Have you ever dreamed of ditching your day job and starting a career in wine? What do wine and music have in common? What’s it like to share a bottle of wine with the famous wine critic Robert Parker?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Amanda McCrossin & Vanessa Conlin of the Wine Access Unfiltered Podcast for part 1 of our two-part conversation.
You can find the wines we discussed here.
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- When did Vanessa recognize she had found her place in the world of wine?
- Why was moving to Napa Valley the best moment in Amanda’s wine career so far?
- How was Amanda impacted by the California wildfires in 2017 and 2020?
- Are Napa Valley wineries open for visitors?
- How did a class shift Vanessa’s career path from opera to wine?
- Why was wine an infrequent part of Vanessa’s life during her career as an opera singer?
- How did Amanda make the transition from the stage into her wine career?
- How are wine and music more similar than you might think?
- What’s behind the perceived barrier to entry for both wine and opera?
- How are Amanda and Vanessa making wine more accessible?
- Why did Amanda make the move to Napa Valley from New York?
- How did Vanessa end up moving to California on a leap of faith?
- How does Vanessa combine her passion for wine with her love of animals?
- What was the moment that Amanda knew it was time for her to go all-in on her wine career?
- What aspects of Vanessa’s transition to her wine career were the hardest?
- Why was working at Press Restaurant such an interesting experience for Amanda?
- Which first wine experience did Amanda share with Robert Parker?
- What close call did Vanessa have with sparkling wine?
- I love the parallels that they draw between wine and music: both enjoyed individually and evoke all the senses. You can share the same bottle of wine with others but have a very different experience of it from them. What you bring to that wine influences what you take away from it.
- I love the point about wine, like music, being the sum of art and science. You start with technical foundations, but it’s the artistic flourish on top that makes the experience magical.
- It was great to get an update on Napa Valley and I’m looking forward to visiting the region again.
- I believe that you can enjoy wine without being an expert, but also believe that you can have a richer, more layered experience with knowledge. That’s always optional of course.
- I agree that a great way to learn about wine is to surround yourself with people who know more about it than you do, whether that’s through friends or online courses.
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Napa Valley is definitely open and driving up and down the valley probably looks very different than what it might have looked like on the news. - Vanessa Conlin Click to tweet
Wine and music are incredibly similar. They’re both enjoyed very individually – the three of us could sit down over the same bottle of wine and leave with different experiences. - Vanessa Conlin Click to tweet
The more you understand wine, the more you have a full-bodied, full sensory reaction to it. - Natalie MacLean Click to tweet
Wine, we always try to quantify it to people as being of the sum of art and science and I think music in many ways is like that. - Amanda McCrossin Click to tweet
Wine is meant to be enjoyed, shared with friends. You certainly can get studious about it and spend a lot of money if you want to but ultimately, it’s meant to be something that’s just pure pleasure. - Vanessa Conlin Click to tweet
How do you demystify wine? You just surround yourself with people that know more than you do. - Amanda McCrossin Click to tweet
PRESS Restaurant is like the winemakers’ water cooler in addition to being a place where all the tourists filter through. That always makes for some very interesting stories. - Amanda McCrossin Click to tweet
About Amanda McCrossin & Vanessa Conlin MW
Amanda McCrossin is a sommelier, media personality, wine educator, host of the Wine Access Unfiltered Podcast, & creator/host of the Instagram and YouTube channel “SOMMVIVANT.” As the former Wine Director at PRESS Restaurant in Napa Valley, Amanda worked with the world’s largest, deepest restaurant collection of all Napa Valley wines in the world. Prior to being named Wine Director in 2018, Amanda worked as a sommelier with her mentors and predecessors Kelli White (author, Napa Valley Then & Now) and Scott Brenner to become one of the world’s leading experts in California wine. Today, Amanda focuses her efforts on producing wine “edutainment” and digital media content for her social media platforms geared toward both consumers and professionals alike. A frequent speaker, personality, and contributing writer, in 2018 she was named a Wine Enthusiast ‘Wine Star’ Nominee for Sommelier of the Year and has been featured by numerous publications and media outlets including SOMM TV, Food Network, Wine Enthusiast, Somm Journal, Food & Wine, World of Fine Wine, & Wine Spectator.
