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Secrets of a Successful Wine Career: Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon

Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon at Johnson & Wales University.

“Wine is nothing without the consumer” defines master sommelier Madeline Triffon’s approach to wine education and pairings. She recently shared her vast knowledge of wine with students at JWU Providence’s College of Culinary Arts, where she spoke as the university’s third Distinguished Visiting Master Sommelier.

A trailblazer in the industry, Triffon earned her Master Sommelier designation in 1987. At the time, she was one of only 9 Americans — and the first American woman — in the world to gain the certification.

Now the in-house Master Sommelier for Michigan-based Plum Market, Triffon didn’t take the usual career path. For one thing, she rose up in the ranks in urban Detroit, not an established culinary center like Paris, New York City or San Francisco. “I never had a mentor,” she told students.

Her pragmatic, customer-forward approach was inspired by a formative experience early in her career.

“André Gagey from the venerable wine estate, Maison Louis Jadot, came in to the restaurant where I was working,” she explained. “I screwed up my courage to ask him how to assess quality in wine. To this day, the answer this regal French gentleman gave me brings tears to my eyes: ‘I ask if it’s a good wine. Is it a good example of its type? Is there a good price-value relationship? Is there a consumer value to the wine? And, lastly, I ask again: Is it a good wine?’” She paused. “To this day, I always think of his answer when I am starting a tasting — his advice has never steered me wrong.”

To students, she emphasized that hospitality is a team sport: “Humility doesn’t mean you can’t take pride in what you do, but that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Always respect others, and always share your knowledge.”

Much of Triffon’s talk was spent not on career highlights or lessons, but on leading students through a blind tasting of carefully-selected white and red wines chosen by Department Chair Edward Korry (who also happens to be the board president of the Society of Wine Educators).

JWU student tasting wines.

Wine tasting in progress. All photos by Mike Cohea

From the first wine, she emphasized the importance of putting the customer’s experience first. “Food is an essential agent of balance,” she noted. “Consumers don’t ‘chew’ the wine like we do. Think of the wine’s dominant fragrance, it’s ‘flavor attack’ and its overall mouthfeel. The temperature at which you serve a wine is also critical to how a customer will perceive it.”

Although wines are incredibly variable in terms of flavor, fragrance, etc., she broke down some of the most popular wines into their “typical” palate profiles:

OLD WORLD
Earthy
Low to moderate oak
Low to moderate alcohol
Subtle, complex
Terroir (the wine’s sense of place or thumbprint)

NEW WORLD
Fruity
Moderate to high oak
Moderate to high alcohol
Generous, open

CHARDONNAY
Green and red apple, pear, lemon
Pineapple, mango, melon
Almond, hazelnut
Mineral, chalk, mushroom
Toast, baking spices, toasted coconut, vanilla butter
Dense texture, crisp to creamy flavor range, sometimes oaked

CABERNET SAUVIGNON + MERLOT
Cassis, black and red raspberry
Tobacco, cedar, leather
Forest floor, mint, eucalyptus
Vanilla, coffee, dark chocolate
Opaque color, medium- to hard tannins, medium- to soft-acidity

CHAMPAGNE
Green and red apple, pear, strawberry, raspberry, lemon, lime
Toasted nuts, smoke
Chalk, mineral, flint
High acidity, light- to medium-bodied, effervescence

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Madeline Triffon chatting with a JWU student.

A selection of corks from the tasting.