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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

The Art of Wine Making & Blind Tasting: Interview with Bordeaux Wine Expert & Guide, Margot Smadja

What does it look like to craft a career in the wine tourism industry? In this captivating interview with Margot Smadja, a seasoned Wine Expert, Tourism Manager, and Guide, we navigate the nuanced terrain of wine appreciation and delve into the intricacies of her remarkable career. By reading this interview, you will learn a simple 3-step guide to hosting a blind wine tasting experience at home, the key characteristics and distinctions to be aware of when purchasing Bordeaux wine, the best resources to use at home to learn about the Bordeaux region (i.e., podcasts, books, TV series, and wine courses), tips for those who choose to visit this geographical region, details on the professional and complex world of wine making and distribution, personal views on gender representation within the wine tourism industry, and the unexpected challenges and opportunities when working in the wine industry. The interview also details Smadja’s career trajectory by highlighting her experience as a Wine Tourism Manager with the renowned Château Larrivet Haut-Brion and her work with the wine tourism company Olala Bordeaux. As always, the interview concludes with a summary of the type of experiences and skill set needed to excel in the wine tourism industry, along with the interviewee’s valuable advice to professionals interested in following a similar career path. It is notable to mention that while we start this conversation with the intention to explore the steps required to host a memorable wine tasting experience at home for our guests, you will be able to notice that as the interview progresses, Smadja’s wisdom, talent, and expert knowledge of the wine industry effortlessly unfold, providing us not only with a guide but also an invitation to unlock the secrets of winemaking.



Illustrations: Click through for the 3-step guide to hosting a blind wine tasting experience at home.


Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with you in person in August 2022 and to be welcomed with my partner at Château La Dominique, in the French geographical region of Saint-Émilion, in Bordeaux. While there, you introduced us to several of the Château’s wines through a well-structured, fun and educational blind wine tasting experience. Given that not everyone is able to visit the region of Bordeaux and attend a blind wine tasting class with you, it would be great to learn some tips regarding replicating this great experience at home. As such, when planning a wine tasting experience at home: What is the correct step-by-step structure or organization that a person can utilize to ensure that their guests can taste wine in the recommended order? Further, what aspects do they need to make their guests pay particular attention to when tasting wine (example: color, odor, etc.)? And what type of food should they serve their guests to help cleanse their palate and taste wine in the best way (example: taste white bread, smell roasted coffee beans, drink water, etc.)?


Answer:


Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the fascinating world of wine making and tasting.


I believe that attending a blind wine tasting workshop is an excellent way to explore the subtleties of wines and discover personal preferences. This experience enhances your confidence because technical knowledge isn't required; instead, it's about feeling the wine. Basic human senses—sight, smell, taste, and touch—are awakened to examine and appreciate the differences between wines. The ability to describe it with words is not crucial; what matters is the ability to feel and enjoy it.


For those interested in organizing a blind wine tasting at home, especially during the holidays, here is a step-by-step guide:


Step 1. Arranging the Wines: Follow the table service rule, progressing from the lightest to the strongest wines and concluding with sweet wines.


Step 2. Purifying the Senses: Provide your guests with specific tools such as: white bread to taste, roasted coffee beans to smell, and water to stay hydrated and ensure an overall smooth experience.


Before providing my suggestions on how to guide your guests during the wine tasting process, I would like to make some important observations about the usefulness and necessity of water. While it is not mandatory, it is highly recommended to drink water before and during the wine tasting process. To clarify, when you commence a tasting, you should not be thirsty; you should have already consumed enough water beforehand. Additionally, when tasting a series of wines, for example, in a set of ten, I recommend drinking water between each series rather than between each wine. The most suitable water for tasting is as neutral as possible, with low minerality and little sodium—preferably flat. Water should be made available to help dilute the alcohol in our bodies because the ultimate goal is not to finish the tasting inebriated.


Step 3. When guiding your guests through the tasting experience, consider that sensory stages develop in the following order: sight, smell, taste, and touch of the wine palate.


