André Hueston Mack, 45, is a winemaker and former sommelier at some of the world’s top restaurants including French Laundry in Yountville, California, and its sister venue Per Se in New York City. He got into the wine industry after quitting a successful desk job in the financial investment sector, learning the craft of a sommelier and working in that role until 2007 when he launched his own winemaking company Maison Noir Wines.
He’s also the 104th dining stranger and on Wednesday May 5 I’ll be publishing my interview with him — our dinner at the fantastic Mu Ramen in Long Island City, New York, where he shared his life story.
Previewing the interview, here are 12 questions I asked André about wine including whether the shape of a glass really matters when pouring wine, how to find a good $15 wine, and the best way to speak with a sommelier.
1. Why are some people intimidated by sommeliers?
Because it’s someone who knows more about wine than you and might make you buy something that, one, you don’t like and, two, is expensive. How you combat that is make them work for their money. Say, ‘Hey, this is what I normally drink at home and I want to drink something like that’ and you run you finger across [the prices], don’t say it out loud, but say, ‘I want to stick around here,’ whatever budget you feel comfortable with. I think people are afraid to tell [sommeliers] what to do. But they work for you. Just be assertive. You’re an expert in your own taste, they’re just a tour guide to get you to what you like.
2. Do you have any tips when asking for recommendations?
Say what you want to spend unless you’re comfortable spending a lot, because that could happen. Otherwise they might bring you a $700 bottle and you don’t know it until you get the check, and that’s happened before. Someone once got a $2,500 bottle that way.
3. What’s the biggest myth about drinking wine?
That you have to be dressed up and go somewhere to enjoy it, the whole idea that you have to spend $100 on a bottle of wine. If you do, it better taste good. The key is finding a $30 bottle that tastes like $60, $70. You don’t have to wear a suit to enjoy it. No other beverage comes with all these things you’re supposed to do, like with the cork or decanting. It’s just a beverage. Like, is there a certain way to cut the foil? No! Just cut that shit off.
4. But doesn’t the size and shape of the glass matter?
Yes and no. Scientifically probably not, but psychologically I think people enjoy a nice glass, It goes back to the whole putting on a suit shit, I think generally speaking if you put a wine in a nice glass people will appreciate it more.
5. I’m a wine novice, how do I become knowledgeable about it?
Ask a lot more questions, find a local wine merchant, the place where you buy your wine — they will be more knowledgeable than you. Spend an extra five, 10 minutes when selecting your wine to get to know it. You need to taste wine to understand wine and that can become expensive. A lot of stores do tastings, coordinate your wine purchases around that. Or have friends over and do theme nights, tell everyone to bring an Italian red for under $15. If 10 people show up, now you have 10 wines to taste.
6. What’s a good cheap bottle of wine that tastes good, around $15?
For $15, most of the time I don’t have the same one over and over. But generally go for an inexpensive Italian wine. They have no inherent land costs because that land has been in the family for over 300 years, and you get more bang for your buck for flavor and quality. Whereas something in America, 30-year-old wines are considered old and they’re definitely not serving those for $15. I would look to Italy as a go-to. And try buying in bulk, figure out how much you spend on wine in a month and then buy a case, you generally get a 10 to 20 percent discount. And when you’re getting a case, leave one or two spots for the wine merchant to fill, ask them what they’re digging, which wines they’re enjoying, they could turn you on to something new.
7. Regardless of cost, what makes a good wine?
Whatever makes you happy. Well-balanced wine is what I like, where all the parts are in equal harmony. If it’s too alcoholic, it’s out of balance. If it’s too acidic, it’s out of balance. If there’s too much oak, it’s out of balance. And I know it’s a cop-out answer and too generic, but a good wine is whatever makes it pleasurable. But a quality wine is one that is balanced and gives you depth, and some days you get lucky and find a wine that over-delivers.
8. What’s your all-time favorite wine?
An Alsatian pinot blanc from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. These wines are eureka! They are so beautiful. They have a big viscosity, they’re rich, textured, layered. My birthday is on Christmas Day, so on Christmas Eve we always eat a shit-ton of crab legs and only drink Alsatian wine, something pure from the sea and the purity of these wines.
9. Sounds like a great pairing, are there more food and wine pairings beyond whites with fish and reds with meat?
Yeah, all regional. Every time I look at food and wine pairings I look at the origin of a dish, the locals made local wine to go with local food, and that’s where we start. The whole object of food and wine pairing is to reset your palette back to zero so the first bite tastes as good as the last bite. To me, that’s what food and wine pairing is – not a break in the sky and cherubs coming out, that’s never happened to me. The whole idea is that the wine is supposed to make the food taste better. All the wines that we make, the common thread is acid, acid is an amplifier, that’s why you put salt on seafood. Wine belongs on a table next to the salt and pepper shakers, it’s a condiment.
10. What’s your all-time favorite food and wine pairing?
It’s very simple: Champagne and french fries is the best thing in the world. Go to Eleven Madison, order a great bottle of champagne and have fries. And if you like a little bit of sweet do it with an old German Riesling, it’s even better.
11. When you’re not drinking wine, what’s your go-to beverage?
Negroni. And if I’m not keen on making those, I love a good gin and tonic. My wife’s folks grew up on the Upper East Side so we drink a lot of gin and tonic, which is great.
12. What’s the most interesting thing happening in world of wine?
How to sell wine direct online. You can technically be sold in 33 states but have to have different licenses and the distributors are lobbying really hard against because it’s basically cutting them out. My friend Gary Vaynerchuk lost $9 million in one day shipping wine into Pennsylvania, which you can’t do. A competitor ratted them out.
Rose is the biggest thing now.
And the consolidation of all these big wineries buying up smaller wineries.
I think where wine is going is interesting, more and more people are drinking it, millennials are drinking more wine. It’ll be interesting to see what it all looks like in 10 years, even the packaging. Canned wine is big, everybody is hopping on that.
12. Finally, do sommeliers really use tastevins?
At really formal French restaurants like Le Bernadin they might. I haven’t. I use mine as an ashtray.