In 99 Bottles, A Black Sheep’s Guide to Wine – André Hueston Mack, a celebrated sommelier and winemaker, boils down the highs and lows of his storied career into 99 bottles that made him pause along the way.
Within the autobiographical tasting notes Mack introduces and explains concepts that are essential to anyone’s wine education. He writes conversationally, referencing everything from Frasier to Kim Kardashian while bringing us through his past and into the present, one bottle at a time.
Like many wine-hero origin stories, Mack hung up the trappings of his desk job (in finance, no less) and started his wine journey on the floors at The Palm in Texas. He propelled himself through the ranks of Texas fine-dining and into the upper echelon of wine idolatry – a working somm at Thomas Keller’s famed Yountville property, The French Laundry, and New York’s Per Se.
In 2003, Mack became the first African-American man to win the title of “Best Young Sommelier” from the Chaîne des Rôtisseur. While there are many barriers to entry in the wine business, including who you know and your disposable income – the fact that it’s also predominantly white is always lurking about. That makes perspectives and experiences like those of Mack all the more valuable.
From Boone’s Farm to Sauternes
Patterns emerge among the bottles that Mack felt important enough to memorialize in his book – he leans toward Sauvignon Blanc (a man after my own heart!) and gives Sauternes, Tokaji and the vast realm of Riesling the respect they collectively deserve. He begins with Olde E and Boone’s Farm and continues through a trail of mostly attainable bottles, while occasionally waxing poetically about wines that are either so expensive or so rare (or so both) that reading about them in his book will likely be as close as we’ll ever get to experiencing their wonder.
Mack knows that wine is ultimately an experience. So much of its charm is wrapped up within who you were and who you were with when you had it; it is a consumable, evolving art that is meant to be shared. I was moved every time a frequent customer or mentor went out of their way to have Mack try a special bottle. Not all of us (especially in this industry) have pockets so deep that adding a $3,500 bottle onto the dinner tab is a reasonable action. Mack’s customers and contemporaries saw something in him that compelled them to bring him along on their wine journey, thereby enriching his. They saw passion, drive and intelligence – a star on the rise.
In present day, Mack and his wife Phoebe Damrosch (an NYT notable author in her own right) live with their sons in Brooklyn, while Mack’s Maison Noir Wine project is based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Rest must be a four-letter word in the Mack vernacular: he also has a design house called Get Fraîche Cru that creates campaigns for brands such as Charles & Charles and Joel Gott, as well as a newly opened family of wine bars/specialty shops called & Sons in Brooklyn. Someone get this man a Xanax… or a nice bottle of Sancerre.
99 Bottles is suitable for a novice, though certainly built for an enthusiast. It’s fun and well-designed, with a good amount of higher-level concepts folded into what ends up being a coming-of-age tale through the lens of a bottle.