Vanessa Conlin MW is the Head of Wine for Wine Access, a national direct-to-consumer e-com wine retailer where she oversees all wine curation and wine content. Vanessa has served as the Director of Sales and Marketing for several of Napa’s most prestigious luxury estates including Arietta Wines and Dana Estates. Previously she was the wine buyer for two prominent Manhattan wine retailers and the Wine Director for a Manhattan-based wine bar. As an avid supporter of charitable causes, Vanessa is the President of the Board for Jameson Humane, a Napa Valley-based animal rescue and sanctuary, and has chaired the organization’s annual charity wine auction four times, raising over 7 million dollars. Prior to falling in love with wine, Vanessa worked as a professional musician, performing internationally and on Broadway, and holds a Master’s Degree in Music. She is an instructor for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and was the recipient of the Niki Singer Memorial Scholarship from the International Wine Center. Vanessa became a Master of Wine in 2020.
- Connect with Amanda and Vanessa
- PRESS Restaurant
- Unreserved Wine Talk | Episode 33: The Smart Woman Behind the Wine for Dummies Books: Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW
- My new class The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner And How To Fix Them Forever
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Amanda McCrossin 0:00
Vanessa touched on a few of them. I would also add that wine as being sort of the sum of art and science and I think music in many ways is like that. You can’t have a great piece of music, or a great piece of theatre, or a great classical ballet dancer, without technique, without science having that be the foundational element. And then the art sort of comes after that. And so to understand how those two things can really work together, that they’re not working in parallel, being able to understand that those two things working together, that’s really where the magic happens.
Natalie MacLean 0:37
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? That’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey, as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started.
Welcome to Episode 119. Have you ever dreamed about ditching your day job and starting a career in wine? What do wine and music have in common? And what’s it like to share a bottle of wine with the famous wine critic Robert Parker? Our guests this week have those answers for you, plus lots more great wine tips and stories. And I’ve got a bonus for you. In addition to this podcast, I’d love for you to join me for the première watch party of the video of this conversation that I’ll be live streaming for the very first time on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube next Wednesday, March 17 at 7pm Eastern. The video will show you the pictures and other visual elements that we discussed in the podcast. I’ll also be jumping into the comments on all three platforms as we watch it together so that I can answer your questions in real time. It’s like the Netflix version of the podcast. Plus, you can talk to me and ask me questions as we watch it together. You can also see what other people thought of this conversation and the answers to their questions. In the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, where you can find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube Live video every Wednesday at 7pm, including this evening and next week. That’s all in the show notes at Nataliemaclean.com/119.
Now on a personal note before we dive into the show, at dinner last night at Stofa, that’s a terrific restaurant in Ottawa, by the way, Miles and I were trying to answer the question, “What three things could you not live without? Apart from the obvious like food, oxygen, etc.” Well, I was quick to put wine on the list, of course, but it took me a while to think of the others, as many things really seem unnecessary or even frivolous when you think about it. I added my computer eventually, since it’s my portal to the world and all that I do, especially during the lockdown. And the third thing came along to me after my first, or was it my second glass of wine, which is my bed. I love to sleep and to nap and it’s so cosy. Sometimes I just don’t want to leave it. How about you? What three things could you not live without? Let me know. Okay, on with the show.
Both of these women are very highly trained wine experts. And they together host the wine unfiltered podcast feel like their soul sisters were unreserved their unfiltered. And they both worked for the US based wine retail club wine access. So you can order directly wines from a very popular club, Amanda cross and was formerly a wine director at several prestigious Napa Valley restaurants, where she worked with the world’s largest collection of Napa Valley wines. And in 2018, she was named one of the wine enthusiasts wine star some of the aves Vanessa Conlon is head of wine for wine access. And she formerly worked at several of Napa his most prestigious wineries. She became a master of wine in 2020. And together they share some uncanny similarities that we’re going to get into because they were both musical performers in New York City before moving to Napa. And they join me now Vanessa, Amanda, welcome.
We’re so glad to have you here.
Amanda McCrossin 4:58
Thank you so much Natalie
Vanessa Conlin 4:59
Thank you. Great to be here.
Natalie MacLean 5:02
So, Vanessa, I know you’re in Napa. Where are you logging in from Amanda?
Amanda McCrossin 5:07
Well, my home base is in Saint Helena and Napa, but I’m actually on the East Coast right now in snowy weather just outside of Philadelphia. I took the opportunity now that I’m sort of out of restaurants and can work from anywhere to be closer to family for the last year.
Natalie MacLean 5:21
Oh, good for you. That’s good timing strategically. So before we dive into some of the questions here, I wanted to hear from both of you. Vanessa, we’ll start with you. What’s been the best moment of your career in wine so far?