  1. Sight: Observe clarity, intensity, color, and density. Look for the 'tears' or 'legs' running down the interior wall of the wine glass.

  2. Smell: Pay attention to the wine’s intensity and aromas. Different grape varieties have distinct combinations of aromatic molecules. For example, Merlot is known for aromas of plum, spice, blackberry, strawberry, and violet. Wooden packaging may add aromas of vanilla, cedar, coconut, caramel, smoke, chocolate, or toast.

  3. Taste: Note the wine’s sweetness, acidity, tannins, alcohol, body, flavor intensity, flavor characteristics, and finish.

Furthermore, to conceal the labels of the wine bottles from your guests, you can simply use socks or wine carafes. The previously mentioned 3-step tasting process can also be employed to assess a wine’s quality and aging potential and help you determine whether it is best enjoyed now or advisable to store for a few years.


Q2. Bordeaux region is renowned worldwide and it is divided into “38 sub-regions with 57 different appellations” (more info here). Based on your professional experience: What are key characteristics and distinctions consumers should be aware of when purchasing wine from this region? Additionally what are some of the best resources people can use at home to learn more about Bordeaux wines, its winemaking culture, its history, etc.?


Answer:


Bordeaux stands as the largest fine-wine appellation in France and I'd like to highlight here four of its sub-regions:


  • Médoc: Home to the Grands Crus Classés of 1855, with a predominant grape variety of Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • Graves: Featuring Haut Brion as the sole 1855 classified growth, this region produces both robust reds and unique whites. In the North, you find dry wines by Pessac Léognan, while in the South, there's Sauternes for sweet wines.

  • Entre deux Mers: Known for its beautiful and full-of-surprises white wines.

  • Saint Emilion: Renowned for red wines primarily made from the Merlot grape variety.


Understanding Bordeaux wines, like any French wine region, involves knowing the various appellations and sub-appellations in order to be able to discern the grape varieties planted. This aspect is important to know because there's no obligation for wine producers to list the grape varieties they use on the bottle labels.


To further your knowledge about wine from the comfort of your home, consider these resources:


Podcasts:

  • Yann Roussellin's series 'Le Vin Pas à Pas' (English: Wine, Step by Step) on Spotify.

  • Sud Radio's show 'In Vino.'

Books:

  • Pascaline Lepeltier’s ‘Mille Vignes, Penser le Vin de Demain’ (English: ‘A Thousand Vines, Imagining Tomorrow’s Wine,’ translation in progress).

  • For a more playful tone, explore 'The Drops of God,' a Japanese manga series about wine that has also been adapted into a TV series.


Wine Trainings and Courses:

  • I recommend WSET Level 1 and Level 2, which are accessible courses for anyone curious about wine. These 1 to 3-day programs explore grape varieties worldwide through tasting sessions, providing a comprehensive learning experience.


And, for those who are able to plan a visit to the Bordeaux-region, consider the following:


Tips for Visiting the Bordeaux Region:

  • I recommend exploring the Cité du Vin, The Wine and Trade Museum, and the Musée national des douanes (English: The National Museum of Customs). Each of these places offer a unique perspective on the development of the wine trade in Bordeaux.

  • And, in terms of tips to learn more about wine, I recommend exploring companies that offer excursions in the Bordeaux region. By booking a trip, you can discover wines step by step in a fun and educational manner.

  • For example, some companies even offer Master Classes in wine. I particularly suggest taking a look at Olala Bordeaux first, where readers might even come across me—who knows?

  • Other great companies that you may want to consider consulting with for your future trips to France: Ophorus, A la Française, 33Tours, Aquitaine Limousine, and Bordeaux Wine Trails.


Q3. For those not familiar with your line of work and who want to learn more about the professional and complex world of wine making and distribution, as well as working in these fields in various capacities, I'd like to ask: Can you please briefly describe what is a ‘Chargée d'oenotourisme’ (English: Wine Tourism Manager) ? Furthermore, could you share some of your main work responsibilities when you worked as a Wine Tourism Manager with Château Larrivet Haut-Brion?


