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The People's Wine Expert Wants to Show You How to Get the Most out of Your $13

Feb 3 2016 6:10 PM
The People's Wine Expert Wants to Show You How to Get the Most out of Your $13

Photos courtesy of Wine Folly/Madeline Puckette

On her site Wine Folly, master sommelier Madeline Puckette adopts a no-nonsense approach to reds and whites. While that may shock the snobby, besuited establishment, she just wants to help people drink better.

It's still late afternoon in Seattle when a grinning Madeline Puckette appears in New York via Skype, but the hour doesn't stop her brandishing a full, stately glass of red at me. "Where's your wine man?" she teases. "Go get it!" Sheepishly, I claim to be on the beer tonight, and to distract from this oversight I ask what it is she's drinking. "Hold on," she says, and rushes off to grab the bottle. "So the grape is called mencia, and the wine is called la...la-ma. Lalama!" The exchange, I discover over the course of the interview, is typical of her—the clunky pronunciation neither a sign of ignorance nor disingenuousness, but rather the admirable lack of insecurity that comes from choosing not to prove oneself. Puckette is enthused, and Bacchus help the kid who believes she can't back up her chilled-out attitude with real vinous chops. "I just want people to drink better wine," she declares, before launching into a spirited history of the region that produced her beverage-in-progress.

America is in the rosy throes of a tooth-staining affair. The statistics have it. As reported in The Week, between 1993 and 2013 our wine consumption increased from 1.74 gallons per capita to 2.82, and in the process we became the world's most oenophilic nation. Of course, wine has been a key cultural element since humans first stumbled upon the delights of moldy old grape juice some 8,000 years ago (though presumably those proto-tipplers hadn't yet learned to stumble away towards the delights of deli sandwiches and lottery tickets), but today, in the language of the millennials who are mostly driving its popularity, it is "having a moment." There's now at least one winery in every state, and online debates bloom daily on subjects ranging from what best pairs with pizza to the existence of so-called "hipster wines."

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In this reconfiguring scene however, perhaps the larger argument is concerned with the language of wine itself, and who gets to codify it. Unlike your stereotypical elder, ceremonious sommelier, Wine Folly, the wine reference website Puckette co-founded in 2011 with developer Justin Hammack, is absolutely 21st century. The site became so popular that in September 2015 its creators published a book, an introductory reference guide containing some of their most popular online content. In print and online, Wine Folly maintains a focus on knowledge, avoiding the tips an' tricks advice of lesser sites while nevertheless organizing sprawling information—covering everything from grape varietals to specific spice pairings—into pictoral charts, diagrams, and other convenient, visual forms. Its mission statement is simply to "answer peoples' questions about wine," which might not sound that revolutionary, but consider its subject: In an industry traditionally fixated on luxury and exclusivity, drawing back the veil is a subversive act.

Who cares if she doesn't like a vintage 1990 Chateaubriand Bordeaux? She just wants to drink her delicious Malbec!

Puckette first became interested in wine as a graphic design undergraduate at CalArts. "I was not part of the cool kids," she says, "but I made the running." (I assume this is West Coast for "got through it" and nod along.) "When I turned 21 my dad got me a wine subscription, and the bottles would come into the mail room at school because I lived in one of the studios. And they were honestly the best, most high-quality things I would put in my mouth for the entire month." Here Puckette laughs before clarifying: "Because otherwise I was eating beans and rice and bread! Or anything else I could scrounge up or steal from work—bagels, whatever. And then there was this one wine, and it didn't taste like cherries or plums, it didn't have a smooth finish, none of those things, but it still tasted good to me. It tasted like black olives. That was the moment for me where suddenly wine could be something other than just...sweet berry wine!"

At this point—when Puckette switches from narrative epiphany to referencing the Tim & Eric show's Dr. Steve Brule, John C. Reilly's buffoonish send-up of local cable access television—I'm suddenly aware of how talking about wine could be fun. Puckette doesn't deny the vat of knowledge we've developed over the previous eight millennia, but she does approach it from an angle that challenges veneration and mystification. Asked what she primarily considers herself—sommelier, designer, educator, or businesswoman—she replies with "wine communicator," and you don't get the feeling it's the politician's answer. She really is great at talking about wine.

After Puckette's taste awakening, her switch from hobbyist to professional arrived under similarly modest circumstances, with novelistic serendipity. "I was 27, and I was living in Reno, Nevada, and I was on the brink of losing my job. I was working as a graphic designer, trying to be a musician on the side, and I went into this wine bar to, you know, drink my sorrows away," she says. Puckette proceeded to order several glasses from someone who turned out to be the owner. Having opened the bar four months prior, he hadn't had a day off yet and was looking for staff. He said if Puckette worked there, she could taste anything she liked. It was another year before she realized it could be a career, when a friend noticed her talented palate and persuaded her to take the Court of Master Sommeliers' certification exam.