Vanessa Conlin 5:36
Well, honestly, so far, I feel like I almost don’t know, because it keeps changing and evolving. So I don’t know that I’ve had my best moment yet. I mean, I get excited every time I get to go to a new region that I’ve never visited, or learn something new, which is one of the things that I most enjoy about wine; is that there’s no end to what can be learned. So who knows. But I mean, I think looking back sort of early in my career, just getting my first real retail job, just actually, you know, walking in and interviewing and having that person actually think I knew what I was talking enough to put me on the retail floor. This was in New York City. I thought, okay, I’ve learned enough that I at least fooled her for now. So that was the moment where I thought okay, actually, like, I think I have a place here. I’m going to stay.
Natalie MacLean 6:24
That’s awesome. Yeah, I think we all feel that anxiety when we first start into wine. It’s like, Oh, my gosh, what am I doing here? There’s so much to learn, and who am I to answer anyone’s questions, but you have to dive in somewhere. Amanda, how about you?
Amanda McCrossin 6:38
Yeah, that’s such a good one. Because I think we all feel that imposter syndrome, that never really, truly leaves us. I don’t know, maybe now that you’re an MW, maybe you felt that leave, but every now and then still feel like I don’t know anything. I think for me, it was moving to Napa Valley, the transition from becoming a New York sommelier, which is also a very momentous time and place in my career. But I think that those first few days of living in Napa Valley and realising that I was going to be not only working with the wine list that I was working with, but also the people and the community and the place, it sort of struck me and honestly, it was the reason that I started my Instagram, my YouTube channel. So I think, you know, if I look back throughout the timeline, which, like Vanessa said, is just riddled with lots of wonderful, great memories, that was probably the biggest and the best one.
Natalie MacLean 7:27
Okay, cool. Now, I meant to reverse this, because I believe in happy endings, but I was going to ask you first, what are the low points? Is there any story that comes to mind in terms of a low point in your world of wine so far Vanessa?
Vanessa Conlin 7:39
You know, not really. I would say, you know, I hate that moment when you are with a group of people and someone has brought a bottle that they’re really excited to share with you. And it ends up being corked. But no, I really can’t think of a worst moment. You know, I definitely had challenges in terms of things I had to learn along the way, in terms of experience, or certainly studying for the MW exam. There were plenty of hard days where you have to just pick yourself up and brush yourself off and keep going. But I wouldn’t actually call that a bad day or a worse day. It was just all part of the process.
Natalie MacLean 8:11
Sure,good attitude. All right, Amanda?
Amanda McCrossin 8:15
Yeah, I mean, I think for me, it was the fires. I think that the first time I really realised how connected I was to the valley was when our community was in trouble, both in 2017 and 2020. But I think to Vanessa’s point, those are low times. And I felt an enormous amount of sadness, fear, you know, all the things that we associate with low points. But ultimately, there was a silver lining on all of that. And it brought the community closer together, it made us all stronger. It seems to be a history repeating itself, because these are sort of the moments that end up rebuilding us and making us stronger and propelling us into the future. So yeah, I mean, I think those moments were low, but filled with highs at the end of it.
Natalie MacLean 8:55
That’s great. And just because you’ve touched on forest fires, how does that stand right now? Vanessa and I were chatting a little bit before you joined, but I’m sure people are curious. What’s happening right now in California and forest fires.
Amanda McCrossin 9:08
There’s nothing happening right now. I mean, I think California, Northern California, is always going to have the threat of fires, because of just, you know how densely forested we are. But no right now, I mean, I’ll be back there next week and Vanessa’s there now. So she can speak to the greenery, but every time I get on the phone with someone from Napa, or hop on a Zoom, it’s like we’re open, we’re green, it’s beautiful. Come visit.
Vanessa Conlin 9:28
Exactly. There’s fire season really starts, you know, around. Well, now it starts around July these days, but no, right now I mean, it’s raining outside my window right now. It’s green. It’s Napa Valley is definitely open and I see driving up and down the valley, it probably looks very different than what it might have looked like on the news when these things happen, where it’s sort of we did lose a lot. We lost a lot, but we didn’t lose the entire valley. You know, you can still drive up and down Silverado Trail or highway 29 and really not even notice that that happened. So definitely excited to welcome people back here.
Natalie MacLean 10:00
Well, that’s good. That’s good. There’s our happy ending. So you guys have some, as I said, some striking similarities, in terms of your career journey. You were both based in New York City and correct me if I’m wrong, but you were musical or theatre performers, and then you made your way into the wine industry and moved, like from there, almost across the country to Napa Valley. Vanessa, let’s start with you. Your father was a symphony conductor, if I understand correctly, your mother was also in music, and then you became an opera singer.
Vanessa Conlin 10:29
Natalie MacLean 10:30
What was that like, what was performing like?
