Madeline Puckette is a certified sommelier and the co-author of Wine Folly: Magnum Edition along with Justin Hammack. With a background in design, Madeline launched the website, WineFolly.com, which has become the world’s most popular wine blog. She currently lives in Seattle, WA.
I'm here today with Madeline Puckette who is a certified sommelier and the coauthor of Wine Folly: Magnum Edition along with Justin Hammack. With a background in design, Madeline launched the website WineFolly.com, which has become the world’s most popular wine blog. She currently lives in Seattle, Washington.
Welcome, Madeline. Thanks so much for being on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Madeline Puckette: Thank you.
Zibby: You start your book, Wine Folly: Magnum Edition, with a section called “Why love wine?” Can you tell listeners why love wine if they don't happen to already?
Madeline: It’s a really fascinating beverage. It’s a way to get into the world and discover the world of wine. Wine grows pretty much everywhere. Every single wine around the world has a different story to tell about that region, about that place, and that people. If you want to get into wine on that level, as in a cultural exploration, it’s lots of fun. There's more. It’s about the soils. It’s about the geology of the region. It’s so many layers. Wine will go as deep as you're willing to dive. That's how I put it. For someone who just likes to drink and to taste, it’s at that level too. It’s lots of fun to explore as one of those things that follows along with you in life, if you let it into your life.
Zibby: Love it. Why do you think moms in particular get such comfort from a glass of wine at the end of a long day?
Madeline: You said it right there. There's really something to be said about ending your day and putting a punctuation on the end of your day. Even pouring a glass of wine -- I'm sure people are imagining this right now while listening -- there's a moment when you open that bottle of wine and you pour it into the glass, you can finally breathe out and exhale. What's amazing about wine, if you taste it actively and if you're paying attention to your wine and not just drinking it, you have another slower process that happens. It activates senses. You're using your nose. You're smelling with your nose. You're paying attention to smells. I don't know how other moms feel about this, but smelling can be a really harsh thing in a mom’s world. To allow yourself to smell and to enjoy is a small pleasure that we can take every day if we want to. Even if you're trying to drink responsibly, we can do that every day.
Zibby: I like what you said also about how it helps moms breathe at the end of the day. Doesn't wine breathe too? Maybe there's something related to that.
Madeline: [laughs] It does. It’s been cooped up in a bottle for a long time. It helps to aerate your wine. The simplest way to do that is actually just to pour it in your glass and swirl. That helps quite a bit.
Zibby: Cool. Maybe it’s like a mom takin’ a bath too, something like that.
Madeline: Maybe. There's some analogues there. Also, they say that great wines age well. Probably great moms do too.
Zibby: I don't know about that. I might have to disagree. [laughs] You are a sommelier. How did you end up being a sommelier? What was your training? Did you always know you wanted to be one? It’s such a cool job. How did you end up with that, becoming a sommelier?
Madeline: I actually started out wanting to be a musician. I went to a music school. I realized I was not going to have a job in music very easily. I dual majored in art and design. I worked as a graphic designer. My way into wine was more on the side. I really enjoyed tasting wine. It was lots of fun. It was my dad who got me a wine subscription when I turned twenty-one. This is when I was in art school. You have to imagine, I was slummin’ it in art school. I was living my studio.
Zibby: Where was this? What part of the world?
Madeline: I was living in Valencia. I was going to California Institute of the Arts. It’s around LA. You hang out. You do art all day. You focus. You're so focused on things. When these bottles came in, they were exotic and fancy. They might not have been that expensive, maybe fifteen-dollar bottles of wine. To me, fifteen dollars, that's a night out on the town. That was a big deal. This is going to sound kind of weird, but they were the fanciest things I would put in my mouth for an entire month. I put them on a pedestal a little bit. Then I tasted this one wine that tasted like -- wines, everybody describes the fruit flavors, blueberries, strawberries, and vanilla -- I tasted olives. It really threw me off. Then I became obsessed with the olive flavor. I wanted to repeat the experience, so I bought more of the wine. Little did I know, the vintage had changed. It was no longer the same thing. It was not the wine that I liked that I had purchased because the vintage had changed. In that purchasing experience I learned about vintage variation and I learned about the wines of France all in one fell swoop. That was my entryway into wine.
