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For most people, especially those who live in apartments, a wine stash consists of a dozen bottles or so in a rack in the kitchen or dining room. But for those with lots more space the possibilities make for absolutely giddy fantasies. Too often, though, many people who really love wine do not have even modest knowledge of how to assemble a collection of a hundred bottles. So, wine consultants can tell you what to buy within your budget, what wines to avoid and what wines to put down for a few years. Some can even design an extensive cellar for you.
In the case of Melissa L. Smith, you’re also hiring someone certified as a sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers and trained at the Culinary Institute of America, who’s cooked at The French Laundry and was a chef on a private yacht. She is also a member of the Appraisers Association of America. I interviewed Smith about the twists and turns of her life that somehow led her to her career as a wine consultant.
You’ve had a very checkered career. Explain how you went from training as a chef at the CIA to“roaming the country with [your] knife bag, bouncing from a Relais & Châteaux dude ranch in Montana to a hunting camp in Idaho; board[ing] a charter yacht in Southeast Alaska and spend[ing] a pineapple scented season in Maui.”
There was a very clear ceiling. I started out at the top restaurants in the country, making $7.50 an hour at one, and working for free (staging) at The French Laundry, then deciding to go to the Harvard of cooking schools, The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Once I graduated culinary school I could no longer afford to work for low wages while paying my student loans, and for housing and living expenses. I loved, and continue to love, to travel, so taking seasonal positions was one way to get around paying for the housing part of it.
The first role that I took was as the Chef de Cuisine and Wine Steward at the Relais & Châteaux property Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana. I wanted to cook French Laundry-style food and ride horses on my days off. My next opportunity was a favor for a chef instructor and friend of mine from the CIA. His cousin had an “outfitting” company and needed a chef for the season in Idaho. I thought an outfitting company had to do with fashion. I had no idea what I was in for, and it ended up being the best experience of my cooking career. We lived out of canvas tents, relied on horses for transportation and I learned a profound respect for hunters and hunting.
I returned to the Bay Area for a season and that was when I was presented with the opportunity to be the chef on a charter yacht in Southeast Alaska for a summer. I cooked fresh seafood every day and went to sleep with the sounds of humpback whales blowing mist into the air. When I returned from that experience, I ended up settling down in the Bay Area. I needed to take a mile-high view of my life and my career, and I knew I needed to make a change.
You worked as a private chef for industry giants. What did they expect of you? Nightly? Weekly? Travel with them? Feed the kids?
I had some families where I would live at the Atherton estate for the weekend, arriving on a Thursday and preparing until their arrival on Friday evening, and then preparing meals and snacks during their stay, and preparing meals for them to take home on Sunday when they departed for their homes in San Francisco. I had another family that expected me to travel with them to their homes in Lake Tahoe and Hawaii, and I cooked meals for the five children daily. That family inspired my decision to get paid to drink for a living.
How did you find the time and how long did it take to become a sommelier?
I decided to pursue my Sommelier certification in 2006. I did a 48-hour seminar at the CIA Greystone campus with several Master Sommeliers, some of whom I am still in contact with, and passed my Sommelier exam on the first try. I had moved to Napa Valley the week that I graduated high school to become a chef, and was always around wine. I remember driving home from my restaurant shift in the middle of the night in November, and the smell of wine fermenting was literally intoxicating. It took years to fully understand pairing wine with food. It’s not part of our culture the way it is in Europe. Once I made the decision to segue from the back of the house to the front of the house, I started opening restaurants, designing wine programs, and then one day walked into K&L Wines, the largest online wine and spirits retailer in the country at the time. The restaurant I was working at was a sinking ship, and K&L made me a great offer.
The exposure that I got from working at K&L made it the best decision of my life. Every week we tasted hundreds of wines and spirits, met winemakers, winery owners and those considered royalty in the industry. While I was there, I developed the first iPhone app for wine pronunciation, the Enotria Guide, and started Enotrias, which led me to doing legal work with wine collections. I knew there was a good chance that I would have to serve as an expert witness for wine collections and appraisals, so with that looming over me I decided to get the next level certification, through the Court of Master Sommeliers. It was much harder than the first, and it took me two tries to pass it. I’ve since gone on to mentor several candidates and help them to pass, first time.
Describe what Enotrias software does to service clients.
I have created a database over the years that allows me to streamline and catch any errors in an inventory. It is constantly being updated, which allows a wine to be catalogued in a fraction of the time it would take to do it manually or using other software. My software also works with other well-known cellar tracking software, including Cellartracker and Vincellar, which makes it that much easier for my clients to understand the scope of their collections.
You must have some good stories about marine and aviation services, including full-suite support for private jets in your role as “SkySomm.”