Vanessa Conlin 10:33
I really grew up around it. And my mother was an opera singer too. She does more on the arts administration side, fundraising, grant writing, etc. But they’re both still involved in music. So I’m an only child and I spent a lot of my childhood, sort of, I won’t say being dragged, because I actually enjoyed it. But you know, sitting in orchestra rehearsals, you know, after school, and so it was a little bit unusual childhood, always music in my house one way or another word, whether it was my father playing the piano, or my mother singing. She also taught voice lessons. So I felt like it was in my DNA. I never really thought about doing anything else, other than being a musician until I already had a master’s degree, which is serving me really well now. But I moved to New York City, got a master’s degree in music, and like all starving artists had to work in restaurants as a server so….
Natalie MacLean 11:22
Okay, was that your segue into the world of wine?
Vanessa Conlin 11:25
It piqued my interest for sure. I mean I had definitely had a little bit here and there and tried it and I honestly didn’t know much of anything about it other than I thought it was fascinating and I knew I wanted to learn more. So I took a class in between gigs. You know, opera singing is very sort of gig to gig, it’s very rare that you have a long extended contract. So I had some downtime in New York and Amanda and I have talked about this before, that I don’t have what people refer to as an epiphany bottle, which is usually some very fancy or expensive bottle that blows your mind. And I did not have that. I’m actually way too much of a dork for that; I took a class and this wine class just honestly opened my mind in a way to this world that I never wanted to close. So that was really it. That was the segue.
Natalie MacLean 12:07
Yeah. You’ve said you’re a study nerd, aren’t you?
Vanessa Conlin 12:09
Yes, unabashedly! Absolutely.
Natalie MacLean 12:13
So that the life of the opera singer gig to gig you said, it seems like it’s very restricting in terms of some comments you’ve made before in terms of your diet, were you allowed to have wine? or how did the two go together?
Vanessa Conlin 12:27
It’s of course, based on the individual and what they believe is good for them. But no, I mean, performing you know, your body is your instrument, and particularly with the opera singing, I mean, it’s just these two little vocal cords, right? It’s not like sitting in a piano or picking up a violin. So the secret of the trade is actually, if you don’t perform, you don’t get paid. So even if you even if you’ve gone through the entire rehearsal process, if you get to that performance day, and you’re not well enough to go on, you’re going home with nothing. So it’s taken very seriously. So yeah, I would do things like avoid caffeine, spicy food, certainly alcohol and avoid crowded places so I wouldn’t have to be A: be worried about getting sick, but also not talk over a crowd so that I wouldn’t tire my voice. And it’s actually can be quite a lonely lifestyle actually, in that and that you’re sort of always trying to kind of isolate yourself and kind of avoid all the things that are really fun, like, you know, drinking and eating and talking to people
Natalie MacLean 13:19
Sure. Oh, wow. Yeah, it is restricted. I mean, I trained as a dance. You see your body as a microphone or as an instrument; I always thought of my body as a paintbrush. Amanda, I know you’ve taken ballet lessons, too, right?
Amanda McCrossin 13:30
Yeah,I was a classically trained ballet dancer before I did anything on stage. That was my first love.
Natalie Maclean 13:34
Amanda McCrossin 13:35
Yeah, I know. It’s amazing that Vanessa I didn’t connect sooner but so grateful that we did.
Natalie MacLean 13:40
You sound like sisters meant to meet over the same bottle. It’s uncanny. But Amanda, you also were in musical theatre, along with ballet, voice lessons or acting lessons, that sort of thing before wine.
Amanda McCrossin 13:55
Yeah, my whole life was on the stage. I started fairly young, like I said, as a classical ballet dancer. And then I got into musical theatre by way of the high school doing a production of The Music Man. And unbeknownst to my parents, I had a voice. That’s where my official journey started. That was like part one of my professional career, because I actually worked as a stage actress when I was a kid and through my teens, and then ended up going to school for musical theatre, graduated, like Vanessa said, you know, we are always working, you know, jobs here and there. So, found my way up to New York and was working at a private club. And throughout all of this, my parents were never into wine, but they were very into food. And they also were not on the stage. So I was not around theatre; I was not around wine. It’s a miracle that I got into either of those professions. But when I got up to New York, I felt like I was at the epicentre of the cultural universe, and I wanted to really take part in everything that that had to offer. So pulling from my background, when my parents were taking us to great restaurants; I felt like wine was sort of the last frontier but I didn’t know how to get into it. So when I was working at the Core Club, a gentleman who had been the sommelier at Le Bernardin had started and I just started picking his brain one night and that’s sort of how it all happened. You know, he really opened a lot of doors and helped me enrol in classes and helped me get my first sommelier job.
