“My story is really simple”, says Madeline Triffon. “I started in the late seventies, graduating college, dragging my feet going to law school or medical school, and studying theater. I entered the business when a Food and Beverage Director asked me if I’d like to be a sommelier, and I responded, “A sommelier? Sure, what’s that?”
Today, Triffon acknowledges the many people and situations along the way who helped create her path towards becoming a Master Sommelier (in 1987), the first American woman to earn the title.
“Service-wise, my mentors were the front-of-house staff of my first restaurant as a sommelier, La Fontaine, a formal French dining room with tuxedoed waiters. The service standards were set by the dining room manager, who would silently appear at my elbow if I were cutting a corner, so I didn’t!
“As a sommelier, the guests were my mentors. I learned to see things through their eyes, and I still do.” Triffon says. “When I was in my early twenties, Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie in Gone with the Wind, was staying at the hotel where I was working as the sommelier. She came into dinner one evening, sitting in a burgundy velvet booth by herself. She ordered a bottle of Dom Pérignon from me, saying cheerfully, ‘And, darling, I’d like it served in a big red wine glass filled with ice, because that’s the way I enjoy it.’ How kind she was to voice it that way.”
When working with aspiring sommeliers, Madeline says she tries to get a sense of what they need. What credential are they going for, and why? She encourages study, and to go beyond what feels good to them. “It’s not just about what you like. It’s important to have a broad base of knowledge. Hey, maybe you don’t speak Greek, but it’s good to have enough so you can get around downtown Athens.”
She once asked the late André Gagey, former director of Maison Louis Jadot, for his advice. She was buying wine for a 1,400-room hotel in Detroit and recalls what he told her: First thing, ask yourself, Is this a good wine? Second thing, Is this a good example of type, does it have typicity? Third thing, Is there a market for this wine, or do we have to create the market for it? Fourth thing, Is this priced well? Is there a good quality-to-price ratio? And Fifth thing, ask again, Is this a good wine?
“I first met Madeline through Evan Goldstein MS,” says Renée-Nicole Kubin of NOPA in San Francisco. “I’d been introduced to this circle of Master Sommeliers, and Madeline was the only female in this group. I was mesmerized by their abilities, and by their community feeling. It didn’t seem odd that Madeline was there, but when I look back, I realize that seeing Madeline do her thing gave me the confidence to think that a female could break into a very male-dominated environment.
Back in the early nineties, Kubin had been invited to work a wine event in New York with a number of other sommeliers. “We were all in the back room, with Evan Goldstein MS, Larry Stone MS, and a few others. I remember watching these two wine goddesses—Andrea Fulton-Higgins and Madeline Triffon MS—tasting. And I remember thinking, if I could have a career anything like theirs, it would be amazing. I remember everything about that moment—the temperature of the air, the ugly rug, the tablecloths. I can feel my younger self looking at them and thinking, ‘I want to do that. I want to be that.’”
Many more women have joined the sommelier ranks since that time, including Emily Wines MS, who is now the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Court of Master Sommeliers, America.
“Everything Madeline does is about up-and-coming sommeliers,” says Wines. “She cares that they are armed with the right knowledge. When she examines, she’s always the last in the room, taking her time. There’s no one who fights more tenaciously for people, and for candidates, and for the questions to be fair.
“She hadn’t been [a Master Sommelier] exam mentor to me,” Wines recalls. “It was after becoming an MS, I realized, that’s who I want to emulate. I love how she puts people at ease, with a warmth and generosity of spirit that exemplifies what people in this industry should be.”
This story appears in the print issue of October 2021.
Like what you read? Subscribe today.