How did you get into wine/How did you become The Wine Coach?
It really goes back to a job I had in software sales. I was living in Federal Hill at the time. I was selling to Fortune 100 food and beverage companies. I came to find out quickly that lots of deals were made over dinner. And, really, at the time, I was definitely more of a beer drinker than a wine drinker. But I ended up at these business meetings where we’d be ordering wine and every now and then I’d be handed the wine list, and I just had really no clue where to start.
At that time, I started taking classes to just kind of educate myself about wine so I could just impress my clients or, at least, just not look foolish. That was my initial reason for getting into wine. And then, as I got more and more into it, and fell in love with wine, and had the pleasure of traveling to wine country, and starting to have a small little collection of my own, I wanted to share that with my friends and family. At some point, down that road, I started thinking about changing careers, because I was a little bit sick of being a road warrior. I thought, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do next,’ and I worked with a life coach, and we looked at the things I loved and wine was one of them. And I thought, ‘Wow, I can do that for a living?’ So, like any sane individual, I quit my six-figure software job in the beginning of 2001, moved to New York City, and started studying wine, and here I am.
What did you discover is the most common misconception about wine?
It’s hard to limit it to one, but a big one, is we tend to think that if it’s expensive, then that’s got to be the best wine. A lot of our insecurities and hang-ups about it are leftover from way back when, when only the wealthy people could afford to have wine because the only wines available were those from Europe. Even if you look back to the ‘80s, we didn’t have the variety of affordable wines from all over the world that we have today. So, I can find an amazing $15 wine, but a lot times people think, ‘I’m going to be embarrassed if I don’t order than designer label that everybody’s heard over. That’s the only good wine.’ It’s just not true.
The second thing is you really have to learn to get the confidence to trust your own taste. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $300 bottle of wine that some famous sommelier thinks is the best. If you don’t like it . . . You can’t substitute someone’s taste for your own.
What are some of your personal holiday traditions with wine?
I am a huge sparkling wine fan. I say that because we’re talking about the holidays, but I think people should drink them all year round. So many times, it’s so ingrained in our brains, here, in this country, that it’s a New Year’s or holiday wine to bring out, so certainly I always have that, but it’s not always the most expensive cuvee from Champagne. I’m a big fan of some of the more affordable sparklers that are great for holidays but also year round, like Spanish Cava. Cava is made in the northeast part of Spain—a region called Penedès—and it’s made exactly like Champagne but with Spanish grapes, so it’s still an artisanal process, but you can find really wonderful versions in that $15-20 range. There’s one called Mont Marçal that I’m a big fan of. There’s another one, Kila Cava, and many more that are just very clean and crisp, with good fruit and are similar in style to Champagne.
The other one I love to have around the house during the holidays is Prosecco. That’s a little bit fruitier, a little bit softer than Champagne or a Cava. But everybody seems to like it. Even beer drinkers that aren’t normally down with trying wine, can warm up to a Prosecco. And if you have a little peach puree on hand, or any kind of fruit puree, add it to a Prosecco, and that makes a bellini.
I’ve done holiday things where I’ll put out a Prosecco bar. So I’ll have a couple bottles of Prosecco out, an ice bucket, and various fruit purees that you can make your own bellini. It’s just a fun activity for people at the party to make their own Prosecco cocktail. Sometimes you have people who love dry wines but then you have your Aunt Sally who wants something a little bit sweeter, so she can make a bellini, and everybody’s happy.
Certainly, if I’m having a smaller gathering with people who like Champagne, I think there’s nothing better than the real deal, a nice grower Champagne. What I mean by that is a smaller producer where they grow their own grapes and make their own Champagne. A lot of the larger houses that we’re used to, the big names, they buy the grapes from many different smaller growers, and then they’re making a lot more Champagne than a lot of these smaller growers. I think it’s fun to have some of the big names that we know and love like Veuve Clicquot, then also try out some of the small growers. It’s like having a craft beer versus the bigger names. And don’t forget that we make great sparkling wine on the West Coast, and really all over the country. There are a lot of domestic sparklers that I love as well.
A lot of people want to give wine as a gift around the holidays, what are good tips for people looking to buy a wine for someone they don’t know very well?
