Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Ascent of the Female American Sommelier - Interview with Rebecca Murphy - Pt.II

This is the second part of an extensive interview I did with Rebecca Murphy. Again, it’s long, but that’s life. The first in this series, The Ascent of the Female American Sommelier - Interview with Rebecca Murphy - Pt.I , was well received, so I chose to post the second part. There is a third (and shorter) part coming next week in the lead up to Texsom here in Dallas. I think it is a valuable record, especially to the young women and men aspirants in wine to see one person’s successful (and exemplary) path in the wine business. Becky is a trailblazer and a role model – and there a few out there who could probably benefit with being mentored by her - maybe even starting at Texsom.

Robert Lawrence Balzer and Becky, ca 1980

Something happened once at Arthur’s. Behind the restaurant there was mall area. You had a group of California winemakers pouring their wines. How did that come about?

I said earlier that I wound up being in charge of doing P.R. stuff for the restaurant. Part of it was doing wine events. I think I remember  Robert Lawrence Balzer was one of the reasons for this. And it made other people pay attention because the tasting you're thinking about was with the Sonoma County Wine Growers. I remember meeting Harvey Posert at the time who was working with the Wine Institute and these tastings benefited the local P.B.S. station. These were the ways we did events for people to come to. They were sort of P.R. and educational events because we would have that big tasting. We'd also have a press lunch. There might be a seminar in there somewhere They were ways to get people and the press to notice the restaurant. That's the way I got some writing gigs because I would invite Betty Cook and Waltrina Stovall and Dotty Griffith and Byron Harris (from the ABC affiliate). He would say “I don't write about wine.” And I would say, yeah, I know but you like wine. Come to the event. So I used those events to be P.R. vehicles for the restaurants and to meet the media and got to know a lot of media. And I was complaining that there was no local person writing that was back in the day of the Dallas Times-Herald- Two newspapers in town. Wow, go figure. So there are a lot of media people then. So I would invite them to come to the restaurants and attend these things and complain that there was there wasn't anybody locally writing about wine. Betty Cook is the person who finally said, “What would that look like?” And that's when I started doing tasting flights for the Dallas Morning News Sunday magazine. That was when both newspapers had a Sunday magazine. Both papers had to have a Sunday magazine, it was a competitive thing. As soon as the Morning News bought the Times-Herald, there went the Sunday magazines.

But Robert Balzer at the time wrote for Travel Holiday magazine and gave out the Travel Holiday restaurant awards and Arthur’s and Old Warsaw were always on the list and he would come to town. He contacted us because he would go through different cities with a group of six winemakers. And they were Michael Mondavi and Eric and Phil Wente, Rodney Strong, people like that. Principals from the wineries. And so we would do events with them. And that was again a great way for us to get to know those people and to have them see our restaurants.

You've been a wine writer for a good thirty plus years. What are you doing today with wine writing? What is occupying your time? Has it evolved? Has it changed?

For the Dallas Morning News I'm doing the Wine of the Week and in some ways that's not a whole lot different. It is different in the way they get selected then when I did it for the magazine. For the magazine I’d get a group of restaurant, retail and wine wholesale people together, and we would taste sets of wines and I'd have everybody give me a score or their first, second and third choice and then I would write about the wines that the group as a whole liked. I remember doing one after Opus One came out with their ’79. I did a tasting with ’79 Opus.. ’79 Mouton and ‘79 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet. That was a little different. We did it in Routh Street Cafe. Once, we did one on jug wines at the time for the magazine. So it would be during the competition and we’d get some judges to rate and come up with the top wines.

Stephan Pyles, John Dayton & Rebecca Murphy - Routh Street Cafe ca. 1985
You left Universal, which was the Vaccaro restaurant group. How did your relationship with Stephan Pyles start, which saw you developing the list at his first restaurant, Routh Street Café?

