A Sommelier Without the Smugness

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Speaker A: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Speaker B: When you’re drinking wine, a lot of people are so afraid to say the wrong thing.

Speaker B: It’s absolutely fine to say what you’re experiencing and that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Speaker B: Our motto is always it’s not wrong until it’s very wrong.

Speaker B: Right?

Speaker C: Welcome back to working.

Speaker C: I’m your host, Isaac Butler.


Speaker A: And I’m your other host, Karen Hahn.

Speaker C: Karen, so nice to see and hear you.

Speaker C: Who is our guest this week?

Speaker A: Our guest is Miguel de Leon, a Somalier and currently the wine director at my favorite restaurant in New York, Pinch Chinese.

Speaker A: He was also the inaugural recipient of the Michelin Guide Somalia Award in New York City for his work with natural wine and hospitality advocacy and his knowledge and work with wine.

Speaker A: Just there’s a lot to get into.

Speaker C: Okay, great.

Speaker C: Before we get into that, though, I have an important question.

Speaker C: Which is your favorite of the soup dumplings at Pinch Chinese?


Speaker A: Well, I will say if you go there, obviously the pork soup dumplings, they’re my personal favorite, but something that you should really look out for.

Speaker A: My fiance is a big mushroom fan, and they have a mushroom dumpling that is, like, incredible.

Speaker A: Even if you don’t like mushrooms like me, I’m not a mushroom person, but I go there and I think, yeah, this is really good.


Speaker C: Oh, Anne’s not a mushroom person either, so I’ll have to order them and then just put one on her plate and see what happens.

Speaker C: Back to our guest.

Speaker C: When I picture a somaie, I think of the starched white button front shirts and a spotless apron and whatever that weird spoon thing is that they have on a gold chain around their neck to taste wine.


Speaker C: They’re like the high priests of dining.

Speaker C: It’s very intimidating.

Speaker C: Would you say that that’s what Miguel is like, or are we in for a lot of snooty intimidation from our guests this week?

Speaker A: Miguel is very, very hip, and he is so cool, but without appearing unapproachable.

Speaker A: So I guess, in other words, he’s kind of the exact opposite of what you’re talking about.

Speaker A: And I think the work that he does sort of lies in the same vein in that wine.

Speaker A: This field that I think generally suffers from an accessibility issue is something that he makes seem less daunting or less gatekept by money or taste or class.


Speaker C: See, this is great because when it comes to wine, I’m like Thomas Hayden Church in Sideways, where someone describes the complex thing and go, good.

Speaker C: Speaking of good, do you have a little extra DJ Steve for the Slate Plus listeners?

Speaker A: I do indeed.

Speaker A: So for Slate Plus, we talked about the wines that across the years have really excited him and made him fall in love with his work.

Speaker A: And I will say, when we had that conversation, I was like, I have to try these wines too.


Speaker A: So I think if you are a fan of wine, or even if you’re not like me, I’m a wine.


Speaker A: Noob, I guess that is a very good discussion, I think, to listen in on.

Speaker C: Well, that sounds delicious.

Speaker C: And if you’re a subscriber to Slate Plus, that will be waiting for you at the end of this week’s episode.

Speaker C: Now let’s listen in on Karen’s conversation with Somaya Miguel de Leon.

Speaker A: Hi, Miguel.

Speaker A: Thank you so much for coming on our show.

Speaker B: Hi, Karen.

Speaker B: Thank you for having me.

Speaker A: I thought I would start our interview by saying you are currently the wine director for my favorite restaurant in New York, Pinch Chinese, which is how we met in the first place.


Speaker A: Can you tell me a little bit about what that job involves?

Speaker B: So the biggest duty that I have at the restaurant as a wine director is obviously kind of like beverage programming.

Speaker B: Making sure that whatever people are drinking matches well with what they’re eating.

Speaker B: They’re having a good time with it if they’re just drinking it by themselves, and kind of tying a story together with what those things represent.

Speaker A: And speaking of making sure that somebody likes what they’re drinking to a certain extent, whether or not a wine or even just food in general is good is subjective and that not everyone’s taste is the same.


Speaker A: Someone will prefer different things.

Speaker A: Their palate will differ.

Speaker A: How do you account for that as someone whose job it is to kind of curate this thing?


Speaker B: I mean, there’s two ways of presenting it, right?

Speaker B: I think the very old traditional model of the wine list was to have as many wines as possible.

Speaker B: And so that’s why you’ll have these, like, grand lists of over 1000 selections, a bunch of things that are old and from all over the place to really find the right thing for a certain person.

Speaker B: I like constraints.

Speaker B: I think, for a lot of artists.


Speaker B: Also, I think constraint breeds creativity.

Speaker B: And so for that kind of thing, I’m always looking for, well, what’s next?

Speaker B: What’s new?

Speaker B: What can we substitute that’s interesting.

Speaker B: And we want to make it as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.

Speaker B: Right.

Speaker B: And sometimes the approach is like, well, let’s just go off left field and really just blow it out of the water.

Speaker B: So everyone’s on an equal level.

Speaker B: There’s no expectations.

Speaker B: There’s nothing to kind of worry about.

Speaker B: So if I were to say I was serving you wine from, say, either Maryland or Virginia or Texas, you probably wouldn’t have had wine from any of those places.


Speaker B: But I think that that sets a good bar for everybody to be like, we’re thinking about this this way, but we’re also looking at it in, like, a future kind of driven sense.

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker A: And I wanted to talk about the idea of accessibility in wine as well, because that’s something that you do a lot of work around.


Speaker A: You’ve done quite a lot of writing about wine and won the 2022 James Beard Foundation Media Award for personal essay.

Speaker A: Long form for your essay.

Speaker A: It’s time to decolonize wine and to, I guess, start with a slightly broader question.

Speaker A: How did you start writing about wine?


Speaker A: And do you consider that to be a natural part of being a Somalia?

Speaker B: The writing came really from kind of the academic part of wine.

Speaker B: So at least in this industry, and I hope this changes soon, there’s a certain requirement of legitimacy where you need to get assessed, certified, and basically be judged on your capabilities.

Speaker B: Right, right.

Speaker B: And that’s usually by a jury of people who don’t look like you, who don’t understand your baggage, who have no clue about your personal history.

Speaker B: And a lot of the time, we’re so removed from what we’re studying in those places.

Speaker B: A lot of the time we’re studying places that we’re in love or go to.

Speaker B: Languages will never speak, winemakers will never meet.

Speaker B: And I like, upending that expectation.

Speaker B: So the essay really came from, like, a really personal, critical look after George Floyd was murdered and thinking about, well, how complicit have I been in this whole thing?

Speaker B: And how s***** have I felt in terms of these things when it comes to making other people feel less than?

Speaker B: Or how little did I do in terms of all of that?

Speaker B: When that essay was written, it was 2020.

Speaker B: It was June 2020 after I had just written this thing called Actionable Items for the Wine community.


Speaker B: Basically, it was kind of a little bit of a call out to say, let’s talk about how you haven’t been willing to talk about this for so long.

Speaker B: There’s a bunch of people who you are not serving, and it’s all to make sure that this thing stays a certain way, a certain look, a certain type, a certain kind.

Speaker B: And so basically, the writing, everything that I’ve written from that point forward really stemmed from that.

Speaker B: And really speaking from personal experience about a lot of what I’ve experienced in terms of, like, bigotry and racism, even, like, homophobia in my spaces that I used to work in.

Speaker B: So it was a really big shift.

Speaker B: I never intended to be a writer, but I think it also comes with this skill of, like, writing a tasting note, for example, that was concise, that delivered a very clear idea of what I was experiencing.

Speaker B: But like you said, experience is subjective.

Speaker B: And so even then, I realized that there were shortcomings in terms of the language that I was using.

Speaker A: Maybe this is too broad a question to ask, but I’m curious how you would describe, ideally, what can the average person do in order to try to help move the wine space in a more kind of equitable direction?

Speaker B: We got to remember, first of all, that wine is an agricultural product.

Speaker B: Every time you open a bottle of wine, thousands of decisions were made.

Speaker B: So someone decided to plant grapes somewhere where they’re probably not great to grow, which is kind of what grapes need.


Speaker B: Grapes are marginal plants.

Speaker B: They’ve historically just grown on the edges of farms, and wine was the bonus.

Speaker B: And then now we’re in this industrial scale farming of putting a marginal plant in a place where it’s going to need care, irrigation, land.

Speaker B: We have other problems, clearly, but if that’s what we’re going to say we’re going to invest our energy and money into, we also got to remember that the people making those decisions also have to be beholden to that kind of decision making.

Speaker B: So when you say that you picked a certain day in August and you’re realizing that it’s coming earlier and earlier and earlier, well, your migrant labor force is also responsible for the rest of the things that are growing around that same time.

Speaker B: So what’s more important?

Speaker B: That your grapes get grown into wine or that people get fed?

Speaker B: The second thing is, is that labor force represented well.

Speaker B: Do they have health insurance?

Speaker B: Are you keeping them away from ice?

Speaker B: Are they getting paid?

Speaker B: First of all, you know, and not just that, but, like, a living wage.

Speaker B: And these are questions that, like, Somalias never ask.

Speaker B: Yeah, these are questions that, like, you would never expect someone like a wine director to ask.

Speaker B: Right?

Speaker B: Because a lot of the times we’ve been asked to say, well, here’s a bottle of wine.

Speaker B: It costs us X amount of dollars when it comes to us, and then I have to sell it to you with X amount of markup, and here you go.


Speaker B: Yada, yada, yada.

Speaker B: I tasted it.

Speaker B: It’s good.

Speaker B: That’s not enough anymore, I don’t think.

Speaker B: And I think that that’s why this push is so it feels so new to a lot of people, but it also feels so natural for a lot of people to start asking these kinds of questions.

Speaker B: We’re so obsessed with smelliers about soil types and what’s underneath the grapes.

Speaker B: We had nothing to do with that.

Speaker B: That’s 10,000 years in the making, and that’s what’s underground.

Speaker B: But what we do have control over is making sure that the people who tend to land above ground, we can continue to tell their stories well.

Speaker B: And I think that’s the bit that I think really gets me as a smelly.

Speaker B: I don’t make wine, right?

Speaker B: I make wine lists.

Speaker B: But I think at that same point, why the writing feels so easy to come to me is that I just tell stories.

Speaker B: I tell stories for a lot of people, and I tell other people’s stories.

Speaker B: I tell the story of my restaurant.

Speaker B: I tell the story of how the marriage of what someone makes and what I make in my place, how there’s kismet in that.

Speaker B: How when you step into that restaurant, you get transported to somewhere, or when you take a bite, and then you take a drink, and then you go somewhere you’ve never been before.

Speaker B: That’s the kind of thing that I live for.

Speaker B: Reading a person kind of finding out what they want to eat, how to nourish you in the right way.


Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker A: And as someone who’s conscious about this kind of thing, and as someone who curates and creates these wine lists in terms of finding out the story of each wine and making sure that it is being made by people who care about what they’re doing and the people that they employ.

Speaker A: How much of it can you find out through research?

Speaker A: And how much of it kind of depends on these companies or organizations, like being transparent with you when you ask them what they’re doing?

Speaker B: Some people don’t know.

Speaker B: Again, this is a new thing that we’re trying to ask people.

Speaker B: Even the healthcare question is a little fraught, but the fact that you’re asking makes them have answers.

Speaker B: And so that’s one of the things that I think is helpful.

Speaker B: It’s a push for people who distribute wine to make sure that that information is handy.

Speaker B: And if I can’t find it through that method, then I’ll reach out to the wineries directly sometimes to ask yeah.

