In Episode 16, we sit down with Vanessa Conlin, MW.
A note from Jonathan Cristaldi, editor of Napa Valley Wine Academy’s “Pouring Points” blog.
About a month ago, Christian Oggensfuss sat down with Vanessa Conlin, the Head of Wine at Wine Access to record this podcast. Since the recording, Conlin received the biggest news of her life—she had become a Master of Wine, one of just 467 in the world, and one of only 138 women to ever earn the credential.
Next to the Court of Master Sommeliers, becoming a full-fledged Master of the Institute of Masters of Wine can only be equated to reaching a state of Wine Nirvana—it is among the most scared, highest accolades achievable in wine, on par with becoming a Master Sommelier, and kind of like winning a James Beard Award for a wine writer, but separated by rather intense degrees of difficulty that really have to do with each individual’s drive and ability to truly master their craft.
For close to three years, I served as editor-in-chief at Wine Access and I remember when Vanessa joined the team. She brought an immediate flair for fashion, a penchant for inspired conversation, and a keen, insider’s perspective on California wine—and wines from around the world. Her many experiences have introduced her to a host of elite wine world vintners and winemakers, and every step of her incredible journey has brought her to one of the greatest jobs in the wine industry. At Wine Access she heads a team dedicated to the careful curation of exceptional wines for consumers, all in the name of collecting and enjoying.
Her story begins in Manhattan when she sang opera and performed on Broadway and in this podcast, culminates just weeks before she was named a Master of Wine. Have a listen.
02:00 Vanessa Conlin: So my name is Vanessa Conlin, I’m the head of wine for a company called Wine Access. So we are based here in California, but we are a national, e-com, direct-to-consumer wine retailer. Been around for over 20 years, and I’ve been with them for about three. And yeah, I love it, it’s the best job in the world.
02:17 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. That’s great. So, really interested in hearing about how you got into the wine business and how it all started. Rewind us a little bit back to the early, early years. Where did you grow up and what did life look like in the early years?
02:31 Vanessa Conlin: Well, I did not grow up with wine. So, I actually… I come from a family of classical musicians. My dad is a symphony and a opera conductor, and my mother was an opera singer and now she does fundraising for arts organizations. But I spent my whole childhood sitting in rehearsals with the orchestra and I love music, not just classical, all kinds of music, and still do. But I just, I grew up thinking, “This is my path,” and I never really considered anything else. My parents love wine now and they would have it maybe once every couple of months when they had people over for a dinner party, but it was not a part of my life at all in my formative years. I studied music, I have a Master’s Degree in opera as a singer, I went to Manhattan School of Music and Boston University for grad school and after that, I went back to New York.
03:19 Vanessa Conlin: I was kind of a starving artist for a while, ended up traveling a lot actually for opera, had the opportunity to travel to Europe, and that’s really probably the first time I really started getting interested in wine. And then I spent some time in a show on Broadway, I was in Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème on Broadway; and that was a nice, steady gig, a Broadway show where you’ve got like your solid eight shows a week. But the rest of the time as an opera singer, it’s very gig-to-gig. You go, you travel to a specific city, you rehearse, you have your performances and then you’re done, and then you’re kind of back in between again.
03:51 Vanessa Conlin: It was during one of those time periods where I was in New York, I was auditioning and just waiting for my next gig to come along and I just thought, “I’ve always been kind of intrigued by wine, and I really don’t know anything.” And so I just went and took an amateur class, not a WSET class, just a very, very basic wine-101 class and I came home with literally pages of notes. And my now husband, but he was then my boyfriend, I sat him down and I was like, I just made… I read everything to him, I made him just sit on the couch and listen to me talk for two hours ’cause I was like, “You’re not gonna believe what happened.” And it just… I just fell in love with that. I thought it was so fascinating and I really just made a switch. Like I said, I still love music, but I thought, “Wow, I grew up with that, but I don’t have to do this the rest of my life. This other thing seems really cool.” And I just made a complete switch.
04:41 Vanessa Conlin: So, I started at the very, very bottom rung. I worked for a minimum wage at a wine retailer in Manhattan just to learn and use my discount, and I ended up being the manager and the buyer for that store after several years, and then I was the buyer for a second retailer, and then also the wine director for a win bar.
05:01 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow.
05:02 Vanessa Conlin: And then during that period of… I was of course studying, so I went through all the lulls of WSET, through the diploma. And was in 2010, my husband and I decided we wanted to make a little bit of a lifestyle change, but I also really wanted to be around vineyards and wine-making.
05:16 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay.
05:17 Vanessa Conlin: I felt like that was the one part of… Not the one part, but a big part of my wine knowledge that I just never was… Living in Manhattan, never really had that opportunity. So, we moved out here to Napa in 2010 and I worked for a number of wineries over the course of the next several years; Arietta, Dana Estates for the longest period, and that was really my opportunity to be around the vineyards and the wine-making. And then, sort of went back into retail, but in a much bigger, [chuckle] broader way with Wine Access. And so yeah, we’re a national company.
05:46 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, it’s fascinating, fascinating story. So, what was it like growing up with parents that were heavily involved in the music business? Did you ever feel pressure that that was the path you had to take or?
05:57 Vanessa Conlin: I would say, I didn’t so much feel pressure as it just seemed like they’re so passionate about it that it just was sort of contagious and I still really love it. So it was great, it was fascinating, I got to meet a lot of really interesting people. I definitely had a sort of different childhood; sitting in orchestra rehearsals and studying [chuckle] a lot as a kid, but I loved it. And I actually feel like in a way, it almost led me to wine because I think that there’s so many similarities with music and the appreciation of wine. You’re using your senses to experience something you’re experiencing and in a way that no one else in the same room with the same bottle in front of them, or listening to the same song is gonna experience it the same way and actually, I felt like was the perfect background.
06:00 Christian Oggenfuss: You went to music school in Manhattan.
06:00 Vanessa Conlin: Yes.
06:00 Christian Oggenfuss: Manhattan School of Music.
06:00 Vanessa Conlin: Yes.
06:44 Christian Oggenfuss: Normally it takes someone four years to finish that program, I think you finished it in three.
06:48 Vanessa Conlin: I did.
06:48 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay. So you are someone who… Would you classify yourself as a type A personality, someone when they see something, they attack it full force?
06:56 Vanessa Conlin: Yes. Yes. Yeah, 100%, whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but yes. [chuckle]
07:00 Christian Oggenfuss: How was that? Was that tough? Three years. I mean, a four-year program, you hear of most people taking five years of college, right, and when it’s a four-year program, so, you did it in three. Were you driven to do that? Talk to me a little bit about why three and not four?
07:15 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve never been someone who’s really good at relaxing. I’m always looking for the next thing to learn or the next challenge, so. Honestly, I just was really motivated to get that and then see what was next. And so I just took extra classes and took classes over the summers and just knocked that out. [chuckle]
07:31 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. And then you knew you wanted to continue, obviously the passion was there to continue and go onto graduate school.
07:38 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah, exactly, so. I went to BU and got my master’s degree there and I had a lot of… That was more opportunity to kinda be on the stage there at the grad school level. And it was great and I loved Boston, but Manhattan was kinda my jam so I went back there. And for a musician, too, that’s where all the auditions happen so you kind of need to be in Manhattan. But the thing I think also about opera that’s different about the wine business, is I think it’s easy to look at from the outside and say, “Oh, that’s such a social thing, being an opera singer.” But really, it’s very insular. So I would spend so much time just by myself in a practice room or with my head in a score, learning the music. And you have to be so hyperfocused on, your body’s your instrument. So no spicy food ’cause I’m gonna get reflux, don’t drink alcohol ’cause you’ll get dehydrated, don’t go to a crowded room and speak loudly ’cause you’re gonna lose your voice or, God forbid, you get sick and you have to cancel, you don’t get paid, so. While I love the music, I think that I was really missing that sort of more social aspect that I love about wine, where it’s really, it was meant to inspire conversation and bring people together. So as much as I love music and I was highly motivated, once I found wine, I was like, “Oh, this is it.”
08:50 Christian Oggenfuss: It sounds like a lot of parallels though. Your body… At least your palate is your instrument when you’re talking about wine, right? So taking some precaution there to make sure you protect that instrument might be some parallels as well?
09:01 Vanessa Conlin: True, true. I actually… But I tease my mother ’cause she’s become a really expert chef. But growing up, we had like three dinners that we alternated and they were all very bland. And so I tell her I have her to thank ’cause I had a palate that was completely [chuckle] untouched.
09:15 Christian Oggenfuss: You had a blank slate.
09:16 Vanessa Conlin: I had a blank slate, exactly, exactly.
09:18 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. That’s great.
09:19 Vanessa Conlin: But… Yeah, it’s funny though. I think… I mean, I definitely, before taking, for instance, the practical exam for the MW, I would take precautions, but it still felt different. I tried to be much more relaxed about it with tasting wine than I was when I was singing.
09:33 Christian Oggenfuss: What brought you joy in the music business? What was it that you most connected with and that made you smile?
09:40 Vanessa Conlin: I think that sort of visceral reaction that music can instill in people. I think my very favorite experience was… So the Broadway show that I was in, it was actually a full opera in Italian, but on Broadway directed by Baz Luhrmann, the movie director. Working with him was an amazing experience, but I think that experience was the most fulfilling because it was opera, but in a… On Broadway, it attracted an audience of people who I think had actually never heard an actual full orchestra or experienced opera and it was just amazing. After the show, you could see the people lined up outside the stage door, who had just had their very first experience and were blown away and realized, “Wow, it’s really not this intimidating art form that you have to know something about before you get started,” and I’m sure you see, too. I think sometimes people feel that about wine like, “Oh, I have to be an expert, or otherwise I won’t know… I’ll look stupid, or I won’t know what I like.” And it’s like, “No, you just dive in there.” [chuckle] And same thing, you’ll have that first reaction, whatever it is, but it’ll be unique to you.
10:44 Christian Oggenfuss: Must have been a great, an electrifying experience to be up on stage in front of large crowds, I can assume, right, on Broadway.
10:51 Vanessa Conlin: Yes.
10:51 Christian Oggenfuss: What did that feel like? Was that energizing? Was that draining?
10:55 Vanessa Conlin: It was definitely energizing. It’s difficult sometimes ’cause just, again, your body’s your instrument. So some days, you’re like, “Ah, I’m so excited, I’ve got all this energy.” And sometimes you’re like, “Wow, I really didn’t get very much sleep last night.” But you kind of… What I did learn from that, is you get up, you do it, and sometimes in certain situations, you’re afraid. And it’s just like learning that feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway type thing that has, I think, actually came in handy with something. Again, like the exam, Mary Margaret McCamic MW, we talked about this ’cause she was a competitive swimmer. I think that for her having that, or for me having this background of having to deal with adrenaline and nerves, and then just stay focused I think was helpful.
11:35 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s amazing. So you speak about wine as well, right; conferences, and you’ve shot video, and so you represent wine very publicly. Do you think your time on Broadway and a rich history of performance makes you a better presenter, more confident in those situations?
11:52 Vanessa Conlin: I think it makes me more comfortable for sure. I mean, it’s definitely… I really love talking about wine, I love seeing people’s eyes light up. Then I think about, again, my first experience where I must have looked like that in the class where like, just wide-eyed and like, “Wow.” So yeah, I love that and I do think it probably helps. Yeah.
12:06 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, yeah. So you take this class, you take this at the new school, right, and this interest gets awakened. What do you do next? You take this one class, you come home, you tell your husband, you’re obviously full of excitement about it.
12:21 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah.
12:21 Christian Oggenfuss: How do you explore that passion?
12:23 Vanessa Conlin: I didn’t know really where to start. So I think what’s great now is there’s so many resources online, you can find podcasts and all kinds of information online. But I wasn’t really sure… I bought some books, I enrolled in WSET, and then I would just go ask people, like my local retailer, pick their brains where like, “Hey, how did you get into being a wine-buyer? What was your path and how did you get here?” And I just had no idea, again, I didn’t grow up in a wine family. It was like, “How do you even get started?” And for me really, the WSET was key. And I started that class in New York with Mary Ewing-Mulligan and she’s amazing so that really helped. But really I just, I [chuckle] kinda just had to swallow my pride and start at the beginning and just say, “Hey, I’m gonna just be on the floor of this retailer and just try to soak up as much as I can and take it from there.”
12:43 Christian Oggenfuss: What year was that? What year would you say you started?
