Behind every great restaurant wine list is a team (sometimes just one person) with the passion for wine, depth of knowledge about the product, interest in chefs and connections throughout the wine and food world necessary to make that restaurants cellars stand out. Understanding the process of making, valuing, thoroughly tasting and pairing wine can take a lifetime to master. Those who appreciate great wine understand the role of the sommelier in top end restaurants, but even those refined “experts” need to lean on the true masters behind the scene; the individuals who touch the grapes, communicate with winemakers, take part in the blending process with owners and travel the world to create partnerships with distributors and restaurateurs in an effort to build a wines brand. These “ambassadors” for wine have made wine their lives. These are the spokespeople whom everyone in the wine industry truly listens to, the ones who help restaurants shine with those perfect pairings.
The job is not easy and requires years of study, an exceptional palette, a worldly persona, and a Rolodex of connections that would be the envy of any food professional. The individuals who have made wine marketing and wine knowledge their calling are only known to those people who depend on their skill set to bask in the restaurant headlines. Behind every great chef, restaurateur and sommelier are these troubadours of wine, the walking and talking “live” Wikipedia sources of wine knowledge, the marketers of the vineyard.
I imagine there are very few people who at an early age decide that wine will be their calling (unless of course you are born into a wine family). More often than not, they fall into this role by first having an interest or career in restaurants or maybe even agriculture (wine is, after all an agricultural product). To be truly successful, these individuals will need a very responsive palette, just like the best chefs. It is this ability to pick out the small nuances of flavor and taste that set both exceptional chefs and exceptional wine professionals apart from the rest of us.
Like chefs, these wine professionals lead a life that has its glamorous moments but through far too many weeks of 100 or so hours, takes its toll. These professionals have chosen to pay this price and must have understanding families and friends as a result. This type of commitment goes with the turf. The vineyard ambassadors do get to travel to places that most serious food people would give their right arm to see, but those who have had to travel for work, waiting in airports, moving from hotel to hotel, and dining solely on restaurant food know that even this can become a less than positive experience. Yet, without these dedicated ambassadors, your favorite restaurant wine list would lose its sparkle.
Jack Edwards is the consummate vineyard ambassador. Currently the Vice President of Sales at Somerston Wine Company in the Napa Valley. Prior to taking on this position, Jack held a similar job with Miner Family Vineyards just down the road. Jack held this position for 16 years before moving to Somerston. I have known Jack for decades; first as a hospitality student at Paul Smith’s College and then through our wine and restaurant connections over the years. Jack agreed to this interview so that you might better understand the dynamics of this position and the important role that wine plays in the restaurant business throughout the world.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in food and beverage?
“Anthony Knapp Paul Smith’s College Alum and former owner of the Black Horse Inn of Mendham, New Jersey”. Anthony Knapp bought the 18th century Black Horse Tavern in 1965 and ran it for 42 years. He was known by many as Mr. Hospitality and was able to continue the reputation of this property as the restaurant “where everyone knew your name”. The property was sold in 2007.
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“I had a few mentors but the one who stands out is an old boss from Marriott named Joe Cozza who encouraged me to pursue a career in the beverage field.”
3. How would others describe your style of management?
“Probably laid back. Maybe sometimes too laid back, but generally effective.”
It is interesting how some people do not see themselves as strong as they are simply because they are kind and calm. My experiences with Jack (granted I did not work for him) were that through his calm demeanor it was easy to sense his competence and the respect that others had for his approach. This is a trait that so many managers are unable to master.
4. Do you have a business philosophy that drives your operational decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“Wine business is generally a social business. I try and establish great relationships and try to work with my distributors and customers as a team. There are a lot of good wines on the market. Buyers prefer to work with people they like and trust.”
Trust, as we all well know is not easy to achieve. Trust is built on actions not talk and those who are able to deliver what they promise will always attract followers. This “trust factor” is something that comes through loud and clear from all who work with Jack.
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
“For me it was a wine I tasted that changed my mind about my future. I was working an event and tasted a 1980 Simi Reserve Cabernet that changed my mind about wine. It was an experience that I won’t forget. It was a pretty good wine but the first I ever tasted that made me say wow!”
6. What is your pet peeve about working in the food and beverage industry?
“Sommeliers that buy wine that they like instead of what their customers are looking for.”