The Court of Master Sommeliers was made famous in 2013, when Jason Wise's sleeper hit documentary Somm featured four men preparing to take its ultimate assessment. Stakes are raised when various people repeatedly bellow at the viewer that this is "the most difficult exam in the world." Though the film makes little mention of the organization's counterparts, the court is but one of a number of regulating bodies that certify sommeliers. Women are largely absent from the movie, save the candidates' partners, who are wheeled on to testify as to the many charming aspects of dating a wine enthusiast. In addition to their descriptions of "spit vessels" left out to be tripped over in the morning, these benefits seem to revolve around having to share a house with someone who, under other circumstances, would be classified as a lunatic obsessive: a scowling, tetchy, indecorously competitive dork convinced life's true meaning lies in the ability to blind-differentiate Rieslings from various postage-stamp-sized wineries along the banks of the Austrian Rhine. In all critical fairness, Somm is an entertaining documentary—tension as the exam approaches is built genuinely, and moreover, it's difficult not to concede a level of academic respect for its subjects, people who have committed themselves to the data. But at a certain point it becomes obvious, despite the many protestations of passion, that what drives these four guys to perform arcane rituals at an absurd level of micro-calibration has nothing to do with wine itself, and certainly nothing to do with enjoying it; rather, it is something concerned primarily with, as the New York Times's Rachel Saltz put it, "the fetishism of mastery."

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Somm's a big part of wine's current in-vogue status, but its fundamental loyalties are conservative—it has quaffed the Kool-Aid and is more concerned with building upon industry myths than explaining them to someone who merely wants to spend a better $13. Puckette's pitch is more democratic. "Becoming a master sommelier—that's probably the reason why I quit," she explains. "Blind tasting is the thing that's got everyone's panties in a wrinkle, and it can be really cool, because you can get really good at it, but it's... not that important?" She indulges a dramatic shrug. "I mean, what are you gonna do? The world's falling apart! I've gotta blind taste six wines! A lot of people come out of these programs a little bit skewed in how they communicate wine. And I'm like—" at this point she holds up her palms and scoots back in her office chair "—peace out, man! As soon as I said something persnickety to my grandmother, I was like, What am I doing? Who cares if she doesn't like a vintage 1990 Chateaubriand Bordeaux? She just wants to drink her delicious Malbec! So be it!"

It's a refreshing attitude, far from the stuffy orthodoxy that the idea of a wine professional still invokes. In fact, part of the issue appears to be the over-representation, at least in the public imagination, of sommeliers and their importance to the industry, when they are in fact only one strand in a web that involves winemakers, educators, distributors, writers, store owners, and, of course, drinkers. The image of the besuited sommelier snottily content with his few French appellations is an idea of the old guard, with all its usual issues. "[Being a sommelier] was one of the areas where it was a disadvantage to be a woman," says Puckette. "It would be helpful to be old, and it would be helpful to be a man, and, preferably, not even an American man—you want to be either French or Spanish or Italian."

Though there are real signs that this might be changing (women are flocking to the profession), Puckette remains cynical. "That divide will never change," she says. "The men own the Chateaus." What we might see instead, I venture, is a leakage of power away from those encrusted roles and into new areas, like those epitomized by Wine Folly. "We are spinning toward a different way of doing things," says Puckette. "There's more of a collective aspect to our curation of the data. That's the way we do Wine Folly. It's not about my opinion about wine, we don't do reviews at all—it's more about providing as much unbiased information as we can."

Printed and bound, that information is a peculiar object. Never have I held a book in my hands and been more aware of its origins on the internet. Although there have been direct ports of blogs to print before, most notably when the owners of sites like the Frenemy or Hyperbole and a Half got deals, their content didn't seem fixed to the Internet for its conception; after all, you could write or draw before cables connected us. Wine Folly, however, with its handsome charts and color wheels, its cross-references and links to expanded information, seems to tug at the pages, desperate not to be contained in something you think of as reading front-to-back. "The biggest problem with making the book was thinking, Argh, I'm thinking about this non-linearly! I wanna reach out and grab the answer!" says Puckette, and it shows.

The world's falling apart! I've gotta blind taste six wines!

Ultimately, she just wants the information to be free. "The book is not enough, we know that," she says. "We want to give people the language to drink better, and if I starve, well, I'll just drink wine."

As for the future, Wine Folly is planning a series of wall maps of wine-growing regions ("I like maps. What are you into?") and a new website. As for her personal standing in the industry, it seems to be aging well. "This chi-chi wine event said they would let me open a 1961, and I'm thinking, I don't even have an opener that could handle it! I am gonna have to fake this shit so hard!" From someone else, this might come over as flippant, or insincere, but in Puckette's animated voice there's no mistaking it: She's just excited. Who could have predicted her transformation from that sorrows-drowning glass in Reno? "We are like wine—always changing," she says in a Yoda-ish growl. Then she starts laughing.

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