12:43 Vanessa Conlin: I’d say that’s probably around 2006, yeah.
13:15 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay, okay. So WSET at that point is not very well-known, right? It’s grown in its reputation, at least in its awareness since then. How did you stumble upon it? How did you stumble upon Mary’s school, International Wine Center? How did…
13:29 Vanessa Conlin: It was really asking around. So like I said, I’d just go into my wine shop and ask the buyer, “Hey, what would you recommend?” And I think it was one of those people who said, “Oh, you should really check this out,” I think they’d maybe done that course, and I kinda knew the first day I was there. I’m really like, I’m kind of a big dork at heart; I love studying and books. And I just walked in and I was like, “I love this, this is so great.” [chuckle]
13:49 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah.
13:52 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah, so…
13:52 Christian Oggenfuss: Did you know at that point that you wanted to pursue a career in wine? Or were you just still pursuing a general interest in wine?
13:58 Vanessa Conlin: I was definitely interested in it, but again, I didn’t know anything about what the path was, how to get there; and again, Mary was great with that, with advice. I was considering it, but I think it took me a little while to… I don’t wanna say give up music ’cause it’s still such a part of my life, but I almost had to mourn it, like losing a person, in a way, because it was such a part of my life. And even though I was really excited about wine, it felt like this struggle for a while where I was like, “Well, I should be studying my wine books, or researching this or that,” but then I’d be like, “Oh, but I should also be practicing.” ‘Cause I would spend like six hours a day practicing singing, practicing studying music. And after a while, I was like, “I can’t… I’m sort of living this double life, I have to make a choice here.” And so, yeah, I really kinda went cold turkey. I just, one day, I packed up all my music and put it in a box and put it in the back of the closet and was like, “Okay, that was a part of my life that was really important to me and will always be a part of me, but this is my focus now, and I wanna be singularly focused on that.”
14:57 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s a big decision.
15:00 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah. [chuckle]
15:00 Christian Oggenfuss: And I know oftentimes when you’re pursuing wine studies, and we come across many, and spouses play an important part, right, in the supporting role, and being generous with their time to allow you to pursue that higher level of knowledge. What was it like with your husband when you made that decision and you said, “I’m putting music behind and I’m moving in a different direction”? Especially since you’ve both come out of the music.
15:23 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah. He was incredibly supportive, but I think he could tell how passionate I was for it and how interested I was. I think for my parents raising me to be this musician and being musicians themselves, it took them a little bit longer to sort of wrap their heads around it. Not that they weren’t supportive, but I think they were just really confused. [chuckle] But now they love wine and they’re very excited that I took this turn.
15:42 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. Did it make it somehow easier that you knew that your husband was gonna still be in the music business, that you still had some connection to it? Did that make that decision maybe easier?
15:52 Vanessa Conlin: I think it made it harder, [chuckle] actually, to be totally honest, because we still had a circle of friends in New York that were all musicians. And I think for a while there, I would sort of get in this crowd of people and be like, “I don’t know how to describe who I am anymore.” You used to be like, “Oh, I’m a soprano,” or, “This is my upcoming gig,” and it sort of defines you in those circles. And so it felt uncomfortable for a while, honestly. But then of course as I started to learn more and get confident and really realized like, “Oh, I can have a career in this,” then that’s where the confidence came.
16:19 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. So what was the first job you did in the wine business?
16:24 Vanessa Conlin: Well, I had worked in restaurants when I was a starving artist. So I’ll say I did sling some wine on the restaurant floor, but no, it was really… It was a retail, this retail shop, it was called Pour, P-O-U-R, on the Upper West side of Manhattan, and yeah, I just started at the bottom. But I was really glad I had done WSET, ’cause I remember I walked in and she sort of gave me this on-the-spot verbal quiz like, “What’s the variety in this? Or if I came in and asked you for this, what would be your recommendation?” And I was like, “Oh gosh, thank goodness I took that class.” That was a… I also worked for a while for a distributor, for someone who focused mostly in wines from the Loire Valley, and that’s really like, I really, really fell in love with French wine through the Loire because of that job. So really worked through, up through retail mostly. And then as I mentioned, for the wine bar as a wine director.
17:06 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah. So you’re in New York, you’ve gotten your diploma with the WSET, you’ve started your career in working retail and distribution. How do you end up in Napa? How does that come to pass?