Later on in 2008, I lost my job. It was the market crash. I had a condo. I was needing to pay the mortgage. I picked up a job helping a guy, he had just opened a wine bar. I had polished thousands of glasses at this point. He let me taste and make friends with the distributor. They used to blind taste me on wines all the time. I noticed I really had a knack for it. I had so much passion for it. I loved helping people pick out wines and pick out flavors. I figured out how to put my design with the wine. That's how I started WineFolly.com.
Zibby: So cool. Wine Folly that you started with Justin Hammack, it’s the most popular wine blog in the world. How did that happen? What do you think makes it the most popular? What's your secret?
Madeline: A lot of really smart design and optimization for the internet would be the technical answer. It truly comes back to people. People have to come back and choose the blog in order to think that is the best. My work in that was the content and creating articles that actually helped people learn and are maybe a little bit more pragmatic and answering the questions that people actually have. What sommeliers learn and what I've learned in the process of starting this website is consumers have different questions. They want to know the best wine for a keto diet. If somebody doesn't necessarily know that, they could work through the answer, but that's the type of questions we get asked on the internet. That’s the type of question that somebody would ask the internet. When I answer those questions, that's how. I do it in a helpful way that doesn't make people feel bad themselves and their choices. Truly, we all have our own preferences. My taste palate is going to be different than yours. That's fine. The great thing about me is I’ll drink just about anything. We could drink together and it’ll be a grand old time.
Zibby: Oh, good. Come on over.
Madeline: All right. I’ll be right there.
Zibby: Great. You had this amazing website. You turned it into a New York Times bestseller, your first edition of Wine Folly. What was that process like for you?
Madeline: It was really hard. It was hard for many reasons. I'd never written a book before. I had never written a multipage report in college because I went to art school. Developing the design systems to create a 230-page book was a great deal of effort. I was a hundred percent determined to do it right and to do it well. Then right before the publication on my husband’s birthday, his dad passed away. His dad was getting sick at the beginning of the year. We had to postpone things with the book. It was really hard to work on it while this was all happening because it didn't seem important. His dad was really, really important in his life. When it all happened, I was trying to hustle and get the book out there. I was so deeply worried and concerned about my husband and his family. I was hurting too. His dad was a very magnanimous person in our lives. It was a shock.
It was actually the most amazing growing experience. I look back on his dad. I have very warm, happy feelings about it now, but then it was really a shock. It was a growing up experience. It was like, “Okay, Madeline. Put on your big girl pants. You're going to do this thing.” After that, Justin stopped working on the site. He didn't want to do it anymore. He had this aha moment. It was almost like a midlife crisis in his thirties. He's like, “I need to do what I am the best at. You seem to be doing okay. You're going to either swim or sink. I got to let you swim or sink.” I'm running the site on my own now. It’s doing pretty well, which is good. In the last couple of years I've basically learned how to do it. This next book was really me being like, “Okay, Madeline. Let's do it for real. We learned from our first book.”
The first book is a great book for beginners. It’s very welcoming. It’s super fun and bright colors. A beginner who’s even just twenty-one will get a lot out of it and enjoy it. This book was more like -- I've learned from my readers that they're smart. They might not know anything about wines, but they're smart people and they learn very quickly. The way that I'm communicating with this visual design -- this whole book is all visuals -- they learn really, really fast. They look at these pages. They absorb it all really quickly. It means it’s working. That method of teaching is working really well.