Answer:


A Wine Tourism Manager welcomes visitors to the winery and guides them through a comprehensive exploration of the property.


For example, in my previous role as a Wine Tourism Manager with Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, my goal was to make information about the wine creation process—from grape to bottle—easily understood and enjoyable for all who chose to visit the winery.


To be more specific, I presented and explained various facets of the winemaking process to our visitors. This included delving into the historical significance of the wine property and providing an in-depth examination of the techniques involved in the journey from vine to bottle. I also offered insights into the estate's positioning within the AOC Bordeaux designation, providing a contextual understanding of its regional significance. The tour culminated in introducing visitors to the art and science of wine tasting through blind tests of several wines. By engaging in conversations, I guided them on describing and understanding the flavors.


In essence, by the end of the visit, I aimed for our guests to feel they had a holistic and enriching experience, leaving with a deeper knowledge of wine and the winemaking process than the one they had when they entered our vineyard.


Q4. Keeping our focus on the wine industry, I observe a general perception that the field you work in is heavily male dominated. Based on your professional experience, do you notice more men than women working in your field and/or attending the events you help organize?


Answer:


I believe this perception often holds true, particularly in higher executive roles. For instance, my manager has organized professional meals with wine tastings where she was the sole female representative. However, I am optimistic that this dynamic won't persist for much longer, as the younger generation entering the profession appears to bring a more balanced gender representation.


For instance, at Château Larrivet Haut Brion, the entire team consists of women, totaling five members. Our vineyard manager is a woman. They also have a female wine worker in the vineyard and a female wine worker in the cellars.


Overall, I find that in the wine tourism department, it’s even rather rare to have men. I find this shift towards a more diverse industry encouraging and indicative of positive changes ahead.


Q5. What is Château Larrivet Haut-Brion best known for?


Answer:


Château Larrivet Haut Brion is situated in one of the newer wine regions in Bordeaux, Les Pessac-Léognan. This appellation is known for producing excellent dry red and white wines, which, in my opinion, stand out as some of the best in Bordeaux. While the AOC of Bordeaux is predominantly associated with red wines, this Château takes pride in promoting both red and white varieties.


Being a part of the Union des Grands Crus, this Château is recognized for is quality, even though it does not carry a specific classification. This recognition allows for the flexibility to explore and experiment with new products. Notably, the Château is renowned for its diverse range of containers, including traditional 225L barrels, larger 400L ones, clay amphorae, concrete eggs, and glass globes.


As a conventional vineyard, it benefits from 75 hectares of vines protected by the adjacent forest, along with a large park of 12 hectares—larger than the Bordeaux Park. This preserved space serves as a true haven of peace, just a short drive from the city center of Léognan and 45 minutes from Bordeaux center.


Q6. Your work takes place at renowned French Châteaux, visited by customers from all over the world. Daily, you interact and work with people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. What countries do you specifically work with and why? And what have been some of the main challenges and opportunities when interacting with people and customers from many different backgrounds?


Answer:


In the Southwest of France, we are fortunate to be close to the Spanish border, attracting more and more Spanish citizens to visit French wineries. Post-Covid, Americans are making a comeback, and Brazilians, with a growing interest in gastronomy, are increasingly drawn to wine.


In terms of opportunities, I've had the privilege of meeting true connoisseurs who invited me to taste collection bottles. Foreign professionals in the wine world have also shared valuable travel recommendations.


However, working in the public sector presents its challenges. Dealing with the occasional unpleasantness of the infamous "king customer" requires maintaining self-control and professionalism. For instance, a Texan once assumed my gender and expertise, suggesting that, as a woman, my school-learned knowledge was insufficient for his needs in winemaking.


Challenges also arise in managing different cultural expectations. Some ethnic groups, particularly from other parts of the world, may exhibit manners that feel suffocating or rude within the European environment I operate in. Space constraints during tours can be challenging, and the wine guiding business can sometimes feel like a repetitive speech aimed at mass consumption and increased sales.


