Wine Geeks with Flash Cards

As wine director for the downtown Marriott (and manager of Molly's Restaurant there), Lisa Redwine is allowed the guilty pleasure of hosting a Saturday wine and cheese pairing for hotel guests. That's the celebrity gig, the one that gets her photo on a poster in the lobby. But the real work of teaching goes on downstairs with the staff at Molly's, where Redwine works to make wine "part of our daily culture. We have formal wine training every Saturday, but if a guest brings in an amazing bottle and gives me a glass, I always leave some for the staff to try. If I have something interesting at home, I'll bring it in. And once a quarter, I take two members of our team up to Napa and Sonoma for a couple of days." Field trip!

"When I came here," she recalls, "only one person had been, and when I would get all crazy about how beautiful the vineyards are in fall, or about how the air smells like wine during crush, they'd be looking at me like, 'You've been drinking too much wine.' It kind of loses the magic if you haven't been there, so we take them up. We'll go to Domaine Carneros to see how sparkling wine is made. We'll go to a boutique winery and a really big winery to see the differences in how wine is made and that small wineries don't always make great wine, while big wineries don't always make bad wine."

And because this is, ostensibly, restaurant research, she pays her respects at the temples of gastronomy as well. "I'll take them on a tour of the Culinary Institute of America [CIA] up there, so they can see how serious this industry has become. I take them to Dean & DeLuca, the Oakville Grocery. There's such a world of food and wine up there."

After the trip, "Each group has to put together an educational piece to present to the staff. The last two captains made a movie out of it; it was so cool to see, and it inspires them." That's where the jaded wine writer nods and smiles -- yes, yes, inspiration. Not a corporate-funded getaway/bacchanal. Nothing so indulgent. Of course not.

Redwine seems to anticipate the sentiment. "It's all well and cool," she says of her quarterly excursions, "but how does that help your business? That's the important question. Our wine sales have shot through the roof; we're just breaking every record. There's a phrase we say here: 'Wine is not an option, it's an expectation.' We really believe in food and wine together."

But as successful as she is, even the mentor has a mentor. After the American Institute of Wine and Food held an event at the Marriott, the hotel manager (himself an AIWF member) told Redwine, "'You should really be a part of this; they do some amazing things.' It offers you a chance to see different menu designs, different types of service, different food presentation. It helps you keep current in an industry that's constantly changing."

And if change is a constant in the restaurant world, it's doubly so when it comes to wine. "What you learn about Italy one year -- who knows how long that will stay true? The AVAs in Oregon -- are you kidding me? The Willamette Valley is becoming a jigsaw puzzle." So it was, perhaps, not so surprising when her mentors -- "people willing to give me a push" -- spoke up about her formal training in wine. (Redwine came to her position as wine director more from the managerial/business end of things than the sensory/aesthetic.) "It was hard to hear, because you get to a point in your career--but wine knowledge is a really important part of my job, and to have those credentials is really important."

Redwine, a CIA graduate, knew from her alumni newsletters that the AIWF offered scholarships, and in 2005, she applied for and was awarded $1000. "That prompted me to take action. I parlayed that into about three class experiences. I took the certified wine professional test to get back into the discipline of studying. I took sensory analysis -- what I really took from that was an understanding of flaws and of how environment can affect the way you taste. And I took Mastering Wine II, taught by master sommelier Tim Geiser."

The experience proved humbling. "Us wine-geeky people live on flash cards. My little index-card collection had blown up over that week-long class, and I was flash-carding and studying. But when he gave us the test, there was so much I didn't know. It was a real smackdown, so to speak. When I started, I had one 500-card box. Now, I have four, and I'm probably going to order a couple more. You start with just a very small idea of what wine is really about, and then, as you move through it, it becomes regions and rivers and soil components and vineyards and producers. But it never feels like work."

A meeting with Roppongi sommelier Megan Burgess garnered Redwine an invite to a weekly sommelier tasting group (the one featured here a few months back). "It enables us all to keep up to date collectively; we're constantly e-mailing each other about different websites we've found. I can't remember the last time I picked up a glass of wine and just drank it. Sensory analysis just kind of kicks in. But I hate it when people pour me a glass of wine and say, 'Okay, tell me what this is.' I'm, like, 'No, let's just drink it.' And my beer consumption has gone up, because you can't do it all the time. You've got to have something else."

The index cards multiplied, the powers of analysis sharpened, and in December, Redwine headed north to San Francisco to take the Certified Court of Master Sommeliers exam, "which I passed. They praised me on service -- I'm good at table. They want to talk to you, and that's hard. But in preparation, I would ask a guest at Molly's a question while I opened a bottle of wine. And I did well on my wine analysis. I don't know if my final answer was right, but what I said about the wine made sense. They said I needed to work on Germany -- I knew that. But the best part about it is it gives you the fire to go for the next step" -- the Advanced. "I hope to take it in April of '08."

When she appeared before the AIWF scholarship committee, Redwine had to answer questions about "where you've been, where you are, and where you're going. The longer I work in this business, the less I want my own place. I know what I want to do at the end of my career: go back and teach, hopefully at the CIA. I was inspired by so many instructors, and I've learned so much from some amazing people in the industry, and I come from a family of teachers. My dad was a college professor; my mom is a teacher. When you see the light bulbs go off, that's really fulfilling."

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