When you order a bottle of wine, do you have any idea what you’re doing?
I don’t. That’s not quite true: I’m figuring it out, but slowly, over years and in spite of looks from friends who wonder why I’m swirling my glass like an idiot.
Whatever your level of interest, wine seems defined by its inaccessibility. It’s missing a manual everyone pretends we don’t need. It’s someone else’s little secret.
Madeline Puckette wants to blow it wide open.
The 30-year-old sommelier is co-founder of Wine Folly, a site that, with popular posts, videos and a collection of handy visualizations, is helping lead a kind of beginners’ revolt from right here in Seattle.
And why not? This late in the information age, is there any excuse anymore for something not to be easily understandable?
I met Puckette Thursday at ColorGraphics in Seattle, where she checked a print run for the latest in a series of posters that have become the main revenue generator for her site. This one, which goes on sale this week, features a detailed, colorful grid that describes which wines pair best with which foods.
When the press operator tuned his reds and blues to her liking, Puckette signed the approved print and tacked on some praise, in all caps: “Badass!”
Madeline was a 25-year-old graphic designer at a struggling Nevada newspaper when she walked into the wine bar that changed her life. The overworked barkeep and owner at West Street Wine Bar in Reno noticed that his newest customer knew her way around his drinks.
It was no accident. Puckette’s dad, wanting her to “drink smart,” had given his daughter a two-bottle-a-month wine subscription for her 21st birthday. Puckette was hooked.
“For some reason, wine made me pay attention and slow down,” she told me.
Puckette speaks with a measured rhythm until you get her going about aged Bordeaux or that sausage-smelling pinot noir she hated so much the other night that she had to buy a glass. And she laughs freely, like a kid. She has the air of someone who’s comfortable doing things differently.
The barkeep handed Puckette two thick wine books and proposed a challenge: Read these, come back in a week, and you’ve got a job.
One thing led to another, and two months after she visited Seattle to take her certified sommelier exam in 2010, the budding wine connoisseur with dreams of moving to New York moved here instead — along with her boyfriend, her cat and her Ford Focus.
In 2011, when the daily grind of server work at Seattle’s RN74 started to wear her down, she and her boyfriend, developer Justin Hammack, had a thought: Why not start a blog?
Hammack built the site and Puckette worked on content. Wine Folly launched in December 2011 but got its big break with How to Choose Wine, a flowchart that combined Puckette’s wine smarts with her sense of humor. Choosing wine for a get-together + Don’t know the people —-> “Bring a boring bottle and hope no one opens it.”
Puckette follows data geeks online to get new ideas on how visualizations can bring simplicity to the world of wine.
Subsequent creations got more ambitious: Wine Descriptions and What They Mean, like “unctuous,” “zippy” and “muscular”; The Different Types of Wine by style and taste; coded maps of various wine regions around the world; The Basic Wine Guide with everything from a wine-label decoder to a breakdown of how many calories are in each major type of wine.
“I wish they’d just say that on the label,” Puckette said.
Poster sales picked up, the site approached 1 million monthly visits and Puckette secured contract design gigs with international wine commissions and the Court of Master Sommeliers. In November, the International Wine and Spirit Commission awarded her its trophy for 2013 wine blogger of the year.
Weeks later, Puckette quit her job at Capitol Hill restaurant Poppy to take on Wine Folly full time.
Of course, simplifying something as nuanced as wine isn’t what all wine enthusiasts like to see.
“Go to /r/wine and post anything about Wine Folly and they will tear you to pieces,” Puckette said, referring to the wine community on Reddit.
To explain why, she picked up a pen.
“This is the learning curve for most things,” she said, drawing a straight sloping line. “This,” she said, drawing a second line, “is the learning curve for wine.”
The curve climbed and bent back into a cliff’s edge. Puckette, explaining that she’d seen this elsewhere, drew one stick figure hanging off the cliff and another standing on top of it, pointing at the first figure and laughing.
Puckette wants to reach down and give that first guy a hand.
Heck. I’ll take it.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.