I started an event, while at Universal, called April in Paris. George Golman came to talk to Phil (Vaccaro). This group, a really great group, they needed money. Phil asked, “What can we do?” And that's how that started. Phil was willing to do that sort of thing; he was willing to put money into that sort of thing. I was lucky to be working for a company like that, that was willing to do things like that and so I got the opportunities to try to do them. And so I knew most of the restaurant people in town. Stephan Pyles and John Dayton came to me because they were doing a Southwestern cuisine restaurant (Routh Street Cafe) and one of their ideas was to have an all American wine list. My understanding is that they were talking to me and they were also talking to Ley Jaynes (of Grailey’s fame) who was saying “No way do you want to do an all American wine list.” And I'm saying “Way!” And that's what they wanted to do and so that's what we did. But I thought who are these people? These are people I never heard of in the business. And I knew a lot of people. It certainly wouldn't be the case after they got opened and everybody could see what they did but at the time I think they would have had trouble getting the wines they got for that list. But people (in wine circles) knew me and so I could talk to each of the distributors. I would make them taste everything. I gathered all these wines and we would have several different tastings where we just sit down and taste all these wines and sort of agree upon things that we felt would be good for the list. What a great experience that was because I just didn't know what it was they were doing. I didn't quite understand, but I thought it was very exciting. And again, these were people who really knew how to do it right, who wanted to do the best. It's great to work with people like that. Who have a vision and then you can help them create that vision - that's very exciting.

You were there at the birth of the Southwestern Cuisine movement. You were one of the wine trailblazers in that regards.

Yeah, it was a very exciting time.

Let’s talk about the American Wine Exposition and the birth of the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition. I recall it was in the basement of the Hyatt Reunion Hotel.

What a crazy idea that was. One thing I realized again working for Phil Vaccaro and Universal Restaurants. With the kind of restaurants we had, I had access to go to California to various events and we'd go to the wineries and so on. I was able to do that because of who I worked for and he supported that. And I began to realize that I sort of knew more than my peers. This is just because of the experiences, and I thought it would be cool if we could get those people to come here. And the people, the restaurant buyers and retail buyers, and meet them here. And so I found people who put together trade shows. It was not easy to get permission from the T.A.B.C. to do it but we did. We found another guy who had access to some cash. So looking back, our biggest problem was we were under-capitalized and the other big problem was it was all American wines. It probably should have been wines from everywhere because people in Europe understand wine trade shows. People in the United States still don't see it. Part of it is our system, part is our three-tier system; it makes it hard to do it. There has yet to be really a successful wine trade show in United States.

Distributor pioneer George Schepps with Becky and Philip Wente, ca 1980
You mean like Vin Expo or Vinitaly?

Exactly, yeah. They just don't work in this country. I mean there are your academic events. But a place where trade buyers from all levels, wholesale, retail, restaurant- come and meet face to face with producers. We started the first one in 1984 and we did it till 1987. Texas was going through a terrible recession also. It was a time when there were lots of empty office buildings and things like that. I was tired of beating my head against the wall and not making any money. I loved doing it.

I’ll never forget at the first one at the Hyatt I had all these great people coming in and speaking and I was standing in the entry way of the Hyatt downtown and watching two cars pull up and Robert Mondavi and his wife Margrit got out of one, and Louis Martini got out of the other and I thought, oh my God, they're here for me. That was pretty exciting. We had an educational program and then we had, as you remember, the exhibition hall where wineries would have their wines and could show them to the buyers. Another interesting thing about that - wineries would complain that they didn't pour very much wine. I asked them yeah, but did you sell any? Did you meet any people you could sell to? It's not how much wine you pour.

Were you doing the competition at that time, in 1984?

I thought about doing it the first year but I had a hard enough time getting approval from the T.A.B.C just to do the trade show and the attorney I was working with said let's try the next year.

I thought these winery people are here and I've been to events in California where at the end of the competition all the wine makers are there and you give them their awards. It's only exciting to the people who win the awards. It's the most boring thing you can do, but it's exciting to those people. And to me that gave them another reason to be in Dallas. We did the first competition in 1985. We got about 580 entries. The exposition would go from Saturday-Monday. So we would do the judging on Thursday and Friday. We’d announced the results on Saturday night in a big event and give out medals.

We separated them because 1987, was the last one we did and I said I just can't do this anymore. And at that time in the competition by then had grown to like close to 1500 entries in just a very short period of time. And so the person I worked with at the Dallas Morning News directly in the marketing department said “You're not going to do the exposition anymore, should we not do the competition?” I said are you kidding? It grew! It's growing! The exposition stopped growing, but the competition is growing. The success was the competition. So let's keep doing it and so they did and so that's how The Dallas Morning News kept sponsoring it.

It became one of the largest wine competitions in America, or in the world?

