Jun 082013

Mark Oldman

“I am going to make it (wine seminars) worth their while. I have a short attention span. I don’t want to be bored. I am going to do whatever I can to make them walk away and say, that over-delivered.” Mark Oldman

During the Austin Food and Wine Festival we had the chance to meet wine style guru Mark Oldman, two time winner of Georges Duboeuf Best Wine Book of the Year Award for: Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine: 108 Ingenious Shortcuts to Navigate the World of Wine with Confidence and Style and Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine: Pleasure, Value, and Adventure Beyond Wine’s Usual Suspects.

Oldman has a distinct style described by Bon Appètit magazine as “winespeak without the geek” and by Publishers Weekly as “the ideal mix of wine connoisseur, showman, and everyday dude.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Oldman, of Drink Bravely fame. He was very fun, engaging and frankly a blast to chat with. While in Austin he professed his love for the Lone Star State repeatedly, interesting for a Jersey guy. He even pulled out his Longhorn money clip in testament.

One of the funniest moments however, was during his last seminar when he pulled out a 3X5 foot blowup of his outstanding arrest warrant from the 2012 AFW festival and his newly minted “Free Oldman” t-shirt. It seems Mark was caught by the tireless (obviously with too much time on their hands) Austin police for ….drumroll… Jaywalking, which in Austin is, believe it or not, a criminal offense. The crowd rolled out of their chairs laughing.

Mark says he tries to over-deliver in all aspects of life and in fact he did, both in person and his three amazing seminars. If you ever get a chance to participate in a Mark Oldman wine seminar, do not pass on the opportunity.

B&B – Define your phrase Drinking Bravely

That’s sort of my catch phrase for going outside your comfort zone. I’m guilty of sticking in my comfort zone; not only in wine but in all aspects of life and you really need to push yourself. It’s understandable, especially in restaurants where wine is really marked up, that people don’t want to take risks. So it’s great when you can find a wine teacher or blogger that turns you on to functional alternatives.

Some wines are overvalued and others are undervalued. I don’t like to spend a lot on wines so I tend to sniff out wines you need to drink bravely for…like the ones with hard to pronounce names and wines from unusual regions, like Portuguese reds. You have to know what stones to look under and trust your sommelier, if they seem trustworthy. Engage them in a conversation. Give three criteria, like I want a red, not too tannic and light bodied and have them suggest a few things. Then pick the one that’s most appealing to you. That can start a love affair with a particular region that you otherwise might not have discovered…so that’s Drinking Bravely.

B&B – Where did your fascination with wine begin?

Oldman – In college I started a wine club, the Stanford Wine Circle. Back then I thought we’d have to pay the winemakers to come in but to my surprise nearly every winemaker we invited was chomping at the bit to market to the younger generation. I knew very little about wine then but we had Robert Mondavi, himself, Bruce Cakebread and Jim Clendenen from Au Bon Climat. So there were these 21 year olds getting to drink $80 mountain-grown Cabernet basically for free. It was like going 0-70 in one fell swoop. We really learned a lot that way.

B&B – Tell us about your path from running the Stanford Circle to Mark Oldman, famous wine guru?

Oldman – I don’t know about guru, you’re very kind. After college I went back to New York, I’m a Jersey guy. I like to think that both Jersey people and Texans tend to have big personalities but Texans are cool…and Jersey people aren’t always so cool…we’re from the wrong side of the tracks (letting out a hearty laugh).

So armed with my new knowledge I began approaching restaurants about teaching wine classes in their empty banquet rooms. The all said, “kid we could make a lot more money selling wine to people…good idea but No!” Then in ’91 I found what was the first major wine bar in Soho before Soho became as popular as it is now, Soho Kitchen and Bar. It’s closed now, but the owner was totally cool and the idea had traction from the first day.

B&B – Was your New York wine audience a tough crowd?

Oldman – Second only to teaching a crowd of Texans, a crowd of New Yorkers want good value for their money. So when you’re teaching wine, you really have to know your stuff. You have to be crisp. There are people who will probe you, so you really have to study five times over.

B&B – What is the key to being a successful wine educator?

Oldman – It’s about being that bridge between that 99% of the population who feel they know nothing about wine. It’s a complicated subject, not a difficult subject.  But it is complicated. So you have to think a lot about how to make it easily digestible for people. 