Despite these challenges, every visit yields a unique story. Whether it's encountering unconventional manners or sharing anecdotes during the tour, the diversity of interactions keeps the job dynamic and interesting.


Q7. Based on my personal experience, you show a natural inclination towards easily connecting with customers because you make them feel comfortable to ask questions and learn as much as possible while in your presence. From an education and professional point of view, you have a diverse background. You hold degrees in the history of art, archeology, and plastic art from Bordeaux Montaigne University. Further, you have a professional license in ‘Guide Conferencier, Art Culturel et Patrimoine’ (English: Conference, Cultural Art, and Cultural Patrimony Guide) from Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée University. You speak several languages (i.e., French, Spanish, and English) and you have worked in academia, with winemakers, for McDonald's, at art museums or centers, and for other establishments. In retrospect, are there specific work experiences that you have had in the past that you believe helped to best prepare you for the type of work that you are currently involved in?


Answer:


In France, there is a significant gap between higher university studies and the world of work, and we are now returning to professional courses, which is long overdue. I thoroughly enjoyed my university years, where I developed my creativity and cultural knowledge. Plus, these studies provided me with ample free time during the summers, leading me to take on various jobs such as an entertainer or at McDonald's. These summer work experiences taught me valuable skills such as organization, responsibility, teamwork, and effective communication.


Embarking on language learning abroad is an invaluable experience that I highly recommend. It doesn't necessarily require traveling far, and for someone like me, who is not inherently adventurous, choosing London and Barcelona to improve my foreign languages turned out to be a transformative experience. Despite the initial challenges, it became a catalyst for rapid personal growth.


Following this, I lacked only the "passport" to become a guide. Acquiring the professional guide license, which was a new qualification at that time, served as my "passport." This year-long educational journey allowed me to understand how to chart my path, position myself effectively, and gain access to all cultural spaces. Understanding the different guide statuses (private/public/civil servant) marked a significant milestone in my journey.


Although in hindsight my path may resemble a roller coaster, I can now see a consistency in it that has brought me to where I am today. What began as a simple guiding role has later evolved into leading an entire section of the Château, involving administrative, commercial, handling, reception, guiding, events, and creating tours and workshops.


Q8. Speaking of professional choices and evolving in one's career: You have recently changed positions. Can you elaborate on your new role, including the responsibilities involved, and share what motivated you to make this career move?


Answer:


Recently, I changed jobs, and now, I am a Bordeaux-region Guide and Driver with Olala Bordeaux. In this role, I take clients to different Châteaux over the course of a half day. My responsibility is to provide basic information about the region and its vineyards, while the Châteaux focus on presenting guests with their wine specialties. Simply said, I serve as the link, highlighting the differences or similarities between each Château visited by the guests.


In my previous position, I always stayed in the same place, and I felt that I couldn't connect enough with the people visiting the Château for only 1h30min, which is too short. This new job, which is centered on multiple Bordeaux wines and Château visits, allows me to spend a whole day with the same group and create a warm and engaging atmosphere for them.


Q9. To conclude, would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young professionals interested in working in a similar type of work and career such as yours?


Answer:


Be curious. Do not limit your studies to only what is required of you in school. Explore a variety of books, listen to different podcasts, and visit all the Châteaux, if you can. The world of wine is neither dusty nor pompous, it is a living heritage that continuously evolves.


Embrace your personal and career journey as it will undoubtedly prove valuable. And ultimately, have confidence in your abilities and in yourself.


Thank you for reading this interview. Please remember to subscribe to our newsletter, to receive updates about upcoming interviews, articles, and podcast episodes.



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Margot Smadja. Interview for Persuasive Discourse, by Dr. Sorina Matthey de l'Endroit

Bordeaux-Region Guide & Driver


Former Wine Tourism Manager

Illustrations: The photos on this page have been made available by Margot Smadja.

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