It started with going wine tasting in Napa Valley as a weekend pastime. Michelle A. Brown and her husband, Jeff, then joined a couple of wine clubs. She talked of working at a winery part-time after retiring from Raley’s. And since she likes to immerse herself thoroughly in whatever interests her, she took an intensive two-day class on wine at UC Davis in 2013.
In one of those perfect-timing moments, Raley’s created a new position at the Benicia store and Michelle became its first wine steward in 2015. She credits Raley’s owner Michael Teel with the vision to add a wine steward to the store. “Michael had the idea of making wine and spirits part of Raley’s food and family and celebrations focus,” she says. “To me, wine is an extension of that food focus. When you’re sharing food with friends, wine is part of it.”
The extra training required for the job appeals to this life-long learner. She studied for six months to earn a Level 2 wine and spirit certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. “That’s when I started to learn that I don’t know very much about wine,” she says of the course that covered wine regions around the globe, what grapes grow where, wine laws and material related to spirits.
Michelle spends most of her work time on the floor, helping customers select from the more than 1,000 wines sold in the store. “For me, I think the best wine is the one you like to drink,” she says.
Michelle, 57, moved to Benicia in 1981 and began working in Raley’s floral department in 1992. Over the years, she worked in corporate positions and was a store supervisor before becoming the wine steward. She loves learning more about wines from around the world. “I finally found something that’s going to keep me going for a while,” she says, laughing.
What sparked your initial interest in wine? It started with food. All of us in my family are really into food. We’re all foodies. We talk about what we’re eating, what we just ate, what we’re going to eat next. …
My husband enjoys wine, so after the children got older, we started going to tastings and we joined a couple of wine clubs. We decided to start with the Napa Valley, and we’re still going there. There are so many wineries that we haven’t gotten to all of them. We go up every six weeks or so.
As we would go up there, we noticed that many of the people who were working in the wineries were older. We were thinking that would be a great part-time job once we retired, to have that experience of talking to others about wine, the opportunity to talk to people really from all over the world.
What’s surprised you in your time as the store’s wine steward? Two things overall.
Number 1: How little I knew. I really could spend the rest of my life learning more about wine.
Number 2: The interest of young people in wine. The millennials are more adventurous. They’ve traveled, so they know more about wine from other areas and are willing to try something out. I didn’t expect they would be my customers, and I’m encouraged by that.
What do you ask customers before making a recommendation? Because I want my focus to be on the food, I always ask them what they’re serving. It’s different if they are going to someone’s house and they don’t know, or if they are bringing the wine as a gift.
The second question always is, “What is your budget?” Here our wines are placed with the most expensive on top and the lower-priced ones on the bottom shelves, so I’ve been exploring the bottom shelves the last couple of months. Because I’m dealing with so many young people, I want to be able to recommend something they can serve with confidence.
If we really start talking, I like to find out how many guests so we can plan for that. You don’t want to serve too many different types of wine, and you plan on a bottle for every 2 guests.
Once we make a decision, I like to spend time talking about what to do with the wine when you get home. Some should be popped in the fridge right away, some should be opened for a while before serving. And remember, room temperature is based on houses from 400 to 500 years ago. Homes now may be 70 degrees, but homes then were about 64 degrees.
What do you suggest for people who want to learn more about wine? The main thing is to study the varietals first, learn which grapes are which.
For people who enjoy reading, I recommend Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. I have the Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. Reviewers say Wine Folly condenses the Wine Bible down.
There also are tons of tutorials online, on YouTube.
How do you learn more? Raley’s is getting ready to put a group together to do level 3 of the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) courses. It looks like that will happen in August, but that’s not confirmed yet.
What is your go-to wine? I like Franciscan Estates Chardonnay, and I’m really into Clarendelle white Bordeaux as well.
What do you do to relax? My husband and I are big scuba divers. That’s another subject we’ve immersed ourselves in. We try to go two times a year, all over the world. Everyone in our family dives so it’s a family affair. We have a big trip to Indonesia planned for after Christmas. We love to do that.
The funny thing is that when we travel, we usually don’t drink wine (laughing). We’re often in a hot climate and wine isn’t the best choice, plus you can’t drink when you dive. It’s like we take a break from wine when we’re on vacation since it’s my job.
I do yoga, and I have this huge project going on at the gym. I’m working with a personal trainer. You have to be in good shape to dive, so the trainer is helping with that.
We love to be outside gardening. I like to walk, and we like to go to the DeYoung.
What’s next for you? More travel, definitely. We’re planning an African safari. I want to go to Europe, but we’ve been saving that for later.
I’m very, very interested in art. Once I finally retire, I’m thinking about getting a degree in art history just for pleasure and self-enrichment. Maybe Asian art, maybe tribal tattoos—something I don’t know much of anything about but would like to know more.
Keep your menu and guests in mind when choosing a wine to serve with your Mother’s Day brunch, says Michelle A. Brown, wine steward for Raley’s in Benicia.
“I suggest you keep it low-alcohol since brunch is early in the day,” she says. She suggests making a sangria from red or white wine and adjusting sweetness to your taste.
Some guests may be on medications and can’t drink alcohol so non-alcoholic wines could be added to table, she says. “That way all your guests feel part of the celebration.”
Michelle’s other recommendations:
Champagne/sparkling wine: “With any celebration like Mother’s Day, Champagne or a sparkling wine is always a good choice. Chambord is nice to mix with your Champagne to give it a little blush.
“I like to add fruit also—raspberries or pomegranate seeds,” she says, adding that Champagne is available at every price point and Prosecco is a good option for a sparkling wine.
Mexican food: “If you’re having something like huevos rancheros, I suggest Beaujolais-Villages by Louis Jardot.”
Eggs: “I like Alsace Riesling Hugel. It’s not sweet and it would be great with eggs,” Michelle says. (She also recommends Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure for interesting info about the Hugel family and how the French hid wine from the Nazis during World War II.)
Bacon and eggs: “I also like J Pinot Gris. It’s light and it’s good with eggs and bacon.”