Mark Oldman teaches the art of the Champagne Saber

Mark Oldman teaches the art of the Champagne Saber

B&B – What can wine lovers expect from a Mark Oldman wine seminar?

Oldman – I am going to make it worth their while. I have a short attention span. I don’t want to be bored. I am going to do whatever I can to make them walk away and say, that over-delivered. I got more than I expected. Because in life, I don’t care what it is, I want things that over-deliver.

B&B – In addition to teaching wine, what else were you involved in?

Oldman – With a friend from college we started a dot-com in ’98 called www.vault.com . It still exists. It provides information for job seekers interested in Fortune 500 companies. Think of it as a Zagat style guide for job seekers will real company culture details. At that time I taught wine as a hobby but when we sold Vault.com in ’08 I returned to my true love, the wine world and teaching people about wine.

B&B – When my daughter heard I was doing this interview, she texted me to say you “are so cool” and wanted to know about your work with Pottery Barn.

Oldman – Well, as you know they don’t sell wine but they do sell what they call table-top, glassware, decanters and other accessories that wine lovers would be interested in. So I do a lot with them, I speak at their stores, I do videos (see video example) for them and I speak at their national convention.

What’s funny about it is they call me a “style expert.” It makes me snicker to myself…If they only really knew… I guess in the tiny world of wine I have some style. But it’s been a great relationship because we have a similar audience. A lot of people, before they become full bore wine snobs, are looking for cost effective wine accessories and Pottery Barn really has their finger on the pulse there. They don’t ask me to endorse anything I don’t believe in so it’s an open – positive relationship.

B&B – What do you think is the difference between a wine enthusiast and a wine snob?    

Oldman – A wine snob, I think, has often gotten into wine to lord it over others, as a status symbol, where a wine enthusiast has gotten into it as a source of pleasure, a source of hedonism, a source of social interaction. For me, wine has always been the great social lubricant. It brings people together.

There are a lot of weird people out there but somehow the wine people are a little less weird, more fun and a little more sociable. I think the snobs get into wine like art snobs or car snobs; they do it more for the perceived effect or the perceived prestige rather than the true passionate love of wine. Also wine snobs tend to over-talk about wine.

I’m very careful among my friends; a lot are not in the wine world.  After we order wine, they all look at me and are expecting me to say something erudite or poetic. But I’ve learned the more you know the more you should clam up and let other people talk. Listen to what the casual drinker has to say about wine. You know we know all the fancy words; it’s chewy, its diffident, malolactic fermentation, tomato leaves and stuff like that, but I find it much more useful to hear things like, that’s kind of bitter.

If I can generalize, women tend to have really good senses of perception…sometimes too good. But when it comes to wine, they can really decode a wine even if they’ve never read a wine book.

In America, people lack a lot of confidence with wine. It’s been put up on the Grey Poupon pedestal and what is stress reliving is to know that people who actually know a little bit about wine are real happy with a $10 bottle and not getting into too much ritual or protocol. It’s fun to puncture some of that pomposity.

B&B – You were on the PBS show The Winemaker Season 1. Right now there is very little wine television, unlike food. What do you think are the biggest challenges for wine TV?

Oldman -I feel like the right match hasn’t been made yet. You need someone who really knows how to talk to the masses. By the masses, I mean, the otherwise sophisticated people who still feel like they know nothing about wine, which is about 99% of everybody. The problem is a lot of the wine experts get so filled with knowledge that they don’t really empathize with what most people want to know. Unlike food that lends itself to a culinary porn aspect…you can watch the cheese dripping down the side of the plate and the meat is wet and moist, wine offers little to be evocative when it’s not in front of you.

But I think the internet will change that with interactive online courses with immediate feedback from people who want to learn about wine. But your right, with all the food shows on now, wine is like the person whose been etched out of the family photograph.

B&B – What’s on the horizon for Mark Oldman?

Oldman – There’s another book but I can’t talk much about that. Most immediately is the Aspen Food and Wine Classic which is my 8th year. Like Austin, I absolutely love it and I love the people. They all really love wine and are a fun audience. It’s like a wonderland there. It always feels air-conditioned outside. (Our interview was done outside in 90+ degree heat)

Author’s note: I attended three of Mark’s seminars and to say they over-delivered is an understatement. Mark is fun, irreverent and high energy. His wine seminars tackle interesting and unexpected topics like, Drink Like a Pro, Cinema Vino – Wines from the Movies and Hard to Say – Easy to Drink.

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