In this next book I was like, “What if I was trying to teach someone to become a sommelier?” What if they wanted to know as much as a beginner somm with the Court Masters, or something like that? I use that as my lighthouse in the distance. Is that what a sommelier learns? Then I thought to myself, sommeliers, a lot of them end up turning into snobs. How do I teach someone so that they not only know what a sommelier knows, but they're not too snobby about it, they're not too prideful, so the knowledge is free and is welcoming, and they feel like everyone should know it? That was the goal of this book, is to get some status without the somm snob.
Zibby: I love it. That's awesome.
Madeline: I just made that up. That sounds kind of good.
Zibby: I like it. I think we’re going to trademark the slogan now. Take it on the road. Love it. I'm so sorry that your first book experience became mired in that loss for you. That's awful. I'm really sorry.
Madeline: It’s okay. It happened. I can look back on that whole experience and it’s kind of nice that I have a piece of something that places it in time.
Zibby: What did your husband actually want to do instead, out of curiosity?
Madeline: He’s the boy of the internet. He's always been really deeply interested in future technology and where the internet’s going and all that sort of stuff. He started really getting into the future, blockchain technology and trying to understand how it works and how it’s going to be implemented. Everybody's investing in cryptocurrency now and stuff, but how's it going to work? What's it going to do? Who's going to make these things? What's the future of the internet? How's it actually going to work? He's really into that now. I support him fully. I think it’s awesome. I like the idea that he's the boy of the internet. He was there when it started. He's there in the next stage of where the internet is going. I'm very happy for him.
Still though, he is my primary advisor. I run everything by him. He's more of a strategic thinker. I'm more of the person on the boat who paddles really hard and does all the everyday. I use him to bounce off the ideas. He usually finds flaws in a lot of my big, crazy ideas, which I've now started to embrace. Before, I used to be very defiant with him. Now I'm like, “No, that's a great idea. Keep talking. Don't stop talking.” I write it all down. Then I actually turn it into a systemized plan, and I execute on it. He does a different type of thinking that I really appreciate. That's why he's an author on the book. He didn't make the book, but he helped create that strategy that ended up resulting in a book. He gets authorship on that. I don't care.
Zibby: Lucky guy.
Madeline: I can do whatever I want. He can have that.
Zibby: That's really sweet. I love collaborating with my husband Kyle on things. I always wonder like what you're saying, does it really work? Does it create tension? Is it a risk?
Madeline: Oh, god, does it ever. I don't know. Some husband/wife duos are power team partners. I've always been a little bit competitive with my husband. When we’re being husband and wife, we’re super pals and support each other and that sort of thing. He's very smart. I'm very snarky. We do have a little bit of manning up. It makes for a lot of fun adventures that him and I have together. When you're trying to run a business together, it was a nightmare. I like to blame myself for it. We can always be better. I don't really want to blame him and his shortcomings. He's got his own road to go on. I could've been a better, more open team member with him when I was working with him, and not be so rigid in my goals, and be more open to what he had to say. Now that he doesn't work for me, I treasure everything he tells me. That was a good thing. Now, I’ve had the experience of hiring employees and having people work for me. That's taught me quite a lot. I'm glad that I had that opportunity. Before, it was just him and I working on it together. When he left, I was like, “Uh-oh.”
Zibby: The sink or swim, you totally obviously did not sink. You're doing a triathlon with wine at this point, not a good analogy. Sometimes it takes those moments to really see what you can do. That's awesome that you learned that. You sound super self-aware. Sounds like you have a lot of the skills for having a really good marriage too, which is not about wine. I like the taking responsibility. I have to take a page out of your book. Back to wine for a second, on your website you have these awesome wine tasting placemats where you record the wines you're tasting and all that stuff.
If I were to host a wine tasting party, which now these little placemats have inspired me to want to do, what do you think I should do aside from ordering your awesome placemats?
