Today’s interview is with Harriet Lembeck of the Wine & Spirits Program in New York City. The program was originated by the late Harold J. Grossman in 1940. Harriet Lembeck, CWE, CSS*, has continued this mission since 1975 and the course has been given continuously to this day. Harriet was also Wine Director of the New School for 15 years. She is the author of the 6th and 7th editions of “The Grossman Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits”, Chairman of the NY Wine Press, and is a frequent guest on radio and TV, as well as a frequent judge at wine competitions around the world.
I have known Harriet for a number of years and finally had the occasion to share a table with her at a tasting a couple of weeks ago. I am intrigued by her knowledge and dedication to the field. I also like her quick wit. Someone made a very sexist comment at the tasting and Harriet didn’t skip a beat to respond to the comment. I was doubly impressed.
1. How did you get into the wine business?
I took a wine class given by the late Harold G. Grossman, and at the end of the term, he asked me to work for him. The rest is history.
2. What has been the hardest part of the wine business for you in terms of gender issues, if any?
Getting passed over for speaking engagements or seminars, both by the trade or even consumer groups who hold tastings and need a speaker. The guy always gets the gig, even if you are convinced that you know more than he does.
3. What trends and changes have you seen since you started? What do you see happening in the next 5-10 years in your sector of the business?
More women are taking wine classes. They are serious about possible careers in the wine business, and they study very hard. Also, there are more and more wine classes available, and students have choices. Previously, there were only a few classes – most notably my class: the Wine & Spirits Program, Mary Ewing Mulligan MW’s classes at the International Wine Center, and Kevin Zraly’s the Windows on the World Wine School. Today students can also take classes on line, and compare their tasting notes with the notes of others.
4. What do you see happening in wine education?
As noted, it is becoming less structured, with more use of the Internet, both for doing research and for attending webinars.
5. What is happening in terms of varietals? International varietals?
Interest in varietals is exploding. Those who only knew the important grapes of Burgundy and Bordeaux can now recite uncommon varieties from all corners of the wine world. Those who never knew what grapes were in the glass in their hands now have to know the grapes in every glass before they can begin to taste the wine. Books like Wine Grapes, by Jancis Robinson’, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz have greatly simplified the entire field, and made live easier for other researchers.
6. What tops or sectors are people most interested in learning about?
People want to know how to get into the ‘wine business’ –as if it were a single entity. They like the glamour, and are not interested in all of the laborious paperwork that comes along with it, or the heavy lifting of all those cases.
7. What do you think about the level of wine education in the US today?
The level of Wine Education is very high – poor teachers find few repeat students. The field is very competitive. If you aren’t a good teacher, and students don’t feel that they are learning anything, the word gets out quickly. The teachers who prepare thoroughly have the best reputation.
8. Do you think we are still focused on France, Italy and California?
We are focused on wines from all over the world, and even when France, Italy and California are mentioned, it is the more obscure corners of those countries that command attention.
9. Who is the average wine drinker today?
There is no ‘average’ – it’s a game anyone can play. People get wine advice all the way from Robert Parker to their best friends, but the younger wine drinkers, over 21 of course, are more adventurous.
10. Where are women going to be in the industry in the next 10 years?
There will probably be more women working in big companies, many will be making wine, and many will be advising restaurants on food and wine combinations and creative pairings.
* Certified Wine Educator, Certified Specialist of Spirits