Ah, yes, I’ve had the honor to train incredible flight attendants for a private charter company, helping them to understand how wines change at altitude, how to prepare and pair meals to go along with their clients’ needs, and how to design wine collections for their in-air service. We focus on curating a collection of library wine from top producers that have aged long enough for the tannins to soften and oak to integrate for the Cabernets and Chardonnays, and then bring in classic varietals from classic regions, Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, Cabernet Franc from Bourgueil, aged Riesling from the Mosel, Syrah from Côte Rôtie, and of course, Bordeaux and Burgundy from top vintages. And Champagne is always on hand.
One of the services that I provide to my clients is wine recommendations for private events, special meals, trips etc. I had a client in my early days need wines for their trip to Mexico, and as I started making recommendations on how to transport the wine, my client interrupted and reminded me that they had a private plane, so they could essentially bring whatever they wanted.
Tell me about being certified by the California State Bar Association for your seminar on the Valuation of Wine Collections.
When I started Enotrias, one of my first clients was going through a divorce and had an incredibly valuable wine collection. While he was married, they had purchased a barrel of wine from an auction that had been labeled specifically for them. It was by far the largest amount of any one wine in the collection, but because it had a private label, it was assigned a zero-dollar valuation. So even though they had spent several thousands of dollars on this lot, the only thing it was worth was the recycling fee of the glass. I ended up having to argue the valuation over the phone to the opposing attorney. I told my attorneys the story, who are also my best friends, and they asked me to put together a presentation for the Napa Bar Association on The Valuation and Appraisal of Wine Collections. I was then invited to give the same presentation for the Sonoma Bar and several others after that, and in the process had my presentation certified through the California State Bar Association. Because of Covid, I was able to get my presentation certified in ten states and teach it remotely. There is no other seminar in the country that covers this topic as it pertains to Family Law, and Trusts and Estates, and I am the only sommelier with extensive credentials in these areas. In 2021, I will be launching a cross-country tour giving the presentation in-person at country clubs in the ten states in which the presentation has been approved.
Tell me some stories about customizing wine cellars.
Over the years I have perfected the organization of wine collections. I’ve been referred to as the “Mari Kondo of wine cellars.” I work predominantly with Artistic Wine Cellars and Thomas Warner Wine Cellars on the West Coast to help design cellars for my clients. We focus on the existing collection as a whole, and then take into consideration growth and taste changes. Many of my clients start out loving and collecting California Cabs and then transition into collecting and drinking Pinot Noir. I also hone in on whether this is a collection focused on investing or for personal enjoyment. Allocating room for OWCs (Original Wooden Containers), is a huge one for investment collections. Carving out space for birth year wines is another consideration I take into account, as well as high value wines like First Growths and DRC [Domaine de la Romanee-Conti] that need to be tucked away in case someone decides they are thirsty and don’t know what to grab.
Some hints about how to drink wine like a connoisseur on a student budget?
Getting to know your local retailer is paramount. They will get to know your tastes, and your budget. And more often than not, wine professionals are drinking the inexpensive food-friendly imports on a regular basis, versus the baller selections, so those are often our go-tos. If you can start a relationship with your wine retailer, there is a great chance that they know the winemaker, know how the grapes are grown, and the wine is made, which could not be more important once you start to realize the number of ways wines can be manipulated before they hit the shelf.
Another tip is to turn to wines like Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir that are going to be incredibly food-friendly but won’t break the bank if you find them from regions outside of the U.S. and Burgundy. Pinot Noir, aka Spätburgunder from Germany, is one of my favorite wines and can be typically found for under $25. And Spanish sparkling Cava! It is made the same way as Champagne but for a third of the price.
What’s the difference between a connoisseur and a snob? Does money buy taste?
There is so much ego in wine. I’ve led classes for tech companies and some of the executives won’t stop talking about their last trip to Burgundy long enough to hear me speak, until I remind them that they have paid me (handsomely) to be the one talking about wine. It’s a turnoff to anyone trying to get into wine or appreciate it.
It takes no substance to be a wine snob. Spend a lot of money on a bottle, recite tasting notes and stick with only a handful of producers from a handful of regions. I’ve served many people that were just concerned about status but didn’t understand the wines, didn’t appreciate everything that had gone into the several-thousand-dollar bottle of wine that they were drinking at dinner. It is so easy to spend money on wine, I get to do it for a living, but for me, I want my clients to have a level of respect and understanding for the wines, an appreciation for the final product, a sense of place when it comes to the region from which they come.
The clients that are my favorite have done the research, traveled to the wine regions, sat with the winemakers over a home-cooked meal, and return home to enjoy great wine with great food and with great company. They have a respect for how the wine was made, and the history and skill that went into the bottle. One of my last clients didn’t own a bottle of wine under $100, with most being $300 and up. He is one of the wealthiest men in his industry, and every night he would invite me to select a wine from his collection, and we would sit down and talk about it for an hour. He was humble, had come from nothing, and had built an incredible career and collection that he was proud of, but rarely got to enjoy it with other people who understood and respected wine the same way that he did. He loved to learn and asked me so many questions, and the next day would ask follow-up questions. Once it is safe to travel to Europe again, he is planning trips to wine regions with my assistance. That is a connoisseur.
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