Vanessa Conlin is the Head of Wine and part of the “secret sauce” of Wine Access, a service connecting consumers to unique, expertly curated wines from around the world – all at friendly price points. As a seasoned expert, Vanessa has passed the Master of Wine exam and is working on the final stage, which is the research paper. She teaches WSET at the Napa Valley Wine Academy and is the Board Chair for the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. She has also previously been head of sales and marketing for several of Napa’s most prestigious estates, including Arietta Wines and Dana Estates. For our latest Cellar Chat, we were able to catch up with Vanessa to talk about how she got her start in the industry, and how she and her team are bringing the Wine Access mission to life.
Can you give us a bit of background about how you fell in love with wine and decided to make it your career?
My love for wine actually came about through my first passion: music! Music was a huge part of my life growing up and what I ended up going to school for, earning a bachelor’s degree in music from the Manhattan School of Music and a master’s degree in music from Boston University. After graduating, I lived in New York City and had a lot of amazing opportunities to perform as a musician, including on Broadway, but found myself with some downtime in between gigs. That’s when I decided to take a class on wine. I had always casually enjoyed wine, but the class opened my eyes to just how much goes into winemaking and how connected wine is to history and culture – I had found my calling!
With this new-found appreciation, I spent the next few years building my way up through the wine industry, from working in retail shops and restaurants, for an importer, to becoming the director of a wine bar and the wine buyer for two Manhattan shops. Then, in order to be closer to vineyards and winemaking, my husband and I moved to Napa Valley in 2010.
How did you become involved with Wine Access and what does your role look like within the company?
I first learned about Wine Access through someone I had met in my Masters of Wine Program, which I’m currently in the final stage of, and thought it sounded very progressive. I’m always thinking about what’s next in the wine industry in terms of what and how people are buying and what trends are on the horizon, so hearing how forward-thinking Wine Access is in these areas really resonated with me. I ended up coming on board in 2017 to source wines for the offers. That entailed traveling to various tastings, meeting with producers, and combing through the portfolios of different importers, all with the goal of finding wines with the best quality to price ratio to offer to our customers.
Now as the Head of Wine I get to manage and work alongside all of our really talented wine professionals who are scouring the world for the small-production, hard to find wines we feel passionate about sharing. I also work with the content to be sure we’re capturing the stories behind the wines we offer to bring them to life. We want to take people on a journey as they’re exploring our selection, providing details about the people and the places behind the wines, and educational content that is not pedantic– all with the goal of empowering our members to understand what types of wines they like.
When selecting wines to offer through Wine Access, how does the process work to ensure you’re offering your customers the best wines possible?
The process for approving wines is very rigorous at Wine Access. We have six experienced and credentialed wine professionals who are out in the world tasting daily. The Wine Team has a weekly judging panel where we taste as a group all the bottles that we have individually found, and every person on the team has to agree on the wine— otherwise we don’t offer it. Every single bottle that we offer goes through this process. We take this very seriously, as we stake our reputation on every bottle we offer. These tasting sessions can last anywhere from four hours to eight hours – there have been times where we’ve had to taste hundreds of bottles in a day.
To be approved, the quality of the wine is the most important. Beyond that, we want to make sure the wine over-delivers for the price.
What is one common misconception people have about the art of picking the perfect wine to drink?
The biggest misconception is there are wines that are “right” and wines that are “wrong.” I want people to think more about what they like rather than what they think they should like. It’s easy to fall into the trap of basing wine selections off of what you read in a magazine, how expensive it is, or how many points it has. At the end of the day though, what’s beautiful about wine is that through our senses, we all enjoy and experience wine differently. While I think there are some great barometers out there to follow, whether it’s a trusted publication or a wine critic that your palate seems to align with, I really want people to get excited about trying different wines and finding what they truly enjoy – because every palate is unique!
Given the ever-evolving landscape of the wine industry, are there any trends you anticipate in the coming year for us to keep an eye out for?
Yes, there are a few that I’m noticing.
In terms of how people are enjoying food and wine together, I think there’s a shift towards staying home and cooking as opposed to going out as often. I think there is a sense of an “everyday luxury” that is really appealing to people when enjoying wine at home. In our offers, we often reference the names of prestigious or popular restaurants that have that same wine on their wine list. I think it is cool to pop a cork at home and know that you are drinking just as well as the people dining at that very same moment at a Three Star Michelin–for a fraction of the price!
I think that we’ll continue to see rosé be a huge, growing category. There’s been a hyper-focus on the Provence region in terms of brand recognition for rosé, but as demand grows, this will be an exciting opportunity for other regions to establish themselves in the rosé arena, so to speak.
I’m also seeing very high-quality dry wines coming out of Portugal. Many people are drinking fewer sweet fortified wines, so the winemakers in Portugal are very smart to be investing in dry table wines.
What should we expect to see from Wine Access in 2019 and beyond?
We will be spending a lot of time on the road this year to find delicious small-production wines from around the world that we will be importing directly. We’ve always bought directly from wineries, but you will see an increase in the number of new wines that we are seeking out from small cellars around the world that wouldn’t otherwise be available in the US. Our motto is “Direct from the Source” because we believe that the provenance and care of wines is key – there is so much that can happen when wines just sit in warehouses or on shelves.
Any last points you’d like to share with the wine community?
Everyone these days spends so much time staring at computer and phone screens. Let’s not forget what is so special about wine – it connects us back to our senses, connects us to places and people around the world and encourages actual conversations – not the kind you have on Twitter! So, drink more wine!
Want to learn more about Wine Access and explore their amazing selection? Click here to check out their recommendations and get $50 off your first purchase of $150!