Wine on Starchefs

Interview with Jenny Benzie, CWE
By Jim Clarke

Jim Clarke: You graduated from Mary Washington College in 1995 and, two years later, began working in the tasting room at Duck Pond Cellars. How did you become interested in wine?

Jenny Benzie: After plans for grad school fell through I decided to take some time for travel, and, unlike most people, I think, decided to travel domestically. I supported myself by waiting tables, first in Montana, and later in Maine, where they had a bigger wine list.

I began to get interested in wine. After my sociology degree, it was interesting to see who drank what when, and I also appreciated the history and culture of it. On the strength of what I had learned on my own I got a seasonal position as wine steward at the
Rosewood Resorts in the Virgin Islands. I began to take courses and the resort was very supportive.

JC: What brought you to Oregon?

JB: In the off-season I went to Portland and waited tables there – mainly because the city had a reputation as an exciting place at the time. It was nice to have the Willamette Valley so close; I worked in the tasting room at Duck Pond and the next season at Willakenzie Cellars. I was at the wineries during the day and waiting tables at night.

JC: In addition to restaurant work you’ve also done retail wine sales; what are the differences between the two environments?

JB: I like restaurant work because you don’t miss out on the end result – you’re there when the people enjoy the wine you’ve helped them choose. You don’t get that in retail. Retail work was nice because I was part-time, and therefore wasn’t a specialist. I could help people with a broad range of wines and at the same time learn from my co-workers who were more specialized in certain regions.

JC: You’ve studied wine intensively with a number of different organizations including the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, the Society of Wine Educators, the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the International Wine Center. What differences did you find among the various programs?

JB: They’re very different. In general I like these programs because they give me a structure to develop my knowledge. The WSET was particularly interesting because it’s not so service-oriented. It’s not about knowing producers and appellations so much. Instead you look at marketing components, image, production…For example, there could be a question on the exam about trends in flavored vodkas, or on how gin producers are introducing lighter-flavored gins to court new customers. It’s not just the story of the winemaker.

The SWE was interesting because it’s not just for trade people. Their conferences are also great for networking. Looking into the future, I think I may eventually move into some other part of the trade, and education – wine seminars, teaching classes – might be part of that. I don’t think that restaurant work is great for starting a family and having kids, because of the hours.

Unlike a lot of sommeliers, I don’t want to make wine; the science and technology part of it is not very interesting to me. Also, I like knowing a little bit about everything and as worldly as, say, Napa is, I feel like I’d get pigeonholed working in one specific wine region exclusively.

JC: You’ve completed the SWE’s Certified Wine Educator program. How important are certifications today?

JB: I think the certifications and courses help me market myself. Especially as a woman; it can be a lot more challenging unless you have a certification that is recognized everywhere.



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    Published: February 2006