Philippe André! We’re so excited to have you in May on our Somm Set; We have had our eye on you ever since we started this program back in August!
Well, thank you. I really, really am proud to partner with you guys and to bring some awareness to the work that we’re doing for our community and at the same time showcase some great wines that you guys have in stock.
We’re excited to hear what you have to say about our inventory! We’ll be hearing a lot from you regarding your passion and what you love to drink aside from Champagne. So, let’s get this started; why don’t you walk us through how you got into wine?
Yeah, so I grew up in the restaurant business. When I say that I was literally a restaurant brat, I mean it. After grade school, junior high, and high school, there were many times where I was at my family’s restaurant. My parents ran a small business that we still have to this day. We celebrated 32 years which we’re very proud of; the restaurant is called Oceanique. We’re in Evanston, which is about 20 minutes North of Chicago.
Growing up in the small business world, more importantly, in the hospitality world, understanding that people come into our doors, which is our home, that they’re our guests. And so, I saw from an early age the dedication and patience it takes to run a small business focused around hospitality.
When I became of age to get more involved with the business, I washed dishes, I bused tables. When I got my driver’s license, I started valeting. Anything I could ever do to help support the family, but more importantly, make an extra buck, I was doing it. While I was in school, I realized that was not my passion or direction that I wanted to go in. So, I left school and came back and took a more formal role with the family business.
I learned everything when it came to the front-of-the-house service. And I realized that there was a big gap in wine service at our restaurant. My father had been investing heavily for decades in our cellar, but there wasn’t a formal wine director or Sommelier.
He was doing it all, wine included, but he’s also the head Chef and the owner. So, for a chef who cooks on the line every night to be the Sommelier, it was challenging for him to be obviously hands-on with our guests. So, it seemed to me as an obvious opportunity for me to grow my passion for hospitality and invest time into learning about wine, which I found came naturally to me. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the regions and obviously the producers. I always talk about that was my, that was my library.
If you go to go to the library every day, you’re going to read a few books, and I got to learn on the job. But that was an incredible start of my career that my parents allowed me to run with it. As I showed them my dedication and passion for learning and growing our business, more and more was available to me. And in our peak, we had over 1300 different wine selections, which I was proud to be able to manage. And our Somm Team was very dedicated to learning and sharing these wines with our guests. So we were; we were firing on all cylinders. I think that I was proud to build and grow, which still kind of lives on to this day.
I did see a point where I realized that I wanted to focus more on wine and see what else was out there in the wine industry. I had to leave the family business to get my hands dirty.
I moved out to Oregon to apprentice as a winemaker, and while I was there, I got an opportunity to come back to Chicago and work for a wine auction house, which was a way for me to see another side of the business that I was very intrigued with. I knew some of them because we would buy a lot of wine at auction. I saw that world, but to be invited into that kind of industry and that side of things was very different from what I was used to. It was a nine-to-five job. So, sitting at a desk but communicating with clients and collectors all over the world, which I know you guys at Benchmark know very well.
I saw how my hospitality background and my wine knowledge came together in such a unique role for that type of experience, which I like to say was like Grad School for me. Working in the auction world, now tasting wines back to the ’20s and ’30s from the top producers, things that as a Sommelier, you only would dream of- to be able to taste a tasting note from an old book that’s been out and published for a decade or so. And you’re like, wow, I can try to imagine what 1919 Bordeaux tastes like. And then, we’re doing a dinner around that vintage with collectors that are flying in from all over the world. So that was, again, a different show. That was a big show for sure.
So, I left the auction world to pursue the industry of Imports. I started working for a world-renowned Importer of Champagne and Cognac, and I loved that aspect because I was able to tie back my connection with the restaurant business. I was managing the company for the Chicago market focusing on the top restaurants. That tied in a lot of my hospitality experience and connections with the restaurant business and getting back to my first love of all wine regions: Champagne. And so that for me was like, okay, now I can see what this world is like. I can see what some of the top producers in the region of Champagne are doing to market their brands to grow their connections with the community. And at the same time be a leader in the industry. That, for me, was, again, another step in my professional career to see how I think the big guys do it and do it well, but also to learn some of the challenges it takes to work in a large company. I wanted to have a little more control of our business and control what I wanted to do. I’m a small business guy at heart growing up in the restaurant business. I felt like my ideas and aspirations for creativity and business growth was, unfortunately, I think, lost in the fold in a large corporation. So when I received the call from the family that owns Charles Heidsieck, I was blown away and flattered that they would think of me to essentially relaunch the brand and take charge of a Champagne house.