Natalie MacLean 15:07
In what ways do the two of you think that wine and music are similar? I mean, it sounded like they were a clash for you, Vanessa, you know, you couldn’t even partake or enjoy; it would dry or dehydrate you, but what are the similarities do you find between mine and music?
Vanessa Conlin 15:22
Well, I think there are a ton of similarities. And what I referenced was really just trying to sort of stay healthy to actually be a performer. But in terms of the enjoyment of both, I often talk about how they’re similar and that even the words we use, you know, balance, harmony, there’s so many things that were saying that could be one or the other if you didn’t know the context. But I think also, they’re both ways to kind of get in touch with your senses. You know, in terms of feeling, I feel like we spend so much time in a digital world now, you know, it’s got our device in front of us. And it’s a way to kind of feel human again, to just enjoy something, you know, just with what’s already part of your body, without any sort of outside stimulation. So I think they’re incredibly similar and I think also, what’s fascinating about that is, they’re both enjoyed very individually, whereas the three of us could sit down over the same bottle of wine and leave with a different experience. And I think that that is such an intriguing point, to be able to talk about what we find that similar among us, and then what we might find that’s different, and how that plays into our enjoyment of it.
Natalie MacLean 16:25
Oh, wow, yeah, I love your comment about it sort of engages all the senses. Like, again, I default to dancing. But if I watch a ballet performance, I have a muscular response to it. Amanda, you might as well like when someone does jeté; it’s like my calves kind of do this. But, and I think sometimes wine can be like that, too. And the more you understand it, the more you have a full bodied, full sensory reaction to it. But Amanda, what kind of similarities do you find? Or do you think that beyond similarities, that music affects our perception of wine?
Amanda McCrossin 16:58
Well, I mean, certainly everything is going to affect your perception of wine. I think it’s one of those things that we can sort of take in with all of our senses. But similarities wise, I mean, I think Vanessa touched on a few of them. I would also add that coming from a theatrical background, and Vanessa, you know, music and theatrics; wine, we always tried to quantify to people as being sort of the sum of art and science and I think music in many ways is that. Like you can’t have a great piece of music or a great piece of theatre, or a great classical ballet dancer; you can’t have that without technique, without science, without knowing the mechanism behind what we’re doing, and having that be the foundational element. And then the art sort of comes after that. And so to understand how those two things can really work together, that they’re not working in parallel, they’re sort of like working in tandem; I think for our creative brains,. I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think that’s where I find the similarities in wine is being able to understand that those two things working together, like that’s really where the magic happens.
Natalie MacLean 17:53
I love that, I love that metaphor, or the way you’ve put the science and art together. Do you think that there are also similarities in the intimidation factor between wine and maybe more so opera Vanessa? I’m not sure because people may feel like they have to be experts first before they can enjoy it.
Vanessa Conlin 18:10
I do. And you actually almost answered my question for me. I do think that there is a perceived barrier to entry which shouldn’t exist, doesn’t exist. But that there is, I think, coming back to my sort of background in music and growing up with two classical musicians, this was something that we talked about a lot, because of course, classical music is struggling to stay relevant, to have new younger people be interested. So we would often sort of brainstorm how can we make this more accessible, without changing the core of what it is. There was very much a perception and I’m sure there still is, that you need to know something, that you’re going to go in and look silly, because you’re not going to understand what they’re saying, or, you know, you don’t know the background of the composer or the artists and really, music was always meant to just be enjoyed by the people. Now sometimes that was meant for the Emperor. But that’s another story. But really, it wasn’t meant to be something that you had to know going in. It was meant to be entertaining, to bring people together, to inspire conversation. But that in itself is similar to wine I find and I remember this of myself, I before I got into wine, looking at a label that says something from France and thinking I don’t know how to pronounce any of this, let alone what’s in the bottle. So I do definitely think that there is some intimidation, but I know that Amanda and I feel really passionately about breaking that down, because like music wine is meant to be enjoyed, you know, shared with friends. You certainly can get studious about it, spend a lot of money if you want to; but ultimately it’s meant to be something that’s just pure pleasure.
Natalie MacLean 19:37
Absolutely. And a lot of folks say they’re demystifying wine and making it more accessible. But
how do you do that?
Vanessa Conlin 19:43
I mean, I think that finding someone that you’d like to learn from, whether that’s a book, you know, a class, listening to something like this podcast or the Wine Access Unfiltered Podcast, where we’re talking about wine, watching videos, there’s so many ways to digest information these days. Talking to someone at your local shop, “Honestly, you know, just starting to ask questions”, going to a wine tasting and asking questions. I think you just have to start somewhere and you sort of start peeling back the first layer of the onion. And before you know it, there’s a lot of knowledge in your pocket. So just taking that first step, I think,
Natalie MacLean 20:15
yeah, that’s the hardest, isn’t it? Once you get a foothold, then it’s got a grip on you, actually. So Amanda, do you remember the moment you decided to move from New York to Napa? That’s a big move. What prompted that?
