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Why Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon Left Detroit Restaurant Icons for Plum Market

Triffon talks budget bottles, a career in wine, and the specialty grocery chain.

Madeline Triffon.
Madeline Triffon.

Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon knows service. It's one of the areas of testing on the Court of Master Sommeliers exam, which she passed in 1987, becoming the second woman in the world to do so. After bartending as a University of Michigan student, Madeline's career path continued in service: First in Detroit's restaurant industry, at such iconic restaurants as London Chop House and The Rattlesnake Club, and now with specialty grocery chain Plum Market.

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in wine?
[My] core of passion is to serve. Wine gave me a way that was interesting and natural. Wine in isolation isn't the draw. The consumer needs to be in play.

How did you educate yourself on wine before deciding to take the Master Sommelier Exam?
At the age of 21, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool with a white tablecloth job in Renaissance Center. I was terrified for the first two to three years, but the job taught me how to present [wine] to guests, and what effective language to use to present it. I entered a few competitions prior to the exam, and that helped me manage my nerves. It's best to learn to taste with someone who knows what they're doing— otherwise, it's easy to be sloppy. Assessing quality is a different skill set than knowing a lot on the subject. If you pay attention to wine, it will teach you.

If you pay attention to wine, it will teach you.

When you pursued the exam, were you aware that you would only be the second woman ever to pass if successful?
I was invited ten years after I started [in the industry] and every minute of all prior competitions and work experience came into play. [It was] sweat equity. I read everything I could get my hands on. In 1987, simply not that many women were pursuing [the exam]. There were no barriers; colleagues were supportive. It was about being credible and working hard. Today, it gives me cheerful pause that I can be encouraging to others. Makes me happy!

What drew you to Plum Market?
It was an opportunity to work with the owners of the business, Marc and Matt Jonna. I knew the family and that they were service focused. The grocery offers natural, organic, local and specialty items, including an extensive wine selection. When I went to the stores, I noticed the beauty of the stores, the cleanliness, the aromas, the eye contact and the helpful service. They value work ethic and guest relations— they refer to their customers as ‘guests'— and they are responsive to their guests.

What is your favorite part about your job?
We have the consumer in mind when making our store wine selection. The team is made up of both experienced and fresh faces. Every store is unique, with products tailored to the neighborhood [Bloomfield, West Bloomfield, Ann Arbor, Chicago]. There is a wine team leader at each store, and I have my "Mad Picks" which are a hug from me. I don't phone it in, meaning If I pick it, I love it.

Before I came, Plum Market had already been holding wine tastings at West Bloomfield (they have an on-site wine bar) every Thursday. Ten wines with light snacks, such as charcuterie and cheese. We try to make the tastings interesting with special importers, blind tastings, exploring a region or varietal. You can pre-register but it's not required. We have a base of regulars and new folks too, singles, 20-somethings, couples in their 50s, a wide variety of guests. People feel comfortable coming alone and they make friends. We also hold premium events— I collaborate with certified sommelier Patrick Peterson to create limited capacity, specialty tastings or dinners.

Any suggestions for Detroit restaurants with good wine lists?
In Birmingham, The Bird & The Bread's list reads interestingly and has a good selection. Rick Halberg's Local Kitchen & Bar in Ferndale has great pricing and good wines under $30. My good friend Claudia Tyagi, Master Sommelier, curates the wine list for Marais in Grosse Pointe. Claudia works as a consultant in Metro Detroit and has a deft hand with restaurant wine programs, sharing my love affair with the consumer. In Troy, Mon Jin Lau is a privately owned Asian restaurant. Marshall Chin, the owner, loves wines and peppers his list with vibrant selections. You take one look and think, ‘whoever put this together recognizes quality.' Lastly, The Earle in Ann Arbor. The team has been building its list for decades and thewine is properly cellared.

What are your early fall wine recommendations?
Dry Rose— don't stop drinking this just because it's September. They don't turn into pumpkins and the better ones will taste fine next summer too. $12 to $18 will do the trick.

Modest white Burgundies are a personal favorite, especially those from Mâcon and Chablis. Chablis in general is softer in texture than in the past, possible due to slightly elevated alcohol levels thanks to global warming.

For value reds around $10 that "taste like more," it's still hard to beat southern France, Spain and Italy.

In Michigan: young whites, notably Pinot Blanc and Pinot Grigio. So many good ones, both new and veteran, on Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas— Left Foot Charley, Black Star Farms, Bel Lago, Two Lads.
—Hannah Lowe