So, here I was a kid from Evanston: I’m moving to New York now to take over this historic Champagne House and to be in charge and to drive the race car, so I saw it right away as an opportunity to say, okay, look, we have a Ferrari, and now we have a Ferrari driver and let’s see what we can do on the track with the big guys. We did it, and more importantly (it was a crazy first 15 months), but we had incredible results in the first year. And it just showed that building the connection with the community with superb wines that we have at Charles Heidsieck is a match made in heaven.
Wow. We have to know, what was the Champagne that got you in the direction of just being this Champagne guy?
Yeah, I mean, I think back to one of the first experiences with Champagne that really blew me away. One night I bought two bottles of Champagne from our family Cellar at the restaurant; I didn’t know anything about really, either of them. One was vintage and one was a non-vintage Blanc de Blancs. The non-vintage Blanc de Blancs was from a grower Waris-Larmandier Blanc de Blancs, a beautiful property and very, very angular mineral style Chardonnay. I opened that bottle first because it was the non-vintage (and again, this is the very beginning of my dive into Champagne, not understanding the regions or just the diversity of the region itself).
I was not really happy with the wine when I first opened it. So, I put it aside, and I decided to open the other bottle: Laurent Perrier 1995 Brut (the black label). I was absolutely blown away by that wine. I thought it was incredible. It was decadent. It was rich. It was everything that a young, I believe, learning wine drinker would want to see and that that right away caught my attention. I found that the bottle quickly disappeared in my glass, and I needed something else.
So I went back to the NV. Now that my palate had had some wine on it and by that time that the other bottle was open for an hour or so, it was completely different. It had much more fruit. I saw the decadence. I saw the complexity, and I was just so baffled how that wine, for me, at first was so closed and shut down, and in an hour, it changed just like any other great wine from Montrachet or Vosne Romanee or from Bordeaux. I was like, well, Champagne can be just like a great wine, so why is that? I went to the library that we have at our restaurant, which is pretty robust with wine books and a lot of knowledge that my father has collected, and I grabbed a book, an encyclopedia, and then I also found a book on Champagne, specifically, and I spent that entire night just reading all I could on Champagne. And then, of course, it led on into other regions to have a greater understanding.
I was probably 20 at the time when it happened. So that was the very beginning. I always tell people it’s like I started with my first love. And so, it’s so incredible that I get a chance to focus on it every day, and it never gets old.
Right. Do you feel like Willamette Valley, in particular, spoke to you in terms of wanting to go and learn the soil and doing an apprenticeship there that paralleled your love of Champagne and Burgundy?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think I’m a little biased. I fell in love with Oregon the first time I went, and when I had the opportunity to go back and the apprentice later that year, I really couldn’t say no. From my perspective at the time, I was still very much learning about Oregon; this was back in 2013; I just really thought of Oregon for Pinot Noir. So, when I went out there, and I saw all these other varieties, and I was like, wow, this is incredible. The Pinot Gris is outstanding, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, that you usually don’t see in every market produced by these top names- all we see is their Pinot Noir. All these other white varieties, or different red varieties like Meunier or Gamay, things that I was so fascinated with.
So, what I love was diving into those varieties, diving into the region. What I saw right away is site-specificity and vintage variation, which told me that this is a very viable and real wine-growing region. I think we often sometimes always say, ‘oh well, this is a great year!’ which, yes, you could look at some other regions, and they are consistently putting out great years. Still, as a wine lover and as a Sommelier, I learned a lot about Bordeaux and Burgundy early on those vintage variations; those differences are so fascinating to me. If a wine is the same every year, that’s incredible, and that’s amazing for the producer. But for me, as a wine lover and the style that I want, I want to see the differences from year to year.
That’s something that I think some wineries try not to do. And then some wineries say, look, this is our site. We don’t have a choice; we have to be different every year because every year IS different. So, to see the community in Oregon embrace that, I was blown away. The second thing for me, which was a massive marker of quality, was being able to try some of those wines with age. So, going back to the ’70s and ’80s of Oregon, I was blown away even with the white varieties. That’s how I fell in love with Oregon.
Where was your apprenticeship in Oregon?
I was in McMinnville at a property called Momtazi Estate, and they make a wine called Maysara. It’s a family-owned property. It’s all biodynamic, a small business, very much like what I grew up with. It was incredible to see- that was the harvest of 2013, which was the tsunami vintage, a fascinating year! Right before harvest, it rained, and we had to put off harvest by a couple of weeks to let the water evaporate and to let the grapes settle down. They immediately sucked up the rain and swelled.
So there were issues with what’s called rain split, where the grapes literally burst because they’ve absorbed too much water. It was a very difficult year, but we made incredible wine. And I think when you look at Oregon 2013, right now, the wines are really starting to show very well and are coming around.
A lot of people will want it to, I think, speak poorly about the vintage. But what I love about it is resilience. Many of the winemakers that I talked with from that year, the ones that did great, got great fruit, and it wasn’t for everybody. It was a challenging year for many folks. That again reminds me of another region that I adore, which is Burgundy and obviously Champagne. We have a very hellish region that we grow grapes, in Champagne. And that’s why we master the blending because we can’t always make a vintage wine every year. It seems almost when you look at how to make it, what it takes us to make wine in Champagne, it’s almost easy to make a vintage wine. It’s harder to make a non-vintage wine for us.
You were also in Willamette for another reason in 2013, too, right?
I was there for Pinot camp (which you know very well about), and that’s what was my first toe in the water of Oregon. I was blown away by that experience. It’s an incredible glimpse into the community. Pinot camp is an annual retreat for Sommeliers and wine professionals to come up to the Valley. I think there are about 50 properties that all kind of pull the resources to welcome these, the ‘Campers’ as we’re called, to have an in-depth look at the Valley over a short period, I think three days. And in that time, it was like speed dating. You got to see all these producers and have excellent direct access to all the properties and the winemakers., I took advantage of it, and I got everybody’s cell phone numbers, and I texted everybody, and I actually ended up staying a week after Pinot camp. So, it was fun to have the camp experience and then to drive around and see everybody on my own time to spend a little to do some barrel tasting, we’d walk the properties, walk the vineyards. And sometimes you just post up and get tacos and a beer with people. That way, I was able to really experience the culture and the community. And I was just so blown away by how genuine and honest everybody was, but more importantly, how welcoming they were for showing behind closed doors, like, “Hey, you want to taste from these barrels?” I think in other regions, they’re always like, well, do you have an appointment?
Who is your distributor? Who set up your appointment? And in Oregon, it was like, I’m texting people. And they’re like, yeah, come on. And let’s taste, and I was just charmed by that experience.
You can’t beat a bunch of yellow school buses driving around with some of the top wine professionals in the country. I love the character of it there- you have to be a little crazy to make wine a great wine. And it shows in Oregon; I think everyone behind those labels, there’s always a couple of crazy characters. And I absolutely agree with that because I’ll tell you at Charles Heidsieck, we’ve got a lot of great characters. You’re looking at one and what’s incredible is that we celebrate it.
Throughout my first year with Charles, I was like, I’m so, so honored that you found me, and they’re like, no, no, no, we’re honored that we found you! It was a match made in heaven from the beginning, literally a dream come true to be.
So, you are currently still with Charles Heidsieck, but now you have a little more responsibility and a new role, is that right?
So, last year we invested heavily in our business here in the US, and our owner Christopher Descours joined in partnership with our importer, which is FOLIO Fine Wine Partners, which was founded by Michael Mondavi. And so now Christopher Descours and Michael Mondavi are both partners in the import company. We now have excellent access to 35 family-owned properties that we import from all over the world here to the US, so we’re excited to have Charles Heidsieck even more integrated into that community and to be able to share those passionate wines with all of our Charles Heidsieck lovers in the US. It’s a fun, new direction, and more importantly, it just shows the investment that Christopher is willing to commit to us. This opportunity is the most excellent seal of approval from him and the work that our team has done here in such a short period.
Well deserved! Congratulations! So, when you’re not sipping on Champagne, what are you sipping on? I guess Burgundy, right?
I drink a lot of Burgundy, I was tasting with a group of Collectors and Sommeliers over the weekend, and we haven’t gotten together in quite some time. So, it was a great way to just see everybody again. And we were talking about Burgundy, vintage 15, and how accessible it is. And I was just like, I haven’t tasted the 15’s. I haven’t tasted young Burgundy in so long because I’m not a buyer anymore. I don’t get to go to the trade tastings, so I’m still out of the loop. I’m so used to just buying for myself.
And when I do, I’m going straight to like the oldest, oldest wine I can find for my budget because I know that I want to drink it now I’m so impatient. So, I do love Burgundy when I can afford it.
I lean more towards White Burgundy personally, again if I can afford it, but I love Riesling. I find Riesling in my glass a lot. I love exploring Northern Italy as well. My sister’s name is Gaja, actually, so that property is something that my father always has been proud to have on our wine list and at our dinner table; I also love the Rhone Valley, as well.
And what I’ve loved is exploring your guys’ inventory. I mean, last year, I did some reading, and I took my time to build up a few cases. And when they all arrived, I felt like Christmas came early! Right when the weather was starting to get a little bit cooler, it was perfect. I had waited four or five months, anxiously getting excited about building the boxes, and your team was incredible and putting it all together and getting it to me safely; it was so awesome to see some wines that had a considerable amount of age with that were very affordable. I just opened the oldest bottle that I bought from you guys, an 1896 Port, that, I mean, I had no idea what to expect, and of course, with a bottle of wine, it’s 125 years old.
I opened it over the weekend with this group that I was with, and we were all floored. It was the wine of the night for sure. We had a cigar with it, so it was like the perfect way to kind of end the night. At the same time, we were celebrating, “Hey, we’re back! We’re getting back together after Covid!” It was incredible to have a special bottle like that. So, thank you guys at Benchmark for doing the work to find some of the greatest wines in the world and making them accessible to our community.
It’s our pleasure! So, with your busy lifestyle, you’ve also found time lately to be a tremendous driving force in the United Sommelier Foundation.
Yeah, so the United similes foundation was created about a year ago by two industry leaders that I’m so proud to be associated with. Christie Norman, our President, and our buddy DJ Vitamix, my man, Chris Blanchard, Master Sommelier (a legend in the industry). To have the two of them leading the charge and say, look, we need to do something more significant for our community, and it all started on a go-fund-me.
And then it became this actual foundation built to get us through what was probably the most devastating thing to the hospitality industry ever, which was COVID.
It was created in that response, but we also realized that we have a greater responsibility to the future of our industry and our profession as wine professionals. It’s called the United Sommeliers foundation, but I think for us, we all want it to define a Somm as somebody that works with wine like a professional and shares the hospitality and educating consumers like tasting room managers. People that work at wineries for sure are in that category. We wanted to make sure that it was accessible to folks because we realized this is not just about certified sommeliers.
This is about wine professionals at all levels that honestly, in our eyes, Sommeliers are the first ones let go from a restaurant program when things are difficult like they have been. They’re also the last ones to be brought back on. Things are slowly starting to reopen here in Chicago, indoor dining is still in a limited capacity, but we’re excited to get people out. So, we’re very fortunate to have a great crew, a great board, and then I’m honored to sit on it with some talented individuals and that we’ve been able to raise almost a million dollars in just a year for our community. That has been incredible and so rewarding to see the fruits of our labor. Still, more importantly, the support, the vast majority of our community in terms of distributors, importers, and suppliers directly donating funds that go to paying the bills of sommeliers: medical bills, car payments, anything we can do to help them stay afloat in this challenging time. As we know, there’s, government assistance has been there, but maybe sometimes not as easily accessible.
It’s been incredible in such a short period of time. We’re proud to keep going, and we’re looking forward to not only this year but also the future of the USF and growing in support of Sommeliers and the wine professionals so that whatever the next challenge is, we’ll be there.
I’m honored to serve, and it’s been an exceptional thing for me. The ability to give back is something that we all, I think, have within ourselves, but last year it was such an emotional year on many levels that, for me, I realized that it was so rewarding. I felt in many ways that I was on the sidelines, very much working from home and doing what I could to keep our business afloat. At the same time, I saw a lot of my friends and peers that were at the top of their game, being sidelined and restricted from doing their profession.
Anything I could do to support them and keep them staying focused on getting through the challenge was a priority, and I’m so very proud to continue that fight with our community.
Want to learn more? Philippe André will be featured throughout the month of May 2021. Check out this week’s recommendations here!
Established in 2002, Benchmark Wine Group is the leading source of fine and rare wine retailers, restaurants, and collectors around the world. Based in Napa Valley, we acquire the most sought-after wines from private individuals and professional contacts, but only when provenance can be verified by our team of acquisition professionals. Our staff draws on decades of industry experience and is dedicated to providing exceptional service to all of our clients. Benchmarkwine.com offers 24-hour access to our cellar, displaying inventory in real-time.