Sunday, July 31, 2016

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

Rebecca Murphy at Il Sorrento 1974
Last week, with the post, You've Come a Long Way, Baby! - The Ascent of the Female Sommelier, there was lively discussion about the history of the sommelier in America. With that, the role of the female, then, as now, has evolved, changing the social landscape. The wine business has long been a bastion of uniformity – mainly white, mainly male - and one which outsiders often see as an impenetrable boy's club. But there are those who have driven a wedge into it and blazed their own unique trail. Rebecca Murphy is such an individual. I’ve known Becky for 30+ years and have watched her ascent into the wine world to where she is now a revered and iconic force who has changed the history of the wine business in America. Becky started out as a sommelier, moved up to a corporate wine director and then started her own consulting business, which encompassed wine trade events, one of the most important wine competitions in America, and years of writing about wine. Becky, to use a well-worn phrase, is a Renaissance woman. But she is also a formidable person, one who had to fight and defend every position, every dream she had, using the sheer force of her will. Here is part one of a two (or three) part series. It’s longer than the average attention span of a blog reader. But it’s an important story and one I hope, with the help of Becky’s own words, to share with those of you who have the time and patience to endure the length. After all, it is the story of one person’s life in wine – and it took them a lifetime to get to this point.

Where did you start as a sommelier? Were you America’s first female sommelier? Was this your first foray into the wine business?

It was definitely my first foray into the wine business. I don't know if I'm the USA's first woman doing this job, if I'm not I'm one of the first. And I'm pretty sure I was the first woman in Texas. I've been looking through some newspaper clips. I certainly didn't read about other women and when I started I needed a job and I went to work for Mario (Messina of Il Sorrento in Dallas). My first husband I were getting a divorce and I moved back to Dallas because my in-laws were there and they've always been there always been very supportive. I needed a job and I my only real professional experience as a flight attendant. I had two five year-old boys, so that wasn't going to work. And so Mario gave me a chance, gave me the opportunity, to work as a cocktail waitress. And there was a young guy working there (as a wine steward) who was a college student and went back to school after I was there about three months I told Mario that I'd like to have that job and he said, “Rebecca, you can't carry the boxes.” Of course, because he kept the wine up (in the cool room) in the attic. I finally said just let me just let me come in on my night off for a few times and do the job, and if I don't make a fool of myself or you, I want the job. And that's pretty much the way it went.

Now the reason I felt like I could do that is because of my first husband. he was the in the Special Forces and he went to Thailand right after we were married and was there for almost a year when he said I could come over, that he had changed jobs, in the time during the Vietnam War . So pretty much the base for anything that wasn't actually involved in combat was in Bangkok. There was a general who was in charge of all the American troops in Thailand and he went to work for him as his junior aide and. This was a very protocol Laden job because anybody who was anybody who came to Bangkok was hosted by the general or at least recognized in some way by the general. So I went to receptions and dinners and all kinds of things like this that had protocol officers as we did. The first dinner I went to was in the wine cellar of the Erawan Hotel. It was a dinner honoring the outgoing commander-in-chief of the Pacific fleet at the U.S. Navy. The lowest ranking person officer at the table, other than the aides, was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.

Bob Hope and Rebecca Murphy, Thailand, circa 1968
Wow, I'm a kid from White Settlement, Texas - what the hell am I doing here? Looking at all this silverware and all these glasses. I never had a glass of wine till I met my first husband. It was two years of doing this sort of thing and meeting generals and admirals and movie stars. The Bob Hope troop was based in Thailand when they would do their shows in Vietnam. I met Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret and Roosevelt Greer and all these kind of people who came on these tours. So I knew I knew how to behave in situations like that and at least wine wasn't a scary thing to me anymore.

I have to admit that I didn't know a whole lot about the wines that were on Mario’s list (at Il Sorrento). But it wasn’t a very big list, so it didn't take very long to learn about it. I was thrilled to have a job because even though I worked six nights a week, when I was finished, I was finished. I didn't have to hang around waiting for tables to finish and things like that. And after I'd been there for a couple of years, Danny Russo who was the manager of Arthur's, was in the restaurant and he said “Come and talk to us at Arthur's.” So I went to talk to him about the job there. It was pretty much a lateral move as far as pay was concerned and everything. But it was a really cool place with a whole list of wines I didn't know at all.

