There are two easy predictions that can be made about the Taste Oregon event taking place next week in Toronto's Distillery District. First, that many of Oregon's fresh, easy-drinking chardonnays and pinot noirs will wind up on this summer's wine lists and, second, that a lot of action will be buzzing around the Mouton Noir booth.
There, winemaker André Hueston Mack will be pouring his Horseshoes & Handgrenades, a syrah/merlot/cabernet-sauvignon blend, as well as the hotly anticipated O.P.P. (Other People's Pinot), coming soon to the LCBO in Ontario. He'll likely also be happily fielding questions about his reputation as a "rebel" winemaker and what it's like to stand out in this stereotypically white industry.
"Everybody asks me what it's like to be an African-American in the wine business, but it's the same as being an African-American my whole life," he says. "But, because of the way I grew up, it's not uncomfortable for me to be the only person who looks like me in the room."
Mack is referring to his army-brat childhood, which meant a new school, new friends and new experiences across Europe or the United States every couple of years. As a result, the 45-year-old is certainly not shy. Nor is he afraid to try new things. For starters, he left his cushy desk job in the financial industry to wait tables in a steakhouse in San Antonio, Tex., because he wanted to spend more time connecting with people.
The wine thing? That grew out of watching afternoon television – specifically, the pompous fun had by two fictional psychologist brothers.
"I really didn't get into wine until I started watching old reruns of Frasier and started thinking I had been missing something," he says. "That's what got me down that aisle in the store and into trying sherry. I drank more sherry than any 27-year-old has any business drinking. I mean, at the time that was an old-guy drink."
From there, he made up for lost time with months of feverish studying, late at night after his shifts and before he went to work. In a remarkably short period, the self-taught sommelier was making a name for himself. In 2003, he was awarded the Best Young Sommelier in America award by Chaine des Rôtisseurs (the first African-American to do so) and scooped a job with acclaimed chef Thomas Keller, first at the French Laundry in California and later at New York's Per Se.
But being a somm is more about curation than creation, and Mack wanted to try his hand at making the wine, too. He was also unsure if he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the rarefied atmosphere of fine dining. "Some days, I would walk through the kitchen and be like, 'When did something that is a necessity for survival become so ceremonial?' I realized then that food was changing."
He started to anticipate the rise of quality fast-casual restaurants and decided he wanted to be part of that shift, so he started up Mouton Noir – "garage wine" (like garage bands) that would fit in with the new elevated-street-food ethos. It did, which is why you find it at any number of fancy but laid-back snack bars in Montreal and Toronto. His wine is food-friendly and relatively affordable (Horseshoes & Handgrenades is less than $25 in Alberta, and about the same price through the Ontario importer Noble Estates).
The brand is unpretentious, partially from necessity (DIY labels are cheaper than hiring graphic designers) and partly as an extension of Mack's personality (twist the cap and get the party started, he says). All of which became the brand's most defining characteristics and, Mack says, its most valuable assets.
"I'm generally wearing tennis shoes, jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball hat, and I don't look like anybody that drinks wine or that would know anything about wine," he says. "But I revel in the fact that I can walk into a wine store or a restaurant and I'm the last person anybody would think knew anything about wine.
"Somehow that gives me the element of surprise."