Interview with Michael Greenlee, Wine Director of The Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival, September 21 – 23, 2012

Michael GreenleeThe 7th Annual Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival returns on September 21st through 23rd and this year it has a new company, Plate + Decanter, producing the event with The Preservation Society of Newport County. To help coordinate the most important aspect of the Festival—the wine—long-time wine professional Michael Greenlee has been brought in as Wine Director for the event. Coincidentally, Greenlee was raised in Rhode Island and has ties to the restaurant industry here as well. “Al Forno is an old favorite,” Greenlee told Eat Drink RI. “I’ve known George [Germon] and Johanne [Killeen] since I was a kid, back when they had the restaurant [on Steeple Street] before they moved down to the waterfront.”

This year’s Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival features the return of Chef Jacques Pépin who will not only be presenting a cooking demonstration with his daughter Claudine during Saturday’s Grand Tasting, but is also hosting a brunch, paired with wines by Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, in the Gold Room at Marble House. It is the first year that Chef Emeril Lagasse will be appearing at the Festival, doing a cooking demonstration and signing books at Sunday’s Grand Tasting.

Also appearing for cooking demos are local favorites Chef Matt Jennings of Farmstead & La Laiterie, Chef Karsten Hart of Castle Hill Inn, Chef Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames and Chef Kevin King of Fluke Wine, Bar & Kitchen. Other cooking demos are being presented by Intermezzo magazine’s Roseann Tully and Chef Jonathan Cartwright of White Barn Inn Restaurant and Muse at Vanderbilt Grace. In addition to the now traditional Wine & Rosecliff event on Friday evening, there will be a Collectible Wine Dinner on Saturday night at The Elms.

There are also seven wine seminars being given by some of the most accomplished names in the wine industry: Jerome Hasenpflug, Suzanne Pride Bryan, Stuart Bryan, Leslie Sbrocco, Sam Ramic, Sandy Block, Laura Maniec and Jordan Mackay. The full schedule of events can be found at newportmansionswineandfood.org. These exclusive events and seminars have limited availability, so it is highly recommended to purchase tickets in advance online.

Greenlee discussed some of the more wine-centric events and seminars when he took time for a phone interview last week. He talked at length about what to look forward to at this year’s Food & Wine Festival. Greenlee’s excitement for the growth and development of the event, now in it’s seventh year, was palpable, even over the phone. It was truly an interview where we could ask very few questions and just let Greenlee go on speaking. His passion and commitment to putting on a great event was evident.  This sounds like the fall wine event not to be missed.

Eat Drink RI: Please tell us about your role with this year’s Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival.

Michael Greenlee: The Preservation Society [of Newport] has been producing this event for a while and had been looking for something a little bit of a change of pace, a little of a different look. They reached out to a couple of different groups. One of which is Plate + Decanter, which is a company that I’m working in conjunction with under the Preservation Society. We went up and met with the whole team at the Preservation Society and really talked about how to improve upon the event and continue to grow it. I grew up in Rhode Island so I have a connection to the community up there, to the sensibility to the people up there. In a unique way, there’s this summer colony [in Newport].

We wanted to take the Festival and improve upon it and make it a little more intimate: really put more wines under the tent, create the ability for winemakers to have more intimate relations with the consumers that are there, to help better build the sort of relationships where they can capitalize on them later. People will remember them being at a seminar, being under the tent, being at Wine & Rosecliff, being part of the Collectible Wine Dinner. Help them [the wineries] create a memorable experience to create customers. Making the sort of strategy that if the winemakers and the wineries are happy, and successful, and participating, then the consumers that come will have an equally richer more intimate experience with the wineries.

We started by taking a look at the list of the people that have participated in the past, going through it and honoring those relationships that the Preservation Society has had over the years with those wineries, and increasing the talent a little bit by bringing in wineries that are part of my fold, or relationships that I have, or personal connections in the wine business, whether domestic or international. And starting to look at opportunities in 2012 where we can . . . curate a really high-end collection of wineries under the tent and really focus the event back on wineries. Still create a place in the tent for the spirits, but a lesser role in the future than they had in the past. Really give those spirits brands an opportunity to shine and focus them in things like Wine & Rosecliff and other ancillary events. So that it [the Grand Tasting] really becomes a high-end wine and food experience.

EDRI: What have you added new this year?

MG: With the Collectible Wine Dinner the idea was to create something high-end that would attract a higher-end consumer and also help to connect to the summer colony. So that’s something that we added this year. We’re doing a dinner for 40 people with 8 wineries at The Elms. We’re putting a winery representative or winemaker at every table so that people attending really get an opportunity to interface with the winery owners or principles to really understand more, get a richer experience for the consumer. Bringing in someone like Jacques Pépin to do a brunch, and bringing in a champagne producer to really pair [with the brunch] to create a celebratory brunch experience prior to the grand tasting. We’re curating it for 20 people—small, intimate, experiential.

