A decade ago, André Hueston Mack stood on a pinnacle in the wine world as head sommelier of Per Se, the renowned haute cuisine restaurant in New York. He had spent years climbing the wine steward cellar in restaurants around the country and was managing an 1,800-selection wine list in one of the most expensive, opulent restaurants in America.
Then he left it all behind. What makes a man leave a top job and plunge into the unknown? What is life like 10 years after facing a fork in the road and choosing the riskier path?
As it turns out, Mack has become a successful winemaker and graphic artist as the founding owner of Mouton Noir Wines, a growing Oregon-based company that makes wine and T-shirts with a distinct hip-hop, wine-subculture vibe.
Empowered by Microsoft tools Excel, Word, Outlook and OneDrive on his Surface Pro 4, Mack is making the fine art of wine appreciation accessible for everyone through craft, humor and an approachable sensibility. A creative entrepreneur at heart, he is a wine aficionado in Converse sneakers, encyclopedic in knowledge and charming in manner, and his company mirrors his blend of drive, smarts and hustle.
“What’s really fun about this journey I’ve been on is it’s hopefully inspiring other people that the wine world is not a scary place filled with suits and noses pointed in the air,” says Mack, who lives in New York with his wife and three kids. “You don’t have to wear an ascot to drink my wine. You’re an expert in your own taste.”
His best-sellers include a pinot noir and pinot gris both labeled O.P.P., short for “Other People’s Pinot,” a pun on slang immortalized in ‘90s hip-hop. Also popular are a rosé named Love Drunk, a riesling called Bottoms Up, and a wine-themed T-shirt that says, “Beaune Thugs-n-Burgundy.” He creates his own labels and shirts through his graphic design company, Get Fraîche Cru.
“Humor is a great way to foil pretension,” he says. “If you’re serious about your craft, it allows you room to be playful.”
His company’s name — “Mouton Noir,” French for “black sheep” — comes from a nickname he attained at Per Se, where he was and still is one of the relatively few African-American sommeliers in the wine industry. In the restaurant, diners were sometimes surprised to see Mack at their table after asking for the sommelier.
“I’d say, ‘You guys ready to talk about wine?’ and they would say, ‘We’re waiting for the sommelier,’ and I would stand there and smile,” he says. “Some days, I would spin around and say, ‘Ta-da!’” Then he would drop his vast wine knowledge on his guests.
He didn’t mind standing out from the flock, because it distinguished him. “Being different means you can actually make a difference,” he says.
For a man who reached epicurean heights, Mack started in food humbly, first at McDonald’s and then as a waiter at Red Lobster in San Antonio, Texas. He knew nothing about wine, but watched a TV show about two wine-snob brothers who drank sherry and cherished things like a 1961 bottle of Château Haut-Brion Bordeaux.
“It was me watching reruns of ‘Frasier’ that really got me into wine. No lie,” Mack says, laughing. “I didn’t know what Haut-Brion was, or how to say it. I was probably saying ‘hot.’”
At his next job in a steakhouse, he learned about wine through staff tastings and reading everything he could about wine and its geography, history and biology. “To be able to tell the difference between a riesling, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, it blew my mind,” he says.
After earning his sommelier certificate and winning a major sommelier award in 2003, he landed at the legendary California restaurant The French Laundry, crowned that year as the world’s best restaurant by an eminent trade publication. It had a daunting 64-page wine list. Mack worked his first six weeks without a day off.
When the restaurant’s chef/owner launched Per Se in 2004, Mack joined the opening team as head sommelier. But after three years, he missed the instant gratification of interacting with people and watching them enjoy a wine on his recommendation. He missed being creative. So he left and started his own business.
Microsoft tools have empowered Mack’s journey, in which Mouton Noir Wines now produces 33,000 cases of wine a year. Made with Willamette Valley grapes in Oregon, the wine is available in 45 states and 11 countries, which means he is constantly on the road. To stay mobile, organized and efficient, Mack uses Excel, Word, Outlook and OneDrive on his Surface Pro 4. The technologies help him track his meetings, inventory and sales goals, syncing data across his devices.
“By saving to the cloud, it gives me a chance to be fluid,” he says. “I would die without Excel and Word and OneDrive.”
Working efficiently means more time with his family, which spends summers in Oregon so the kids can learn the business. Seamless business tools have also enabled Mack to start a new company, Vine and Supply, which makes Pinot Noir from a single vineyard. Lately, he’s taught himself to record short thank-you videos for customers.
It’s all part of Mack’s passion to share wine and its stories of sun, earth and soil with more people — on his own terms.
“It’s how I live my life: ‘What if?’ and ‘Wouldn’t that be cool?’” Mack says. “Those are the questions that take me to new places.”
Lead image: Andre Mack, founder and owner of Mouton Noir Wines.