Madeline: That's a great question because that sounds like a lot of fun. The best type of tasting to do is a comparative tasting. You can have snacks and things there, but I would actually leave them off to the side and focus more on the wine for the first tasting. Wine and food, it mussies it all up. You really want to learn about tasting first. It’s also easier and cheaper. Come on. We’re just getting a few bottles. Then you get us all together. Then we taste. When you learn how to actively taste, you're looking at essentially four different things. You're going to look at the wine. You're going to look at the color of the wine. You hold it over the white placement or whatever. You look at it. Then you smell the wine. You try to pick out flavors in the smells. Then you taste the wine. When you taste wine, it’s different than smelling. We talk a lot about the flavors, blueberries and vanilla. When you taste wine, it’s more about the structure. What is structure? It’s more about how it feels on your palate, how it feels in your tongue and in your mouth. In order to really taste one, you got to swish it around, get it all over the place in mouth on your palette. Then when you swallow, you pay attention.
From the moment you taste the wine to the moment you swallow it, and even after that, what's happening in your mouth? Is your mouth tingling? Is it really astringent and dry? Do you have a drying sensation in your mouth? All of these things, these are the structure of wine. That's actually the stuff that tells you if the wine will age well, which is really cool. If you taste a wine, smells amazing and you taste it and it’s flat and simple on your palate and it doesn't have a lot of acidity or that astringent tannin or anything like that, it might not age that well, truly. It tastes great now. It should be drunk now. You should enjoy it and it’s awesome. Maybe it won't age more than four to five years max. Most wines don't, surprisingly. Most wines you buy at the grocery store are not meant to age at all. They're meant to be drunk now. A few of them will. They’ll go the while. If you like a wine and you like drinking it, the most fun to do, even if it doesn't age well, is to age it for a period of time like a couple of years and to taste how it changes. You'll learn a lot about wine if you do that. Getting back to this tasting thing, I would do a comparative tasting.
Zibby: How many different wines am I ordering here?
Madeline: I would do four.
Zibby: Four wines. White and red? Just white? Just red?
Madeline: What would I do? I would take an assessment of the group first before making that decision. If people tell you that they really like red wine and they’ll drink nothing else, maybe we do a red wine tasting, and vice versa. If people are open, two would be really fun. If you do buy two, you want to taste the same grape. You want to taste maybe Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand versus Sauvignon Blanc from France, or Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley versus Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, or something like that. You want to taste the same grape variety from a different region. Then you realize the grape tastes different from different regions. You start to develop this repertoire of wines that you get to know. I love to taste Sauvignon Blanc as one of the first wines everyone tastes because it really does communicate where it’s from. For that same reason, I love to taste Syrah or Pinot Noir. Syrah from Australia versus a Syrah from France will blow your mind. It’s not even the same thing. It’s not even on the same plane. When you taste them alongside each other, you realize what's similar about them, but it’s not what you think. It’s more about how the taste profile, like we were talking about, that taste part, how it hits your palate. You realize Syrah can be many, many things, but when you taste those two wines next to each other, then you learn also about cool climate versus warm climate.
The reason I picked Napa Valley versus coastal Chile, or New Zealand versus France, or things like that has a lot to do with the climate where it comes from. Hot climate wines have a totally different taste profile than cool climate wines. They tend to be bolder. They tend to be more fruit forward. They tend to have dried fruit characteristics to them, whereas cool climate wines tend to be more tart. It’s more like it grew up in a cool climate. If it was a tomato, it didn't get that sweet. It’s from a cooler place. If you do that, everyone in your group will suddenly pick which one they like more. They’ll know. Deep down, they’ll know which one they like more. That’s a clue. It tells you what regions you should go hunting for wine in. If you like hot climate wines, check out Spain. Check out Southern Italy. Check out more of California or Australia. These are going to be your hotspots for wine. That's funny, hotspot. That would be the big tasting to do. Not only are you testing climates, comparing climates with one another, but you're also learning more about these individual varieties. I'd pick Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir as really good examples, but there are other great grapes to do this with. Chardonnay would be one too.