17:17 Vanessa Conlin: Well, so there’s a phrase called, “Leap and the net will appear,” which became very important to me in that part of my life. Because I was literally just looking on winejobs.com for Napa ’cause I was like, “I really wanna be out here in wine country.” And Napa was the ideal place for us to move because my husband is a classical pianist, so we had to be close to a major city, so this is ideal. And there were all these jobs listed out here, and I would send my resume or I would call and they’d be like, “Great, well, can you come in tomorrow for an interview?” And I’d be like, “Oh, actually, I live in New York.” And they’d be like, click. [chuckle] So finally after a number of those, I was like, “I just have to go.” So we rented a house out here, Sight Unseen, and my husband still had a gig he had to finish up so I had to come out by myself. And I came out here, literally I had a suitcase, I had my laptop and my cat. [chuckle] And I got here and got an air mattress and was camping out in this house, and all the jobs dried up, there was nothing listed.
18:11 Vanessa Conlin: And so finally, there was a listing for a shop here. And I had sort of vowed that I was gonna do something other than retail when I got out here, but it was to be the buyer for a retail shop out here. And actually, that ended up being a total blessing because coming out here, I didn’t know anybody, I was still wrapping my head around these names on these bottles that I’d seen on the shop shelves in New York, like, “Oh, these are actual people, but what are they like? Are they nice people to work for? Are they not?” And so that really gave me the opportunity to meet a bunch of different winemakers and vintners at that shop ’cause it’s right up in St. Helena. And that’s how I met Fritz Hatton, who’s the proprietor of Arietta, and he… I was his first non-seller employee for Arietta Wines.
18:53 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow.
18:53 Vanessa Conlin: I worked out of their garage.
18:54 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay. [chuckle] So a garage story, right, not a tech industry, but…
18:58 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah, very glamorous, but that was it. And you know Andy Erickson is our winemaker, and that was a fantastic first winery experience to have.
19:03 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah. And do you think that helped you, those connections helped you springboard into other opportunities?
19:08 Vanessa Conlin: Oh, for sure. I mean, when I left Arietta, Fritz was really… He was very supportive. It’s such a tight community out here; everyone knows each other, so definitely. And he’s one of the… Probably the most famous wine auctioneers, and so he knows a lot of people. And yeah, absolutely, that was very helpful.
19:12 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. Are you… At this point in your wine studies, are you on pause? You finished your diploma, have you started to think about the MW?
19:12 Vanessa Conlin: I paused after diploma partly because I did make this cross-country move and frankly, I needed a little time off. I was feeling just like, “I need a break,” and I sort of had in the back of my mind that I would do the Master Wine, but I hadn’t made a decision. And then, we sort of started off this talk earlier, talking about sort of being type A, and I thought that was a good idea. And after, really, a very brief break, I was like, “Okay, now I’m bored. [chuckle] Now I need another challenge.” So I mentioned Mary Margaret McCamic earlier; she’s a good friend of mine and she had started the program. And so that was really helpful, too, to talk to her and hear about her experience in it and, yeah, so I applied and started that.
19:12 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah. So it can be a solo endeavor, right, studying for the MW. But it also can be a very supportive endeavor, right, when you surround yourself with the right people. How important was knowing other people, knowing Mary Margaret, being part of a tasting group; how did that help you pass the first two parts of the MW program?
20:27 Vanessa Conlin: It was key. What I love about the MW program… One of the things I love about it, is you’re only competing against yourself, so it can be a very supportive community to be part of. In Napa, I felt so lucky because we do have a number of people around the Bay Area who are all studying and they would come at the Napa Valley Wine Academy every weekend doing our mock exams; that was really important. And I think learning from others, but also frankly, just so many wines to taste. And so having the ability to pool our finances to be able to try the amount of wines that we wanted to was crucial.
21:00 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah. What’s the hardest part about the MW program, what would you say? For you, what were some of the challenges you had to overcome?