7. Who are your most valuable players in the operation where you currently work? “The Vineyard manager and Winemaker: without them we have nothing.”
Stephen Brook stated it very clearly in his book: Wine People, Vendome Press: “ Wine is more than a business, it is a culture that binds together the aristocrat and the peasant, the producer wedded to his soil and the sharp-eyed city merchant, the cautious grower and the extravagant consumer. It is a major source of conviviality. A raised glass can bring down, if only temporarily, national boundaries. Wine unites continuity and flux. It remains essentially the same product enjoyed on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains and around the Mediterranean shores four thousand years ago and yet it is constantly evolving, steadily improving in overall quality and gradually shifting in style to meet the supposed tastes and expectations of consumers. That is what makes wine so fascinating a topic. A simple product of nature, the fruit of the vine, it is none the less molded by humankind. No two vintages are identical, giving wine its infinite variety, and even the most skilled oenologist needs to adapt his techniques from year to year to extract the very best that the vintage has to offer.”
This is why Jack’s response is so true, simple and to the point. Somerston wines are a reflection of the person growing the grapes and the skill each year of Craig Becker; Miner wines are a reflection of that uniquely different skill set of Gary Brookman and the palette of Dave Miner. Jack added: “I am lucky to have Craig as both winemaker and vineyard manager and that he and Dave both provided me with a great product to make friends with.” These are the craftsmen who place their gift of wine in the hands of ambassadors like Jack Edward’s to respect and introduce to others.
8. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks, bakers or hospitality students looking to make their mark in this business, what would you tell them?
“I would tell chefs to learn a little about wine. It can change the way your food tastes; sometimes the impact is good, sometimes not. The real challenge is to know why.” The wine list in a restaurant should never be independent of the food menu. Both should be designed with the other in mind thus the importance of wine knowledge to the chef and food knowledge to the sommelier. Appropriate wine makes the food experience better.
9. When you hire people to work in your business what traits are you looking for?
“People in the wine business must be energetic, passionate and easy to like”. The truth of the matter is that in sales, a decision to buy is based to a large degree on likeability. More often than not, the purchasing decision is made at the point when the sales person introduces him/herself and shakes your hand.
10. If you were not working in food and beverage, what would you choose to do for a career?
“Golf course management.”
This is another business that requires a keen sense of hospitality, a high level of competence, and likeability.
11. What would you like people to know about your current business and the products that you produce or sell?
“Since Somerston Wine Company is new, I would just like people to taste the wines: they speak for themselves. We produce sustainably grown, hillside vineyard wines from Napa Valley.”
“The Somerston property is the foundation of everything we do. The property is 1628 acres of natural beauty, with over 200 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards, winery, and a developing ranch and farm Our two valleys are split by the highest point on Sage Canyon Road, topping out at almost 2800 feet in elevation, the valley floors rest at 800 feet above sea level. Somerston is 8 miles east of Rutherford east of the Chiles Valley appellation in Napa Valley. Its diverse soils, microclimates, and exposures are perfect for growing world-class grapes. This remarkable property has several spring fed lakes, natural soda springs, and several acres dedicated to farming of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and gardens.”
from Somerston Webpage
“Jack’s extensive national and international experience at Miner Family Winery will allow him to facilitate our growth plans and elevate the level of service and support to our distributors, wholesalers and importers,” noted Becker. “Jack’s extensive contacts and long-term relationships will increase market awareness of our brands. He is very well regarded throughout the industry and we share similar values. I am truly excited to welcome Jack to our team!”
Craig Becker, winemaker at Somerston
Although Somerston Wine Company produces and distributes a full portfolio of wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Pinot Noir; it is their Cabernet Sauvignon that Jack proclaims as their signature wine.
The beauty of Facebook is the ability to follow friends and acquaintances through various stages of their professional and personal lives. I look forward to the posts from Jack as he travels the world bringing the message of wine to others. He may be in Japan this week, France the next, New York City shortly afterward, on to the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, Aspen and then back on an international flight to China. His bucket list of great restaurants is far broader than mine and he is progressing through that list at a much faster rate than I.As an ambassador, this is the price to pay.
If you are interested in wine, visit the websites of Somerston Wines and his previous employer: Miner Family Vineyards.