Wine Down With Wine Wisdom: Interview With Lisa Denham (Part 1)




“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?”


               Yes, you’ll sing that familiar tune, in just about no time. But, while you celebrate old times and new, how much do you know about wine?


               If you ever spent an evening at any military formal event, you might have experienced the fine wines chosen by the Hosts of these important gatherings. (And, let’s always remember to drink responsibly!) Either way, you can bet that at such occasions, somebody at the table seems to know a lot about wine.


               Whether you paid little attention to what they said about wine, or took in every word as you sipped on your Chardonnay, no doubt civilian life offers plenty of opportunities to hear discussions about red, whites, and other types of wine.


               After you make your Military-to-Civilian career transition, you might find yourself at the dinner table surrounded by “Corporate Royalty” (as in the company’s CEO, COO, CIO, CMO, VP, HR, etc. - and please know those civilian-style acronyms too!) You may not initially feel compelled to try to impress everyone at the table with your in-depth knowledge of the wine and wine-tasting, but after reading this interview, you might be able to ask a few intelligent questions so that the Kings and Queens of Corporate remember you!


               My Friend Lisa Denham agreed to share some of her wine wisdom recently. She’s the Managing Director of World Wines overseeing bulk wine exports from Spain, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, & South Africa. As you’ll see, she has a nice way of taking the complexities of wine and explaining them in terms that are easy to understand. This lady knows her wine and knows it well! She’s a class act who shares some insight I hope you’ll find invaluable for years to come.


So, without any further delay, let’s “up the cups” and get ready to get a taste of what the world of wine is all about!


Charles “Chazz” Pratt III (CP3): You’ve been involved in the world of Wine for over 22 years! How did you get your start in this popular business? 


Lisa Denham (LD): The world of wine wasn’t always a popular business, especially 22 years ago!  In fact, American’s barely drank wine at that time, and many of my earlier customers didn’t realize that California produced wine.  Many thought that wine was only imported from France and Italy.  Very few knew where Chile and Argentina were located, and couldn’t imagine these countries as wine producers.

Most of my classmates at the University Of Texas School Of Business were determined to start their careers with large management consulting companies.  This seemed very mundane to me.  Studying in Geneva, Switzerland, during my penultimate year of college sparked a growing interest in wine.  I was fascinated by the casual day-to-day consumption, accompanying meals and stimulating conversations at local pubs. 

I was amazed at the great variety of wines from famous growing regions in Europe and the variation in quality from one vintage to the next.  I wanted to discover more, and was determined to turn this growing passion into an employment opportunity.   After I graduated from the University of Texas the following year, I was immediately hired by a wine importer and distributor in Austin.  Thus, beginning a long career and the prolonged discovery of this mystical, age-old, biblical elixir.


CP3: Wine can be found anywhere in the world. What are the Top 5 Wine-producing areas on the globe? 


LD: Wine production has been concentrated in Europe for the last few centuries.  According to the OIV (Organizacion Internacional du Vin), 62% of global wine production is concentrated in Europe.  Spain has over 1 million hectares of vineyards planted, however it does not produce as many kilos of grapes, nor as much wine as France and Italy, despite having more vines planted.  The US follows behind France, Italy and Spain. China is the fastest grower overtaking Australia and Argentina for 5th place in wine production.


CP3: Wine can be classified in many ways. What are the broad categories of wine?   


LD: The classification of wine is a continuous source of confusion for consumers, as wine is one of the most heterogeneous and complex products on a supermarket shelf.    Robert Mondavi simplified things when his company began labeling wines by the principle grape variety in the bottle.  For instance, if a Californian wine contains at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, it can be labeled as such. Classic French grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (denominated Shiraz by the Aussies), Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have dominated the US market for years.  Today, Italian varieties such as Pinot Grigio and Moscato are all the rage. 

Robert Mondavi was astute to teach consumers about the grape varieties, giving them a reference that was easy to identify and repeat the next time they wanted a similar experience.  Prior to promoting the varietal name on the label, consumers’ only reference was based on the Denomination of Origin, such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Cote du Rhone, etc.  Each of these Denominations of Origin has more specific denominations, such as Chablis in Burgundy, Margaux in Bordeaux, etc.  Hence, one must be an expert to understand what might possibly be in the bottle.  This highly complex and confusing categorization continues in Europe, giving New World Wines, with simple varietal labels an advantage by communicating basic information to consumers. 


CP3: Wine can also be classified in very specific ways, usually as Red or White, how do you drill down and categorize wine?


LD: Red, White, Rosé and Sparkling (often a White wine made from Red grapes) are the most basic categories.  The grape variety and origin are other important descriptors, that give a hint about the quality and potential style of a wine.  When pairing with food, it is important to identify the tannic structure, acidity, and body of a wine, i.e. soft or firm tannins (in red wines), crisp and fresh (usually referring to White wines) light, médium or full-bodied.  This categorization will help determine the suitability of a particular wine with the food it should be paired with, i.e. rich, fatty meat dishes normally require full-bodied wines with firm tannins to stand up to the food. 


CP3: Many of our Readers will make a Military-to-Civilian career transition. Although formal Military gatherings such as a Dining In/Dining Out offer chances to drink wine, working in the civilian world offers many chances to drink wine at meetings. At these meetings, undoubtedly someone at the table shares their knowledge about wine. What are some wine basics people should know?


LD: Wine knowledge is complicated and it can be a bit scary when the choice of the wines falls on one’s shoulders!  The first thing to remember is that practice make perfect!  It is important to experiment in a non-threatening environment, in order to develop one’s own taste and opinions about wine.  This makes it easier to recognize wines or grape varieties that you have experience with, in order to make more educated decisions and dinner conversation during important events. 


Learn to identify defects.  Cork taint is the most grievous defect!  It will smell like plastic Band Aid, after the wine has had a few minutes to open up in the glass. It is always helpful to ask for a second opinion before rejecting the wine.  If there is a doubt, don’t let your server rush you before you accept or reject the wine.


If help is available, take advantage of a knowledgable waiter or Sommelier.  Always double-check the price of the wine to make sure that they are not recommending THE most expensive alternative.  A good Sommelier will recommend different alternatives in different price ranges. 


(End of Part 1)

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