Certainly in America, yeah. It's hard to get bigger numbers (entries) in Texas than they get in California. Having worked with Sunset International Wine Competition now I realize how easy it is for people in California to move their wines someplace in California. If I were a winery, I could send a case out in California today and you get it today. Where in Texas, the wines go through wholesalers. I suspect, I don't know I, think Grapevine did a lot to help some of these things get better legislation, better rules to make that happen because now it's actually legal to do a wine competition in Texas. That wasn't really the case back then. We didn’t have faxes then. I remember getting a mimeographed letter, not even on a letterhead, from the T.A.B.C., saying this is how you can do it. They didn’t sign it or anything!

1982 vintage article in the Dallas News
It’s really interesting to think of you as that someone who walked into a restaurant and just needed a job. Going from that to someone who has become one of the major influencers in the last generation for the growth of interest in wine in America. This week we've had some interesting things happen historically in our country and that quote comes to my mind “Sure he was great. Don't forget the Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards and in high heels.” Over the arc of your career, you've had to deal with that too. I know you downplay it. But you were, and are, definitely a role model. Are you mentoring people today? The up-and-coming people in the wine industry, how do you interact with them?

I don't I don't see a lot except like at Texsom. I wouldn't object to it, but I unfortunately I don't. I think that would be a nice thing to do. The closest I come to that is being a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, raising scholarship money for women. I also try to make sure that our chapter here (in Seattle, where Becky lives) has scholarships in wine programs. And we do have wine programs in Washington.

When I had the competition (in Texas) I certainly invited young people to come judge. When I started out in 1981 that was because of working with the Sonoma County Wine Growers Association during tastings in Dallas (at Arthur’s). The first judging I did was at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. André Tchelistcheff was one of the judges and I was like, holy shit, I’m a kid from White Settlement, Texas, and here I am with André. And Mary Ann Graf, who was the first woman to graduate from the enology program at U.C. Davis, she was there. Andy Blue, I mean there were names I had seen in print and I was pretty amazed to be there. And that’s the cool thing about a wine judging. You get to be there, you get to be a peer with some people that are icons in the business. So that's definitely one thing I did when I was running the wine competition. I invited young people to be judges. Some would be ready for it and some would not. Sometimes that’s the only way you’re going to find out if someone is going to be a good judge or not. It’s more than being a good taster. It's also about being a good team player and being able to stand up for your opinion.

Also lots of times people get preconceptions on what they think is good. When you’re tasting wines blind, you might find you give something a gold medal that would never, ever think to give a medal if you knew what it was.

Exactly, we've all been there. We've all been there!

Is there anything you would have done differently if you were 25 today? How would you steer a career through the wine business?

I think it’s harder today. The one thing I remember saying back then was if you wanted to get in the wine business the first place you’ve got to work is on the restaurant floor. Just because in selling wine you can't go back and look at every encyclopedia. You've got to have it in your head. You’ve got to know your inventory. On top of which you get immediate feedback about whether you did a good job of listening to the customer. So I'm definitely not sorry that's where I started in and in some way I miss that a lot. It's different working in restaurants. It’s show time every night. You're putting on a production every night and you have to be part of being a team to do that. So today I think it's harder just because I think you have to have credentials and you've got to spend some money and time on developing those credentials. It would just be hard to get a job in wine and restaurants without them. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

Yeah, I definitely think in today’s world, the access is there for that and it’s almost like a priori, anyway, If you were 60 and trying to be a master sommelier today, that that might be a little bit of a stretch, unless you were retiring and just wanted to achieve something like that, like becoming a doctor or a lawyer at 60 or 70.

I think yes if you've been in a wine career most of your life and you're 60, what's in it for you and what is it going to get you with the investment of time and money - what does that really bring you? Like Keith (her husband, a physician and wine aficionado in his own right) said as we were studying for the Master of Wine exams, people asked him why he was doing that. What would you get if you get an M.W.? He’d tell them, “I’d get invited to better tastings.”

You could string that along for about ten years.


But if you're trying to carve out a career – if it's just like a job for a summer then it’s one thing - but if you're someone looking for something that you are going to do for the next 20 years. If people think that way. I don't know. Lots of times I don't think any of us really thought we’d be doing this as a career. I think like you, I was like..

..I needed a job. My mother would say to me, I swear until the day she died, “Now tell me how you got into this wine thing again?” Because we didn’t have wine at home when I was growing up in White Settlement, Texas. I think that's the difference in time now, too, because a lot of people didn't think that restaurant jobs were professional jobs. I think that's changed somewhat. And I think credentials and things like that are showing that. So yeah, I think there probably are still jobs that you can get without having your credentials. But if you want a career I think you have to have the credentials, today.

40 years of trailblazing

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