Zibby: My favorite is Chardonnay from Napa Valley. That's my go-to. Maybe it’s because I like warm weather myself. I don't know.
Madeline: Could be. It could be. You might be a warm climate wine lover. That's great.
Zibby: What are you?
Madeline: For the longest time, that was my taste profile. Then my palate changed a little bit. I drink everything under the sun. I don't know if I really have a specific. I tend to buy a lot of white wines when I need a drink, I need that wine after a long day. That's what I'm drinking these days. Who knows what I’ll do next year. We’ll see.
Zibby: When I have this fictitious little dinner party I'm thinking of doing with the wine tasting, I know I’ll give them placemats. You have a whole section in your book about tasting notes and the importance of those. Should we be doing that as well?
Madeline: You should take notes. Everyone's going to write something different down. When you do it as a group, it can be hard for somebody who's slow to take notes to develop their own thing. It would be good if you started it and everyone wrote down their notes first before you talked about it. You start it. There's quiet time when people write their notes and taste. You could set a timer, little egg timer, something like that. You can write down your notes. Then you talk together as a group. That is the best thing to do. Take the time tasting yourself. Then learn from other people in the group. Everyone will have something unique to add. They all taste differently. You'll learn doubly fast with comparative tasting with friends. It’s really a great method. It works like a champion. In fact, pretty much all master sommeliers have really intensive tasting groups. This is exactly what they do, but they do it with six wines instead of four. They do three whites and three reds. They do them all blind. They do them without knowing what they are and where they came from. Their goal is to figure out what they are and where they came from in the blind tasting.
Zibby: Next time you're in either New York City or LA, both of which I spend a lot of time in, and you want to come to my house and help me run one of these dinner parties -- do you do that?
Madeline: That would be a lot of fun. I still do tastings and stuff. Right now, I'm doing something on my website, so I haven't been running around lately. I love LA. I used to live there. It’s so awesome. What part of LA do you spend time in?
Zibby: In the Palisades. How ‘bout you?
Madeline: Wow. That's an awesome area. I lived in Pasadena and in San Dimas when I lived there.
Zibby: I used to work in Pasadena.
Madeline: Gosh, good old memories. I loved driving around that city. I loved driving around the city at night. That was my favorite thing to do. It goes forever and ever and ever.
Zibby: Absolutely. Aside from coming to my dinner party, what else do you have coming down the pike for you professionally?
Madeline: [laughs] I like your style. Professionally right now, actually it’s releasing really soon in New York and in LA, is the SOMM 3 film. I'm actually a pretty big role in that film. That was a documentary by Jason Wise. It’s part of the SOMM series. If you've seen it, SOMM 1 is a crazy, crazy story about these guys that are trying to become master sommeliers and what they go through. They actually take the test in the video. It’s very, very stressful. SOMM 2, they explore what is wine and where it grows and the magic of wine. SOMM 3, he’s really trying to do something with wine, Jason Wise is. Pinot Noir is now, for somms and people who collect wine, is now considered the most important grape. Everybody looks to Burgundy. A sommelier who was in the first film puts together a tasting to blind taste different Pinot Noirs from around the world in order to challenge Burgundy from its thrown. Some really big names in the wine world are included in this film. I narrate the whole thing. It’s really cool.
Zibby: That's so awesome. Oh, my gosh. When does that come out?
Madeline: It premiered already. It’s going to be out on iTunes in November. It’s coming out soon.
Zibby: Perfect. I can't wait to watch it with a big thing of wine in front of me.
Madeline: You definitely need a glass of Pinot Noir to watch this film.
Zibby: Done. Now I have my plans for November. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Moms really don't have enough time to drink wine either, so this is a nice little tasting of your immense knowledge. Thank you so much for sharing it with me and all the listeners.
Madeline: Thank you.
Zibby: Take care, Madeline. Bye.