Speaker A: And to return to a little bit of our conversation about accessibility, I feel like one of the things that tends to be a little bit of a gate when it comes to wine is this impression of it as a field where you kind of need to have money or some level of wealth in order to engage with it.

Speaker A: Where I think the stereotype is like, the more expensive a bottle is, the better it’s going to be or the more high quality it is.

Speaker A: How do you think about price in terms of your work as a Somalia and choosing wines for pinch and choosing wines for yourself and your friends, even, like, how does price factor into that conversation?


Speaker B: Access is the name of the game again here.

Speaker B: Right?

Speaker B: So I want to make sure that what people are drinking, they can enjoy again, or if we’re going to call it a special occasion, that the wine is a special occasion and not that it’s surrounded by anything else.

Speaker B: Whether or not it’s like Valentine’s or it’s a birthday or whatever, that’s great.

Speaker B: Celebrate however you want to.

Speaker B: But I’m also telling people that sometimes if you have a really nice bottle of wine, that’s a nice occasion to also come together and commune and talk about something that’s artful and something that you can be critical of.

Speaker B: I wouldn’t say that I’m going to be like a financial guru for somebody who’s coming into wine, but I do want to make sure that whenever you’re drinking, that you’re drinking something that you like, and that’s the most important thing and that you’re willing to spend that much to make yourself feel that good.

Speaker B: If it’s something that you can get around the corner for $4, to me, it makes no difference to me.

Speaker B: I can still talk to you about those wines.

Speaker B: At the same time, maybe one has less of a storytelling narrative than the other.

Speaker B: Maybe one has less of a human connection than the other.

Speaker B: At the end of the day, though, there’s still somebody on either side of that, right?

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker B: And there’s a lot of methos that comes around, like wine and the wine culture and how to drink and all of that.


Speaker B: But we get to decide that culturally whether or not that’s important or not.

Speaker B: And I think that that’s what’s really cool, is that there’s a really romantic notion that, like, the standard size of a bottle is what the capacity of a glass blower’s lung is.

Speaker B: So it’s about 750 ML.

Speaker B: Right.

Speaker B: So there’s a romance that we can talk about the human connection in that.

Speaker B: But there’s also the romance that bottles are meant to be shared.

Speaker B: Right.

Speaker B: We say that there’s five standard portions in a bottle.

Speaker B: If you’re one person and you’re drinking five standard bottles, you’re blotto in two and a half, especially if you’re not eating.

Speaker B: But I think what makes it more magic, and I think what you and I can say yes to is that every time you and I have shared a bottle of wine, for example, there’s something else that gets brought.

Speaker B: Up or that kind of, like, swirls in the air or whatever else that there’s this charge where, like, okay, this is helping us kind of channel this energy into each other in a way that’s way more magical and mystical and really cool.

Speaker B: And you know what?

Speaker B: I’m happy that there are technical sheets and all the stuff that we can kind of do lab analysis for in wine, but that’s the kind of stuff that you can’t bottle.

Speaker B: You can’t teach that to somebody.

Speaker B: And I think that it’s absolutely okay to have, like, feelings wrapped up in wine again.


Speaker B: It’s absolutely fine.

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker C: We’ll be back with more of Karen’s conversation with Miguel de Leon after this.

Speaker C: Hey, working fans.

Speaker C: Isaac Butler here.

Speaker C: Just wanted to say a couple of things real quick.

Speaker C: If you’re enjoying this week’s episode, please don’t forget to subscribe.

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Speaker C: What are some creative problems you have that we can help you with?

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Speaker C: All right, enough out of me.

Speaker C: Now let’s get back to Karen’s discussion with Somae Miguel de Leon.

Speaker A: So, I know that the training and studying to become a Somalia is very intensive, but I know I would say, again, next to nothing about the actual specifics of it.

Speaker A: So would you mind telling us a little bit about that whole process, like what kind of studying you did once you decided that this was a path you wanted to go down?


Speaker B: Yeah, let me just also bring up the caveat that this is something that I completely do not want anyone else to go through.

Speaker B: But this is also kind of why we’re building curriculums for ourselves.

Speaker B: Right.

Speaker A: Why is this not a path that you would want someone to go down?

Speaker B: It’s still a very Eurocentric white supremacist kind of base.

Speaker B: It’s very much not listening to the current needs of the membership that it requires.

Speaker B: It’s not keeping up to pace with globalization.

Speaker B: It’s not acknowledging the fact that things like social media and the Internet have impacts on wine.

Speaker B: It’s also kind of really discounting the wine that I use on my daily vernacular, which is natural wine.

Speaker B: It’s barely talked about in those kinds of spaces.

Speaker B: But to speak about those spaces normally for, say, like regular certification, it’s about a ten to twelve week course where you study maybe about three to five classroom hours a week.

Speaker B: And then there’s personal study involved in that.

Speaker B: You go through the major regions of the world.

Speaker B: Usually you start with France, because it’s how everybody wants to reference their wines, and then you go around the world.

Speaker B: So usually it’s Europe.

Speaker B: You spend the majority of your time in Europe and then you go everywhere else and you learn party tricks, like learning how to smell a wine and tell you what that wine is, or taste the wine and tell you what it’s made from and where it comes from, what vintage it is.


Speaker B: To me, if I did that to a guest, I would be like, it’s a magic trick.

Speaker B: Here you go.

Speaker B: But to me, the most important thing that I learned from those kinds of spaces is what does bad wine taste like?

Speaker B: What does faulty wine taste like?

Speaker B: And faulty in a sense that, like, this was made wrong.

Speaker B: There’s something off with this wine.

Speaker B: This is wine that you should not be consuming.

Speaker B: That’s the most important thing that I learned from those spaces.

Speaker B: Honestly, everything else you can learn from just if you’re eager.

Speaker B: I really don’t care how much experience somebody has coming on to smell a team.

Speaker B: Like, two of my smelliers have never gone through certification, but we teach them kind of how do you approach this thing from a very empathetic way, because ultimately that’s what we’re trying to cultivate.

