André Mack has traveled a circuitous path throughout the wine world, from wine drinker to sommelier to vintner and now restaurateur. Throughout his journey, he has kept fresh eyes and a passion for making wine welcoming to everyone. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, executive editor Thomas Matthews spoke with Mack about the many twists in his career, making wine more relatable and opening a restaurant in his own community.
Mack didn't grow up in a household that drank wine much. In fact, his first introduction to the world of fine wine was watching an episode of the sitcom Frasier.
After leaving his desk job at an investment firm, Mack returned to the restaurant industry, where he had worked during school, learning about wine on the floor at a steak house and moving into a position as a sommelier. "Working in restaurants all throughout college, and understanding the restaurant industry as a very transient industry, people are always going on to bigger and better things," Mack said. "What I realized was that a bigger and better thing was right there underneath my nose all along. I had to leave and then come back."
In 2003, Mack became the first African American to be named the Best Young Sommelier in America by the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international society of gastronomy. Soon after, he moved to Napa Valley to work at Thomas Keller's the French Laundry, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner. The following year, Keller enlisted his help in opening Per Se in New York, where Mack managed the 1,800-label wine list.
Entering the dining scene in New York, Mack began to notice a shift. "I realized that chefs wanted to open restaurants on their own terms, and things were changing," he said. "As I started to watch that, I was drawn to it. I wanted to make wines for [the] new restaurants." So, in 2007 he launched Maison Noir, a brand focusing on Oregon Pinot Noir.
As his journey working in the wine industry continued, Mack realized that his rarity there as a person of color was not necessarily because of a lack of interest on their part, but rather an attitude within the industry that often made wine seem inaccessible. He saw an opportunity to change the narrative around wine.
In his book, 99 Bottles: A Black Sheep's Guide to Life-Changing Wine, Mack lists the many bottles of wine, beer and spirits that helped shape his understanding of wine. Citing the importance of using pop-cultural references in the way he speaks about wine, Mack notes that working for established, respected people like Keller is what helped him bring humor and personality to his approach to wine.
"I wanted it to feel authentic in a way that it was a reflection of who I am and where I came from," Mack said. "Being able to change the language a little bit about wine, it was one of those things where I felt like I had built up enough courage, after finally working for someone like Thomas, that encouraged me to embrace that."
Despite his nontraditional approach, Mack still has a great appreciation for the foundational fine wines like Burgundy grands crus, first-growth Bordeaux and California Cabernet. He affirmed that those were wines that "were right there every single day, and I feel like the only way for me to be able to break the rules was to kind of master them in some way or degree. I totally enjoy all of those wines, and in the book, I really wanted to be unapologetic about it, because that is my past."
Today, Mack has shifted his energy to his local neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lives with his four children and wife, Phoebe Damrosch, who is also a former restaurant worker turned author. Just a few months before the pandemic forced restaurants to shutter their doors, the couple opened & Sons Ham Bar, focused on American charcuterie, cheese and wine culture. The restaurant, which Mack describes as "a diamond in the rough," offers a wide selection of vintage California wine from the 1970s and ’80s.
Despite the setbacks brought on by the pandemic, Mack and Damrosch are working on opening a provisions store, a wine bar and now a bakery—all housed in their neighborhood. What Mack has gleaned from the pandemic and the current social unrest sparked by the killings of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is the importance of being present and continuing to push forward for a better future.
His advice for young people of color trying to make it in the wine industry? "Get in where you fit in," he said. Restaurants were what was most accessible to him, but Mack insists that geographical location, or anything else for that matter, should not be a hindrance to any young person's dream. "Don't think that where you are located is a handicap. Do what you can until you can get to those places, if that's the goal," he said. Mack's journey is truly a testament that dedication, open-mindedness and a little innovation can pay off in the end.
Watch the full episode with Mack on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET. Tonight, Thomas Matthews will chat with Terry Arnold, senior vice president of human resources at Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits as part of a month of highlighting Black voices in the wine industry.