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Alex Elman only needs four senses to bring tasty wines to the masses.
Imagine hitting your stride in your life and career--and then a doctor drops the unfortunate diagnosis that you'll lose your eyesight. For most, it'd be devastating. For Alex Elman, a.k.a. "the blind wine chick," it only raised her game.
Elman was born into a wine-loving family. As she grew up, her stepfather--a famous wine importer--helped train her palate on some of the world's most renowned and sought-after wines. She went on to work for him, as well as to enjoy stints at Perrier-Jouët in Champagne and at retailer Sherry-Lehmann in New York. She'd proven her mettle and then some by the time she lost her eyesight at the age of 27.
Rather than sulk over her disability, Elman embraced it. She continued to travel the world to seek out wines that were true to the place they were grown. She set up her own import company, Marble Hill Cellars, then hit the streets of New York--with her guide dog, of course--to sell her finds. She's soon to launch her own brand, Alex Elman Wines, with the aim of providing clean, straightforward, everyday wines that truly represent the grape varieties as well as the places they were grown.
In fact, that's what she believes all wines should do--and she hasn't slowed down in touting this belief since her first sip of wine with her parents at the dinner table. Read on our full interview with Elman, who never let a bump in the road of life steer her from her goal of turning more and more people on to honestly made, good-tasting wine.
Bottlenotes: Talk a little about how you first got into wine, and what was the moment you realized you could or should make a career out of it?
Alex Elman: I guess I was kind of brought up around wine and food--my mother was a Brazilian chef by passion, but not by trade, so my palate was developed way, way early on. My parents got divorced when I was ten, and my mother married a wine importer, and he was one of the pioneers who introduced French wines to the United States in 1962. He worked for Alexis Lichine, and he also was also a good friend of Robert Mondavi's, and brought his wines east. So as I grew up, I tasted more and more wines. Then I went to college and just drank beer!
I graduated with a degree in international relations and wanted to work in the foreign service, [but] went directly to work for Perrier-Jouët and Epernay, working at the chateau, doing PR and learning the whole process of Champagne making. I worked in the cellars and I did the harvest and had a lot of French friends with their own smaller, family-owned wineries. I came back and worked for Sherry-Lehmann, then worked for my stepfather, who was trading rare and fine wines. I tried a couple other things along the way--I wanted to be a lawyer. And my father, who's a lawyer, said, 'You're going to hate it.' I worked for a big law firm in New York...and I did hate it.
I kept winding up back in the wine business. After about the third job in some aspect of the wine world, I stayed. So I worked for my stepfather, trading rare and fine wines, and along the way during that time I went blind from juvenile diabetes. My stepfather really took it upon himself to hone my palate while I was in the middle of different eye surgeries, trying to save my sight. I really credit his tutelage, and I was very fortunate to be able to taste the great wines of the world while I was learning the trade. In those days there was no formal training for being in the wine business, and I still believe, in my heart of hearts, that wine is a practical education. The only way to learn about it is to taste--keep tasting, tasting and tasting. And most importantly, you have to taste correctly and honestly made wines.
I worked for him until 2003, and I knew there were artists out there making great wines, so I started my own company, Marble Hill Cellars, where I imported small-production, artisan boutique wines, primarily from Spain. Then in 2008 I partnered up with someone else in the beverage industry, and we decided we wanted to have our own label. I wanted to bring correctly made, honestly made wines to people who don't know that much about wine, who are just getting into it and are just learning--easy to drink, but approachable complexity-wise, but also from a wallet standpoint. We're launching nationwide on June 1, with four wines from Argentina.
So what's an example of a wine that's honestly made and one that isn't?
When I say, 'an honestly made wine,' remember that my background is classic training. When I started selling my Marble Hill wines that I brought in from Spain, I remember going into Crossroads wine store [in New York]. [The owner] said to me, 'Don't bring me anything that tastes like everything else. I want to do a blind tasting and know where the wine came from.' That's how I was trained. We knew where it was from, what grapes were in it--the wines were made honestly and correctly. So when I talk about honestly made wines, I mean wines that taste like where they come from.
When I talk about correctly made wines, mine are correctly made wines from Mendoza in Argentina. The winery that made them has been making wine for a long time, and the wines are exactly as they're supposed to be from that soil. No oak, all stainless steel fermentation, no manipulation in the cellar--just clean, clear, exactly what it's supposed to be. Grapes shepherded from the vines to the bottle.
A lot of people got sucked into making wines for certain palates, and did not stay true to their terroir.
You've done pretty much every job, from the vineyards to being on the street selling wine and everything in between. What's the absolute best gig in the wine biz and the absolute worst?
Stomping down the street with your little bag of wine, and getting rejection after rejection, that sucks. Being the man or woman on the street is tough--there's so much wine out there and there are so many people you're competing with. But if you have a small collection of wine you're trying to sell and you're a little bit more specialized, it's a little bit easier. Although I love meeting the restaurants and the wine bars and the retailers, and I have a really good time. But I find that getting in is the really difficult thing--getting someone to answer my phone call or my email or just getting an appointment. The cold calling is the worst part.
The part I have the most fun with is interacting with consumers and talking about the wines. If I'm in a store and doing an in-store wine tasting, that's one of the most fun parts. Teaching a person about the wine and expanding their taste base.
I find it very difficult to teach people about wine unless they taste it. When you talk about wine it's very abstract--people taste different things. Wine is so subjective and what your mood is, what you're eating, what the temperature is. People don't always taste what you taste--there's a lot of suggestion in it.
You're known to many as "the blind wine chick." Tell us a little how that moniker and how it feels. If life hadn't gone the way it did, might you just be another wine chick?
