WWC23 – Madeline Triffon MS, by Rebecca Miles-Steiner

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This entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, by sommelier Rebecca Miles-Steiner, is about Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon. For more great wine writing, see our competition guide.

Rebecca Miles-Steiner writes Rebecca Miles-Steiner graduated from Wells College, in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, with a degree in Theatre.  While working as a Stage Manager in Chicago, her college-sparked love of Riesling and a library borrowed Jancis Robinson book set her on the wine and spirits path.  She helped to open and then managed a boutique wine and spirit store in Lincoln Park, worked as a wine and spirit buyer for Whole Foods, was a wine captain and event lead at City Winery Chicago pre-pandemic, a Fine Wine Specialist and spirit buyer at Plum Market’s Old Town Chicago location, and is now a Fine Wine Specialist with Domaine Wine Storage in Chicago.  She is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently making her way through the WSET Diploma program.  In her spare time she practices barebow archery, reads wine books, and plans her next wine adventure. 

Madeline Triffon is my favorite wine person.  Known as Detroit’s First Lady of Wine, she was the first female Master Sommelier in the United States, and was also the only candidate at the first U.S.-based Master Sommelier exam to pass all three exam sections on the first attempt.

Since 2011 Madeline has been the in-house Master Sommelier and Director of Events for Plum Market, a Detroit-based grocer with some of the best retail wine selections in the country.  I worked at the Chicago Plum Market location before and during the Pandemic and was privileged to have Madeline as a resource and mentor.  The first time I worked with her directly was at a pre-pandemic consumer tasting Plum hosted in Chicago.  Right away I noticed her natural command presence, as well as her skill at directing staff.  I also saw she was a natural hospitalitarian: welcoming and inclusive in how she listened and spoke; and as thoughtful and empathetic with her team as she was with guests.  

Madeline is easy to idolize from a distance, but in being lucky enough to get to know her what makes her my favorite wine person is not the firsts or the accomplishments, but instead, the way she practices and embodies three qualities I aspire to in my wine career: kindness, curiosity, and confidence.  

I believe that kindness is the most underrated and under-practiced virtue within the wine industry.  The on-premise hospitality sector in particular has a reputation for inhospitable work environments - including toxic work cultures, bullying, extreme competitiveness, and unchecked egos.  Other sectors in the industry are not immune.  You are told by peers, mentors, and supervisors - with words and otherwise - that if you don’t have the tough skin to deal with it, you’re just not cut out for wine as a job.  Madeline’s sommelier career was forged in high-stake restaurant environments.  And yet her interactions within the industry are always rooted first in respect and kindness regardless of the level of experience, background, or differing perspectives of the other party.  When I mentioned to her that I appreciated how she put kindness first, she credited her upbringing.  “My mother taught me to have good manners, be thoughtful, and try hard.” 

Now, I’m not saying that Madeline is overly effusive, or any kind of pushover - not at all!  I can say from experience that she won’t pull punches when she’s telling you a hard truth, though you can expect her to call back a few hours later and make sure the hard truth didn’t leave any bruises.  Whether it’s checking up on how your new job is treating you, or simply her choice of words, Madeline’s brand of kindness is unpretentious and sincere.  

In early 2019, before I worked at Plum Market, I heard Madeline speak at a sommelier workshop in Chicago.  During the presentation she introduced a younger and much more recently pinned Master Sommelier as “my colleague.”  Maybe this seems like a small thing, but I was still somewhat new to the industry, and I recall how I took particular note of it.  I realized that despite the likely disparities in the paths each had taken, as well as in the years of experience between them, Madeline saw only equity in their shared MS qualification.  I was impressed by this, as well as by the simple and clear way it was demonstrated.

But her kindness is not limited to just thoughtfulness or checking in.  There is a strong spirit of generosity and consideration in Madeline’s approach to mentorship and education.  Whether speaking to the trade or consumers, she aims to take complex subjects and make them resonate clearly.  Her focus is to share information simply, with clear language that is accessible to any audience.  “From the very beginning, I wanted to make it simple for others.  I had no mentors.  When I get info, I want to give it away in the way I would have loved to have received it over 25 years ago.  I don’t make someone read an essay, I distill it.”  

It’s not just book or technical knowledge that Madeline is distilling, it is also personal experience.  She told me that she finds this so critical that she will now turn down speaking opportunities when she feels she does not have the requisite first-hand knowledge.  This was instigated, in part, by an early experience where despite very thorough preparation she still felt she lacked a sense of the subject from her own experience. “I hadn’t breathed the air, I hadn’t talked to the people.  How can I share from a multi-dimensional perspective if I haven’t been there myself?”  I find that this speaks to the high regard Madeline holds for her subject and her audience, as well as her commitment to only the best for both.  

For Madeline, kindness and service are the same thing.  Whether on a restaurant floor, behind a retail counter, or at a lectern; she brings to bear thoughtfulness, intention, and true generosity for the benefit of her guest.  She creates environments where guests (or customers, or students) can leave insecurities at the door and learn and converse about wine without fear of judgment.  While much of this seems to come naturally, in fact Madeline will actively cut through barriers to achieve it.  Years ago she found that one such barrier was the Master Sommelier lapel pin itself.  While the pin acts as a guarantee of professional qualification, it can also be a bit intimidating.  “For years in Detroit, I wouldn’t wear my pin on the floor because I didn’t want to intimidate [guests] in our neighborhood restaurants….  You become intentionally thoughtful when you realize that your reputation may intimidate people.  I’ll go out of my way to compensate because I want to have a conversation, a dialogue.”  Today, many would call this creating a safe space, but at its core, this is hospitality.  And it is fundamentally an act of consideration, generosity, and kindness. 

