Want to Break into the World of Wine Buying? First, Learn to Taste

Meet Chimene MacNaughton. • Photo by Craig Macnaughton, New York 90

Edible is proud to present the first installment of a new series—The Corkscrew Chronicles—by Chimene Macnaughton, general manager and sommelier at Wain Scott Main Wine & Spirits. Here, Chimene traces her career’s trajectory from the west coast to the Hamptons; from a department store to a string of restaurants and, finally, to the world of wine. 

I’m a buyer. Growing up, family members referred to me as “the ultimate consumer”, though I’m still stymied as to why. Today, I buy wine for the shop I opened in January of 2014, Wainscott Main Wine & Spirits. This is my first retail wine project, though I did work part-time for a few years locally for Jacques Franey at Domaine.

I came to this, my favorite job of all time, having walked (in heels) a long career road of hospitality that began at 15 in one of those old-timey department stores with the central cash wrap where money rarely ever changed hands. Early lessons in privilege: the cache given to the venerable house account; the very definition of what it meant to be a VIP/regular. Ancient tailors upstairs making everything from private school uniforms to one of a kind wedding gowns. Here, on Lake Avenue in Pasadena, I was pitted against little old ladies that had been “working for Gene Burton for over 35 years” in the winner-take-all world of high end commissioned sales. Thinking about it now, I was formed for hospitality in that place. I may have been born to be of service, but that environment shaped me—and schooled me.

To put it another way: I have over 25 vintages under my belt.

I recently answered a note from an old friend, one of the first people I met when I pulled up the stakes of my girlhood in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco about a million years ago. Running down the score of ensuing years since I’d left the Bay area, I finally made it to present day here on the East End and my wine shop, and as I described the store and my role in it I realized that (1) I’ve been working for A. Long. Time. and (2) I’ve sold wine and served wine and bought wine and taught wine now for more time than all the other iterations of me. Longer than all those luxury retail years, woven in and through all those longest-of-all restaurant years (these measured in dog years, extra credit if you worked management hours. Hello, heels.) A dinner-time piece of the Mary Poppins years of private cheffing for families in Sun Valley and then the Hamptons, with some clients’ cellar inventory and maintenance thrown into the mix.

Learn how properly to taste wine and everything will come up roses (or rosé).

To put it another way: I have over 25 vintages under my belt. My first purchases were as a consumer, of course. But my 20s spent steeping in San Francisco restaurant culture meant that those buys were often the same California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons destined to become “Cali Cult wines” (I posit that this moniker came from an East Coast wine writer, as we natives eschew the use of “Cali” at all costs). I knew next to nothing about wine when I landed my first big-time fine dining restaurant job, and maybe I am nostalgic here, but I want to say that back then, anyone interested in food had access to these benchmarks of California, not to mention everything French that would soon win my heart forever. The dotcom era hadn’t come to skew prices, wine critic Robert Parker hadn’t even yet screwed palates, and everyone drank Harlan Estate on dates. (Okay, maybe not that last part so much, but I did, I swear.)

Long before I was ever hired by anyone to buy wine, I had everything to learn. At my start, I had just one wine book, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course and a whole lot of hope. I hadn’t the foggiest about properly presenting wine at table, much less getting an old Bordeaux cork out of the bottle without incident. My stampless passport bore witness to a woeful lack of boots on the ground awareness of any of the major European wine regions I was cramming to memorize. Then-me: no service chops, choking down French theory, petrified daily of being called out in the middle of service by a guest for simply not knowing. Even if you’ve never been a waiter in a joint that gives you a written test and five (5!!) interviews before they’ll deign to let you train for a lunch shift, the concern about being caught out is universal to all of us as wine consumers. It’s what sends us back to the closest shop for the same bottle of PinotCabernetMerlotMalbec (choose one) and it’s what moves all that middling plonk on most restaurants’ by-the-glass lists. So what changed everything for me, sent me swooning for the wines of the Loire and Rhône Valleys when I’d traveled there only in books and could barely parse the labels? Learning to taste. The why and the how of it changed me forever as a consumer, forged my sense memory in the most profound and powerful ways, and continues to inform my buying choices to this day.

What can you learn by smelling a wine, or comparing the smells of two wines? Here is where anyone can completely break out as a taster. I’m repeating many when I say that learning to taste is actually learning to smell.

My earliest mentors taught me how to taste, often blind, a brown paper bag obscuring some of the most sought-after wines in the world. Blind tasting may seem daunting, impractical, or both; but the way it instructs made instant sense to me. Absent identifying label information and without the prejudice of price, we break the wine into its observable parts, assessing it with all our senses: what does the color teach? Old/new, oaked/steel-fermented, skin-contact/extraction; here you might make deductions about the grape variety, ruling out Pinot Noir as you look into an opaquely purple-black wine, or thinking about older Nebbiolo as you observe a wine that has begun to brick in color. That’s just sight!

“Professional-level tasting is about taking a wine’s individual components, assigning them meaning, and then trying not to forget.”

What can you learn by smelling a wine, or comparing the smells of two wines? Here is where anyone can completely break out as a taster. I’m repeating many when I say that learning to taste is actually learning to smell. Think about all the times in your life a long-forgotten smell has assailed you and you are immediately transported to the place and time it has recalled. It’s exactly that way with wine. There are all kinds of “markers” for wines; fruit and non-fruit aromas that give clues to place, to specific grape varieties, to how (or how long) a wine may have aged. My process is to search for these markers as I sight and nose the wine; ruling out the unlikely as I go, I work to get all the way to my best guess, and only then use taste as a final confirmation. Take Provençal rosé: my marker for Cinsault (SAN-soh), one of the grapes found in rosé wines from the Cotes de Provence, is bubble gum. More specifically, Double Bubble or Bazooka, like the powdery kind you get in baseball cards. So the marker serves as a memory device, and after many years, I can now reliably predict not just the presence of Cinsault, but the more powdery-gum the wine smells, the greater the percentage of Cinsault usually in the blend. In France, laws govern nearly everything on the label and thus in the bottle. If you ascertain a wine’s region, or more specifically its appellation, you sort of automatically know what grape or grapes make up the wine. So if someone blinded me on a rosé and I made correlating color assessments plus found the presence of Cinsault/bubble gum, I might deduce that I was tasting a wine from Provence.

Professional-level tasting is about taking a wine’s individual components, assigning them meaning, and then trying not to forget. A way to give yourself courage in this process is to remind yourself that you already know how to remember. The key to getting better at tasting wine, at least for the purposes of expanding your personal enjoyment of this vast landscape of deliciousness is only this: wherever you are in your skills, your awareness of wine, your ability to compare wines, to perceive flaws, to identify components suggesting place or type—is just right. You are already a taster. The rest is just trust and time.