Speaker B: Right.

Speaker B: In terms of the hospitality of the thing.

Speaker B: I just want to make sure that the person who’s in front of me likes what they’re drinking, likes what they’re eating, is having a good time.

Speaker B: And maybe some of those spaces, especially in certification and legitimacy, your whole body is considered right.

Speaker B: And so in terms of getting your certification, for example, up until very recently, there was a dress code, a gender dress code for men and women.

Speaker B: You had to run service in a way that was like, correct.

Speaker B: And again, the thing that I paid about that is the framework is always wrong.

Speaker B: And I really want to emphasize that it’s correct for who?


Speaker B: Because we’re always trying to understand these in these very kind of fine dining, white tablecloth kind of spaces.

Speaker B: And the majority of restaurants in the world don’t look like that.

Speaker B: They don’t operate like that.

Speaker B: But a lot of the restaurants in the world have wine.

Speaker B: So why are we really confining ourselves to this kind of small subset of people who are going to judge you, who are going to say, well, and I got this note for myself personally a couple of times that my personality was too forward, which is like their coded way of saying that you were a little too gay on the table.

Speaker B: And so when you deny yourself and you deny your own personhood in order to kind of legitimize yourself in the profession, that eats away at you for a while.

Speaker B: And that’s why I was like, thank you.

Speaker B: I’ll earn the certification because I know that I can f****** do it, but it’s very similar to my college diploma.

Speaker B: I was like, Here you go, mom.

Speaker B: Hang this up on your phone.

Speaker B: I’m never going to use it.

Speaker B: I’m never going to use it.

Speaker B: Obviously, there’s tools that I think are helpful, but even as someone who lives in the United States of America, my experience with American wine in terms of my certification experience was very little.

Speaker B: Maybe two weeks where we spent time in a classroom talking about wine from California, wine from Washington, wine from Oregon, maybe wine from New York, and then we don’t talk about anything else.


Speaker B: There’s 50 states, they all make wine.

Speaker B: And a lot of people want to kind of do the thing where they’re like, oh, it’s made in the United States.

Speaker B: It’s probably not going to be great.

Speaker B: The value goes back to the idea that this is an agricultural product.

Speaker B: If you’re willing to pay for what you’re willing to pay for, ethically, sustainably, organically, whatever kind of rubric you want, money is politics, and your dollar goes a long way in saying yes to people who make wine here in the Americas that we don’t ever study in wine classes.

Speaker B: And to wit, I want to shout out some of the winemakers that are, like, in Wisconsin, in Texas and Ohio and Colorado and Pennsylvania that are completely under sung, overlooked and underrepresented and wineless all over the country even in New York, we have a big chip on our shoulder about putting New York wines on the menu.

Speaker B: We’re a world class city making world class wine in our state.

Speaker B: I don’t understand why I, as an American smellier, have to wait nine weeks for someone to tell me about how good the wine is here in this place or how it’s just pretending to be French.

Speaker B: And I think that we have to be past that conversation.

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker A: But it’s good that you are in a position to be able to effect some kind of change in this space, especially, as you mentioned, like, you’ve hired a couple of people to be Somalis for the restaurant who don’t have this formal training.

Speaker A: And to that end, I want to ask, what do you look for in a Somalia?


Speaker A: Like, what do you makes a good Somalia?

Speaker B: If they get excited about wine, that’s enough.

Speaker B: To me, that’s usually enough, because if I can have them channel that kind of energy to an interaction with a guest, I’ve done my job.

Speaker B: That means that they’re already curious about something.

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker B: The other thing is that they just have to be able to connect.

Speaker B: You know, a lot of the times for the Psalms, I don’t ask them what their favorite wine is.

Speaker B: I think that that’s a dumb question.

Speaker B: What’s more exciting to me is, when was the last time that you had a wine that made me feel something?

Speaker B: And whether or not that’s, like, happy, disappointed, whatever, there’s a way that I can make sure that you’re thinking about that in a way that impacted you personally.

Speaker B: Because, again, all I’m trying to do as a smelly is to tell someone else a story.

Speaker B: And if I can cultivate your empathy into making this person main character at the whole time, great, let’s do that.

Speaker A: So clearly, one of the kind of driving ethos for you in terms of one and finding people who are equally passionate about it has to do, like, with passion, with your emotional connection to this and your ability to sort of convey that to other people.

Speaker A: Is there any degree to which you think there is still technical ability that is necessary for this, like, a particularly refined palette, like an ability to be able to taste and then distinguish these different flavors that you are experiencing?


Speaker B: Absolutely.

Speaker B: I mean, there’s still a skill that is involved here.

Speaker B: Right.

Speaker B: But the framework for kind of getting that skill out, I think, is the big question.

Speaker B: And again, these legitimizing certification bodies don’t really do that well.

Speaker A: Right.

Speaker B: One of the things that I always emphasize for my folks is that when you’re drinking wine, a lot of people are so afraid to say the wrong thing in these kinds of spaces.

Speaker B: Right.

Speaker B: And so you’ll get classes that are full of people and they’re quiet, but you get eight of us in a room, and, like, all right, what do you taste, what do you smell, and it’s crossfire.

Speaker B: And I think that’s what’s important is that you’re cultivating this idea that it’s absolutely fine to say what you’re experiencing and that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Speaker B: And our motto is always, it’s not wrong until it’s very wrong.

Speaker B: Right?

Speaker B: If someone’s like, oh, this red wine tastes like bananas, I’d be like, okay, well, let’s look at that.

Speaker B: Something might be wrong with that wine, right?

Speaker B: And so things that have a logical pattern to them, we want to start to establish.

Speaker B: But literally everything else you can learn while you’re working or while you’re experiencing bottles or when you go away and drink another glass of wine at another restaurant, that thing never turns off.

Speaker B: I think the more important part of that is making sure that whenever we do talk about the tasting note aspect of it all, that we’re looking, again, zooming out a little bit and say, okay, well, what is this trying to tell us?