Now, curiosity might not seem like a particularly notable quality within the world of wine.  I’ve never thought that those who achieve Master Sommelier or Master of Wine post-nominals then get to skip happily away to rest on their laurels.  How could any wine professional ever stop learning when the world of wine is so dynamic and ever-changing?  There are new growing areas (and new old growing areas), new grape varieties (and new old grape varieties), new laws, new climates, new styles (and new old styles), and new producers emerging all the time.  Wine is not a career for anyone who isn’t curious.  But I find Madeline’s curiosity particularly notable and instructive.

I recently volunteered on the production team for the Texsom Awards in Dallas.  Despite long hours and hard physical and mental work, this is something I truly enjoy.  There are oodles of educational opportunities, as well as a special something in the wine people that gather there and the community they create.  As a bonus, I got to speak with Madeline, who was serving as a judge.  

During a sponsored dinner I noticed the detailed notes Madeline was taking on the presentation.  It had been a long day, but she wasn’t focused on resting her mind, or eating, or catching up with rarely-seen colleagues.  She was totally focused on the information about recent changes in the quality standards and zoning designations of D.O. Cava.  And she was tasting and writing notes on all the wines presented.  I thought her focus and dedication were remarkable.  Also, I doubted that I could ever take such detailed notes at dinner without also getting salad dressing all over my notebook.  I asked her about this later, and Madeline’s reply was simple as well as illustrative.  “I don’t feel like I’m working at the moment.  Someone has given me access, why would I not take advantage?”  

There is no conceit in Madeline’s approach to tasting wines from less familiar regions.  She told me that for subjects or wines she says she’s “not deep in” or as experienced with, she approaches them innocently.  First she tastes for quality.  “Pay attention to the wine” she says.  After that she turns to the expert at the table to get a frame of reference.  In the face of constant changes in wines and styles - especially in an age of climate change - keeping both an open and a curious mind while learning and tasting is a priceless skill.  It is something I still have to remind myself to practice every time I taste.  Later in our conversation in reference to the wines (or maybe in reference to the experts, or maybe both), Madeline followed up: “The diversity of our industry is so cool!”  Yes, it is.  

However, for Madeline, learning and tasting are not in service only to her own curiosity.  Sommeliers are sometimes stereotyped as trophy bottle chasers: with only an eye for the rare or unusual.  But Madeline purposely refrains from tasting only the “cool”, the “somm”, or the collectible wines.  “It’s a happy sense of responsibility to be able to give my honest opinion.  At big … walk-arounds I often bee-line to the commercial stuff I don’t get to taste.  In getting to taste [these wines], I can give an honest opinion… on which ones bear quality examination and are going to give them the most bang for their buck.” 

When I say that Madeline is confident I am referring to two separate impressions.  The first is constructed from my feelings and perceptions.  It is my trust and belief in her character, knowledge, and abilities.  I am confident in Madeline.  I am confident in her ability to create a safe space where questions can be asked and conversations initiated, confident in her kindness, and that when she speaks on wine, service, careers, or exams, I can fully trust what she is saying.  This is her credibility.  It is rock solid. 

I think Madeline and I agree that in the world of wine credibility is everything.  I aim to acquire a similar level of credibility, in part, by working towards the WSET Diploma certification.  Maybe one day I’ll pursue the MW for the same reason.  But through Madeline’s example, I’ve come to see better than ever that credentials, whether MS or MW, are not the whole story.  And they are not the only path to achievement in the wine trade.  Hard work, service and kindness, thoughtfulness, and openness and curiosity are also key.  Madeline lays it out with her signature simplicity: “There’s a place for [everyone] at the table.  That’s what I love about the wine industry.  Regardless of where you’re coming from, you are going to have to craft your own journey.  Get credentials or be lawless about it, [but be] willing to work hard.”

Finally, there are also the ingredients of self-confidence that I observe in Madeline.  I’m much more of a Trek fan, but I have to reference Star Wars instead when I say: the force is strong with this one.  Madeline knows her strengths and plays to them.  She knows which skills or what knowledge her colleagues better excel in, and then champions them for it.  Madeline is self-aware of both her privileges and her struggles, and she never let any of it trip her up.  I asked Madeline a trite sort of interview question.  If she had three words to describe herself, what would they be?  The first she thought of was luck.  “All the people that I worked for and with were supportive of me.  I never ran into a wall.  I’m sure there were doors closed, but I didn’t pay attention to that.  I walked through any door that was open.”  

I don’t think it was down to luck.  Even in the early stages of her career Madeline had the self-confidence and the bravery to walk through open doors and not let fear or doubt stop her.  Today, by being confident, curious, and most importantly, kind - Madeline serves to cultivate the very same traits in those she mentors.  The world of wine, wine sales, service and hospitality are all changing.  I believe that the way to make sure the changes are for the better are to follow Madeline’s example.  Practice kindness, hold on to curiosity, and move forward with confidence. 

Image: Vectorig via Getty Images.