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Friday, February 17, 2012

From Bordeaux to Christie's: an Interview with Wine Industry Pro Robin Kelley O'Connor - Part 1!

Robin Kelley O'Connor & Me
“How do you get into the wine industry?”

Many people including myself have asked this question at some point and I think it's fair to say, there's definitely more than one way to skin a cat. During a recent trip to New York City, I reached out to some noteworthy individuals in the wine industry who agreed to share their experiences and shed some light on the subject.

At the top of my list was Robin Kelley O’Connor, a man who has left few facets of the wine world unexplored. Not many individuals have gotten their start in the wine industry working for Steven Spurrier at Caves de la Madeleine in Paris, learning winemaking under the tutelage of Christian Moueix in Bordeaux, and collaborating on wine education programs around the globe with Kevin Zraly - and that’s just scratching the surface! With professional incarnations including twenty years with the Bordeaux Wine Bureau, two years at Sherry-Lehmann, and a recent appointment as Head of Wine, Americas at Christie’s Auction House, I thought O’Connor would definitely be able to provide some insight into the fascinating world of wine.

On a rainy December evening in Manhattan we had the chance to sit down at Oceana Restaurant at Rockefeller Center:

How did you first become interested in wine?

I didn’t come from a wine family but when I was at University [of Maryland] I took a wine appreciation course and, at that time, we were drinking Grand Cru Burgundy, First, Second, Third Growth Bordeaux de rigueur, that was just normal, what that professor would serve. He grew up partially in France and his family brought back hordes of wine and he shared it with us in this wine class. This is when these wines were all affordable and I was nineteen years old and I thought ‘Oh my God, this is an elixir! I have no idea what I’m drinking, but I love it,’ and a light bulb went off.

What was your first job in the wine industry and how did that come about?

I was studying Political Science and History and when I left University I went to Europe on a two-month Eurail pass with a two-month [plane ticket]. Well, my Eurail pass terminated, I ran out of money and my flight expired…and I was stuck in Paris and ended up working at Caves de la Madeleine for one of the great wine writers in the world named Steven Spurrier. He gave me a stockist job at Caves de la Madeleine…and he had a wine school, I didn’t get paid but I took wine courses at night. I eventually ended up in London taking classes at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and I happened to work for John Armit, the managing director of Corney & Barrow, one of London’s oldest wine merchants. I told John I’d love to work a harvest and he sent me to Bordeaux to work for the Moueix family. I ended up spending two years at [Chateau] Pétrus. After the first year at Pétrus I went to Champagne and spent a year at the House of Krug working and studying the art of Champagne making with the brothers Henri and Rémi Krug. The following year I returned to Bordeaux at Pétrus for another harvest. Following the Bordeaux/Champagne winemaking experience, I spent a year in Navarra in Northern Spain and Roussillon area in Southern France and I actually did a harvest in Switzerland in Vevey on Lake Geneva.

How did you find your way back to the States? 

I came back here because I got involved in a crazy sport called ‘Running of the Bulls’ in Spain. I got badly gored and almost lost my life and spent two months in the hospital in Pamplona in Northern Spain. At the same time my father was very sick, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer which I didn’t know and I came back to the States because I got word that my father was literally on his death bed. I was recovering from a life-threatening injury so I went back to Baltimore, where I grew up, and got medical attention. When I came back I decided I’d go to New York and find my way into the import/export business but I decided not to be a winemaker. I knew after five years of studying winemaking I didn’t want to be a winemaker; I wanted to deal with the finished product.

How did you make the transition to becoming a wine educator?

It came very naturally I think, I was very lucky. I believe I was the second American to pass the Diploma course at the WSET and I did that in London….after that there was this long spell before the diploma and all the ancillary WSET classes came to the US so when I got into New York and involved in the wine business, I joined the Society of Wine Educators (SWE). Simultaneously, that year I’d started working for Bordeaux [Bordeaux Wine Bureau] and I was the trade liaison/spokesperson for the Bordeaux region in the Americas for twenty years. My very first year a gentleman named Peter Sichel who owned Château Fourcas-Hosten in Bordeaux that’s now owned by the family that owns Hermès, said, “you must come to Portland, Oregon and do a Bordeaux seminar with me,” so I did! That was in 1990 so I’ve been a member ever since and I was on the board for many, many years and President of the SWE for four years.

How important are credentials in the wine industry? Is it more important now than in the past?

Credentialing I think is exceedingly important. Curiously enough I had the diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) for at least 10-12 years and it meant nothing in the US at all and now it’s very prestigious. I think it all gives validity; I think it’s very, very important. There really aren’t that many of us in this business so I really believe in credentials, I think it’s important. If someone’s serious they should have some sort of credential, I’m not one to say what they should have because there are many different opportunities but it really is important for an individual to grow professionally in the wine world, so to speak.

Who would you say had the biggest influence on your career as a mentor and how did they help you develop in your career?

There’s no question that Christian Moueix from Bordeaux has had the greatest single influence on preparing my life in the world of wine. I certainly would like to start with John Armit of Corney & Barrow because he gave me the opportunity and arranged for me to work for Christian Moueix. I would certainly like to thank Steven Spurrier for that wonderful August in Paris when my finances on a student budget wouldn’t allow me to purchase a new plane ticket and fly back home to the United States. But guess what, it was the best summer of my life! If you’re going to be stuck somewhere, Paris is not a bad place to be stuck at twenty-three or twenty-four years old.
Another mentor was the gentleman who was Christian Moueix’ winemaker at Pétrus and all his ancillary properties including Dominus in Napa Valley, his name is Jean-Claude Berrouet. He was the head enologist for the Moueix family and at the time I was there, they either owned outright or had the winemaking rights for fifteen Chateaux in Pomerol, St. Emilion, and Fronsac. Jean-Claude was the one I worked with every single day – he’s my hero as Christian Moueix is my hero.

What did Christian Moueix’s influence mean to you?

Christian took me under his wing, I am so indebted to the man as a mentor and in numerical terms I can never repay him but what I think I’ve been able to do in a way of a gesture is to pass it on and pass on the knowledge. This is why I’m so happily involved in volunteering my time for mentorship and endlessly giving time in lecturing around the world…and in organizations like the Society of Wine Educators and Sommelier groups. I also have had the privilege to teach at Cornell University School of Hospitality Management. I’ve been a guest lecturer at Cornell for 20-some years and the Culinary Institute of America, lovingly known in the world of food and wine as the real CIA in Hyde Park, NY and Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Hospitality Management…so every time I do something like that I think, Christian, this is for you, because how can I ever repay you but this is my way of giving back and he knows that. He’s delighted that he knows that his mentorship means something because again, the way I’ve been able to live my adult life to this point is to pass on that knowledge and do it happily…it’s been very, very gratifying.

What types of people have you mentored?

I’ve mentored a lot of different people, those students right out of college and culinary schools. I’ve mentored those that have literally given up Law, Wall Street and other professions to get them involved in their passion, so whenever I can do that it’s certainly a great, great pleasure.

Stay tuned for 'Part 2' of my three-part interview with Robin Kelley O'Connor wherein he discusses his most meaningful career accomplishments; his collaborations with Kevin Zraly and Clive Coates, MW; and gives valuable advice to aspiring wine educators.


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