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Interview with Mark Oldman

Mark Oldman  is an author of two bestsellers: Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine (for which he received Georges Duboeuf’s Best Wine Book of the Year Award) and Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine.

When he is not taping another episode of The Winemakers – PBS, where he serves as a lead judge, he also delivers speeches and lectures about wine. I was really excited that he found time in his busy schedule to speak with me about the passion we both share – wine.

How did you get to wine? Do you remember some “a-ha!” moment that made you consider a career in wine?

I went to college in California only about 90 minutes away from Napa.  As a student I founded a wine club, the Stanford Wine Circle, thinking that it would be fun and enlightening to bring top winemakers from Napa and Sonoma to campus.

The club proved to be quite popular among students, who, it should be noted, had to submit proof that they were of legal drinking age.

Starting such a club came out of a pure passion for wine and learning about it directly from those who make it. Happily, the winemakers and winery owners – from Robert Mondavi himself to Bruce Cakebread to Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen – were eager to discuss their wines with the next generation of wine drinkers.

Organizing over forty of these tastings provided me with the confidence and knowledge to eventually teach wine seminars of my own. The Stanford Wine Circle lives on at Stanford Business School.

What’s the most important thing for you to find in a wine?

Balance. No one element should be out of proportion. A wine’s tannin, fruit, oak, acidity should show harmony and proportion.  And I favor wine that has “personality” — that is, interesting aromas and flavors.

Of course, if it’s a relatively neutral variety like Muscadet, it’s not going to have the degree of personality of, say, a well-made Zinfandel. In a restaurant, if the server seems knowledgeable and friendly, sometimes I just ask him or her to “bring me a white or red with personality”.

Do you remember the most impressive bottle of wine you had so far? Is there one particular bottle that stands up in your memory?

If we are talking pinnacle bottles, one very generous collector last year shared with me a bottle of La Tache 1962. Despite having a half century of age, it was lively and seductive, with the most ethereal perfume of Asian spices and beetroot and a silky finish that practically tattooed its essence on your tongue.

Less lofty but equally memorable was when some friends and I visited the Brander Vineyard, a Sauvignon Blanc specialist in Santa Barbara. We were sitting outside at their picnic tables, and Brander’s amiable owner came out and joined us. He had no idea that I was involved with wine.  He shared with us some trout that he had caught the day before, carving off slices with a pocket knife.

Sitting amid the paradisaical palms of Santa Barbara, enjoying good conversation and a relatively simple but delicious Sauvignon Blanc, is one of my favorite wine memories.

Do you prefer any wine region to another, to your personal taste?

I have a passion for variety, which is why my rallying cry is to “drink bravely”. I often watch my students and friends get caught in a Chardonnay shuffle because it’s just too easy to fall back into the same old routines. To be sure, I too have my trusty favorites, but I also push myself to experience new taste sensations.

Last week, for example, my girlfriend and I were at Periayli, a fine Greek restaurant here in Manhattan, and we had a splendid Assyrtiko (from the producer Sigalas), a wine which is still completely unknown to most drinkers.

This week we cracked open a $12 bottle of Bordeaux, which I include as “Brave New Pour” in my new book because many wine enthusiasts continue to overlook inexpensive Bordeaux. It drank like a bottle three times its price.

If I had to pick one type that is especially dear to me, it would be red Burgundy. Of course, Burgundy is inconsistent and heartlessly expensive, but when you get a good one it will rearrange your molecules like nothing else.

Your last book won Georges Duboeuf’s Best Wine Book of the Year Award – how is this one different from Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine?

Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine offers readers a foundation in all aspects of wine, from basic grapes to storage and handling strategies to ordering in restaurants.

My new book, Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine, reveals wines that insiders are drinking, many of these wines being affordable and easily attainable.  I’ve noticed that wine pros – writers, sommeliers, wine merchants – are privy to what I call a “parallel wine list,” one that encompasses high quality, lesser known, affordable wines.

So in the new book I aim to make these types accessible to everyone else, providing the inside scoop on wines such as Torrontés, Portugese reds, grower Champagne, “(good) Merlot,” and many others.

Besides writing books, you have done TV (a lead judge on PBS’s The Winemakers), publishing in the top magazines, delivered speeches, lecturing on wine – what would you say is the most exciting to you and why?

Teaching about wine and getting people excited about it is my bliss.  Wine appreciation is not rocket science.  To enjoy wine you need neither a PhD in linguistics nor a bulging wallet.  I see my mission as giving people permission to have fun with wine. You want to throw an ice cube in glass of everyday wine?  Go ahead and do it.

Longing to sip Chardonnay with your steak?  God bless.  There is no immutable Wine Code that should be transgressed – yet many consumers still feel like there is. Visually, I don’t particularly fit into the stereotype of a wine connoisseur.  I don’t wear a bow tie or talk in the Queen’s English.

While there are many kind-hearted, savvy people in the industry who will help you source good wines, there is also an abundance of sommeliers and merchants who aren’t that helpful. I understand what people have to endure just to get a good sip.

What is your opinion about today’s American wine consumer?

In one sense we put wine on the pedestal and some restaurants and wine stores perpetuate that. For the most part, wine should be viewed as a grocery, not a luxury. Many Europeans have a healthier perspective on wine, seeing it as more of a everyday accent rather than an object of worship. You have your salt, your pepper, and your glass of wine  It’s there primarily to enhance the flavor of the food.

At the same time, the American palate is broadening like never before.  Right now, I’m looking across the street at a Chipotle, a foreign name that no restaurant chain would dare use ten years ago.  Chipotle’s ubiquity its testament to the fact that Americans are more comfortable with what once would have been frighteningly exotic.

Today, you can get panini at truck stops and sushi at baseball parks.  Similarly, Americans are increasingly “drinking bravely,” moving outside their comfort zone with wines like Prosecco, Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Rueda.

Do you flirt with social media? What’s your take on it?

Social media offers businesses and consumers a level of transparency, community, and connectedness that didn’t exist just a few years ago.  Before getting into wine full-time, I co-founded and ran a company called which offered job seekers the ability to exchange information about potential employers online.  I’ve long believed in the power of Internet to exchange valuable information.

What is the next project you are working on?

In addition to finishing the filming of the second season of The Winemakers on PBS, I’m appearing at several gastronomic venues across the country, Including the Aspen Food & Wine Festival, Pebble Beach Food & Wine, James Beard House, Oregon’s International Pinot Noir Celebration, and several others.

Your readers can get the latest at my website, Twitter page and Facebook.

Mark, thank you so much for your time!

My note:
The day, we did an interview with Mark, I had 2 trouts and a bottle of Basa Sauvignon Blanc prepared in the fridge to make for a dinner. When Mark mentioned his nice memories of visiting Brander Vineyard in Santa Barbara, we thought: what a great coincidence. Although, there is no such a thing as coincidence….

More about Mark’s newest book and my opinion about it in my blog “Drink bravely” says Mark Oldman

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