21:06 Vanessa Conlin: That’s a good question. I loved studying and I’m pretty organized, so that wasn’t so much a challenge. I’d say the challenge is finding a way to not let it completely derail your social life. [chuckle] My husband asked me, ’cause we’re heading into the holidays and he’s like, “Why don’t we get invited to as many parties anymore?” And I say, “Well, it’s ’cause I said no for like four years straight.” But I think that having the discipline to say, “Well, I know everyone else is out partying or whatever, but this is really important to me.” So just learning how to handle those situations, I think. And I do remember when Mary Margaret was studying before I started the program, and we had invited her to, I think it was like a Labor Day party or something, and she was like, “No, I’m studying.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? It’s a holiday.” But then when I started the program, I was like, “Oh, I get it.” You have the… Just figuring out what to prioritize.
21:55 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, yeah. You obviously formed strong bonds, right? You and Mary Margret have a strong bond and I think that goes back to your diploma days.
22:02 Vanessa Conlin: Yes, yes.
22:03 Christian Oggenfuss: You took it together.
22:04 Vanessa Conlin: We did, we did, yeah.
22:05 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah. The relationships and the bonds you build during this process, right, you’re going through intensive basic training, if you will, almost of a military precision to become an MW. Those relationships that you built during that time, talk to me a little bit about those. Are those important? Are those long-lasting? Yeah, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
22:26 Vanessa Conlin: Oh, honestly, these are my friends for life. I mean, whether some people… Again, it’s… Not everybody passes. But going through that experience together, I’ll stay in touch with these people forever. I think it’s… There’s something about being at your very best and being at your very worst and being open in front of these people about that. ‘Cause we’ll be… You’ll have a great day of nailing all the wines, then you’ll have a totally humiliating day where you just feel really, really defeated. And being around those people, having that support and feeling the comfort level to be able to fail in front of people, frankly, and then get back up on the horse again, there’s a closeness that comes from that that I’ve never experienced.
23:03 Christian Oggenfuss: So, not to understate it, but this program is challenging, right? It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of resources, and you make a lot of sacrifices. And then there are some that timeout, or hit pause, or are not successful in their pursuit. Having been someone who is successful in that pursuit, is that hard to watch people fall to the wayside and is that demoralizing? Does that keep you going? Does that drive your hunger more?
23:32 Vanessa Conlin: I feel terrible for people who timeout or don’t pass, but I can’t speak for them. But I’d say, if I had to stop at any point in the program, I think I could still walk away and say, “I’ve learned so much, not just about wine, but about myself that I think no matter what, you leave having become a better, smarter, stronger person.”
23:53 Christian Oggenfuss: You moved out here, you worked with Fritz Hatton, and I assume your next position that you go to is at Dana?
24:00 Vanessa Conlin: At Dana Estates, yes.
24:01 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay, yeah. So very high-end, very prestigious winery in Napa. Do you start your studies during that time at Dana?
24:08 Vanessa Conlin: Yes, that actually, that was when I started, yeah.
24:09 Christian Oggenfuss: Did you know what you wanted to do when you achieved the MW? Was it a pursuit just… It’s often compared to climbing Mount Everest. And when you ask someone why did they climb Mount Everest, they said, “Well it’s there. It’s a challenge that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do.” And then you have other people say, “No, I have very specific goals as to what I want to accomplish with this pursuit.” Where were you in that?
24:31 Vanessa Conlin: I was somewhere in the middle. I didn’t have a specific end goal in mind in terms of like, “This is the job I want,” but I just wanted to have options, I wanted to know that I had done everything I could to be best set up in the wine industry to be successful. But the thing that really… [chuckle] Honestly, I remember being in the lab one day at Dana Estates and talking to the winemaker and he was talking about PH and I was like, “I don’t understand.” [chuckle] And I just remember that I was like, “I need to know what he’s talking about.” And so part of it was just really that personal drive, where I wanted to be part of the conversation. I didn’t wanna be the person standing in the corner like, “Oh God, don’t ask me ’cause I don’t know.” I wanted to be able to stand alongside the winemaker and have a educated conversation about whatever, SO2, or whatever he wanted to talk about.
25:16 Christian Oggenfuss: Right, right. So historically, when you look at the Institute of Masters of Wine, it has been a very male-focused organization, right, with a disproportionate number of men achieving the MW program. Anecdotally, from our school, we see a large amount of females entering in into the wine business and pursuing certification and education. What’s it like in, I’m assuming we’re now at 2009, right, when you were in the program and you were starting your pursuit, what was it like being a woman in the program?