It was all American wines, mostly California, a few New York, but all American wines. Who the hell in 1975 in Dallas, Texas, knew anything about California wine? Nobody. Tony LaBarba (founder of American Wine and Importing company), of course helped a lot in making sure we had wines for that list. I asked Phil (Vaccaro, owner of Arthur’s) whose idea was it was to do an all American wine list and Phil said it was his (Phil’s). Arthur’s was one slick place. It was like being in New York City in the bar. Very nice place and Phil decided to go with an all American list because it was an American Steakhouse. Anyway, I had to learn California wines, and the reason why I wore a tastevin was that was the only way I could taste the wines. I wasn't buying the wines; I was just working the floor. And so I tasted wines as I opened them, so I would know what they tasted like.

I had a note from a young lady in the wine business, questioning why I recently delineated between “Sommelier” and “Female Sommelier.” That’s probably a question better asked to you. Is there a reason for that delineation?

Well at the time, and it's not so much the case anymore I think, but at the time there weren’t any women the doing the job. And in French, there's not the female equivalent of that word. You could, by following the rules of French and make it sommeli√®re. Earlier on I think female sommelier was totally understandable. Today. I don't think it's so much the case. I don't think the barriers aren't gone. There are just so many more opportunities for young people today to get in the wine business and I think that's fabulous. The MW and MS programs existed then, maybe they are only a little over fifty years old, both of them.

And so Eddie Osterland (America’s first Master Sommelier) is the first what the first one I knew to become an MS. And then Fred Dame. I’m sure others followed, but it was not a common thing to do and I know Eddie went to London to do it, and I assume Fred did something like that too. So there just weren't role models, I was making it up as I went along. Fortunately I had had the experience of working with people who knew a lot about protocol when I was living in Thailand.

Robert Laurence Balzer and Rebecca Murphy ca. 1980
So you probably had inspiration, people who inspired you. But did you have mentors were there any were there any role models where you could be a mentored?

Not at the time. I didn't realize that I was learning anything of use until I started seeing a lot of California winemakers starting coming through Arthur's because it was an all-American wine list. I remember that the first wine that was corked that was identified to me as corked was by Gino Zepponi (Z-D winery). He also worked for Domaine Chandon at the time and Paul Pinnell was on the floor and we tasted a wine and we were at Gino's table. And we said what's with this wine and he was telling us it was corked. I didn't know anything about that. And meeting Steve Mirassou and Rodney Strong and the Wente’s and the folks from Jordan, those kind of people were coming through and dining at Arthur's and doing events at Arthur's because of the California wine list and so I began to realize, oh OK, I know something about what's going on here. I had something to compare it with you know. It wasn’t just about a place I was working, where I was working, and the people I was working with.

How did that transition from being on the floor to being a wine director come about?

It’s another one of those things where I needed a job to be home at night because my kids were to the point where they liked the fact that I wasn’t home at night - like OK, I need to be home. I had actually talked to the guys at Estrada (early fine wine wholesaler in Texas) about working for them because it would be a daytime job and I went to talk to Phil (Vaccaro) and said I love working for you. I love working for this organization but I’ve got to be home at night. I was really nervous about that meeting and then he said “Well then why don't you come to work in our corporate office?” It never even occurred to me. So I did.

Now at the time he had, I can't even remember the man's name, but he was an older man. I don't know his education. He had to have been English or French because his handwriting was so beautiful. He kept track of inventories and he was retiring. So I went to working in the corporate office. What the corporate office did was buy the food and the liquor and the wine for all the different restaurants, at the time just three of them (Old Warsaw, Mario’s and Arthur’s). And so I was going to go there too, to buy the wine, and there was a guy in the office that had, I don’t think he had any restaurant experience but he was, I guess you would call him the “food and beverage” guy. And I wasn't in the office thirty minutes when he gave me all the bar stuff to take care of too. About three months after I was in the office he left. And so I just got all the stuff dumped on my desk. So I got to learn the restaurant business in trial by fire. But what I loved is that that Phil ran really great restaurants at that time. He wanted the best ingredients. So and he wanted everything done correctly, done well, so it was a great education for me - just great.

We would hire people for P.R. from time to time and I would sit and listen to them try and talk to people about what our business was. And I came to understand these people did not do a very good job of a trying to understand our business. They didn't communicate it well, they didn't communicate it accurately. So, you know me and my big mouth, I got to do that too. But it was it was all a learning experience and it was a learning experience at the top level, at least as far as Dallas was concerned. Although I think those restaurants at the time would have done well in other places too. I mean the Old Warsaw had a wine list that was appropriate for the Old Warsaw there were a lot of Bordeaux. I can remember buying 1966 Lafite for $250 a case. So it was a beautiful wine list there. Mario’s’ had a more Italian type wine list. When I got to Arthur’s it was a little bitty wine list. Just very small wine list, the size of it was maybe eight inches square and all the pages were stapled then. And at the time I decided that after I'd worked the floor for a couple years because people just did not know California wines. They just didn't know and they wanted Liebfraumilch and they wanted Pouilly-Fuisse. They wanted wines they knew from Europe. I would try to get them to tell me what they liked to drink. And I would bring them something and say I think if you like that you'll like this. And if you don't I’ll take it back. And that worked most of the time.

