Q&A with Master of Wine Vanessa Conlin

On Thursday our Head of Wine Vanessa Conlin received the call of her career: After four intense years of study, countless blind tastings, and walks through thousands of vineyards, she became a Master of Wine—one of just 53 in the United States!

After a celebratory toast, we sat down to find out just how she went from being a professional opera singer to Champagne superstar, and what she’s drinking to celebrate.

What bottle made you fall in love with wine?

I didn’t have an “epiphany bottle” like a lot of people talk about as their gateway into falling in love with wine. I was always curious about wine, but I didn’t grow up in a family that regularly had wine at the dinner table, so I knew very little. I went to school for opera performance and when I was working as a professional singer, I had the opportunity to travel to many places near wine regions—California, France, Italy, etc. I fell in love with how a glass could tell me so much about the place, the people, the climate, the history, and cuisine. I also appreciated how in each region, the producers had such a distinct sense of pride and tradition about their trade.

How did you get into wine?

My travels had really piqued my interest but I still was a novice. My husband Curt and I were living in New York and had a few weeks off in between gigs and decided to take a class on wine. I literally came back from class with pages and pages of notes and insisted on reading all of them to him immediately—I was so excited! As much as I loved being a musician, I felt like I had finally found my true calling.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

Not really. Wine and the pursuit of always learning more about it has taken me on the most amazing path.

On any given weeknight, what are you most likely to be drinking?

Well, those who know me even a little bit know that I love Champagne. But I also love high acid still whites—Chablis, Grüner Veltliner, and Hunter Valley Semillon. Cab Franc from the Loire Valley and Northern Rhône Syrahs are some of my go-to reds. I live in Napa Valley so I’m also very proud of the wines from this region. That said, one of the things I love about wine is not having to drink the same thing all the time—exploring the world from my dining room table through drinking broadly is one of my favorite things about wine.

What wines inspire you?

Wines that have a sense of place and authenticity. When I taste a wine I want to be transported to the region through the aromas and flavors. I have also always felt that you can taste the intention of the winemaker in the glass. Was the intention to make something showy and ostentatious, or to bring a beautiful taste of their passion for wine? There is no faking that.

If you could only drink one bottle of wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Unfair question! One of the best things about wine is there are so many options!

If you could no longer drink wine, what would be your beverage of choice?

I do love a dry martini (vodka, olive, very cold), and I’m fairly obsessed with sparkling water.

If you could teach wine drinkers one thing, what would it be?

Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should like. There are people who can guide you along the way to open your horizons and expand your vocabulary, but in the end, it’s your palate and your wallet, so drink what you like.

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you at a winery?

I stupidly wore boots with stiletto heels in the winery and got one stuck in the grate of a drain in the cellar. I had to take off my boot and walk with one bare foot to find someone to help me to pry my boot out.

How do you confront snobbery in the wine business?

Head on. Arrogance, snobbery, and elitism are the opposite of the point of wine, which is to encourage people to come together to openly share ideas without judgement, since we all have different tastes and levels of experience. And really, what is the ever-loving point of being a snob about it? It is wine—we aren’t curing cancer.

How has your approach to wine changed over the years? How has the wine business changed?

I think my approach has always been the same: Is it delicious and does it bring great value-to-price ratio? I think the biggest change in the wine business is the sheer number of options, both domestically in the number of brands, but also with the availability of imports. There is almost nothing you can’t find anymore.

What’s the most bizarre thing someone has ever said to you about your wine?

I don’t know what the most bizarre thing someone ever said was, but I’ll tell you that the weirdest wine I ever had was a Cava infused with smoked salmon.

What brings you the most joy?

Sharing the joy that wine has brought me with others.

What wine in the store would you like to drink right now?

I’m literally drinking a glass of the NV Champagne M. Brugnon Selection Brut at this moment.