I gave [the moniker] to myself. I was so amused by the whole thing. We're given so many things in life--circumstances, karma, whatever. You end up with what you end up with, and I've always been able to laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously. I figured that I could either sit in my closet and cry, which I did for a couple months, or I could pick myself up by my bootstraps and move forward and figure out what I was going to do with my life. Thankfully, I was already in the business. I couldn't seem to get myself out of it. So I figured as long as I was here, and I had this affliction, I was going to use it to my advantage. I decided really not to try and hide what I had, and just say, 'This is part of who I am. Not only am I blind, but I'm also a wine taster, a woman, and I've been doing this for a long time. People will forget the blind part, but let's not pretend that it doesn't exist.' So I just decided to put it out there right away.
People always ask if I can smell and taste better. The truth is, I really don't know if I can smell and taste better. I already had a pretty honed palate from before. The more wines I taste from different parts of the world, the more I can differentiate wines. I'm also not distracted by what I see. I can taste a glass of wine and pretty much know the color it's going to be, mostly with reds--is it dark and inky, is it ruby colored, is it more of an orange tint? I'm not distracted by my vision. When I taste a wine, I sort of deconstruct it first. How intense are the tannins? Is the fruit there? What am I feeling? What am I tasting? And then I kind of reconstruct it, and does it come back in a cohesive manner? Is it comfortable to drink? All those things come into play when I'm tasting.
Do you ever play blind-tasting games with your friends? Are you better at it than your friends are?
People test me all the time, but I was trained this way. I used to do this when I was at Sherry-Lehmann, and my stepfather trained me this way. I'm either right on the money or in a different stratosphere--and when that happens it comes down to an Australian making wine in Spain or something like that. But I'm not infallible. Am I better than other people? I've been doing this for so long, that I think I'm pretty good at it. But I'm not infallible--I don't think anyone is.
People love to put wines in front of me and say, 'What is this?' And they seem to be surprised when I get it, and I get really nervous when I don't. 'What did I do wrong? Why didn't I get this one today?'
From a long time ago, when I could still see, I was tasting with a group at Sherry-Lehmann, and I was one of the youngest people there. The staff would do our own tastings. Everyone would bring a bottle, and there were no rules or limits--we just brought whatever we wanted. This was around 1993, and in my opinion, wines in those days were still made correctly. We had a wine and we were all tasting and smelling it. People were saying it was from Italy, and I'm saying, 'No, this isn't Italian at all. This doesn't even smell like any grape from Italy.' These guys were all doing this for a long time, and they were a little older, so I was a little intimidated by them. I said, 'I think this is Spanish,' and they looked at me like I was crazy and had no idea what I was talking about. And I nailed it on the head--it was a Tempranillo from Rioja. That one stands out because I was so much younger than everyone else and I was so intimidated and surrounded by all these great palates.
My current business partner, before we signed our contracts in 2009, he put a wine in front of me and said, 'I want you to tell me about the wine--where it comes from, what grape it is and what price point it's from.' I got all that right, and I was off by maybe $2 on the price of the wine. He was duly impressed and then signed the documents.
Talk a little about what it's like traveling the world and visiting different vineyards and wineries. Do you have an advantage since you're not influenced by a pretty place that maybe doesn't have very good wines?
This is my work, so this is when I get pretty serious. Yeah, I'm interested in the process, but when I get into a tasting room, I completely block out everything else around me. I don't care what it looks like--there could be 5,000 barrels around me. There is still that romantic part for me, but it doesn't take over like it does for other people because I'm there to concentrate on what I'm doing. What I do find is that people say that it tastes so much better when you're in the winery. Sometimes it does, but I find that the wines are often better when they arrive in the U.S. because they're able to age a little on the journey. I do miss the romanticism of being in the winery, but I'm there to work--I'm there to find what's going to work for my customers.
Yes, I can put aside all that romance and intrigue, but when I do go sell those wines, I do find it easier to sell if I can impart that romance and that story to people because I've been there.
What's different about Alex Elman Wines from the dozens of others sourced from Argentina, then labeled for the U.S.?
We will have other wines from other places, but we started in Argentina because they're very easy to drink--and for the price point. Also, I am Brazilian, so there's a little of my heart and soul in South America. I have been doing this professionally for 21 years, and I was brought up around wine. I won't tell people I know everything there is to know about wine, but I do know what wines are supposed to taste like and what the Earth is supposed to give to the wine. It's expertly chosen, and it's the best example of the varietal from the terroir. It's a simple, straightforward wine. I wanted that sort of wine on purpose. I want people to drink the wine because it is what it is--it's the real thing. It's not something that is manipulated or manufactured. It's very honest and clean and comes right from the Earth.
What regions are you going next with wine?
There are a lot of wines on the back burner waiting. We really want people to feel comfortable and trust the brand before we move into anything else. I think I'm going probably--nothing set in stone here--to the Old World. I'm hoping to find a dry Riesling from the Mosel, and I found some really interesting wines from Italy. And I do want a sparkling wine. [But] it has to stay in the same price point and have the same philosophy. I want to make sure they are going to fall into the philosophy and fit into the family well.
There are always things on the back burner. I choose the wines I want to bring, and then I put them in front of my panel of people and ask, "Do you like it?" We're talking about my palate, here. I used to travel with my ex-husband, and he didn't know wine at all. And I thought it was great because I had the everyman palate with me. As long as people like it and come back to it, and it's not too complex, I'm on the right track. And the price is important. These are young wines that are meant to drink. These are wines for every day. They can last a couple years, but these aren't wines to lay down. They're going to be wines we hope to keep under $15 all the time, so people buy them over and over again.