Jon McDaniel, What made you want to start a career in the wine industry?
I’ve been in wine since I was 21. I moved to Washington DC to go to undergrad and was going to basically take over the world. I say take over, not save the world. I was ready to take over the world and be in politics and law and all that. I delayed law school and realized that I really didn’t know anything about the world. I randomly got an offer to work at a wine shop after I quit my job being a lobbyist, and I was like, this is awesome! I grew up in a place where everyone looked and sounded exactly like me, and wine was just about people and places and all these things. I just had no idea what it was. It was the coolest thing in the world, and now 16, 17 years later, I still think it is the coolest thing in the world. The fact that I get paid to do this is just ridiculous. I feel like I’m scamming everybody. But still, I think that’s what it’s really about. I felt that kind of aha right from the very beginning, and I realized that’s the way I felt about wine and people and all that. I’ve never claimed to know the most, but I’m probably one of the most well-liked if you look at it that way from a consumer standpoint. I want people to enjoy their experience, and I don’t really care that you think I know the most, but you’re going to have a really great time engaging with me about wine at any level, whether it’s at $10 or $10,000 or anywhere in between.
What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
I would probably say something in the Vietnamese, Mosel, Riesling kind of a camp. Southeast Asian, Latin street food, basically if I could eat that all day long like that’s what I’d eat. I would just walk along the streets of Bangkok or Saigon or wherever in the world with a little sippy cup of Grosses Gewäch that’s the most heavenly thing I could possibly think of. Just the matching there, all the complex flavors and spices, and all that Riesling with a little fruit there. Still to this day, every time that I pair something like that, it’s just pretty incredible.
If you weren’t in the wine industry or hospitality, what other career do you think you would have been in?
My life goal since I was about eight years old was to be a corporate lawyer that drove a BMW. That was really where my life was going. From the first moment that you asked me what I wanted to be, it was going to be that. I realized I got convinced to not do that by people that were corporate lawyers and drove BMW’s. They said, “Hey, you’re going to hate your life.” I’d say, “Well, I don’t want to hate my life.” So that’s kind of how I backed out of it. I worked on the Hill in college and been kind of in that world very early on, and I realized that in the world of politics and law, there’s someone who will always think you are wrong and you will always be wrong to somebody. What’s great about the world of wine is that you can be right 99.9% of the time because it is so subjective; it’s just about your own opinions. I just look at where my life could have gone, and living in DC and that entire world versus where it is now, it’s just absolutely night and day. Or a professional trumpet player. That was the other thing. I did that through my mid-20s, and I’d work through the day, and I’d play in jazz clubs at night in DC, and I never liked to practice. I knew that was never going to be a thing, but if I liked to practice, I might be the next whatever type of Jazz player of the world.
You have received more stars than any other sommelier from the World of Fine Wine Magazine, what do those stars mean to you?
You know, I think that the way that you look at those stars, it’s kind of like the Michelin Star for wine. That’s like what their whole shtick is about. None of my programs that I’ve written, none of the wine lists I’ve ever written would be considered fancy or there’s nobody that’s going to come and be like you have the most amazing Bordeaux collection of all time. That has never been my goal. The restaurants that I’ve always worked at, maybe only one of them, I think was a white table cloth, everywhere else has kind of been business casual, and that’s kind of been my wheelhouse. The important thing to me about that, other than the fact that I was just running a lot of good wine programs, is that you can be recognized for having a good wine program without it being crazy expensive or crazy complicated. You can have a hundred bottle wine list that is one of the best wine lists in the world. That’s what I kind of strive for is that you can come Tuesday night and have a $50 bottle of wine, or you can come on a special occasion and have a $500 bottle of wine. I think that’s really what a lot of these very intense wine programs miss out on. The very intense restaurants miss out on what we are seeing now, you need to be comfortable; you need to have that ability. People don’t want to go through the process anymore. I think that’s the approachability of it, the ease of how you read it, how you interact with the wine list and with the staff. I think that that is what really meant to me; you can be recognized for having a great wine list without it being something only the 1% can reasonably spend money on.
What drove you to create Second City Soil?
I was working in restaurants probably about 100 hours a week, and I’ve always said I’ve always been my own best PR agent. When you look at kind of all the things that have happened and my recognitions or whatever you want to call them, it really all started with me going to New York and knocking on every publications door and saying, “You’re never going to come into my restaurant because it’s never going to be a Michelin Star whatever, but we’re doing cool stuff.” So that was really how it all started in my head, and being here in Chicago, our recognition as a world-class food city is not on the same plane as being a world-class wine city. It’s a blue-collar city, and our operators of restaurants always recognize it’s a celebrity chef city. It’s not a celebrity Sommelier city. So it really started as a blog even before it was a company. It was just I wanted to write about my friend’s restaurants and wine programs and what they are doing cool here in the city. Then after I won the food and wine thing, I kind of realized why am I managing a restaurant at one o’clock in the morning when I could be out there doing better for the wine community. That was really when I said I need to step away from the restaurants. I already had the brand, I already had the company, I already had the name. My intention was just I want to help promote the Chicago wine scene. I thought I’d be able to do that through helping other restaurants develop their programs. Then I realized that restaurant operators that don’t want to spend money on a Sommelier, don’t want to spend money on a sommelier that’s not on the floor. So then it kind of turned into what it is today. Wineries that don’t know what’s happening in Chicago, I get called every day, “hey, what’s happening in Chicago” and then it expanded to “what’s happening in the Midwest,” and then that expanded to “what’s happening in the U.S.” That’s really kind of what the company has always evolved into, just helping connect people that could be connecting wineries to consumers or Sommelier with wineries and organizations. You know that was really the infamous first starting the company, it was just I’ve always been able to network well and build connections, you know; I know there is a market for that our there.
What do you look for when you procure wines for your restaurants or brands you represent?
I think the most important thing about that is that every wine list that I write or every kind of relationship for every brand that I work with; is like my career its very autobiographical, so it has some sort of tie to, I know the producer, I’ve been to the winery, there’s some sort of relationship there, it’s not just a cold call like “Hey, let’s work together, and I’m going to take your money.” It’s not really about that for me. I really look at my job as I represent a bunch of friends. To think that when you look at a wine list, I’ve written, you can kind of compare from all over. It doesn’t matter if you have an Italian restaurant or steak house; you need a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for example. People are just going to ask. I don’t care; I got to work harvest in New Zealand with a producer called Wairau River, so the only New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that you will find on any list that I write or brand that I work with is that one. Just because that is the one I love. When you look, you kind of have to fill one of those gaps of different brands and producers you work with, and I’m a very loyal person when it comes to this. I have brands that I work with for 10, 15 years, and those are the ones that have not only just a personal relationship, but also I’ve made so many customers, so many guests taste those wines, and it always worked out, so why change that? And I mean, they’ve always held up in great values. The people that I work with are because of the people, and the wine kind of comes second.
The United Sommeliers Foundation, you are a founding member, what made you want to be a part of it?
I never want to tell Cristie Norman ‘no’. No, just kidding! When all of this stuff started and when you look at when 2020 started, this was during the second week of February; I came back from Vinexpo, and I looked at my projections for the year, and I’m like, “I’m screwed this year!” I’m a consultant, and my livelihood is the least important thing to a winery because my compensation kind of fits under marketing; however, you want to look at it. And all of those things related to tariffs at the beginning last year was they were kind of cutting extraneous expense, so I looked at 2020, and I’m going “OK, well, I’m kind of in trouble.” Then when we started moving into COVID world, and virtual, those are things that I was already doing anyway so I finished 2020 about 250% up from where I thought I was going to be. This is just giving you a frame of reference as to why I did this.
Kind of going back to why I started my company was really to help those around me. I have never tried to put myself like I need to be a mentor to justify my career or anything, but I love helping people around me because I think it’s the right thing to do, and I want to support my friends. As COVID started and as restaurants closed, I saw my friends all over the country, and they were losing hours. The Sommelier position, (which was dying out anyway), is about being a manager that hey, we’ll let you do the wine list. It’s a benefit, it’s not helping anything in the restaurant. I saw the writing on the wall that this was going to be a problem for a really long time, and the only way we can survive this as an industry is to help support each other. That’s what I’ve always seen the foundation being is a way to protect our industry. By protecting our members, whether you are a Sommelier or a Wine Director, or you are a street rep for Southern Wine and Spirits, whatever it may be if a Sommelier position were to just disappear, then the storytellers for small producers disappear. It will only be dominated by; every restaurant will have Kendall Jackson Chardonnay’s as their by the glass Chardonnay because it will be the only one left. So when you look at why I, along with a great team of people who started this foundation, is really to protect our friends, protect the people around us that have helped us in our careers that we work with every day. The Sommelier position is one of the most important positions in the restaurant because it actually helps the restaurant with profitability. We’re always spending time talking about theory and blind tasting and stuff and reading so many of these applications that say, “I’ve spent my life savings trying to become a Master Sommelier, but yet my mortgage is due, and now I don’t have the money for my mortgage” we literally had to do something. They are supported by a lot of really great partners, wineries, supporters, and just private citizens that have just said, “you know we want to because we love sommeliers and we love the wine profession, and we need to do something about it.” That’s what we’re trying to do every day.
You have your own California wine label, how did that come about?
I moved to Los Olivos, California, and I ran the restaurant; so if you’ve seen the movie Sideways when they have the double date scene and Miles gets really drunk and prank phone calls his wife, I ran that restaurant. It was arguably the most important wine list in the Central Coast before I got there. It’s in this little town of Los Olivos, and it was a wine list of about 350 bottles at the time; when I left two years later, it had 1,200 bottles, and that was really because I made friends with every winemaker and said “OK I’m going to help you and support your wines.” What that also will do is give you this opportunity for these winemakers and say like, “Hey, if you ever want to make wine like just come hang out, and I’ll give you some fruit.” “OK, sure!” And that’s really how it started was with a couple of different winemakers saying, “Hey, you know what, if you ever want to do your own thing, we have the equipment, just pay us for the labor to pick the fruit you can have the fruit, and we’ll work out a deal.” That’s how that all started. So Amos cellars was born. 2009 was a perfect vintage, and so I did 09 and 10 and took a couple of years off, and I’ve done off and on. I also did a label under Second City Soil as a project here in Chicago. It’s kind of like you wear a different hat when you do that; you know it’s a totally different kind of vibe when you’re making wine versus selling wine. It’s always been something that if I have the time to do it, I can, it’s just been few and far between, but it always has been something that has been fun. It’s “hey, I have a friend that has some fruit this year, maybe you can make a ton of it,” and it’s a barrel or whatever. It’s always been really small production. I’ve always sold it out before the wine has even been made, which is nice. I’m looking at a bottle here in my closet, but I think I maybe have three cases of it to my name. The rest of it has just been sold every year, which I guess is a nice thing because I never really have to sell it. It’s like, I have a list of people who want to know when it’s released, and it’s released, and it’s gone in about two hours, and I make more next year.
I’ve heard you are starting a new project, The Vine Hive. Can you tell me more about that?
Yeah, it’s funny; I started that and on March 16th is when the paperwork was filed, then the world shut down on the 17th, so a lot has happened since then, and I’ve kind of put that on the back burner for now and worked on different things. I work on a really cool winery called Scout and Cellar, which is direct to consumer, and as their head of wine education, it’s kind of my main project, but The Vine Hive will be resurrected sometime in the near future. It’s funny, when you look at Second City Soil, I didn’t have any people to look at and say, “oh, I want to do what they do.” Second City Soil was basically created out of nowhere, and I didn’t have any kind of peers to look at. Since then, especially now in COVID times, a lot of Sommeliers are out of work and their trying consulting or direct relationships of some sort or another, and they really don’t have a mentor to go to or kind of an umbrella to operate under. They kind of are on their own island. So the romantic view of the Vine Hive would be this kind of umbrella company that if Eric in Atlanta, Alicia in St. Louis, and Danny in Texas all wanted to try their hat at consulting, at the same time I get offers all the time for national contracts and all sort of certain things I can then say, “Hey, Danny in Texas, can you work on this project for me and we will all work under The Vine Hive so it would be a way to look at this. I know you know Eric Segelbaum too, we have talked about this kind of idea since he started his company and I started mine about a year before him, and then I remember we were on a bus in Germany, and he basically attacked me and said, “Please tell me how you do what you do because I want to do that, too.” So The Vine Hive would be like the Marvel Avengers of wine consultants, like just this weird collection of people from all over the country that just want to tell stories about wine and help connect people the way that now the consultant world is growing to do that. It’s just a bunch of busy bees in a hive, and I know that’s quirky and stupid, but that’s kind of where that came from.
Want to learn more? Jon McDaniel will be featured throughout the month of February 2021. Check out this week’s recommendations here!
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