Amanda McCrossin 20:28
I do, I actually just was talking about it the other day, because I had a great conversation with Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan winery over in Sonoma. And as I mentioned, I was working in New York as a sommelier, had a great job at a small restaurant with a really wonderful wine list. But it was sort of on the small side and a really focused wine list. And I didn’t work with a team and I knew that I wanted to, I think, you know, how do you demystify wine, you just surround yourself with people that know more than you do. And that’s the same for a sommelier, you know, you demystify it, you get better at it by surrounding yourself with people who are smarter, that know different things, that know, that can teach you either through osmosis or will sit down with you. But I decided that I had wanted to expand my horizons and ended up connecting with Scott and Kelly at Press restaurant in St. Helena. And I flew out there to do a “stage”, I had a conversation with them, didn’t really know what I wanted, I knew my lease was running out, in like, you know, a matter of about two months, month and a half, which if you’ve ever lived in New York, you know, that’s like a really critical moment and anyone’s like, What do I do? So I flew out there, I “staged” for two nights, which means, you know, I just went around the restaurant and sort of helped out with wine service, you know, felt like I fit in with the culture there and the people. And second night, Kelly sits me down at the bar and says, you know, let’s have some food; see if you like it, let me open some wine for you. And she ended up opening a 1987 Joseph Swan Zinfandel. And for anyone who’s ever been to Press, you know, that like the cellar was just riddled with crazy, crazy back vintages of Napa Valley wine and you know, occasionally some Sonoma stuff as well. So she opens this wine and I’m eating the food and I’m talking to her and I’m like, “You’re a fool if you don’t think that this is a great idea to move to Napa Valley right now”. So I literally got on the plane hours later and got a super early flight to get back to New York to my job. And on the flight, I wrote an email to them and I said, you know, if you are willing to have me, I’d love to move out here. And that was the moment and then three weeks after that I was living in Napa Valley with a quick jump to Bordeaux and the centre.
Natalie MacLean 22:22
Good Lord, you pack it in. A jaunt to Bordeaux. Wow. Okay, sure. That’s quite the journey. And how about you, Vanessa, how did you land in Napa?
Vanessa Conlin 22:33
Well, I lived in New York for a number of years. I loved New York City. But it definitely felt like in terms of a wine career the thing that I was really missing and wanting to dig deeper into is being actually around vineyards and winemaking, because of course, in New York City, while you could drive up to the North Fork or Finger Lakes, but I was working, you know, in retail, and as a wine director at a wine bar in Manhattan. So that’s the thing that I really had the opportunity to be around. So I started thinking about it, Of course it’s a big move. But there was definitely a moment where you know, New York City, it’s a nice day, I thought, Oh, go to Central Park and just like put a blanket down, have a little glass of Rosé and think this over. And of course, it’s a nice day in New York City, every single other person has the exact same idea. So I remember getting there, like trying to find like a little wedge of lawn to put my you know, my blanket down on and sitting there. And like literally, I think within two minutes, I got hit by a soccer ball and a Frisbee. And I just thought, okay, like this is, this is a sign. So I moved out, I did not have a job. I took a rental based on iPhone video that a friend took of it. So I had actually never seen it in person. So just kind of, you know, took the attitude of like leap and the net will appear. Moved out and then there were plenty of jobs on you know, I’m sure you’ve heard of the website winejobs.com, when I was looking when living in New York for jobs out here. And then I got out here and everything had just basically completely dried up all of a sudden. So my first job was working in a tasting room at Robert Mondavi winery.
Natalie MacLean 24:03
Oh, wow, that’s a good place to start.
Vanessa Conlin 24:05
Yeah. So you know, I came on here really wanting to work for a winery, which of course eventually I did. But I have to tell you that even though that wasn’t my plan to work in the tasting room, it was an outstanding introduction to Napa Valley, to really get to know obviously, I had to tell the story of Napa and the history and his history, which is so crucial to the history of this entire place. So really getting intimate with that, meeting people, hearing their questions about Napa Valley; that was probably the best unplanned introduction to living here that I possibly could have gotten.
Natalie MacLean 24:33
Wow, sight unseen. No job. You just land there. With apparently your cat and a blow up mattress
Vanessa Conlin 24:39
Yes. Yes, that is it. Yes. And my laptop.
Amanda McCrossin 24:42
There’s many cats now.
Natalie MacLean 22:45
Oh, really? Okay, well, you’ve settled in then.
