There is a handful of individuals globally who can lay claim to holding the titles of master sommelier and certified wine educator. Michael Jordan is one of them. He is also known as the “sommelier for the people”, and on meeting the man himself, it soon becomes apparent this may be the designation he cherishes the most. With more than 40 years of experience in the business of food and wine, Jordan has led global groups and intimate restaurant teams, delivering exceptional dining experiences across the world. Over an afternoon of tasting Pinot Noir wines from Oregon and California (regions that Jordan lavishes praise upon as director of global key accounts for renowned United States winery Jackson Family Wines), he impresses and delights with his down-to-earth, passionate and engaging thoughts about the often intimidating world of wine.
We swirl and nose and sip, and Jordan offers his insights into all things grape. But first, we sit down to discover how wine is his obsession, and what the future of the industry looks like to those in the know.
Tell us how you got into the world of wine and hospitality.
I grew up in my family’s Italian-restaurant business. I started at 12 years old, chopping garlic and mopping the floors, and washing pots and pans. I’ve done every job in a restaurant … bus boy, back waiter, front waiter, manager, general manager and, eventually, sommelier. I always loved being in the kitchen, being a “culinarian” and, eventually, a chef. Flavours, textures and then passion for service, and all of those things, caused me to be really fascinated about the world of wine, because it encompasses so many different things.
You’re one of a very small number of master sommeliers in the world. What does it take to gain the title?
There are 234 master sommeliers and about 200 certified wine educators, and there are only 15 people that are both. It takes years of study and effort, and examinations. You just need to be completely obsessed in the world of wine. And it’s not just wine – it’s wine and spirits, sake, beer, cigars, all things that would be served [at a good restaurant]. A very complete range, not just wine. And the service of those things; that’s where the Court of Master Sommeliers differs from the Society of Wine Educators or the Master of Wine programme, because while they’re recognised worldwide and they’re really the top of the top, the only one of the three that examines for actual service is the Court of Master Sommeliers. But you can’t take yourself too seriously.
You have been dubbed the “sommelier for the people”. What does this unofficial designation mean to you?
My style is more to demystify this whole world of wine and make it easier for people to enjoy, easier for them to order a glass or a bottle of wine, and easier for them to understand it. In years past, sometimes people have been put off by the appearance of a stuffy or possibly pompous sommelier. An old-fashioned style of service is wonderful, but I think it got carried a little bit too far and left people intimidated. Not through anybody’s intent. But that’s not the job of the sommelier; he’s supposed to be your friend, your agent, somebody who is going to find you a great bottle of delicious wine at good value, something that would be perfect with the food you’re ordering or something that you may really love but that you’ve never tried. We’re servants. I’m a master sommelier, but really my job is to serve others. That’s what it’s all about.
You’ve been the director of global key accounts for Jackson Family Wines since autumn 2013. What does the role entail?
I am an international ambassador for every one of their wineries and for the family. And being that it’s global, if there’s a plane, I’m on it! I used to work in a box for 45 years, whether it was in the kitchen or in the front of house in a restaurant, and now I’m absolutely free as a bird, travelling 20 days of the month. All over the US, to Asia, to the Caribbean … training, teaching, supporting our sales teams, working at a major event or creating a major event. I run an amazing wine festival on the island of Maui every June. I was the chair of the LA International Wine Competition for several years as well, and giving examinations for the Court of Master Sommeliers. Then travelling to do training and education in restaurants and hotels, maybe assist them in writing a wine list or training their staff. No week is ever the same. I’m the luckiest guy on the planet. It’s amazing! I love the wineries that Jackson Family Wines owns; I love the way that they’re doing business. The wines, their philosophy and their dedication to sustainability.
About sustainability: where do you think the wine industry is heading in that regard?
Not everyone is picking it up yet, but I think they will ultimately need to. They still have a choice because you can be wasteful if you want to in this world, but it’s only a matter of time before people will call you on it. As we say in the restaurant business, people vote with their feet. The Jacksons are leading the charge by leaps and bounds in the area of sustainability, and they put their money where their faith is in that commitment. They’ve donated nearly US$4 million to the University of California at Davis to build the Jess S Jackson Sustainable Winery Building, and built this winery that is solar and wind-powered. They’ve partnered with Tesla to build a “battery wall” so that they can store the energy – because they produce more energy then they use – to use or give back to the university or eventually the community around it. This is the next prototype model of what wineries should be. They have also effectively learned how to cut the use of water almost to half of what it used to take to produce wine. When you think about that kind of water saving – the most valuable resource on the entire planet – where you’re protecting a natural resource before you’ve even used it, it’s a pretty good way to ensure our future and health.
Where do you think the perception of old versus new-world wine currently stands?
I can’t say that there’s right or wrong, or better or worse. It’s just what you’ve grown up with, it’s what you’re accustomed to. Old-world wines are leaner and more demure. When you smell a glass of old-world wine, maybe the earth is the star of the show, and then hiding beneath that is the fruit that will slowly unfold. What I find really interesting is, the wines coming out of Gran Moraine in Oregon, for example, are extremely French in style, and when I blind taste candidates, these wines are quite frequently being mistaken for wines from France, Grand Cru Burgundies … It’s new-world wine that transcends that old/new world paradigm, and they have minerality, and they have great finesse, and balance and equilibrium, and what I would call “authentic earthiness”.
Is there a wine you would love to try that’s not yet crossed your path?
I am so grateful I can honestly say that there is not a wine out there that I desire to try that I haven’t had the opportunity to try. There are vintages of wine that I haven’t tasted, but I’ve been in this business for so many years, I’ve opened thousands of bottles and I’ve been fortunate enough to taste some of the most amazing wines on the planet. I’m grateful for that.