) you get all the other pleasures – sights, sounds, people, places. You can interact and transact. Traditional media can’t compete with that.
We’re launching a new video series called Daily Tastings. In the slightly longer-term I am hoping other online wine pros will want to become contributors to the series or come on as guests. I really think viewers love to meet the different faces of wine and somewhere along the line, find someone who’s so relatable that they see a bit of themselves and suddenly become more comfortable with, and intrigued by, wine. There’s a wine, and a wine expert, for everyone.
1WD: What are your views on the level of wine education that’s right for consumers? And for wine bloggers? That last bit is a loaded question since I already know that you and I share similar views on this, but I can’t resist because I know it’s gonna get the readers going…
AR: The beauty and also the bugaboo of the web is that anyone can set up a blog, express an opinion and become a self-proclaimed “expert.” I love the fact that there is no prescribed “career track” or lineage required to excel in the field of wine especially in America, but I also think that genuine knowledge, expertise, and street creds are important. They’re not hard to get if you are willing to work a little. You meet the best and brightest people that way, build a network of supporters, learn what you don’t know, which hopefully helps keep you humble and saves you from making unfortunate mistakes. Like the fancy wine magazine columnist and book author who at a blind tasting we attended asserted a particular wine was a Pinot Noir from the region about which the critic had written said book. This happened at a Napa Cabernet tasting. This critic also asserted that the whole old world-earthy/new world fruit-driven dichotomy was hogwash. Out of thousands of blind wines my husband (who doesn’t have the credential but is a great blind taster) has gotten that wrong maybe twice (watch out for Super Tuscans). Blind tasting often, with someone who knows more than you do, is a great education. It keeps you humble, and honest. But I digress…
1WD: Whenever I fly the “get thee more wine education” flag on 1WineDude, astute readers more often than not point out that they don’t need education to be experts on what they’re putting into their mouths, and cite the fact that many of the most influential wine critics in the world don’t have any formal wine education apart from tasting a ton of wine. How would you respond to those readers?
AR: I think wine education is fun. For instance, if you want to drink better wine for less money, education can point you in new directions, to new wines that the influential critics have passed over because their subtlety doesn’t Sine Qua Non-erate the morning’s toothpaste from your palate. If you have a ton of money, then you can get your education the way many of those critics do – by traveling to classic wine regions and tasting a ton of fancy wine, or just by buying all the fancy wines those critics score into the price stratosphere. You will learn a lot about big, oaky, alcoholic wines, eat heavy meals to counteract the alcohol, and probably watch your buff physique become as distant a memory as your first taste of a wine with a cork.
Part of the point of wine education is being taken seriously. For pros, my advice is to attend and sit the exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers Basic Certificate. You’ll meet the best and brightest in the industry, learn the most magnificent, pithy wine communication skills (anything but dry drivel or breathless chattiness), and gain a credential that’s valued by your consumer audience and the people in the trade about whom you write. Unless and until you’ve seen Shayn Bjornholm or Evan Goldstein or Doug Frost or any of the Master Somm’s talk about wine, you’re missing something major. It’s like saying you know something about baseball without ever having seen an MLB game.
For consumers I say pick up a wine book – mine or Kevin Zraly’s will set you back around 30 bucks. Recruit a few friends to do the same, and then you can all go to stores and restaurants and find all the best quality-for-the-price wines that go with food, and have energy left over to actually cook a meal, and money left over for yoga pants and a DVD. Like Grandma said: in all things moderation, in all things balance. Speaking of balance I have a concept I call my FAVE wines – Food friendly, Authentic to their place & style, Value for the money, Exceptional quality in their category. Maybe that’s why I love Riesling, Pinot Noir and Champagne. I’d love others’ feedback on this, and to know if you and your readers are seeing a backlash against WHOA wines (Wines with Huge Oak and Alcohol). Sorry I am off-topic again!
1WD: As I grow older and (arguably) more mature, I find RUSH’s Madrigal (from 1977’s “A Farewell To Kings” album) a bit maudlin and soppy. Your thoughts?
AR: Do we have to talk about old and mature in a context other than say Burgundy? I was listening to Sesame Street’s Greatest Hits in 1977 – charmingly soppy as I can freshly attest since I have pre-schoolers.
1WD: What advice would you give to those who are thinking about getting more serious about studying wine (i.e., pursuing entry into the Court of Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine, etc.)?
AR: Do it! And join or start a tasting group (or 2 or 3) as part of the process. Seek a mentor, and mentor others along the way as soon as you can. You learn by teaching, too.
1WD: You’ve taught a lot of wine classes. What’s the average amount of time into a class or tasting before attendees get tipsy and start to hit on you? Seriously, though, how do you run the proceedings to keep attendees learning and avoid “losing” them to the wine, so-to-speak?
AR: As Kevin Zraly (my mentor) says, “After the 3rd wine it’s crowd control.” All kidding aside, I make a point of teaching people to spit. I tell a lot of stories and try to keep it interesting rather than boring and dry – otherwise to your point, people will hit the juice and make their own fun.
1WD: I’ve never asked a “desert-island” question before, so this is a new one for 1WineDude.com: You’re going to be banished to a remote tropical island and you can only drink selections from a mixed case of six different wines for the rest of your life. What six are you packing? Bonus question: what weapon do you use to keep the island’s thirsty monkeys away from your stash?
AR: Fun! Assuming money is no object:
- Veuve Clicquot Vintage Rose 1978 – mind-blowing, best bubbly I have ever tasted
- Dr. Loosen Erdener Pralat 2002 – a cooling, beachy cocktail without the pain
- Williams-Selyem 2001 Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir – proves there is a God
- Roumier Bonnes-Mares 1988 – I only tasted it once, so I’m taking a flier here but I’m pretty confident
- Chateau Lynch-Bages 1985 – also mind-blowing, “meat in a glass”
- Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 – deserves its cult status
- Piper-Heidseick Rose Sauvage – Another amazing (pink!) Champagne
- Eroica Riesling – Best Riesling made in America and truly world class
- Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc – This is simply a great wine for its price and will always invoke fond memories of the man who contributed a cover blurb to my first book
- Dutton-Goldfield River Valley Pinot Noir – fearlessly funky and true to the region/soil
- Chateau Beaumont 2007 – Real Bordeaux for in the $20 range. What??
- Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain 2006 – Has to be one of CA’s top Cabs and while not cheap ($65) it will outlast and out-perform many of the big names from the left coast and the Left Bank
1WD: Beatles or Stones? (think carefully, there is a correct answer)…
AR: Of course there is a correct answer. It is “yes.” Every high school-age boy has these bands on their iPod. Anything so enduring gets my vote. Classics are classics for a reason – like real Champagne.
(images: courtesy of andreawine.com)