Vanessa Conlin 24:47
We’ll probably get an appearance; there’s like a 50 -50 chance, I’m going to say it’s actually like an 80-20 chance of the possibility of a cat appearance during this podcast. So
Amanda McCrossin 24:54
You’ll just see a tail kind of wiggly.
Natalie MacLean 24:56
How many cats do you have?
Vanessa Conlin 24:57
I currently have three but I’ve had as many as five. I’m also very involved with an animal rescue organisation.
Natalie MacLean 25:04
That’s right. What do you do with them? I meant to ask you about that; you do fundraising?
Vanessa Conlin 25:08
I do. Well, I’ve chaired; there’s an annual fundraiser. It’s a charity wine auction called WineaPAWlooza, which Amanda has also been a part of and will be this year as well. We’re very lucky to have her. So I’ve chaired the auction in previous years. I’m co chairing it this year, but then I’m also board chair for the organisation.
Natalie MacLean 25:24
Oh, very good. And do you name your cats after wine?
Vanessa Conlin 25:27
No, actually, all of my cats are named after old movie stars. Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner. We have Vivian Leigh. And then I’ve had Frank Sinatra, and then also Scarface. It’s the only non actual person; it’s the only character but yes, so. Very good. Not wine.
Natalie MacLean 25:47
So for both of you, maybe Amanda, was it hard to leave musical theatre? I mean, I know it can be nerve wracking gig to gig. But I mean, that’s quite a switch to just leave something you’ve been professionally trained in and started a career in and then “pfft” over to wine?
Amanda McCrossin 26:04
Yeah, no, it’s it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot and more in retrospect, I guess now. But I guess at the time, it was a slow sort of gradual pull away. Like there wasn’t one particular moment where it was like, all right, I think it’s time, I guess there was when I took my first sommelier job, but I never really had a conversation with anyone about it other than myself, and I sort of laid up at night, like, I’ve heard, you know, I was only 25. At the time, I’ve heard there’s times in life where you have to choose paths. And so I was sort of at that moment. And I was like, you know, I have all these great opportunities sort of coming my way. I’ve always wanted to see the world, I’m single, I want to travel, I want to eat, I want to drink. And as much as I love my job on the stage, and it was very much my career, I was like, you know, I think this is maybe a time where you should just try it, see how it is, if you hate it, you can go back to it, you’ve got a degree and you know what you’re doing. And outside, maybe it’s time to try something new, but it was sort of like losing your first love. I had a deep, deep, relationship with the theatrical world and sort of leaving that behind was a little bit painful. And you know, I missed it. But I also sort of one of the moments that I realised that I was like, maybe this is time to divert, was when you know, I’d open the New York Times, and instead of going to the art section, it was going to the food and wine section.
Amanda McCrossin 27:13
So yeah, I think when you start realising where your priorities are lying, you start to make decisions for yourself.
Natalie MacLean 27:19
That’s a great way to put it. And Vanessa, your parents who grew up in music, how did they react? And what were you feeling when you kind of decided to make that change?
Vanessa Conlin 27:29
Um, they were not happy at all. They, they have come to really enjoy wine. And it’s something that we enjoy together. But no, I mean, I think for them, it was a very difficult, just given that I had grown up with them as musicians, and they always viewed me as a musician, I think that they thought I was crazy to go into like, what even career is there in wine? Is it like bartending? What are you going to do? So I think they were just confused more than anything, they’ve definitely come around. For me, it was a choice that I was really excited to make. To be perfectly frank, it wasn’t always easy. I mean, there definitely was something difficult about kind of, who I knew myself to be and how I thought people perceived me as this person and who was I. I’m a musician. And so there was an uncomfortable time where it’s just like, I don’t know how to explain myself. I don’t know how people are going to view me I just, this is like a different person that I’ve been for the last 20 something years. So that was brief, but it wasn’t always easy. But again, like I’ve never regretted it, it was the best decision I ever made.
Natalie MacLean 28:32
Yeah, I’m sure a lot of people dream of a career and just listening to your journeys; but ultimately having to take that leap as you said, Vanessa. Hopefully the wine net appears. Both of you; has there ever been an unusual situation that’s happened while you were working in a restaurant or in a tasting room? Any memories you have of those times before you’ve got to Wine Access?
Amanda McCrossin 28:57
Like every night working
Natalie Maclean 28:59
Oh really; does one stand out?
