definition of Sommelier

Madeline Triffon
Alexis 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 wasn’t given a whole lot of direction or training, but neither was I bothered.

AB: 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 don’t 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. It’s testimony to the fact that American common sense will generally not lead you astray. I think my success doesn’t 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 Zraly’s. Did you ever work at Windows on the World?

MT: 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 profession?

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.

AB: I’m curious about the Master Sommelier exam. I know it has three components-- blind tasting, theory, and service. Which is the most challenging part?

MT:The hardest part to pass is the part that reflects your weakness. I’ve 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 hadn’t done it much; for others, service is their bugaboo. Theory is really a matter of how hard you study.

AB: Let’s talk about your restaurants. Of the four wine lists you oversee, which one are you proudest of?

MT: I’m proud of all four for completely different reasons. Duet’s list is dearest to my heart, because everything on there I feel quite strongly about-- and that’s really the only way I know how to write a wine list. I don’t put anything on there to represent a category--I’m allergic to doing that. I’d 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 far 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 person’s 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 sales?

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 the group?

MT: We can’t, by law in Michigan, purchase en masse--my life would be a lot easier if we could! No, we have to purchase under every restaurant’s individual liquor license, which makes it a far more interesting challenge than the other way around. I can’t commissary it. What I have to do now--I did it twice today--is if there’s a pre-offer, I have to decide right then and there who’s getting what--and it’s little bit of an eenie-meenie exercise. We can’t legally transfer from restaurant to restaurant, so where it goes is where it goes.

I’m not a big fan, to date, of corporate deals. I don’t generally buy by making decisions that will impact every wine by the glass list. For example, I won’t 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 can’t mass purchase and then distribute. Two, in Michigan it’s 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 for them?

AB: You seem to really enjoy that mentoring role.

MT: 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.

AB: 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.

MT: Yes. I suppose I’m a little bit of an independent or maverick in that respect, and it drives my suppliers a little crazy. I buy purely on the wine’s merit most of the time, and “free” isn’t good enough if the wine doesn’t talk to me.

AB: Do you believe there are universal standards for good wine, or can a wine be judged good for its type?

MT: 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 I’ll have a very interesting argument with someone in the wine trade about a wine based on pure quality.

AB: Do you have a favorite wine at the moment?

MT: 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. It’s just beautiful, and it’s 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.

AB: Well, fortunately, there are always other parts of the world that are eager to sell for less.

MT: 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.

AB: As Wine Director, do you still have opportunities to interact directly with customers?

MT: Oh, yes. Even if I’m buried with projects, I’m 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 can’t imagine disassociating myself entirely from the customer, ever. It’s the one job in the wine business where you’re at the point of sale, and you get an instant response. I don’t get to work on the floor as much as I’d like, but one of the privileges I’ve had in my whole career, and very much at this moment, is that I’ve never been able to rest on my laurels. Every position I’ve had has forced me to almost throw out the rulebook I’d memorized, and forge ahead.

Madeline's Aspen Private Tasting Video

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