Was there a flash point when something happened that put California on the map?

Oh yeah, I'll never forget it. 1976. Time magazine’s article about the Spurrier tasting (The Judgement of Paris). I mean that made it- that made a difference. I could see the difference. Because the prejudice that people had was, how could they be any good? We know they're good from Europe, but how could these be any good? That tasting said to people that there really can be good wines from California. So that did change people’s attitude. And at Arthur’s we didn’t have anything else- if they didn’t want wines from California or New York, there wasn’t anything else for them have except for a Bourbon Branch. It was, it was always a sales job, always trying to convince people to try it.

Young wine directors now, you see them on social media, some of them commiserating over the lack of items that are available in their particular market. What was the whole scale wholesale landscape like for you in the late 1970’s - early 1980’s?

I think I think Dallas often gets underestimated. I think it wasn't bad. I know it also helped that I asked for things and when I was working in the corporate office I got to go to things like the Monterey Wine Festival some of the early wine events and met people and tasted wine and then would come back and say OK I want this wine, here's where you can get it. But I could do that because, first of all, I was going to buy it. I do remember there was a there was a period of time in California where white wines were in short supply. I don’t know if it was because people had grafted over to from whites to reds. But I was having a hard time getting white wines for Arthur’s wine list. One thing I did with the Arthur’s wine list when I went to work in the corporate office was that I felt like that people could remember labels but they couldn't remember names. They could remember the image and so I did a wine list that every wine had a page (it was a pain in the ass) and it was an expensive wine list (to produce). But every winery had a page and I had a label that we attached to the page and then whatever wines that came from that winery were down below that label.

I like to think that I helped people began to see California wine. Printing a wine list was a very expensive proposition and I was damned if I was going to let any distributor write my wine list. But they're expensive to produce and of the whole issue of vintages if you were going to list the vintages, we'd say to (our suppliers), OK this is going to go on the wine list. So you need to guarantee that we have at least six month supply of this wine. You know how that goes - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. So I also started to do calligraphy for some of the wine list. So I could print the major part of the white list without vintages and I could go back in and write the vintages in so that as they changed I could do that I could change a page out with vintage changes because I insisted I had to have the vintages. I’m not going to write a wine list that didn’t have vintages.

Early version of Arthur's wine list. in 1976, as vintages
became more important, the list evolved to show them.
Vintages in California - how critical were they in those days?

There were obviously big vintage differences but it wasn’t that noted at the time. I do remember 1979 wasn’t a great vintage, but 1980 was. So we weren’t going to buy much from 1979 but more from 1980. We were beginning to be more discerning about them. We just were beginning to get more information on them. That was the best thing I had about that job because, and I think, one thing, and it's not just young people. I just think maybe people new to the job get all caught up in the power they have and they don't realize it's not them that has the power. It's the pocketbook that has the power. I can't remember how many times I've heard people say “I thought they were my friends but I left the job and the wont even answer my phone. No one answers my phone calls anymore.” Yeah, because you can't buy anything now.

Was it also not just the pocketbook, but in that position you had to be successful in generating a fair amount of business. If you would just put together a pretty wine list...

Right, they had to sell. And having those three restaurants (and the ones we added later), each one being each so different with different wine lists. That was very exciting to be able to work those different wine lists. And I would work the floor in those different restaurants. Even after I was in the corporate office, it was a whole different whole different experience working the floor. At Old Warsaw nobody ever questioned the fact that I was a sommelier. Nobody ever made a note about it. It's just like OK, this is a sommelier. But at Arthur’s, oh my God, it was always, “Does your daddy own this restaurant? Your boyfriend? Are you sleeping with your boss? How do you have this job?”

There was often that, not always, but there was often that. And so part of it I think is maybe the type of people that went to the different restaurants and maybe it was the whole atmosphere of each of the restaurants. Arthur’s was a little more hopping kind of place and Old Warsaw was more formal, more sedate, so that could've been part of it.

Arthur’s definitely had a reputation for its bar.

Oh my god, that was the day of the three martini lunch.

The bar was a hopping place if you were looking to hook up too, you know.

Oh yeah.

I've just been told that - I never experienced it.

Of course not, of course not. Yeah it was hoppin’.

To be continued....

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