The Wine Coach: Teaching Taste

Wainscott Main Wine and Spirits offers 20 workshops a year, most of them devoted to wine and winemaking
At Wainscott Main Wine and Spirits, Chimene Macnaughton practiced what she preaches: “Tasting is a really great challenge to the senses.” Craig Macnaughton

On a recent Wednesday evening at Wainscott Main Wine and Spirits, more than 30 people crowded around a large, L-shaped table listening to Bryan Tierce, a principal of Oro de Lidia tequila, talk about tequila and mezcal. In front of each participant tiny plastic cups sat on a placemat that identified each libation. Judging from the questions, some were novices, others more experienced, and Mr. Tierce answered with expertise and patience. Cheese, crackers, salsa, guacamole, and chips were abundant.

The shop offers 20 workshops a year, most of them devoted to wine and winemaking. Yesterday, for example, Chimene Macnaughton, the manager of the shop, led an excursion to the Channing Daughters Winery tasting room in Bridgehampton. “The workshops really are for all levels,” she said. “We bring in people who are wine educators, but we make it super-democratic. We want it to be welcoming even if all you know is that you like white wine.” 

In late October 2013, Ms. Macnaughton, after eight years of working in restaurants and as a private chef on the East End, saw in a classified ad that Joel Kaye, the owner of the Wainscott Plaza shopping center, was seeking a manager for the then-vacant shop. He hired Ms. Macnaughton the first week in November, and they opened the shop in January. It was then that her years of experience in restaurants and hospitality came to fruition.

Ms. Macnaughton said that one of the fundamental principles of the shop is to focus on smaller, import-direct companies representing grower-producers, families, and farmers. “We are divesting ourselves of industrially made products by sourcing the smallest production wines we can find in every price point, convinced by extensive comparative tasting that mass-produced wines deliver less deliciousness.” 

While there was no interest in wine in her family, her mother and grandmother were “fearless cooks. No holds barred, no recipes. My mom was one generation removed from gathering the potatoes in the back yard and wringing the neck of the chicken she was going to serve that night. Exposure to that kind of cooking enabled me to become a private chef.”

Ms. Macnaughton was born and raised in Pasadena and attended the University of California Los Angeles, where she majored in history and political science. At the time she thought she would either get a Ph.D. and teach or go to law school. While still an undergraduate, she put herself through college working in high-end, specialty retail. She also took her first job as a waiter.

After graduation she moved to San Francisco, where she worked for a national retailer for several years before being recruited by Coach leatherwear to open her own store. “After that, I thought I’d go to graduate school but wondered how I would support that. I decided to go back to being a server. The restaurant scene in San Francisco in the 1990s was amazing. That’s where I jumped off into that world.”

Waitstaff jobs at high-end restaurants were not easy to come by. She sent out resumes and cover letters to the 40 top restaurants in the city and received two responses, from Postrio and Hawthorne Lane. Postrio had been opened by Wolfgang Puck, and she was interviewed by his brother Claus.

“I bombed that interview and moved through five interviews over four weeks to get my first restaurant job at Hawthorne Lane, where I started out as a lunch server. The wine director there was Richard Coraine, who eventually moved to New York City and built up the wine program of the Union Square Hospitality Group. He was my first connect with the world of wine. It was an amazing education. Two years there felt like a 10-year apprenticeship.”

During her stint at Hawthorne she learned about wine tasting. “That was early in my career and has been with me ever since. It’s something I teach now. For anyone who wants to be a wine professional, tasting in general, but especially blind tasting, is a really great challenge to the senses. It informs how I shop for wine, how I sell wine, and how I talk about wine. At that point I knew enough to think I knew everything.” 

In 2005, after three years as a private chef in Sun Valley, Idaho, she needed a break. “I wanted to go to the beach, I had a boyfriend, and I decided to come to East Hampton. I answered an ad in The Star for a private chef.” That job lasted a month, after which she was unsure what to do next. She decided to stay in East Hampton for the winter.

Then began several years at Della Femina, Fresno, and Rugosa. “There were no management jobs here. I had the résumé to run Della Femina or Nick and Toni’s, but Bonnie Munshin, Walter Struble, Michael Cohen, and Carol Covell had those jobs here. So I was a server, and I happen to love waiting tables.”

At the same time, she took the Sommelier Certification Program, an advanced-level 24-week course run by Andrew Bell. “Sitting in that first class I found out how little I knew. I was so petrified. It was intense, but it rounded out my confidence level and gave me a sense of how big the wine world is and how you can never know it all.”

After Rugosa closed, she went back to Los Angeles for 18 months, until, in 2011, she was contacted by an East Hampton family for whom she had cooked before. At the same time, she met her future husband, Craig Macnaughton, a photographer. “We were long distance, but then he relocated here and we married in the fall of 2011.” They both freelanced, she as a private chef, he as a photographer, until she saw the ad for the position in Wainscott.

“We buy wine from over 50 suppliers. It gives me the opportunity to cherry-pick from everybody to get what I want. One of the biggest things in my job description is that I taste, and I buy, but also at this time of year I am in the city at least once a week at portfolio tastings. I also go to both the Burgundy and Bordeaux previews, where you can taste the vintage.”

“­The bottom line is, I taste all the time. It keeps me aware and gives me a sense of what a vintage is like. It also gives me a sense of whether a trend is happening somewhere regionally, if people are starting to make wines in a different way. Only by the sheer amount of tasting can you see patterns.”

Bryan Tierce discussed the finer points of tequila and mescal during a recent workshop at Wainscott Main Wine and Spirits. Mark Segal