First let me address the wine snobs that we all know. There are some people who are just so serious about their wine collections or what they love, and are very defined about what they like. In my book, The Sipping Point, I actually have a chapter called “Great Gifts for Cork Dorks,” for your wine geeky friends. Sometimes, I think wine is not the best thing to buy for that person. Unless you’re buying something they already know, I wonder if you’re going to be able to make them happy. I think to look at accessories—like a really nice wine decanter or a special set of two of those really humungous read wine glasses, or aerators are really hot right now—can sometimes be a better way to go.
But, outside of that, it is good to know a little something about what that person likes. But if you don’t have that insight, and you just need to have some bottles around for last minute, I love having a wine that you know you already like yourself. Maybe there’s some sort of story for you about that wine. Maybe it’s a special wine you had at dinner with your husband or you date for a certain meal. Maybe you visited the winery. Maybe it’s from Australia, and you honeymooned there. I think that, while the wine has to be great, people love the story, too. I always like to connect in that way. So, when I pick things out, I try to have some thoughtful reason in addition to the fact that it tastes delicious.
What do you do if you have non-drinkers coming to a holiday party and you don’t want them to feel left out?
First of all, I need more of these kind of friends. Point them in my direction! Overall, for everybody, water, water, water is so important. People tend to forget about water for some reason when they’re going through their planning for their corporate holiday party or their function at home. Make it easy: Have bottled water or pitchers of water around. Because, if you are drinking, you want to keep hydrated so that you feel fine the next day. But, you want to offer your non-drinkers more than just the water option, right? So, if you’re going to do the Prosecco or Champagne cocktail bar that I described, have a sparkling cider or grape juice that’s non-alcoholic there so they can take part in the same exact activity. They can still make their bellini, just not with Prosecco. There also is a great recipe that I’ve used for parties for mock Champagne. Basically, you’re doing four cups of both soda and ginger ale and then three cups of unsweetened white grape juice. It’s back to the old punch bowls. You can make a fun little punch like that for your non-drinkers.
What are your thoughts on the Maryland wine industry?
I think every state in the union makes wine now. So each state is going to achieve its own personal best when it comes to wine. The growth of the industry is so exciting. I’ve been one of the judges for the Maryland Governor’s Cup for eight or nine years now. The difference in the quality and number of wines available from when I started to just this last year is just astonishing. We have a ton more wineries in every part of the state, and the bar is raised every single year, for the existing wineries and for the start-ups. Boordy just won the Governor’s Cup this year with their Landmark Reserve Red, which is fabulous, and Black Ankle is doing some amazing things out in Mt. Airy. Knob Hall out in the Gaithersburg area really making some fabulous stuff. And then here, on the Eastern Shore even, we have St. Michaels Winery and lots of other great wineries popping up all over. I think it’s only going to get better and we’re doing great things now. If people don’t know that, they need to get out and start tasting some Maryland wines. Marylandwine.com has great resources for people to look at the trails and the wineries.
And that’s a great gift right there! A lot of times you can call ahead and get a gift certificate from winery for a tasting and maybe a little wine basket. Or, some wineries offer food and some different events at their winery. If you have that person who has everything, maybe you get them an actual experience, or weekend, or an overnight at a B&B near the wineries—a lot of people do that with parents—rather than that bottle. There’s nothing like being able to go out and speak to the winemaker and be in the space where they make the wine.
We had a nice sparkling wine from the southern part of Maryland in our competition this year, which was kind of cool to have a sparkling wine. As well as there’s a place now that makes fermented cider and mead, which is fermented honey. So, I’m excited about it. You know, we move forward every year. I don’t know if we could ever be Oregon because the wines are different, the soil is different. But what we’re doing will be the best wine we can make in Maryland. I think we have plenty of wine that, in a blind tasting, would stand right up to wines of similar grape varietals from the West Coast of other parts of the world. I think it’s all coming together. The consumers need to support the wineries, and the state really has to support the Winery Association too. I know other states get a little bit more funding. I know more money would certainly help them in marketing efforts. But grassroots, we can all get out to a winery and taste what they have and find something. Every winery has something that you can get behind.
What can you tell us about your wine app?
In July we were in Wine Enthusiast as one of the top eight wine apps in the country. So it’s just been a great way for me to share wine suggestions and wine education with people right with their most-important asset: their phone. People I know now are sleeping with their phones! If folks are looking for suggestions, I do have a free iPhone and Android app. It’s called The Wine Coach, and on my website, www.thewinecoach.com/apps and the links to download are there. And I have tons of wine suggestions in there for every different style, along with the descriptions, and some clips from my radio show. So that’s the resource to go to.