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Sommelier Talk: Maria Papp of Detroit's Rattlesnake Club

This somm grew up stomping grapes in Hungary and now introduces French auto execs to Michigan pours
Photo by: Courtesy of Rattlesnake Club
The food-and-wine scene in the Motor City is revving up, with places like the Rattlesnake Club leading the way.

Emma Balter
Posted: February 12, 2016

Maria Papp grew up in Hungary, where she learned to love wine early on from her grapegrower grandfather, who owned a small vineyard near Lake Balaton. After years making wine in Austria, Papp moved to Indiana with her husband. Eventually, after working in hotel management, Papp took a job at Joseph Decuis, a campus with a farm, restaurant, shop and inn in Roanoke, Ind., where she became intimate with the workings of farm-to-table cuisine and oversaw the wineshop there as well.

Papp, 53, now lives in Detroit, and has worked at the Rattlesnake Club, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner, for the last four years. Though popular with Michiganders, the restaurant is also a destination spot, where the world’s auto industry magnates pop corks—including Michigan's finest selections, in keeping with the restaurant's emphasis on local fare.

Assistant tasting coordinator Emma Balter recently spoke with Papp about her humble beginnings in wine, the rise of culinary Detroit and what to drink if you're in town for the annual North American International Auto Show.

Wine Spectator: You grew up in Hungary. What were your younger years in wine like?
Maria Papp: In the 1970s, my grandpa used to make wine in our backyard. And I used to taste wine when I was very young. I did help harvesting the grapes every fall and I used to jump on the grapes!

He did not have a winery; he was just making wine for the neighbors. But he had a great passion to make wine. He made dry wine, Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner, and some ice wine occasionally.

WS: Nowadays, what do you drink on your own time?
MP: I like Mendoza; I love Malbec. I like Grenache, especially now because it’s so cold here. I love Cabernet Franc from Chappellet; that’s one of my favorites! And during the summertime I love the rosés. I like Verdicchio from Italy, and I also like the Mawby Blanc de Blancs from Michigan. It’s a sparkling wine that’s not too sweet, not too dry, just perfect for a summer evening outside.

WS: What is your favorite food and wine pairing at the moment?
MP: At the moment I really like roasted rack of Michigan lamb with rosemary cauliflower, and I like to pair that with some big Napa Cabernet, like the Chappellet Signature.

WS: What makes the Rattlesnake Club special in its approach to wine and food?
MP: We are serving pretty much modern American, and we love to use local ingredients. Unfortunately we don’t have a garden, but we have a huge patio, and our chef plants all the herbs in the spring. That’s what we use all summer long for the dishes. I also use a lot of fresh ingredients for my cocktails.

We do the Michigan Wines Showcase in our restaurant because we have a huge atrium. There are some very talented Michigan winemakers in the area and they work very hard to make these wines.

WS: What surprises you most on the job?
MP: Auto Show week is always surprising, as we have a lot of people from Europe and they like to order the wines from the United States. When [I] go to a table with these French people and I offer them some Bordeaux or something [else] from France, they look at me: "What are you doing, we are in America!"

They love to try the Napa Valley wines, the big Cabernets, and sometimes they try the Michigan wines—and they like them!

WS: What is the culinary scene in Detroit?
MP: It is getting really crafty around here, with all the craft cocktails and all the new places opening up. Right now the big trend in the Detroit area is small plates.

WS: What are some new wine options customers are looking for these days?
MP: This year I would like to do a half-bottle page on my wine list. I find now that we have a lot of single tables, and sometimes they don’t like the glass choice but they don’t want to purchase a whole bottle.

WS: What makes a career in wine fulfilling?
MP: Since we moved to North America, I always worked in restaurants. So that’s now 29 years I’ve been in this industry, and I love it. Some people tell me I’m getting old for this, but I’m just looking at them: "Hmm, I don’t know." I can always drink and sell wine as long as I live because wine keeps everybody alive. It’s extremely good for you!

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