Speaker B: Why is this important?

Speaker B: And in terms of why we’re drinking it, why is this important in the space?

Speaker B: We need to always drive context as part of that.

Speaker B: Wine can’t live in a vacuum.

Speaker B: It absolutely cannot.

Speaker B: In the same way that a restaurant can’t operate without guests, there needs to be some sort of the two wayness of wine needs to be overemphasized, and that’s not a thing that people teach yet.

Speaker A: Yeah, well, speaking of which, you advised the UC Davis Viticulture and Analogy Program for its seminar work in the field of critical wine studies.

Speaker A: What goes into your, I guess, advisorship, like, what do you think about in terms of the curriculum, in terms of how you want to talk to the students, in terms of what you want to teach in that particular environment?

Speaker B: So in terms of ves, a lot of the students come out with BS or Ms degrees.

Speaker B: This was the first time ever when we conducted this first seminar in 2020, it was crazy town because it was the first time that these students had gone back into humanities class, basically.

Speaker B: And we’re teaching these people to analyze numbers in a lab and talk about wine chemistry.

Speaker B: And again, those are great things for the advancement of wine as a culture.

Speaker B: But the other half of that is also something that we got to consider is that maybe you don’t go to davis to be a sommelier, but you can understand Maybe.

Speaker B: Hopefully, after taking one of those courses, you’ll understand why it’s more important for you to learn Spanish when you’re going through the California track instead of learning French when you’re learning how to make wine.


Speaker B: Ultimately, the connections that you make on a human level are way more important and also talking about impact.

Speaker B: If we’re going to talk about California and agriculture, I think it’s almost we’re taught this in almost every social studies class that in the 1960s, it was grape workers that started.

Speaker B: Strikes for unions and how migrant workers came together to do that.

Speaker B: We forget sometimes that there are still very real ramifications to when these things get decided and why particularly American wine feels so expensive.

Speaker B: And it’s because we’re trying to be as transparent as possible with some other labor stuff, especially for smaller producers.

Speaker B: And what’s heartbreaking is that a lot of the folks that look at wine currently, the divorce from that is this idea of it’s all points culture.

Speaker B: We rate wine because it’s a product that’s meant to be looked at as an investment almost.

Speaker B: It has social cachet, cultural cachet, some sort of like, oh, I know what this wine tastes like because I’ve bought X amount of dollars for and like you said earlier, there is a financial kind of tie back to that.

Speaker B: And what’s really gnarly is that the society, I’ll be honest, like, even wine culture right now doesn’t want to reconcile that.

Speaker B: There’s no way to kind of put that on a wine list without you feeling like you’re being heavy handed about.

Speaker B: This is a political thing.

Speaker B: But again, it’s the soft power stuff that I think is really interesting because that’s where Semella’s land, we’re the ones who kind of like know, this way, this way.


Speaker A: I think that’s one of the tough things.

Speaker A: I think almost every field where it’s like, you want to talk about this necessary action that has to happen to make every field more equitable and kind of more knowledgeable of the history that’s currently unfolding and also everything.

Speaker A: That’s come before it without hammering the point home for people, especially people who don’t want to hear it.

Speaker A: Especially when you are hearing your wine list or when you are writing.

Speaker A: How do you personally try to achieve that kind of balance?

Speaker B: Well, a little bit of staff goes a long way.

Speaker B: I’m sure you’ve looked at the wine list at Page a couple of times and you’re like, okay, this guy’s a little bit of a kook.

Speaker B: And I think that that’s fine.

Speaker B: But again, I want to make sure that the story that I’m telling isn’t to anyone’s detriment, that my point of view can be the thing that’s sacrificed if I can at least showcase really good wine from really good people, from really good places.

Speaker B: And so it’s crucial that when I’m writing or making a wine list, for example and again, I do this completely differently than at everyone else.

Speaker B: A traditional wine list would probably list it by geography, by style.

Speaker B: So usually it’s like champagne first and here’s all your French wine and then here’s all of this, and then here’s the red wine section, et et cetera, cetera.

Speaker B: I don’t do that at the restaurant.

Speaker B: We’re mavericks when it comes to that.


Speaker B: We put no part and parcel to geography.

Speaker B: We talk about wine in terms of its body and specificity first.

Speaker B: So from lightest to fullest, that’s how we organize a wine list.

Speaker B: In many sections.

Speaker B: And then also kind of if there needs to be some sort of talking point, we’ll emphasize that.

Speaker B: So if a wine is made by a woman, for example, we star that on the menu and say, this is something that you need to pay attention to.

Speaker B: And people are like, well, why are you just starring, like, women owned wines to make you see how different the gender difference is, to also make you see that I’m just talking about one aspect of the intersectionality of things that we could be talking about.

Speaker B: And then I also don’t want to make this thing where we tokenize people.

Speaker B: There’s great wine lists out in the world that do a lot more kind of like socially conscious stuff than I do.

Speaker B: There’s a great restaurant here in New York called have and Mar where their wine list is almost I think it’s like 90% women made.

Speaker B: There’s a great little wine bar and Green Point called Coaston Valley where they overemphasize and over index on who’s making this wine.

Speaker B: So the humanity gets to be spotlit on top of the fact that the wine is good.

Speaker B: And there’s ways that we can do that when we’re writing and thinking about it.

Speaker B: Very interestingly because, again, I can talk to you about a place in France for forever that you’re never going to go to.


Speaker B: But wouldn’t it be so much nicer if I can say, yeah, you can take the train to this place from Grand Central and be there in two and a half hours.

Speaker B: I think that’s way more impactful for somebody to be like, yeah, you can meet these people who are making these wines.

Speaker B: They can come here and a lot of the time.

Speaker B: So that’s that’s also why we overemphasize the idea that, like, you know, the people that we make relationships with, the people who are making these wines, the people who are cultivating that land, they’re the ones that have the first go on that.

