Beltrami: You got your start in the wine business as wine steward
at the Westin Hotel in Detroit. How did that come about?
Madeline Triffon: At the time, it was the Western International
Hotel, in their formal French dining room, called La Fontaine. They
had the corporate policy at the time of hiring women as sommeliers in
their fine dining rooms. Now, one could surmise that it was sexist;
I chose to see it as an opportunity. I was never treated in any way
that was unprofessional. I wasnt given a whole lot of direction
or training, but neither was I bothered.
Did you work with the wine buyer?
MT: Well, this is funny, because initially I was just given a
wine list as a fait accompli, but I had an enlightened food and
beverage director, and after three or four years he said "Why dont
you do the wine list?" So I was given a list of distributors and their
phone numbers, taught what a wine percentage was, told not to exceed
x amount of dollars, and that was it. Its testimony to the fact
that American common sense will generally not lead you astray. I think
my success doesnt have much to do with talent; it has to do with
work, and letting the customer and the wine lead you and teach you.
AB: I read an article that mentioned you as a protégé
of Kevin Zralys. Did you ever work at Windows on the World?
No. Kevin gave me encouragement a long time ago that was very important
to me, and it made me realize how important it is to be kind to young
people coming up in the business--even if you have a very short association,
that one word of kindness or half-hour of encouragement can make a big
difference to people.
AB: Did you meet resistance along the way from the men in the
MT: No. I guess I was one of the first American women to get
any sort of notoriety for doing this, though there was no sensible reason
for that. The profession was never closed to women. It so happens that
I was lucky enough to fall in with a group of sommeliers and wine professionals
who were all men, who were perfectly encouraging. The odd thing was,
with the Master Sommeliers, for nine years I was the only American woman,
and my gentlemen colleagues would ask me "What are we doing wrong?"
I think it just happened to be that way.
Im curious about the Master Sommelier exam. I know it has three
components-- blind tasting, theory, and service. Which is the most challenging
MT:The hardest part to pass is the part that reflects your weakness.
Ive been an examiner for the Court of Master Sommeliers since
I passed in 1987. The pass rates for each of the three parts are virtually
identical. People wrongly assume that the blind tasting is the hardest.
It utterly depends on your background and your nature. Blind tasting
was the hardest part for me because I hadnt done it much; for
others, service is their bugaboo. Theory is really a matter of how hard
AB: Lets talk about your restaurants. Of the four wine
lists you oversee, which one are you proudest of?
Im proud of all four for completely different reasons. Duets
list is dearest to my heart, because everything
on there I feel quite strongly about-- and thats really the only
way I know how to write a wine list. I dont put anything on there
to represent a category--Im allergic to doing that. Id rather
not represent the category unless the wine really delivers on its own
merits. When I initially wrote the list, it had to be a wine I really
felt strongly about for it to make the cut. I knew that I was going
to be the one standing at the table because I was going to open the
restaurant and be the working sommelier on the floor for at least six
months, and my approach to the customer is very personal.
as Northern Lakes and No.VI go, the lists were co-authored by myself
and people I mentored, and that puts a big smile on my face. Especially
when I see their work as good as anything I could write in a vacuum,
if not better. Even though I germinated those lists, and half of them
are still mine, they have a life of their own. As for Morels, it was
never a definitive statement of one persons taste, but for a small
list it works very well on all levels.
AB: Does winning awards for your restaurants, such as the three
Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence (for Duet, Morels, and No.VI), impact
MT: It impacts something that is a very important intangible,
which is trust and credibility, especially for people who come from
outside our local area. It also impacts the confidence level of the
servers working the floor.
AB: Do you purchase wines at the individual restaurants, or for
MT: We cant, by law in Michigan, purchase en masse--my
life would be a lot easier if we could! No, we have to purchase under
every restaurants individual liquor license, which makes it a
far more interesting challenge than the other way around. I cant
commissary it. What I have to do now--I did it twice today--is if theres
a pre-offer, I have to decide right then and there whos getting
what--and its little bit of an eenie-meenie exercise. We cant
legally transfer from restaurant to restaurant, so where it goes is
where it goes.
not a big fan, to date, of corporate deals. I dont generally buy
by making decisions that will impact every wine by the glass list. For
example, I wont lock into a Chardonnay at a great price point
and put it in all four of the units. I very rarely do that, and the
reason is three-fold: One, I cant mass purchase and then distribute.
Two, in Michigan its COD, so I have to buy it and pay for it right
then and there. And most importantly, a large part of what I do is mentor
other people to learn how to be buyers, so why would I make that decision
AB: You seem to really enjoy that mentoring role.
I do, very much. The transition from sommelier in a freestanding restaurant
to Wine Director was a little bit difficult for me in that I love doing
hands-on work. But teaching somebody to do it hands-on is a large part
of my responsibility these days. I want them to learn how to do it,
not only as well as I do it, but to develop their own voices.
So when it comes to purchasing, to return to that point, it sounds like
you may forego the occasional deal to get a special price, in order
to let your individual sommeliers make their own decisions.
Yes. I suppose Im a little bit of an independent or maverick in
that respect, and it drives my suppliers a little crazy. I buy purely
on the wines merit most of the time, and free isnt
good enough if the wine doesnt talk to me.
Do you believe there are universal standards for good wine, or can a
wine be judged good for its type?
Yes, and yes! I believe a great pro can assess quality independent of
an intellectual frame of reference. And that, to me, is the kick of
winetasting. The ability to judge quality is critical in a buyer, because
the customer can recognize quality. I think there are universals that
speak to everyone--balance, depth, appeal. Once in a great while Ill
have a very interesting argument with someone in the wine trade about
a wine based on pure quality.
Do you have a favorite wine at the moment?
If I had to name one right now, it would be a Washington State wine,
the Seven Hills Cabernet Klipsun Vineyard, from the Columbia Valley.
I bought a bunch of it and have used it intermittently over the past
four to five months. Its just beautiful, and its virtually
free for the quality. That can engender a whole conversation about price/value
relationships, because wholesale in Michigan this wine is only $18-22.
You want to talk about Napa Cabernet? Price/value relationship in that
category is becoming science fiction. It makes it really hard to do
your job as a buyer.
Well, fortunately, there are always other parts of the world that are
eager to sell for less.
There are, but as an American, I want to celebrate American wine with
my guests. I want the consumer to be able to taste great American wine.
As Wine Director, do you still have opportunities to interact directly
Oh, yes. Even if Im buried with projects, Im on the floor
at least two nights per week, somewhere, even if I run around Morels
and help bus tables. I like doing the work. I cant imagine disassociating
myself entirely from the customer, ever. Its the one job in the
wine business where youre at the point of sale, and you get an
instant response. I dont get to work on the floor as much as Id
like, but one of the privileges Ive had in my whole career, and
very much at this moment, is that Ive never been able to rest
on my laurels. Every position Ive had has forced me to almost
throw out the rulebook Id memorized, and forge ahead.
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