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How I Got Here: My Education in Wine
By Rebecca Murphy
May 29, 2024
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A recent article about formal wine education by journalist, Tim Atkin MW, made me think about my career in wine.  He wrote “the pointlessness of certifications, can be thrown at wine education times three.   And then there is blind tasting, the cornerstone of wine examinations, which (almost) everyone who succeeded in it agrees is absolutely necessary, while never actually undertaking it in public ever again.  From my outsider’s perspective, the pinnacle of wine education, the MW, looks like a reasonably challenging MA in the social sciences – but in one of the modules you have to pole vault five meters blindfolded.”

Essentially, my own career has involved a series of lessons about the world of wine, but those lessons came in the absence of a formal education or an official certificate, something I wager would be a near impossibility for a modern wine professional.  That is not to say that those certificates are worthless.  Those who hold them have worked hard and long and have often reaped professional rewards.

Wine was not something to be found in my family’s house; beer and Bourbon, but no wine.  My first exposure to fine wines began in 1967, when my infant twin boys and I flew to Bangkok, Thailand, to join their Green Beret father where he had just been selected to be an aide to the commanding general of all American troops in Thailand.  It was an experience that forged a new pathway for my life.

The Vietnam War was in full force, and every Senator, Congressman, businessman and celebrity visiting the war zone, stayed in Bangkok.  The General was their host.  The first event I attended was a formal dinner at the city’s fanciest restaurant.  Each setting was glittering with an array of silverware and glasses.  I was soon immersed in a lake of haute cuisine, fine wine, and opulent hospitality, which became a ready substitute for formal training in the appreciation and service of wine.

After two years we returned to Dallas, where the end of my marriage left me with two hungry boys and an immediate need for a job.  Answering an ad for cocktail waitress provided me the opportunity to work in a white tablecloth restaurant with a good wine list and a wine steward.  When he left for other pastures, I had the temerity to offer to replace him.  My boss’s first reaction was, “Rebecca, you’re not strong enough carry a box of wine.”  He didn’t realize that a woman who had to carry twin boys around had well developed biceps, which overcame his need to search for a replacement.  The job was called wine waiter, but—in retrospect—it became apparent that I had accidentally become the first female sommelier in the state of Texas, and one of the first in the US.

Needless to say, diners were curious about my role.  They would ask many intrusive questions.  Some of the mildest included whether my father owned the restaurant, or If I was working my way through school.  Additionally, there was an occasional episode of what we now know to be sexual harassment.  Fortunately, my talent for with cursing enabled me to weather such events.

Apparently, my work at that restaurant was good enough that a job offer from another restaurant brought me into a role with an upscale group of three local restaurants, where I was obligated to learn about American wines on the fly.  For instance, one of the tools of my trade was a tastevin, which enabled me to taste every wine I served to customers to ensure it was fit to be served.   After working hours, I would proceed to read about the wines I had served that evening.

Other opportunities from that job arose and provided further learning: Steven Spurrier’s famous comparison of elite French and American wines elevated that interest in our American wine list and my opportunity to learn.  It was at that time that our restaurant became a focal point for American winemakers anxious to visit and market their products.  I was treated to visits by many of them, including such leaders as Robert Mondavi and Rodney Strong.  Later, in 1981, I was invited to be a wine judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, where I judged alongside such luminaries as Maryann Graf, the first woman to graduate from the viticulture and enology department at UC Davis, and Andre Tchelistchef, considered the father of modern California wine.

In the meantime, my boys were getting older, which obligated me to find a day job, rather than working restaurant tables in the evening.  The restaurant where I worked was one of three owned by a local restauranteur.  He apparently thought highly enough of me to offer me the job of director of food and beverage at all three restaurants.  That job added considerably to my learning.  I became more fluent in the languages of finance, marketing, logistics, and leadership.  It was a busy time and I loved it.  I was suddenly the center of attention for anyone who wanted to market their wine to our restaurants.  It was my job to approve all beverage purchases for the restaurant group, which required me to regularly taste wines and listen to the sales pitches of their reps.  At the time, that job was perhaps the most intense of my wine education.

There was a downside to that job as well.  After some time, as I became more familiar with the finances of the restaurant group, I discovered that I was being paid significantly less than male executives in the group, despite our having similar levels of responsibility and seniority.   My appeals to my boss to address the pay inequity were met with deaf ears.  So, I quit.

Reluctant to be an employee again, I ventured out into the world as an entrepreneur.  Believing that the wine world needed a more prominent role in Dallas, I created and ran a large wine event, the American Wine Exposition, that included speakers like Frank Prial, Louis Martini and Robert Mondavi.  In retrospect, it should have taken on a more international aspect, and lasted only two years.  At nearly the same time, however, I founded a wine competition, known as the Dallas Morning News International Wine Competition.  That competition still exists and is now known as the TEXSOM Awards.  I sold it to James Tidwell a few years back, and it has thrived even further under his leadership.  

The feeling of independence was freeing enough that I have continued to pursue vinous activities that have afforded further learning, further connections, and the ability to teach and influence the world of wine. The three most important of those activities to me have involved consulting, writing, and being involved in wine and social policy.

Of the consulting work, I especially loved working with Stephen Pyles in creating the wine list at Routh Street Café.  As for the wine and social policy, I was the executive Director of the American Wine Alliance for research and Education (AWARE) dedicated to teaching health professionals about the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption.  Finally, wine writing has occupied my time for many years and has involved many publications—especially this one.

It's been a long and torturous journey. It has involved many adventures, many friends and has never been dull.  Most of all, it has been packed full of learning.