Speaker B: And I want to make sure that I’m doing them service on the wine lists.

Speaker A: And I have a final question.

Speaker A: You mentioned, of course, that you don’t make wine personally, but would you ever want to create your own wine?

Speaker A: And if you did, what would your ideal vision of it be?

Speaker B: I have thought about this early and often, except for the Pandemic.

Speaker B: For the last few years, I’ve been going out to California every September to learn how to make wine.

Speaker B: I’d probably make something from a hybrid variety so wines that don’t look like Cabernet or Merlot or Riesling or whatever else.

Speaker B: So something that can be grown in a lab, that can be a little bit more climate conscious.

Speaker B: I like stuff that’s like, really dumb and flirty and delicious.

Speaker B: I don’t want wines that I intend to age.

Speaker B: I want wines that I make and I drink, and then that’s it.


Speaker B: That’s done.

Speaker B: And again, I think that comes back to having been a potter, having been, like, a writer.

Speaker B: There’s the creation aspect, which is really interesting for me.

Speaker B: Process is king.

Speaker B: But I think there’s also a really interesting thing to come out of that where I’m not really all that precious about the final product.

Speaker B: Honestly.

Speaker B: If it wasn’t wine, I’d probably make, like, gin, because that’s just me, and that’s the poison that I like drinking.

Speaker A: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Speaker A: You have opened my eyes to so much, and it’s always such a delight to talk to you.

Speaker A: Thank you so much for your time.

Speaker B: Thanks, Karen.

Speaker B: It was a lovely time.

Speaker C: When we come back, Karen and I will discuss what we can learn from Gell’s focus on accessibility in our own work and lives.

Speaker C: That and more coming right up.

Speaker C: Karen.

Speaker C: I was really struck by how, based in part on what was clearly a terrible experience of getting his certification, miguel has been really laser focused on living his values in his work, particularly when it comes to accessibility, and opening the doors to people who might not normally think of wine as something they want to get into.

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker A: And this is maybe a cynical thought, but I do think that this kind of experience actually is a jumping off point for a lot of us.

Speaker A: Like, we realize, oh, this shouldn’t be like this, and then we start looking around to see who feels similarly, what kind of work is being done to change the environment, what we personally can do to have an effect on a field.


Speaker A: On a certain level.

Speaker A: It’s, for instance, why people tend to unionize specifically to ensure nobody goes through the bad things that they’ve gone through.

Speaker A: And on a more creative side, I think it’s why you see people who have been historically marginalized coming together to work together, because, you know, these people have had similar experiences and want the same end goal and result and are willing to work with you to try to achieve it.

Speaker C: Yeah, totally.

Speaker C: And one major component of that, although I’m not exactly sure if you guys use this exact phrase, but is gatekeeping.

Speaker C: Right.

Speaker C: And I was quite moved by how he talked about wanting to consider the ways that he himself is complicit in.

Speaker C: That complicit in.

Speaker C: I think the phrase he used is making people feel less than.

Speaker C: That is a very easy thing to do with wine, and it’s also a super easy thing to do with art or writing about art, because you and I’ve talked about this.

Speaker C: We do have expertise.

Speaker C: That expertise is hard won, and that expertise really does matter.

Speaker C: So how do you have that expertise but not perpetuate the negative sides of gatekeeping?

Speaker A: I think a lot of it has to do with mindset and, to a certain degree, common sense, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with knowing a lot about a certain thing.

Speaker A: But it’s the way that you present that to somebody else that is important.

Speaker A: Like if you’re throwing around a bunch of jargon specific to your field, are you aware that the people you’re talking to might not know what you mean?


Speaker A: Or are you doing that on purpose because you like to feel smarter than the people around you?

Speaker A: You have to be willing to be open and bring people into the conversation you’re having and actually extend a hand to them and you have to be more open minded yourself.

Speaker A: I think the clearest example I’ve seen like this in cultural criticism.

Speaker A: The field that I’m the most familiar with is the way that people tend to dismiss entire genres or movies or shows specifically because they don’t think newer works or works geared toward a specific audience fit into what’s already considered canon, and also will insist that certain works are imperative to be familiar with, or else someone’s in ignorance.

Speaker A: Yeah, it’s good for anyone going into a field to do the work to educate themselves on it.

Speaker A: But starting from like Paddington rather than 2001 A Space Odyssey doesn’t mean that you’re any less or more clever than someone who’s doing the inverse.

Speaker A: Like anything that sparks passion, has value and will bring people into the field.

Speaker C: If you haven’t seen Paddington Two.

Speaker C: Another aspect of this is what Miguel described as rethinking the kinds of questions he asks for him.

Speaker C: That’s questions about the labor practices that produce the agricultural product that is wine.

Speaker C: Which makes sense because he’s the one buying the wine.

Speaker C: You and me, I don’t know.

Speaker C: I imagine most of our listeners aren’t necessarily in the buyer position when it comes to what we’re creating.

Speaker C: So what kinds of questions should we be thinking about or rethinking as we consider our creative process?


Speaker A: I think that in our positions, the big things that we have to consider are what we want to show to other people.

Speaker A: Whether it’s saying that X movie was an influence on your work or even just telling other people to go watch something because you liked it, no matter what circumstance you’re in, you have a little bit of that buyer power when it comes to talking to other people about any given work.

Speaker A: Because word of mouth is a big deal, especially for, say, a smaller movie rather than the next big blockbuster.

Speaker A: For instance, one of the big contentious things about this year’s Oscars is Andrea Riseborough having gotten a nomination for an indie movie called Telesli for Best Actress.

Speaker A: And the thing is, that campaign happened specifically because of word of mouth.

Speaker A: Because a lot of people specifically celebrate Friends.

Speaker A: Granted, in that instance we’re talking about it, but if they hadn’t, no one would know that this movie exists.

Speaker A: But now they do, right?

Speaker C: Except what everyone else does is they have a studio and they have people the studio has paid to do it.

Speaker C: And so that is not as ghost or as tacky or whatever as doing it yourself, but To Leslie had no money to spend on an Oscar campaign.

Speaker C: And I think that’s at the heart of the anxiety of why people are p*****.

Speaker C: It’s like, how dare someone who doesn’t have the resources behind them go and get this thing that we spend a gajillion dollars on getting for our people every year?

Speaker C: Which, of course, brings up the next issue, which is money, which you all talked about.


Speaker C: It’s a constant problem in the arts.

Speaker C: Most of the art we make is both too expensive to consume, and the people who make it are usually really underpaid.

Speaker C: I worked in theater.

Speaker C: If people understood how little actors make off Broadway, I mean, it’s crazy how little money they make off Broadway.

Speaker C: And yet the audience members are paying over $100 a ticket, and those tickets go nowhere close to paying for what that production costs.

Speaker C: I mean, in a lot of fields, it’s a real problem.

Speaker C: How do you make your art affordable while also making enough money to live?

Speaker A: Yeah, we talk about money so much, but really it’s just unavoidable.

Speaker A: Unfortunately, I don’t personally have a solution to this much larger crisis, but I think at least some of it comes down to wages on the whole and how much we’re willing to pay for art.

Speaker A: Like, as of this taping, the crew at, for instance, Saturday Night Live are about to strike because they’re underpaid.

Speaker A: Everyone in my peer group in media is underpaid.

Speaker A: I was underpaid, and some expects are grossly overpaid.

Speaker A: Sometimes it is true that the money just isn’t there.

Speaker A: Like, I think we hear this a lot when we’re like, hey, can we get a raise?

Speaker A: Or can we get larger cost of living salary increases?

Speaker A: And they’re just like, we don’t have the money to pay for it.

Speaker A: Sometimes it’s true, but sometimes it isn’t.

Speaker A: And in those cases, maybe if people were getting paid more, they’d also be willing to spend more.


Speaker A: And I can’t believe you’re asking me this question like I’m going to solve the entire world’s financial strength.

Speaker C: No, not at all.

Speaker C: I don’t expect you to solve anything.

Speaker C: It’s more like I’ve been beating my head against this question for my entire professional life.

Speaker C: I’m asking it more out of exasperation.

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker C: I had a friend in my 20s who made these bespoke kind of Goffy, kind of Edward Goryish handmade marionettes, and they were not cheap.

Speaker C: I don’t remember the price point, but they were not cheap.

Speaker C: And at one point he was like, yeah, but I once did a cost breakdown of the amount of time it takes me to make one of these, and I would make more money if I worked at McDonald’s.

Speaker C: Like, it breaks down to under minimum wage because they’re just so hard to make.

Speaker C: So it’s a real problem.

Speaker C: We do not have a solution, except I will say you are listening to this and you are in a position to pay someone for their creative labor and pay more for their creative labor.

Speaker C: Please do it.

Speaker C: They need it.

Speaker A: Yeah.

Speaker C: I was also really struck by this quote from his own training.

Speaker C: I’m not entirely sure what the question here exactly is.

Speaker C: I just found it really powerful.

Speaker C: Like I actually paused the interview and sat with it for a little bit and then went back to it.

Speaker C: So I just want to highlight it because if we’re going to talk about inclusion, he said this thing about when you deny your own personhood in order to legitimize yourself in the profession, that really eats away at you.


Speaker C: And I guess I also want to flip it to those of us who are in a place of legitimacy to just really consider those moments when you might be demanding that people deny their personhood.

Speaker C: How do we invite people to contribute the totality of their being?

Speaker C: How do we let people know that we want them as them to have a place at the table?

Speaker C: I think about this a lot on the first day of class when I’m teaching of like how do you make sure that everyone, you know, I say explicitly to my students, I want you not some like random college drone.

Speaker C: I want you with your life experience.

Speaker C: Anyway, I just think if you’re ever in a point of managing or leading a process, it’s an important question to consider.

Speaker A: To be frank, I think it comes down largely to those who are in positions of power because in my experience in media, this has come up a lot.

Speaker A: For instance, black writers are only reached out to during Black History Month or to cover movies and shows that feature black talent.

Speaker A: And the same went for me as an Asian American writer.

Speaker A: Like my first jobs for several publications were specifically because I was Asian and they needed someone to write about an Asian topic.

Speaker A: But when these markers or premieres pass, a lot of these people never end up with staff jobs.

Speaker A: They’re considered disposable after this token thing has been done.

Speaker A: So in part it requires thinking of people as a whole as we’re sort of saying rather than just for a specific trait or marker and I’m sorry to say it, but it also requires some people to make room and be conscious of who’s in the room.


Speaker A: And I think I don’t know, it’s a really kind of thorny question tackle partially because we are in a stage where we are seeing kind of better representation for all fields across the board.

Speaker A: But at the same time when you’re touting something is like oh, this is the first movie with like a gay character.

Speaker A: It’s like are you marginalizing it again in some way by pointing out that it is other in that way where it’s like shouldn’t it just be like it is a movie and a gay character just happens to exist inside of it.

Speaker A: We’re trying to get to that point, I think.

Speaker A: But there’s a lot of work to be done to get from point A to point B.

Speaker C: One thing I confronted a lot in researching the Method, because one of the most important Method actors was Sidney Poitier is exactly how hard it is to be the first.

Speaker C: Yeah, like, all the different burdens that the person who is the first has to carry with them so that other people don’t have to deal with it.

Speaker C: I think my hope is that as diversity becomes more commonplace in the things that we’re creating, as we get further and further away from those kinds of firsts, we can reach the point where we don’t have to tokenize.

Speaker C: It sort of reminds me of in last week’s episode sean Hater was talking about in Little America that some of the they might have hired a writer in season one because they have the cultural competency to write about the Nigerian American experience.

Speaker C: But now in season two, they’re writing about a different experience.


Speaker C: And that’s part of the thing that becomes more interesting and more complex as the show goes on.