Amanda McCrossin 29:03
You have to keep in mind that Press is this place, and Vanessa has been there a number of times, it’s literally in the middle of Napa Valley. And it’s like the winemakers water cooler in addition to being the place where all the tourists filter through, so you have this really interesting intersection of the who’s who of the wine world. And then these tourists who are like children in Disney World for the very first time. And that always makes for some very interesting stories. But you know, we had some amazing guests come through Press and I have been very fortunate to have great conversations. And in fact, that was sort of, at least on my side, the impetus for the theme of our podcast, which is to not have any wine professionals on there. We’re just going to talk to you some of the people that we might have have interacted with at Press that were not in the wine scene. But I mean, I think one of the most monumental nights was one of the very first times I met Robert Parker, he came in and he you know, always had a smile on his face was you know, super warm and personable and,
Natalie MacLean 29:58
And just for those who don’t know, he’s the Famous US critic who really popularised wine scores, just in case some folks don’t know him, but I’m sure most wine lovers will. Yeah.
Amanda McCrossin 30:07
Yeah. And in Napa Valley, he is sort of, you know, sort of a legend. But yeah, so Robert Parker comes in and super nice, very warm, comes over introduces himself, whips out a bottle of wine. He was like, have you ever had this before? I looked at it. And I recognised the label, but I didn’t recognise the colour of the wine inside of it. And I was like, Yeah, but I didn’t know they made a white wine. He was like, I don’t, me either. Let’s try it. So he said, “Go grab a glass and meet me in the back; we’ll taste it.” And it was the very first time either of us had had a White Screaming Eagle. It’s very famous. Probably the most expensive California wine ever made.
Natalie MacLean 30:43
Didn’t one of them go for like half a million dollars a bottle at auction or something like that?
Amanda McCrossin 30:48
Yeah. It’s a large format that went at auction in Napa Valley, and it was half a million. Yeah. So and it was the first vintage. So yeah, I think to date, the most expensive single bottle of wine ever sold.
Amanda McCrossin 30:58
So yes, my most wonderful memory is drinking White Screaming Eagle with Robert Parker in the private dining room of Press.
Natalie MacLean 31:05
That’s amazing. That’s fantastic. What a great memory. How about you, Vanessa?
Vanessa Conlin 31:11
I feel like restaurants have all the best stories. Way more than retail. Right?
Vanessa Conlin 31:19
I will just say it in terms of just sort of bizarre or puzzling. I do remember back in retail in New York coming in the shop one morning and I thought that we had been robbed because the window was shattered. And there was like, things just placed all over the floor and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And then I realised that we had just recently brought in a sparkling wine, we had these display racks in the wall and apparently it started re-fermenting, and a number of corks overnight had actually, you know, shot out of the bottles and they had exploded and basically wreaked havoc over one whole side. Luckily, this was at night when no one was in the store.
Natalie MacLean 31:54
But they can go as fast as bullets or whatever. I mean, they’ve been clocked at 90 miles an hour. Yeah, I can imagine. That’s quite the experience.
Natalie MacLean 32:10
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Amanda and Vanessa. Here are my takeaways.
One, I love the parallels they draw between wine and music. Both are enjoyed individually and evoke all the senses. You can also share the same bottle of wine with others but have a very different experience of it from what they have; what you bring to that wine influences what you take away from it.
Two, I love the point about wine, like music, being the sum of art and science. You start with the technical foundations, but it’s the artistic flourish on top that makes the experience magical.
Three, it was great to get an update on Napa Valley, and I’m really looking forward to visiting that region again.
And Four, I agree that a great way to learn about wine is to surround yourself with people who know more about it than you do, whether that’s through friends or online classes, and so on.
In the show notes, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, where you can find me on Insta, Facebook, YouTube live video every Wednesday at seven including this evening and next week. That’s all in the show notes at Nataliemaclean.com/119.
You won’t want to miss next week when we continue with the final part of our chat with Vanessa and Amanda. They focus on hot new wine styles and regions that you should be trying, plus more tasting tips. In the meantime, if you missed Episode 33 go back and take a listen. I chat with another Master of Wine; Mary Ewing Mulligan, the smart, very smart woman behind the Wine for Dummies books. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
Unknown Speaker 34:02
In restaurants it’s very important. And I think that the activity of describing what you like in a wine I think is very key. And so not going into a restaurant and saying I like Cabernet but saying I like dry reds, I like medium to full bodied reds, I like red wines that have tannin and I don’t want them to be mouth drying, but I want to feel the tannin and the structure in my mouth. This all describes a typical Cabernet and then trust the sommelier or the wine staff person to give you something and I will buy something that I never had before in a restaurant on the slightest excuse. I mean, all I need is an excuse to try it and I will try it.
Natalie MacLean 34:48
If you liked this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the tips that Amanda and Vanessa shared. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week.
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at Nataliemaclean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers