Rachel Kerswell '01
I’ve learned that the path to the right career is never linear. We often have to divert from what we expect of ourselves to allow our expectations to be nothing like we imagined.
A graduate from McGill University with a kinesiology degree is not a likely candidate to leave a job in advertising to pursue a career in the wine industry. But sometimes, the unlikely choices can bring us the most satisfaction, success, and surprises.
After graduating from McGill in 2005, I worked in advertising in Montreal. I had always had friends in restaurants; having logged enough hours as a waitress and bartender in a variety of restaurants in the city, I had built a solid network of friends, foodies and winos. I never dreamed that I would quit advertising and find my way back into restaurants as a sommelier until a friend of mine inspired me to attend wine tasting courses. What was an interest born of curiosity naturally developed into a hobby, and then, that hobby became a passion that fueled my career change. I started working as a full-time sommelier at L’Orignal, a restaurant in Montreal where I had free rein of the wine program. The experience propelled me to validate my professional choice, and in 2010 I received Level 2 certification as a sommelier.
As my life had proven time and again, my personal choices enhanced my professional opportunities when I moved to Los Angeles for a relationship. That move landed me a job at La Osteria Mozza, a Mario Batali establishment and a Michelin Star restaurant. As a sommelier, you really can work anywhere, but the best wine programs in North America are undoubtedly found in the major markets of the United States, more specifically in Los Angeles and New York. The transition from Montreal to Los Angeles was like a graduation to a school of higher learning: my knowledge base expanded, my expertise honed, and most importantly, I recognized that there was so much more to learn. In 2013, I once again moved across the country to New York, a city in which I had always wanted to work as a wine professional. There, my next sommelier job was at the NoMad Hotel, also a Michelin Star restaurant. Working in high-end establishments offers access to an expansive cellar, and an opportunity to taste and discover wines that are not readily available to the average buyer.
Back in Los Angeles after our time in New York, I found myself at another restaurant, the well-reputed Republique. Yet, I was itching to grow. Restaurants and my sommelier certification had built a strong foundation from which I launched my career. To truly appreciate, understand, and value the very thing that had become my livelihood, I had to understand its origin, and get to know the winemakers and their vineyards. I wanted to know firsthand where a wine began, long before it was shelved in a restaurant cellar. To get to the source, I needed to travel.
I’ve always held French wines in high regard; they are the darlings of my palette. Propelled by my love of the food, culture and language, I had always had a special interest and admiration for the history and winemaking in France, and particularly its renowned winemakers. France shows incredible diversity of wine across the regions, partly due to the history of geographical ownership ie: Germanic influences in Alsace and Italian influences in Corsica. France was the obvious choice to re-ignite my education in wine.
I began my trip in Jura, in eastern France, a cool climate region known for its distinct wines. There I met winemaker Jean Bourdy, famous for his Chateau-Chalon. The domaine has been in operation for hundreds of years, handed down from generation to generation. When my friend and I visited his cellar, he pulled a bottle from the shelf—there was no label—and offered it for us to taste blind. He quizzed us on what vintage we thought it was. I guessed 1986, dipping on the older side, my instincts telling me that this was a special bottle. Jean smiled. The actual vintage was 1937. We had tasted a bottle that had aged for seven decades and yet remained fresh and clean, it hadn’t turned at all. It was a testament to the true talent of a winemaker such as Jean, with an established pedigree passed down from his elders.
In Northern Rhone, I visited Jean Louis Chave. His family has owned vines on the hill of the Hermitage for generations; yet another winemaker whose familial history is intertwined with the very vines that provide his livelihood. Chave produces one of the most sought after Syrah’s in the world. His wines are haunting, deep, powerful yet layered with elegance. Everything in his wine is in its texture and structure, a wonderful play between the two.
Finally, I visited Burgundy, a region that produces some of the most well known wines in the world. I met Frederic Mugnier at his estate in Chambolle Musigny, purchased by his great-great-grandfather in 1899. Frederic’s approach to winemaking is recognized in the wine industry as profound: he combines the scientific, the ethical and the esthetic in measured proportions. The result? His wines can be described as ethereal, pretty, delicate, and imbibed with finesse, and yet there is a depth to them that allows them to age with grace.
I flew home from Paris elated and filled with new knowledge. I knew fundamentally and without question that great wines aren’t made in the cellar, they are born on the vine. Healthy vines and unwavering approaches put into practice by seasoned winemakers are key to producing quality-driven, timeless wine. Armed with my new experience, I couldn’t go back to restaurants. I needed to find a vocation that would bring me closer to winemakers than ever before.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my travels in France were preparatory steps towards the fork in the road my career was about to come upon. A week after my return to Los Angeles, the owner of Source Imports and my future employer, Ted Vance, contacted me. He had been following my journey on Facebook where I had been documenting my time in France, and was curious to know more about what my next step would be. Once we uncovered our common philosophies and interests as they pertained to the world of wine, he offered me a job.
I began working for The Source in June of 2015 as the portfolio manager. The Source is a small company, so my job allows me to touch on every aspect of operations. My primary role is to act as the liaison between the winemaker and the distribution channel: the Californian market (consumers, sales reps, buyers, sommeliers). Therefore, it is paramount that I develop a relationship with the winemakers by understanding their philosophies of production and their winemaking techniques and relating to them on a personal level, based on the history of their vineyards, their needs as a producer, and how they want that to be translated in the export market. Many of our winemakers are farmers—the two identities are interchangeable. Wine is not a commodity, it is a way of life, something that has been passed down to them: some winemakers we work with hold the reins of a family inheritance that has passed through fifteen generations before falling into their capable hands.
The winemaking regions that we work with, like Burgundy and Champagne for example, are monocultures. Their primary economic source is wine: grape-growing, winemaking, and exporting. They are small yield organic farmers, so we treat each producer as an individual, and their product is a finite, precise entity destined for a specific market. It’s necessary for us to visit the vineyards in France and Austria to not only maintain our relationships with the producers, but to also taste new vintages and then make intelligent choices on how much to bring into our market, since we know it so well. We cultivate relationships both in Europe and in the USA to better serve both sides of the distribution channels. We have to be meticulous about importing product that our market will react to, and at the same time be open to the opportunity to create trends in wine drinking in our market. Ultimately, the distribution of our winemakers’ wine in the Californian market directly correlates to their livelihood; it is, in essence, farm-to-table viticulture.
An average winemaker can make a great wine if they are working with a good vintage. But only a great winemaker can make exceptional wine every single vintage. It’s a true testament to great vineyard management, given that a bad vintage can ruin a farmer’s year. For example, in 2016, an abnormally wet and cold summer/spring caused two of our winemakers in Beaujolais to lose 100% of their crop. As consumers, we often forget that when we order, drink and enjoy a bottle of wine that is an import from a smaller producer, like the ones The Source represents, we are tasting a part of their family’s history and future. And it can be taken away from them in an instant with a stroke of Mother Nature’s hand.
That initial trip to France truly was a personal journey that was integral in changing the course of my professional direction. Now, I’m working with some of my heroes, the Rolling Stones of winemaking: Bruno Clair, Jean Louis Dutraive and Emmerich Knoll, for example. I so often served their wine in restaurants, sang its praises and savoured the taste on my tongue, and now, I’m breaking bread with their families, sleeping under their roofs, tasting the fruits of their labour among the very vines that bore the fruit. It’s humbling, and inspiring.
Wine has adopted a cultural identity of being something high class or bougie, a decadence: it’s a novelty. It is not something we need to survive, it’s not water or food or shelter. But for these winemakers, it is. They live off the land, the same land their forefathers cultivated for their livelihood. When you buy a bottle of Chablis from your local wine store, or order a beautiful Burgundy at a high-end restaurant, remember that as a consumer, you fall at the end of a long, arduous line of hard, honest work. A fantastic bottle of wine is almost impossible to describe, but its origins are not so out of reach. Its story is rooted deep in the earth in the country from where it was sourced, and in the hard knuckled hands of the winemaker who brought it to life.