25:48 Vanessa Conlin: To be totally honest, I didn’t even think of it, I really didn’t. I sort of thought, “We’re all here with a drive to be here,” and I didn’t distinguish being male or female. Again, because you’re kind of only competing with yourself. And for anyone who doesn’t know the exam format, you’re a candidate number. So whoever’s grading your exam, they have no idea if you’re male or you’re female, how old you are, what you’re wearing that day; so I didn’t really factor it in. And there was such a supportive community out here and I had Mary Margaret and my mentor, Amy Christine, and that were female so I just… Yeah.
26:07 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. It sounds very democratic in that fact that you are anonymous, right, and everyone is given an equal chance.
26:07 Vanessa Conlin: Yes.
26:07 Christian Oggenfuss: So you are successful in two very challenging parts of the exam, right, and fretting the theoretical…
26:39 Vanessa Conlin: Yes.
26:39 Christian Oggenfuss: And which one did you pass first? Remind me.
26:41 Vanessa Conlin: Theory.
26:41 Christian Oggenfuss: Theory, okay. And then you pass practical. What does that feel like? I mean, you are one-third the way done, and probably done with two of the sections that people fear the most. Tell me about that day, you get the news that you’ve crossed that finish line.
26:57 Vanessa Conlin: The practical exam, yeah. I mean, obviously I was really excited. I think what I wasn’t prepared for, and I think most people looking in, who haven’t started the research paper portion, is you think, oh, you’re basically done, and you’re not, [chuckle] you’re definitely not done. I actually found the research paper to be the hardest part.
27:16 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow.
27:16 Vanessa Conlin: Because even though you are… For the exam, you’re alone. You’re alone with your own head, and your own pallet, and your own knowledge, but you’re in a room full of people, and you’re studying with people. And then you start the research paper and you’re kind of off on this island by yourself. And we always used to do mock exams on Sundays, studying for practical. And it would be Sunday, and I would feel so like, “Oh, I miss the group and… How did they do today and what were the wines?” [chuckle] And I’m just by myself, writing. So, I loved the research, I loved learning, but it was definitely the hardest part for me.
27:46 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah. Yeah. So now, we fast forward, you’re in the final stage, right? You’re working on your research paper, I’m assuming you’ve submitted and you’re waiting, anxiously awaiting.
27:57 Vanessa Conlin: Yep, yep, I am waiting. [chuckle]
27:58 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay. So we’re all crossing our fingers, and we’ll know you’ll be successful; I get the sense of that in everything you’ve accomplished in your life with grace and passion. You now probably have a very… One of the most enviable jobs, right, in the wine business. You work for a company that sources wines from around the world. You are… The buck stops at you on making the decision what wines gets sold, you get to jet away to fancy wine region destinations. I mean, is this a dream come true? Could you have imagined that you would be here?
28:28 Vanessa Conlin: No, I honestly never thought… I never imagined this, and I have to say, I think I have the best job in the world. I love this, I love it. So, no, it’s really exciting. We write all original content about the wine, so I’m constantly doing a lot of travel, but talking with producers. And so it kind of… It also fills that side of me that’s always wanting to learn more. ‘Cause we’re constantly just writing about new places, and new wines, and wine-making and different producers. And I actually really love also being a sort of advocate for the consumer because I think that it’s such a blessing that there’s so many places and ways to buy wine these days, but I also think it can be really confusing. And so, I really find a lot of energy from thinking, “How can I talk about this wine in a way that’s gonna be informative, but not pedantic and educational, but accurate and entertaining at the same time?” So I really love it.
29:22 Christian Oggenfuss: So talk to me a little bit about advocate for the consumer; what does that mean to you? Other than, you just described, writing in a way that is digestible and understandable. But when you’re talking to a producer, are you carrying that consumer mindset in your mind and saying, “Okay, I’m really gonna evaluate these wines from a different standpoint than I would, maybe, from a wine expert standpoint”?
