SOMMELIER SPOTLIGHT Madeline Triffon, Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, Detroit
The Sommelier Journal
November 2009 Catherine Fallis, MS
America’s first woman Master Sommelier is a role model for those who have followed in her path.
In 1987, Madeline Triffon became America’s first and the world’s second female Master Sommelier, following England’s Claudia Harris. She passed on her first try (the only woman to do so until Emily Wines in 2008), without a support system, a study group, or any female mentors. She was humble and hardworking then, and she remains so today.
Triffon is currently director of wine for the Detroit-based Matt Prentice Restaurant Group. In that position, she’s responsible for developing all the wine lists and beverage programs in the company’s four fine-dining rooms and one casual venue, all in Michigan: No.VI Chophouse & Lobster Bar in Novi, Northern Lakes Seafood Company in Bloomfield Hills, Shiraz in Bingham Farms, Coach Insignia in downtown Detroit, and Tavern on 13 in Beverly Hills. In addition, she coordinates food and wine events and serves as corporate wine educator.
Triffon moved from Connecticut to Greece with her family when she was 3, returning as a young woman in 1972 to attend the University of Michigan. She didn’t have any particular career aspirations at the time. “There was no specific ambition or plan, it just happened naturally,” she says of her entrance into the wine world. “I was dragging my feet, applying to law school or medical school, and it became apparent that it was unnecessary to look for something else to do.
“My passion for wine was preceded by a passion for service,” she continues. “And those dual passions have remained in that order throughout my career. Wine became an easy way to touch guests, to enter the world of their table in a natural, useful, even entertaining way.” Triffon waited tables and tended bar through college, then applied to the Westin International Hotel before its opening in Detroit. Thanks to a good French accent (lists were dominantly French in those days), she was offered the position of sommelier in the formal La Fontaine dining room.
Were her friends and family shocked to see her entering such a male-dominated field? “No,” she replies. “They were initially amused and then proud, I think. Growing up, the fact that I was a girl was never a topic or an issue. I was expected to work hard, be thoughtful, and have good manners, period. My father, especially, was fierce about effort and scholarship. He was the child of Greek immigrants, and education was as important as anything. He didn’t really let me off the hook until I got a credential.”
Triffon was a sommelier for several years at La Fontaine before ever meeting a professional colleague. “An aggressive food-and-beverage director entered me in the Sopexa competition, Best French Sommelier in the U.S.,” she recalls. “I went to New York and was one of 12 candidates from around the United States. Josh Wesson won that competition beautifully. I clearly remember being surprised, relieved, and encouraged that the work I had done on my own in Detroit passed muster. When I sat the MS exam a couple of years later, I remember Brian Julyan, the current CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers, saying, ‘After all, the job teaches you.’
“Make no mistake,” she adds, “it would have been wonderful to have had a mentor, some mature guidance. But having been trained to do the best job I could, not by anybody’s measure than my own, I worked with the resources at hand.” Triffon recalls setting up blind tastings for the hotel management so they could collectively select glass pours. “There was no Internet, so I read anything I could get my hands on, notably Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine and Bob Thompson’s Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest , ” she says. “Bottom line: the wine taught me, the guests taught me, and the job requirements taught me.”
Triffon began to make friends with like-minded wine and hospitality professionals, many of whom were working in wholesale positions. “One of my dearest friends, Claudia Tyagi, started working with me to give me a day off, actually,” explains Triffon. “She and I were allies and learned the business together—how to identify quality in wines, market them, everything. I cannot imagine this journey without her. And she became a Master Sommelier in short order, so our story is a testament to the power of fellowship, even on a modest level.”
Triffon mentions other industry leaders who touched her along the way. “I heard Zelma Long address a small group of people early on,” she says. “In a measured, balanced tone, she was able to touch everyone in the room, regardless of their background or lack thereof. And Jean-Pierre Moueix—I heard him speak at an early New York Wine Experience. In 45 minutes, he encapsulated Pomerol in a way that was utterly complete. Both of them were ‘simple’ in the best sense of the word. Those two experiences inspired me to the thought of ‘I want to be able to do that, educate gracefully and gently, in a way that includes everyone.’”
She also notes the influence of André Gagey, the late managing director of Burgundy’s Maison Louis Jadot: “He was a guest in our dining room in the early ’80s. I was anxious for direction in identifying quality, took the leap, and asked him how he tasted wine. He took the time to answer thoughtfully. The essence of his response was: ‘I always ask the question, “Is this good wine?” Then, “Is it a good example of type? Is there a market for it, or can we create one? Is it balanced?” At the end, again, “Is this good wine?”’ This was the most useful bit of direction given to me about tasting. I still use it. And he taught me the value and the power of kindness. How can I not respond, in the same spirit, to anyone who asks me a question?”
Triffon was the only woman Master Sommelier for so long (the only American until Sally Mohr in 1995) that she wondered, “What are we doing that they are not coming to us? I don’t have an answer other than to say that there certainly is no ceiling, glass or otherwise. I can say this with confidence, having been part of the MS program as an examiner for over 20 years. Perhaps it’s just the slow progression of a field that was male-dominated for a very long time. Having more women in any organization brings desirable, necessary balance. And diversity in other aspects, such as age and ethnic background, does the same. It is delicious to see the numbers grow. These are great wine professionals who happen to be women.”
In November 1997, I earned my Master Sommelier title in London on my third and final try. From start to finish, Triffon was my model. “It’s humbling to think that I’ve been an inspiration,” she says, “and if that’s so, I’m glad. To give encouragement to people coming up in the business, even if you’re not aware that you are doing so, is a warm feeling. In retrospect, I was just a stubborn creature who wouldn’t let go. Courage is something to be shared, don’t you think? If we’re in a position to mentor others, what could feel more thrilling than watching them exceed us?”
As far as advice for up-and-coming candidates, she says, “You can’t be a crackerjack in tasting, but not in service. You must be able to interface with customers in a live setting. Remember that we are servants. It’s not about us; it’s about the guests and their experience. I don’t get angry easily, but when I see people put the expectation of a credential way before the body of work, that insults the value of the credential and those who have attained it.”
What about blind tasting? “Learn to identify quality, independent of any frame of reference outside your own sensibilities,” Triffon recommends. “Being able to answer the question ‘Is this good wine?’ is more important to being a good sommelier than ‘What is this?’ I learned to blind-taste after the fact, and that ability to recognize quality eases the way to blind identification. We have a responsibility to vet the best wines and make the understanding of them easy for our guests and for our co-workers. If there is any art to what we do, it’s to take a complex subject and distill it, without dumbing it down.”
Even as a corporate wine director, Triffon tries to work the floor as much as she can. “It develops service-muscle memory,” she says, “and keeps our priorities, and minds, straight.” That’s a level of professionalism, class, and ethics that everyone in the field should aspire to.
Matt Prentice Restaurant Group
30100 Telegraph Road, Suite 251
Bingham Farms, MI 48025
(248) 646-0370 www.mattprenticerg.com