Meet Madeline Triffon, Master Sommelier at Plum Market.
Interviewed by Jackie Headapohl | Photography by Jerry Zolynsky
SEEN visited Madeline Triffon, the first American woman to be certified as a Master Sommelier who now practices her craft for the Plum Market high-end grocery chain. She also travels throughout the country teaching consumers and industry professionals about wine.
A second-generation Greek American, born in London, Conn., and schooled in Greece, Triffon came to Michigan at age 18 to live with her father and attend the University of Michigan. She had plans to go on to medical or law school but “literally tripped into the wine business on the basis of a good French accent.”
SEEN: How did your gift for accents trigger a career in wine?
MT: It was 1977 and, in those days, wine lists were predominantly French. I was hired to work in the formal French dining room at the Westin Hotel in Downtown Detroit. I think they wanted pretty women to serve wine, but we were also expected to know our stuff. So I began to teach myself. I went to as many tastings as I could, read everything I could get my hands on, talked with wine makers, import directors, etc.
It took me a while, but I became confident of my ability to judge quality. I don’t think I have a particular gift or talent. It’s the result of practice, like any other skill. I’m actually a walking-talking example of how the work can teach you. Eventually, I was put in charge of ordering wines for the hotel.
SEEN: Is that when you became certified as a Master Sommelier?
MT: I’m not an ambitious creature. I was entered into a national competition for the best French wine sommelier. I was the Midwest regional winner and placed fourth nationally. The next year I placed second. The year after that, in 1987, I was invited to take the Master Sommelier exam. I had no expectations. I was shocked when I passed on my first try.
SEEN: Did that open a lot of doors?
MT: Yes, the credential has been good to me, although I’ve never been able to rest on my laurels. I’ve spent the majority of my career in restaurants, such as the London Chop House and the Rattlesnake Club. I worked as the wine director for the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, at places like Duet and Coach Insignia, for 15 years. I was never married and never had kids so the restaurant lifestyle suited me. I like serving people. I love working with consumers.
Five years ago, I joined Plum Market. I think I was ready for a change. In my role here, I set up and execute events such as tastings, here in West Bloomfield and at the Chicago and Ann Arbor stores. I also do private events and help vet the wines. Even after all these years, I’m still not bored with tasting wine and finding good price-value wine for consumers.
SEEN: What drives you?
MT: I’m a passionate and active consumer advocate and am always looking for wines that represent terroir or sense of place, but they have to have a bridge to the consumer. Also, ever since I passed the MS exam, what has fueled me is to share my vision for how to prepare for the exam. I’ve served as the chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers in America and as scholarship chair and still participate in exams and courses.
I love hanging out with young people coming up in the industry. I ask myself what would I have wanted to be taught if I had had a mentor? Now I mentor others. It feels natural to give it away, to train others to exceed you.
SEEN: Why have you stayed in Detroit all these years?
MT: I was always able to find a good job in the wine business here. It’s never been dull. And everybody I love is here. I love the diversity of Metro Detroit. It feels like the pulse of America and I am proud to live here. If my wine career ended tomorrow, I would have a big smile on my face because I really feel that I’ve led a privileged professional existence.
SEEN: How has wine culture evolved since you got into the business?
MT: In the last 10 years, wine has infiltrated the American subconscious. It’s not just a special-occasion beverage anymore. Wine is now part of American everyday life. When people share wine, it doesn’t just dissolve barriers, it ignores them. It brings people together. NS
Join Madeline Triffon at one of Plum Market’s weekly themed wine tastings each Thursday. The events usually feature 10 wines and munchies for $20. Visit www.plummarket.com/events-at-the-winebar-west-bloomfield to see the upcoming schedule. Plum Market is located at 6565 Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield.