My Humble Beginnings in the Wine Industry

By Mark Blanchard / May 12, 2014

(And How I Learned the Difference between Merlot and Chardonnay)

James and I weren’t fortunate enough to be born into a wine legacy, or into wealth, or even into a family from California. So I suppose from birth we already started with a disadvantage in the wine industry. In fact, our parents weren’t even wine drinkers when we were younger, unless you count the occasional bottle of Chinese Plum wine that might have appeared on a holiday dinner table. Our father was more of a domestic beer drinker, and as I recall his favorites were Coors Light and Pabst. I’m sure that if you asked someone that, was raised in the Midwest, like James and myself, they will tell you how their first taste of alcohol was a sip of their father’s beer. And to my recollection it wasn’t nearly as appealing to me at the time as Kool Aid.

I suppose it is no surprise that when I reached college, attending a small liberal arts school in the Chicago suburbs, that my beverage of choice was cheap beer. When I was about 6 months away from turning 21 years old, I decided to find a part time job over Christmas break in my college town of Naperville. A friend was working at a liquor store and offered to get me a job as a stock boy. As a 20 year old poor college student, the prospect of working at a liquor store sounded pretty damn cool to me. I can vividly remember the first week there being way less romantic than expected. Not only was I not allowed to legally drink the product that was being sold there, but I actually wasn’t allowed to sell it either. In the state of Illinois, someone under 21 can’t even ring up an alcoholic beverage in the register. So that meant I did all the glory work, such as sweep and mop the floors, take out the garbage, dust the bottles, and of course, stock the shelves with new deliveries. Oddly enough, these are still regular tasks I complete to this day in our tasting room.

But From these remedial responsibilities, began my first introduction into the vast world of wine. Little did I know at the time, but this liquor store that I started working for, was actually one of the best retail outlets in town for top shelf liquors, rare micro-brew beers, and yes, fine wine. Now I may not have been allowed to drink the wine, nor did I know even the slightest bit about wine, but I still had to learn how to read the labels. If I could translate the label on the bottle, understand where it came from, what kind of style it was, what kind of price range it was in, then I would know where to stock it on the shelf. So thus began my earliest education in wine.

I quickly realized that different wines came from different countries, that was easy, and I could tell just by looking at the bottle that it was either red or white. But that was about all I had to work with in the beginning. Everything else about a bottle of wine might as well been written in a foreign language (keep in mind sometimes it was). The most confusing thing about the different wines to me was their various names, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir. What did these names mean? It was quite a mystery to me. I remember one day I got up the nerve to ask the owner of the store a few questions about wine, as he was pretty savvy and educated on the subject. I didn’t want to sound like a complete idiot, but I also figured that this might be a job worth keeping through the rest of my college days so I might as well learn a something about the product on the shelf.

My first question was about those strange and sometimes hard to pronounce names on the bottles. Now I understood that in beer, there are various styles such as lager, pilsner, stout, etc. These different styles are mainly due to the method in which the beer is brewed and a bit to do with the ingredients. So by the same logic, that must be where the different names of wines come from. Makes sense right? So I asked the owner, “How do they determine the names of wines, is it like beer?” He seemed very confused by the inquiry. I continued, “You know, like Merlot or Chardonnay, is it like the difference between a Pale Ale and a Lager? What makes one wine a Merlot and one wine a Chardonnay?” He still looked quite confused as he responded, “Mark, you know those are different grapes right?” Imagine my surprise, I was simply flabbergasted! Different grapes, what did he mean different grapes!! I was thinking, “You mean to tell me that there aren’t just two different grapes, the red ones and the white ones?” After all, that’s what you see in the grocery store. You can imagine how my mind was further blown when I came to find out that wine isn’t even made from those grapes you get in the produce section at all.

Not only was this epiphany, at the time in my young adult life, the equivalent of finding out Santa Claus didn’t exist, but it also became the spark that got me interested in learning more about wine. How many different grapes were out there? Did their respective wines all taste different? Could you blend more than one grape into the same wine? As I turned 21 and started working more and more at the store, I initially stuck to what I knew best, and that was beer. I soon realized one of the great perks of working at a liquor store… the free samples. Sales reps for alcohol companies always have a car full of samples of the products they are trying to peddle. So I made it clear to every sales rep that walked into the store, that unless I got a free sample of a beer, there was no way I would ever recommend it to a customer. Thus begin my journey through the world of micro-brew and import beer. My goal was to try every single beer distributed in the Chicago area. Sounds fun right? And it was. Only problem was, it’s not as hard as one might think to finish this goal. In fact, in less than a year, my only hope was that a distributor would pick up a new product in their portfolio, because I quickly ran out of new beers to sample.

So the next logical step in my mind, was to apply the same practice to wine. So sales reps started bringing in wine for me to taste. In an average week I could try a dozen new wines, on a good week maybe 20. I was tasting wine from all over the world, different styles, varietals, producers, cheap wine, expensive wine. I started learning where different flavor profiles came from, the influence of oak barrels, and how different climates effected the varietals. And then one day something occurred to me when a sales rep brought in a wine I thought I had already tried. It was explained to me that it was a new year, or new vintage as it is called. I thought, “So wait, does that mean it’s going to taste different? Does that mean it’s almost like a completely different wine?” It didn’t take more than a sip to confirm that this was exactly the case. So you know what that meant to me? I would never run out of new wines to try! I could try 20 wines a week, 30 wines, even 50 wines. I could never try them all. I would never run out of a new style, new blend, new region or new vintage to sample. And that was it, I was hooked. That’s not to say that I immediately swore off beer drinking, but from that moment forward, I was a wine lover. The concept of an endless world of wine out there for me to discover was like the prospect of heaven.

So I continued to work at that store for the next few years, even after graduation, constantly tasting new wines, learning about their differences, and developing my palate. I became the manager, the wine buyer, helped open a second location with the owner and even started taking trips to California’s Wine Country with the assistance of connections I made in the store. And eventually this would of course lead me to the decision to make that giant leap and move from Illinois to Napa Valley. But of course that’s a whole other story.

I often times think of that moment when I asked the store owner about the different wine names, especially when a customer in our tasting room says to me, “I have kind of a stupid question about wine for you.” My response is always the same, “There are no stupid questions.” Many of us in the wine industry were not lucky enough to be born into a wine legacy, or in California or even into a wine drinking family. Many of us started off quite humble in our careers, and once upon a time we were the ones asking the “stupid” questions. I still try to taste as many new wines as possible every week, and I still haven’t come any closer to trying them all. And I can only hope one day if I have children of my own, their first taste of alcohol will be when I give them a sip of wine out of my glass. And perhaps, their name will even be on that bottle.