Winemaker André Mack
Winemaker André Mack is one of the most unconventional personalities and craftsman in a traditionally staid industry, with a manic creative streak and an ultra cool delivery that defies the dusty stereotypes that often define it. Under his label Maison Noir Wines, he pairs an authentic urban vibe with well-crafted Oregon wines, a paradox that few, if any, could pull off. Then there’s the killer line of original T-shirt designs that bridge the street culture of his youth - punk, hip-hop, and skateboarding - with wine geek nomenclature.
Before embarking on the winemaking-artist path, Mack worked at restaurants in his home state of Texas, eventually becoming a sommelier, which led him to the prestigious position of working at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, and later as the head sommelier at Keller’s Per Se in New York City.
Mack was our wine sponsor for Shindig No. 9, showcasing his popular O.P.P. pinot gris and pinot noir. The Journal caught up with him to talk about his path to winemaking, inadvertently becoming a graphic designer, his family’s forthcoming Brooklyn restaurant, and the neverending hustle behind it all.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How long have you been making wine and how did you first get into it?
I've been making wine for about 10 years now. I got into wine essentially by watching old episodes of Frasier. Watching that show gave me the courage to walk into a wine store to buy wine or to ask questions about wine.
That's amazing. How did it give you the courage to do that?
Because wine's a big scary thing. I didn't grow up drinking wine. No one in my family drank wine. No one I knew drank wine. By watching these two pompous assholes on television talk about, wax about and put wine on a pedestal, it made me laugh at them. They were making fun of themselves. That made me feel comfortable enough to go into a store and say, "I want to have wine as a part of my life." Then the next phase of that was just kind of catching the wine bug working at a steakhouse, and the rest is history.
You left Per Se and started making wine shortly after that?
That is correct. I left yearning to have more wine in my life. When I say that to people, they’re like, "But you were the sommelier at one of the best restaurants in the world." Yes, I was, but we had five other sommeliers that worked for me and I didn't get to touch wine in the way that I used to. I found that I spent much of my day managing people. That just wasn't fun.
Sommeliers are more akin to curators than we are creatives in that sense. They collect different things, they put them on the list. They know a lot of things about the stories and the things behind the wine. I felt like there wasn't a lot of creativity and I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
I wanted to create something and to continue to learn about wine, and for me, the best way to do that was to make my own. It was really kind of stop and start for three years. I had a little bit of money to do something and then that kind of dried up and I had to go back and work for somebody. Then in 2010, when my son was born, I quit, and I haven't worked for anybody else. I've been doing 100% my wine stuff since then.
By wine stuff, you mean also label design, T-shirts and marketing visuals. A lot of your visual creativity kind of came out of necessity because you didn't have the money to hire a graphic designer, so you just taught yourself how to do it.
Absolutely. I think graphic design has been creeping along with me for awhile. When I quit Per Se, I was like Okay, we'll just hire someone to make labels for us. We got estimates of $25,000 for a label. I was like, I don't have $25,000 for the wine, let alone labels. I kind of freaked out and thought, You know what? I'll do it on my own. I bought a used MAC for 200 bucks off of Craigslist, because it seemed like the most creative people on the planet used Apple, you know?
The maitre d’ at Per Se, her boyfriend worked for Adobe, and he gave me the whole Adobe Creative Suite for 175 bucks. I just stared at the screen for months at a time trying to figure it all out. How I got better was I designed T-shirts. T-shirts were a way that we could generate revenue, but more importantly, we could drive traffic to the Maison Wine website, because at that point we weren't set up for direct to consumer wine sales.
As the Mouton Noir, aka Black Sheep, you approach the business differently. How do you approach winemaking that’s different from established traditions?
We wanted to make food-friendly wines. My whole background is restaurants. I worked for chefs where it was always about food first. The chef is screaming at the top of his lungs. "I need fucking hands! Everybody to the kitchen! I need fucking hands right now!"
People aren't coming into the kitchen so he walks out and he turns his head and he sees one of the sommeliers at the decanting station and he starts screaming. "I said I need fucking hands!" The sommelier turns to him and says, "Chef, I'm decanting '61 Latour." The chef says, "I don't give a fuck.” By that time I walk into the kitchen and say, "I'll walk the plate, Chef. And yes, you do care. We just comped the food and that one bottle of wine is $16,000.”
That's the kind of environment that I came from. For us, it’s always, you sit down, you choose what food you’re going to have and then we select the wine. So I wanted to make what I call food-friendly style wines. Wines that are not only transparent and honest and truly speak of the place that they come from, but wines that aren't tricked out on oak, are too ripe or high in alcohol. Because those things interfere with wine pairing with food. The common thread in those wines is acidity.
I say it all the time, acid is an amplifier. The reason why you put salt on food and lemon on seafood is to really crank up the flavors of the dish. How we make the wine, that approach is what really makes us different.
Because it's universal across all your wines.
Correct. Even when you drink our heavier red wine blend, Horseshoes & Handgrenades, those wines are really approachable, they're really soft, they're balanced. With those particular grapes - syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot - you don't necessarily associate them with really great acid, but this wine has that for sure.
It seems you're constantly on the road. Are you your only salesman?
Yeah. I really like being on the road. I'm a people person. I really like to travel, eat out, and so being on the road really helps me be in touch with that. And I want to get frontline responses to the gatekeepers, which are the buyers, and to the end user, the consumers. Being able to get out on the road and get in front of people, to be able to tell my story firsthand resonates. And I can say that I know Ann or that I know Joe and be able to look those people in the eyes who purchase our product or who's been supporting us over the years and to say thank you. They've really changed my life and my family's life.
You have your hands in so many projects and creative endeavors but surely some of your ideas get discarded. How do you decide which ones to pursue?
I generally go all in. I'm a firm believer in showing proof of concept. We live in a world where everybody tells you that this won't work at the onset and my belief is never that. My belief is, I can make it work.
I can be walking down the stairs at our brownstone talking to my wife and I get an idea, then I turn around and walk right back upstairs to my office. Five weeks later I've created the world's first culinary coloring book.
You don't waste time.
No, just relentless. The day I got that idea for the coloring book, I probably didn't sleep for three or four days. I just went all in, creating the look, coming up with the content, doing different things and kind of going that route. Then ultimately understanding what I wanted it to be.
You and your wife, Phoebe Damrosch, are opening a restaurant this fall. Can you tell us about that?
It's called & Sons. It's America's sons, it's the sons on the block, it's my sons. It's about legacy and heritage and things being passed down from generation to generation. We're calling it an American Ham Bar. It's a celebration of American food culture and history. American charcuterie, American cheese, and old American wine. It’s in our neighborhood, Prospect-Lefferts Garden in Brooklyn.
We like to ask all our interviewees this last question. When did you first discover your own sense of fashion and personal style?
Wow, man, that's an interesting question for me to think about. I'd say it was eighth grade. I spent the first 15 summers of my life living in Trenton, New Jersey. My parents didn't want me to forget where I came from, so no matter where we were living out in the world, I would venture back every summer and live with my aunt.
I would go there from Texas wearing GH Bass and dock shoes. Then I would adopt what they were wearing that summer in New Jersey. Then I'd come back to Texas and school would start and everybody's like, "Wow, where'd you get that?" Because it was a huge difference of what was happening on the east coast than it was in Texas.
How does that carry through today?
You go through phases and I think that's what's really cool about personal style. At 21 I had a huge collection of Hermès bow ties. My mom was like, "Man, you're dressed like an old white man." Bow ties were my thing back then.
Now it's really about comfort and things that are well made, that will stand the test of time. And the mashup of the vintage T-shirt and Japanese selvage denim. The high and the low.