Tuesday, August 21

Interview: Courtney Cochran

photo Sylvia Steininger

I am delighted to introduce you to the charming, talented and oh so chic Courtney Cochran. At 28 Courtney has passed the first two levels of the Master Sommelier wine exams and has written her first book Hip Tastes, due out October 4, 2008. Mark my words, Courtney Cochran is one to watch!

How did you get your start in wine?
I think my dad poured my first taste of wine into my silver baby cup shortly after I started walking. Seriously! He’s a big wine fan, especially when it comes to California wines, and I spent a lot of time touring the California wine country with my family growing up (and yes, my parents did regulate my intake, but we had a very “European” sensibility about drinking). Besides this, I’m a pretty serious Francophile and spent time living in France at 17 and again at 20, when I spent a semester at the Sorbonne. On the weekends while living in Paris my friends would travel to Amsterdam and Munich, and I would go to Champagne and Burgundy to taste wine. And this was back when it was just a hobby!

Has age been a barrier in the wine industry?
I’ve actually found it be a plus, since it sets me apart from a lot of people. It’s better to be noticed than not noticed, you know? And I think the wine industry is really ripe for a fresh take and perspective. When you consider that the Millennial Generation – folks who turned 21 after the year 2000 – are buying more wine, more often, and at higher price points than any generation before them, it certainly shows that there’s a captive audience.

But, when I got started in the business I felt like there was a disconnect between this audience and traditional wine marketing. Younger people don’t care as much about point scores and what critics say about wine, and they’re not subscribing to wine magazines or going to stodgy tastings. Instead, they look to their friends for wine recommendations and prefer to be turned on to wine in places where they’d go anyway – like bars and clubs. I launched HIP TASTES Events in January, 2006 to do just that – I throw wine tasting parties in stylish San Francisco bars and clubs. The response has been incredible!

What is your highest level of certification?
I’ve passed the first two levels of the Master Sommelier series of wine exams, which means I’m officially “certified” as a sommelier by the American Court of Master Sommeliers. Level Three is really challenging, and I’m studying for that right now. Once you pass Level Four you can say you’re a “Master Sommelier” – and that exam has just a 4% pass rate, which is why there are so few of them in the world. It’s a real accomplishment, and it’s certainly something I’m shooting for.

How did you land a book deal
I found a fabulous agent, Elisabeth Weed, and we worked together to hone my book proposal. She shopped it around, and we were lucky enough to catch the attention of Penguin’s Viking Studio imprint. I still can’t quite believe it’s all happened – it’s very surreal! While I love writing, penning an entire book is a lot different than writing a breezy 500-word piece like the articles I write as a columnist for Winecountry.com. When you’re writing a book it’s really hard to see the forest in the trees! Now that everything’s coming together – the chapters, the illustrations, the appendix, the cover art – it’s an incredible feeling.

What do you love most about your work?
I love teaching small classes of about 12 students on weekends as part of my Saturday School course lineup. A lot of people were coming up to me at my HIP TASTES wine parties and asking if I ever taught classes, and I thought “well, no – but that’s a great idea!” I started offering Saturday School classes last fall and they’ve been a fantastic way to pass along my wine knowledge to an audience that’s really eager to learn.

What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
Lots of people find it strange that someone who makes a living drinking, writing and talking about wine can’t cook – but I’m really lousy in the kitchen! I’m desperately trying to improve my cooking MO since I think it’ll help me to better pair wine with food. Plus, not cooking wastes the wonderful fresh foods that are so plentiful in Northern California (and, after all, eating food from the microwave meal after meal is so not chic).

What is your fondest wine memory?
A few years ago I was in Burgundy with a couple of friends, and we were just driving around the countryside looking for places to taste. In a tiny village we pulled up to a home that had a tasting room attached, and knocked on the door. We were greeted by a little girl, Alice, who was just eight years old and – apparently – had been left “in charge” of the tasting room by her parents. Totally professional, little Alice led us into the cellar and walked us through a tasting of several of her family’s wines, and even rung us up when we wished to purchase one of them (she actually got the math wrong, and blushed deeply when we gently corrected her).

When we left, she pulled the cellar door shut behind us, locked in, and stood waving to us as we backed out of her driveway. It was the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen – a young French vigneron in training.

Who are your icons and idols
As an entrepreneur I have a lot of admiration for anyone else who’s started a business. Taking the leap to start something up is nothing short of euphoric, but it’s also incredibly difficult. As the saying goes, there are incredible highs and incredible lows. So, anyone who’s done it is high on my list of folks I admire. As well, I’ve always thought Edith Wharton was a pioneer in women’s literature, and I love that her voice is so clear and strong.

Do you have a favorite varietals?
Yes! I think Pinot Noir is one of the sexiest grapes on the planet, and Riesling is like bottled poetry when done right. For Pinots, there’s just nothing like a good Premier Cru or Grand Cru red Burgundy from France; they’ve got this earthiness married to a fabulous caramel/hazelnut/toast nuance from French oak that’s absolutely fabulous. Riesling from Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer has a flinty/wet stone essence that’s utterly refreshing backed by delicate floral and honey notes that are simply divine.

These are the wines I’d drink on a dessert island, my front porch after a long day (okay, my fire escape – my tiny walk-up in SF doesn’t come equipped with a porch!), or any occasion where I can rationalize popping a cork. Cheers to those moments!

Interview by Ronda Carman


Kim said...

Great interview, thanks Ronda. I can't wait to read Courtney's book.

Brilliant Asylum said...

Wonderful interview. I love that your blog covers so many topics.

Habitually Chic said...

Great interview! I love learning about people who are passionate about something they love, especially when they're young! I look forward to checking out her book too! Thanks!

ALL THE BEST said...

Thanks Brilliant Asylum, I just have so many interests and this is a great way to indulge them all!

I agree Habitually Chic, when someone is passionate about a topic I love it even more!

Thanks Kim!

The Peak of Chic said...

Thanks for the interview Ronda! Very interesting :)

girl meets glamour said...

Wow what an interesting young lady! Thanks so much for another great interview. I think you're right, she is one to watch!


Suzy said...

Great interview,thanks for sharing! It's so great to see young people getting into the wine industry, I think it makes it so much more accessible to all when 'youngesters' don't view it as something old and stodgy. What a great job she has..I'm so jealous right now!

becoming-home said...

Great interview.. you're so good at this! You're like the blog version of NPR's "fresh air" which is one of my favorite things in the world (second to "this american life")

ALL THE BEST said...

Thank you Becoming Home, I love Terry Gross, that’s a huge compliment! Can I quote you? ;)
NPR is one of the things I miss about living in the States!

patriciagrayinc.com said...

Great Interview. I am unfortunately not part of the "Millennial Generation", but rather a Baby Boomer but I think that Courtney's is right on track with her spirit "in breathing a fresh perspective into the wine industry". Please keep us posted on her progress.

RowHouse said...

Love your interview! I did a double-take when I saw the title to your post - I used to babysit a girl named Courtney Cochran, many years ago in middle school, in VA. However, this is a different person.

franki durbin said...

very nice. being a certified sommelier is a huge accomplishment - it's even more grand due to her young age. how great to learn more about this up and comer!

Anonymous said...

CORRECTION: "Hip Tastes, due out October 4, 2008" - No, it's 2007! Just a few days. I confess I sneeked a peek at an advance copy a wine-writer friend had been sent by the publisher, and it's great -- Very fun and informative.