29:44 Vanessa Conlin: I think that… Frankly, a lot of it… When I’m tasting the wines, it’s using, frankly, what I learned from the MW practical exam, which is not about what I like ’cause I definitely do have preferences. But we have consumers in 44 states across the United States, and of all different comfort levels with different price points, and regions and styles. So, I’m kind of taking my own personal preference out of it and just saying, “Would I be excited about this wine at this price? Would I think that this wine was over-delivering?” So that’s where I’m saying, as a consumer, that’s my job, is to say, “If I bought this, I would be really happy.” So I’m always… That’s always front of my mind.
30:20 Vanessa Conlin: And then, in terms of the presentation of the content, I’m also thinking, “What can they read that’s gonna make them feel empowered?” So, if they brought this bottle to a party, they could confidently talk about it. ‘Cause that’s what… It’s very similar, actually, to when I was pursuing opera, where there’s this intimidation factor and people are just afraid they’re gonna be wrong, or make the wrong choice, or it’s not the right thing to pair. And even when I was a singer, I would fight really hard for people to say, “You don’t have to be intimidated, this was meant to just be enjoyed and by everyone,” and it’s the same with wine. I want people to feel not just comfortable, but excited and empowered to talk about it.
30:54 Christian Oggenfuss: That’s great. What regions are you most excited about? I mean, where do you think the opportunity exists for the consumer to still explore, beyond the usual suspects?
31:03 Vanessa Conlin: Yeah, I mean, there’s some really interesting… We’re about to offer a wine from the Canary Islands. [chuckle] That was… I definitely had to learn some new names of varieties for that. So I think there’s some really interesting island wines coming up. I think, in the United States, even looking at like the Sierra Foothills, a lot of these sort of names we know from Napa, who’ve been very successful here, like Andy Erickson or Helen Keplinger, Napa’s planted out, essentially. You can’t really start a new project here. [chuckle] So I think that you’ll see a lot of people sorta investing heavily there, so that’s a region I definitely have my eye on.
31:36 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay. What would you say to someone looking to get in the wine business and pursuing a career change, or starting their career in the wine business? What piece of advice, from your experience, would you share with them?
31:48 Vanessa Conlin: Make sure that your spouse is supportive; [chuckle] would be number one. But I think, take a minute and figure out how you digest information. ‘Cause I think, again, there’s so many ways to learn now; there’s podcasts, there’s books, there’s webinars, there’s obviously still classes. And so, for me, I wanted… Taking classes was what resonated with me. But I’d say, think about how you’re really gonna be successful, and what your study patterns are and then tailor it to that ’cause everyone’s so different in that regard. But that, and then just taste really broadly, don’t get stuck in… That’s the thing about studying, I think, is I probably drank more wines that I didn’t like over the last four years, [chuckle] just because it’s not what I would choose to drink, so it’s like, “I have to taste this over and over, because this is not what I’ve gravitated towards, but I have to learn it.” So, be open to trying new things.
32:35 Christian Oggenfuss: Great. You still have a lot to accomplish in the wine world, I have a sense, right, just looking at you, and your energy and what you’ve accomplished so far. What is on your bucket list to still accomplish?
32:46 Vanessa Conlin: We have a number of projects at Wine Access. So something I’ve never done is really… I’ve worked at wineries, but we are making a wine with Maayan Koschitzky, so I’m really excited ’cause I’ve never actually been… A project that I’m spearheading been, start to finish. I’m obviously not making the wine, Maayan’s making it. But being a part of that whole process of choosing the design, and what’s the name, and I’d selected the vineyard sources with him; so that’s something I’m working on now, that’s really exciting and new.
33:11 Christian Oggenfuss: That is exciting. And can you talk about the project a little bit more? What wines you are…
33:15 Vanessa Conlin: It’s gonna be… We’re starting off with just one wine, so far, so a 2019 vintage. So it’s a Napa cab from three amazing fruit sources, which I can’t disclose. But yeah, so name has not been selected, I definitely need to figure that out soon, [chuckle] but. We had to get through harvest first, so.
33:31 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, yeah, sounds very exciting. So we definitely look forward to following that project, and thank you for taking your time and sharing your story with us, it’s fascinating. And, like I said, I think there’s a lot of great things to come.
33:42 Vanessa Conlin: Thank you.
33:42 Christian Oggenfuss: And more of your story to tell, so we’d love to have you back sometime in the future.
33:45 Vanessa Conlin: I would love that. Thanks for having me.
33:47 Christian Oggenfuss: Cheers.