Speaker C: Well, that’s all the time we have for today.

Speaker C: We hope you have enjoyed this episode.

Speaker C: If you have, please subscribe so that you’ll never miss an episode.

Speaker C: And yes, here is one last Slate Plus pitch.

Speaker C: Slate plus members get bonus segments on shows like this one.

Speaker C: Complete bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood, and you’ll get full access behind the paywall.

Speaker C: You get a lovely newsletter in your inbox.

Speaker C: It’s wonderful.

Speaker C: Go to Slate.com workingplus to sign up today.

Speaker A: Thank you to Miguel de Leon for being our guest this week and to our producer Cameron Drews, who has notes of dried fruit and coffee with a smooth, slightly acidic finish.

Speaker A: Join us next week for Isaac’s conversation with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Susan Lori Parks.

Speaker A: Until then, get back to work.

Speaker A: Hello, Slate Plus listeners.

Speaker A: Here is an extra tidbit from my conversation with Miguel de Leon.

Speaker A: So you mentioned asking your colleagues, like, when the last time they really felt something about a wine was.

Speaker A: And I’m curious to turn that question around on you as well.

Speaker B: To me, this is like the markers of what I like to drink.

Speaker B: So I can tell you, like, the very first time was that I was drinking an Alsatian white.

Speaker B: It was wrestling and a bunch of other things.

Speaker B: And I remember being bewildered by it because it was one of those things where I was like, I know all of these things that I’ve tasted before I taste them.


Speaker B: I was like, I taste leaches and I taste mangoes and I taste grapefruit and I taste like talcum powder.

Speaker B: I taste stargazer lilies.

Speaker B: And I was like, but what the f*** is happening here?

Speaker B: I don’t I don’t understand this wine.

Speaker B: How do I encapsulate this this thing?

Speaker B: So, like, I think that was one of the things that got me rolling.

Speaker B: The second big bottle that did that to me was a bottle of champagne.

Speaker B: It was Fredericks of Arts louver tour.

Speaker B: It’s a cave that’s very available from very good wine shops or very good wine bars.

Speaker B: And I remember drinking that wine, feeling electrified afterwards and just being like, this is me falling in love with something all over again.

Speaker B: And it’s like, shivers on the back of your spine, goose bumps.

Speaker B: Like, you’re sweating and you don’t know why.

Speaker B: You know what I mean?

Speaker B: Like, you’re looking around and you’re like, I just found out a secret that no one else knows.

Speaker B: And it’s like, that to me is like so it’s core shaking when you get something like that, and you’re like, oh, my God.

Speaker B: And so, to me, chasing that kind of dragon has always been a really kind of fun cookie idea.

Speaker B: And then most recently, I tried this really delicious, really stupid wine from Wisconsin.

Speaker B: My friend Aaron has a winery out in Mineral Point, Wisconsin called American Wine Project, where she works creatively with hybrid varieties.

Speaker B: Usually they come out of the University of Minnesota or Cornell or old, like, Luis Valley varieties.


Speaker B: And she had this wine called Whisky Disco, right?

Speaker B: And it’s like Wisconsin disconcer, right?

Speaker B: But.

Speaker B: It’s made with Concord.

Speaker B: And so for a lot of people, I think their relationship with Concord grapes is Welch’s grape juice, where it’s, like, very grapey grape, or it’s purple flavor.

Speaker B: And it was one of the times where it brought me so much nostalgia that I sipped it and I giggled, and she looked at me and she was like, yeah, that’s a good time right now.

Speaker B: I don’t know what’s happening.

Speaker B: I feel like I just started drinking, like, giggle juice, and I couldn’t help myself.

Speaker B: It was really one of those things.

Speaker B: I was, like, sipping it.

Speaker B: I was in this gym in Chicago where they were having this tasting.

Speaker B: I looked at her and I was like, what is this?

Speaker B: Did you just make this?

Speaker B: She was like, yeah, it’s new.

Speaker B: Experimenting with it.

Speaker B: I think it’s supposed to be fun.

Speaker B: You nailed it.

Speaker B: But also what it tastes like grown up grape juice.

Speaker B: It tastes like if you took a caprice on purple, put some alcohol in it and a little bit of fizz, and you’re like, here you go.

Speaker B: Have fun.

Speaker B: Go have fun.

Speaker B: For the rest of the world.

Speaker B: It was like everybody was laughing in that same gym.

Speaker B: Whenever I see that wine, we have a couple of bottles at the restaurant.

Speaker B: I’ll squirrel away some and just be like, if I need a pick me up, you know what I mean?

Speaker B: It’s like, all right, forget it.

Speaker B: Maybe just do a little bit of this.

Speaker B: Especially if it’s one of those, like, I’m not going to cook kind of nights.

Speaker B: Get yourself a sandwich, drink one of those, and you’re like, that’s it.

Speaker B: Call a night.

Speaker B: Take a bath, whatever.

Speaker B: We’re great.

Speaker B: But, yeah, recently, that’s the one that, like, really sticks out, because I felt like it was such, like, a catharsis of emotion, and, I mean, I’m happy to say that kind of emotional assessment is something that we really pin ourselves in at Pinch.

Speaker B: I still do that now.

Speaker B: We’re celebrating our 6th birthday currently.

Speaker A: That’s so exciting.

Speaker B: And so a lot of the wines that we’ve put on our special by the glasses, it’s that it’s like we felt something when we buy these wines.

Speaker B: Here you go.

Speaker B: I hope you feel this, too.

Speaker B: And, like, I think that that’s a really fun approach.

Speaker B: I think it’s a really interesting human approach to an industry that feels very transactional sometimes.

Speaker B: But, yeah, I think it’s nice to be able to say, come take this journey with me.

Speaker B: I think it’s really, really exciting when we can cultivate empathy this way.

Speaker A: All right, that’s it for our Slate Plus segment this week.

Speaker A: Thank you so much, as always, for your support, and we’ll see you next week.