Baa Baa Black Sheep, Have You Any Wine? A Q&A With Winemaker André Mack

December 11, 2015

For a busy man, André Mack is remarkably chill. He runs two companies, designs labels and coloring books and wine pun t-shirts (one reads “Beaunne Thugs”), is in an upcoming documentary on minority winewakers in Oregon, and does some wristwatch modeling on the side (it’s exactly what it sounds like). Oh, and he has two kids under ten, with a third on the way. “I woke up today, so that’s plenty to be thankful for,” he tells me when we talk.

When it comes to wine making, Mack is refreshingly brassy towards a notoriously buttoned up business: “At the end of the day, it’s just grape juice,” he says. “No one needs anything that I make. The last thing we need is another wine on the shelf. So that just makes me grateful for the people who do enjoy it.”

Mouton Noir, Mack’s first company, opened for business in 2007. His grapes come from six different vineyards in Oregon. Right now, Mouton Noir sells thirteen wines. The bottles, originally designed to be served in restaurants, are now available in stores, online, and for wholesale order in the United States and eleven countries around the world from Spain to Japan. Mack’s latest venture, Vine and Supply, is a “Pinot Noir-centric” wine producer that’s set to open in early 2016.

Mack doesn’t look like most people’s idea of a wine expert, nor does his path. He got a job at McDonald’s when he was 16, had stints at Red Lobster and Chuck E. Cheese (he was the mouse), and then moved on and on to higher tier restaurants. By the time he became the sommelier at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, once called the best restaurant in New York City by the New York Times and deemed the third most expensive restaurant in the world, he stood out like a sore thumb, or, as his friends called him, a black sheep.

So when Mack left the restaurant biz to start making his own wines, he called his company Mouton Noir (“black sheep” in French) as a wink to skeptics. Now, standing out is something that he not only embraces, but cultivates. He designs the labels on his bottles, many of which poke fun at wine culture. They portray both respect and a fond sense of humor about the history, tradition, and elitism of wine culture. O.P.P. (Other People’s Pinot) was one of the first wines that Mouton Noir sold. There’s also O.G. (Original Grigot). This winter, Mack is most excited for Bottoms Up, a Riesling-based white blend.

While Mack doesn’t submit his wines to be judged in industry awards — he says people are already “experts in [their] own taste” — he may just have the most Instagrammed bottles of all time. Mack says that a maitre d’ in one restaurant told him that he’s worked in the industry for decades and “never seen people take as many photos of a bottle of wine” as do of his.

I called up Mack to hear his perspective on all this well-cultivated silliness. So here it is, straight from the sheep’s mouth:

You incorporate a lot of humor into your labels — Love Drunk, Oregogne, O.G. (Original Grigot), Bourgeois. Does anyone ever get, like…

Offended? Oh yeah. It pushes buttons. People are drawn to wine for different reasons, and some people are drawn to the fact that makes them feel elitist. But that being said, what’s wrong with a little humor in all this?

I feel like it should make you feel a certain way when you look at a label on a bottle of wine. And we do that. I’ve really gotten a lot of great support from my sommelier community and my restaurant community. A lot of the gatekeepers in this industry, we’re all right around the same age, which means that culturally we’ve all experienced a lot of the same things. So that’s what makes the wines funny.

It was really interesting working for Thomas Keller [of French Laundry and Per Se]. He uses a lot of humor in his menus. When you look at the menu, it’s sort of punny. There was a menu item called “tongue in cheek.” And it was tongue and cheek in the dish. At that restaurant, at that level, I was really amazed at the ways in which he used humor. And when I wanted to venture off to start my own company, I wanted to incorporate humor and to laugh. This is what it’s all about.

You’ve mentioned that when you were working for Thomas Keller as a sommelier, you were often seen as an outsider, and your friends gave you the nickname Mouton Noir, or Black Sheep. Did that bother you?

What’s really interesting about it is that working at those caliber restaurants, I was on the inside. The nickname comes from because there weren’t a lot of people that look like me that did what I did. In some ways I think some people would see that as a disadvantage. I found that to be an advantage. People remembered me.

I think a lot of diners just weren’t expecting to see someone like me. There were times that I approached a table that had asked to speak to the sommelier, and I would say, “I’m here to talk about wine.” And they would look at me and say, “We’re waiting for the sommelier to come.” I just think that it caught people off guard. I wasn’t really offended in any way. At that point it was really empowering to me, that I felt like “Wow, I got you now. Not only did you not think I was the sommelier, but I’m here, I’m in front of you, I’m very knowledgeable. I’m ready to help you through this list.”

You say there weren’t a lot of people who look like you that worked as sommeliers. Do you think that’s changed in the past few years?

I do. I think that there’s a lot more people of color or minorities in the wine business, holding positions of caliber. There’s definitely a lot more women in the industry. There is more diversity, and I believe that’s a good thing.

Some people say, “What difference does it make what color the winemaker is that made the wine? Judge the wines off their own merit.” Like, of course. And I do believe that my wine is judged off its own merit. But the fact is that when you walk into places and people can’t believe that you’re the principle or you’re the owner or you made the wine, it’s mind-blowing to me some days. It’s like, wow. That’s why we need to continue talking about it.

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