by David Furer
Madeline Triffon has traversed the eddies of being not only a female pioneer in the until recently maledominated US wine business, but more so in being the first Master Sommelier of her gender. When told in 1995 that I'd applied to pursue the Master of Wine she urged me to enter the MS program saying that "we're more fun than the MWs." Myself and others in the Midwest thought the world of Madeline for her dedication to the burgeoning craft of skilled wine service in the US, education as a lynchpin in the appreciation of wine, and the obvious pleasure she took in her work. We crossed paths at Traverse City Michigan's first 'City of Riesling' event July 27 of last year, and this interview followed.
Presuming that your entree into wine began with more prosaic restaurant employment, what led you to shift into a more wine-focused aspect of your career?
My career started with no intent of being a sommelier, especially for the rest of my life. I was hired in a formal French dining room when I came out of high school. With no exaggeration I was hired because of my good French accent in the days when there were no corporate hotel wine lists. I was given distributor lists and what budget not to exceed. I was the only woman other than the host. After a couple of years I was given the job of buying wines for a 400-room hotel. I didn't have a mentor but in retrospect it turned out okay, so now I like to help others find their way.
As a vegetarian of many years, how is it you're able to accurately interpret selecting wines for guests who choose meat-centered dishes, dishes centered upon an ingredient or ingredients you presumedly don't taste?
I do taste meat, though I've been a vegetarian since my college years. I don't go to 'bite two' and it doesn't bother me. It's something I see as academic, I just choose not to sit down and eat a lamb chop. If I'm at at professional dinner I'll ask to take a bite of others' meat dishes to sense what others are experiencing. Wine coexists nicely with whatever it is I'm eating.
Which wine regions have arisen that you hadn't you expected, have caught you by surprise with their great wines?
I'm very happy that Portugal has reared its head, and I'm going there next week. In the business as long as I have keeping my ear to the ground, it's our responsibility to pay attention to this whether there's a practical sales factor or not. Personally and not in a 'highfalutin' way, the guest is always is in my subconscious; what it is I can I do to be an effective midwife for this. Wine programs aren't for me, they're for the guests. People are looking for new tastes but I'm not going to dedicate a list to regions unknown to my customers. I always have balance in my mind. Relatively obscure wine programs can be successful, and I'm not criticizing those. What makes me glad is a list that gives something for everyone...though I won't list over 500! I truly love the exercise but no longer write them, I now proof them for others.
A young sommelier achieves his/her first job where they've the opportunity to create their first wine list. What are the most important things for them to bear in mind when cobbling it together?
It has to be done with intent because you can easily get seduced by what you like rather than what's right for the situation. It's the reflection of a very specific market - the neighborhood, the check average, the menu, the priorities of the owner, the costings. A good sommelier should have guest satisfaction at the forefront of their mind. What is the intent of the restaurant that the wine list fits well into it? It should fold naturally into it, and I feel that about wine service as well. List printing, storage, dictated vendors, cost of goods, a banquet program and catering all impact the job and must be considered before anything artistic. When this is done then the great pleasure of vendor meetings and staff trainings can be gotten into.
What are the pitfalls, and what are the pleasures, in working for a single operation versus that of a concern with multiple outlets?
Work is work and just takes different flavors. The challenge for multiple outlets is in not working the floor...which I like doing. The wine program should serve the neighborhood it which it lives. I never looked to simplify, and this can be one and the same thing. I never worked for 'cookie cutter' restaurants, I worked for an independently-owned and operated Michigan restaurant group. The more time I spent at a computer the more bored I was. I'm happy now that the company I work for does enough events allowing me to meet consumers. Wine falls flat when it doesn't reach consumers. I hope people coming up in the business experience that. It's a joy for me to take a complex idea and distill it down to where it's not complex. I believe in education that 'hides in plain sight'. A good sommelier can be an ambassador with the most obscure wine in short time and effort if they have the intent of presenting something exceptional to someone to enjoy.
Which wine style do you think is the most overlooked or misunderstood by the public? By the wine trade?
Certainly dessert wine is a general category and not a natural sell in the US. I'm happy to say that sparkling wine has become a more natural category. Wines that need foods to balance themselves need to have the person selecting them preceded with food by a savvy sommelier. There needs to be an intentional midwifery in this.
What's been one of your joyful professional moments?
I recently moderated three panels at New York City's Women in Wine Leadership Symposium on career strategies, life balance, and a tasting. It was one I was happy to repeat having done it once before. It was uniquely exciting, an open atmosphere and forward-thinking spirit was in the room and without any complaining. As the moderator it was my responsibility and fun challenge to pull out of the panelists thoughts to share with the audience. And I remember my passing the MS like it was yesterday I wasn't prepared for that but it's been a great ride for me.
Discover more about dessert wine in our Cool Climate Wines of the World Workshop.