That’s some of the things that we’re looking to do this year that are a little bit different. For me it’s like a restaurant experience or the Dean & DeLuca curating experience. [Greenlee was Dean & DeLuca’s Executive Vice President of Wine, see his complete bio.] Everything in the store at Dean & DeLuca was hand-picked by someone who had a tremendous level of expertise in their field so [consumers] didn’t have to wonder [about products]. We’re creating an event where there are 100 really well selected, hand-chosen wineriers under the grand tasting tent that represent a really broad palate, and give people the opportunity to have really great high-end experiential time.

This event is amazing. The raw materials are there. The clientele is there. The spaces are ridiculous, these beautiful, historic facilities. I’ve attended it in the past and it’s always been a really nice event. The idea is how do we make it nicer? What do the clientele want after doing this for so many years? The buyer today is a different buyer. The attendees have different needs, wants and desires. The millenials that are coming in, the 25, 30, 35 year-old people that are really passionate about wine and food. They’re very experiential. They like experiences, they like to discover things on their own. They don’t want Parker to tell them what’s good. They want to find out what’s good on their own. So you have to create a different environment.

You’ve got to also create opportunities for people that want to learn about wine that don’t know very much. There are neophytes. They’re very excited about it, very passionate, but really are still learning that Chardonnay is a white grape and Cabernet [Sauvignon] is a red grape, that Cabernet and Merlot are different and why. And you should be able to produce something that gives them the opportunity to grow at the event and learn something. But then you’ve also got a group of people that know a lot about wine. What sort of opportunities do you give them? [So there’s] the Collectible Wine Dinner. “I know a lot about wine, what’ve you got for me?”

EDRI: Can you tell us about some of the wine seminars you’ve helped put together?

MG: We’ve got some seminars like Leslie Sbrocco with “Thirsty Girl’s Wine 101.” Very basic, very simple, very introductory, but really, really great. She’s super dynamic she’s got tons of energy. She does a really great job of “this is the way you go through a tasting” and “how do you pace yourself” and all that sort of stuff, so people can have a really rich experience. Then you have someone like Jerome Hasenpflug, a Rhodes scholar, he got his PhD at Cambridge, a Masters from Harvard in History and Anthropology, leading us through Burgundy. Who better? I had to cut him back from 18 wines to 12! You could spend a lifetime on just studying Burgundy. So how do we give somebody that wants to understand it better an opportunity to do that?

Laura Maniec, a Master Sommelier, lives in New York and co-owns Corkbuzz Wine Studio, ran all of [B.R. Guest Restaurant Group’s Wine and Spirits Director] for years. [She’s] the youngest person to get her Master Sommelier in the history of the Master Sommelier program. [Laura’s] leading a champagne seminar, [“Bubbles for Breakfast”], on 10 a.m. on Sunday. That’s where I’ll be! Jordan Mackay is doing a seminar “NXNW: New by Northwest” wines, an area that’s really emerging and really dynamic and really exciting. Jordan has been writing for The New York Times and Food & Wine magazine and wrote Secrets of the Sommeliers with Rajat Parr and won a James Beard [Foundation] award for his writing. [Jordan’s] coming and talking about an appellation that’s really interesting and emerging and gets the geek factor going a little bit. People who really want to learn something new about a place that’s not Napa Valley. I’ve been to Napa Valley. I know all about Napa Valley. This is about something different and unique.

EDRI: You sound very excited about the event.

MG: We’ve got lots of great ideas. This is 2012. Wait until ’13, ’14, ’15. It’ll all be really, really fun to watch this thing evolve and grow. It’s really fun to be part of.

EDRI: How do you feel about an event like this in Newport?

MG: This is our first year producing it. We’re trying to engage the local community on the restaurant level and on the wine distributor/supplier level as well. Weekends are still very busy in Newport into late September. The Preservation Society has always been really excited about the fact that of the 3,500 or 4,000 attendees, there are lots of fresh faces. It’s not the people that they normally see at the rest of their summer events. Saturday we get a lot of out-of-town [attendees], a little broader demographic, and then Sunday they tend to be more local. More local Rhode Island people, more people coming down from Massachusetts. So it’s a bit of a mix. We’re starting to watch that happen this year with ticket sales. And this is our invitation to the summer colony to stick around a couple extra weeks and come support this event with us.

EDRI: So what’s your connection to Rhode Island?

MG: I grew up in North Kingstown and graduated high school there. My parents moved away when I went to college but I really consider Rhode Island my home. All my close friends are there. I go back two or three times a year. For Amedeo‘s business [Greenlee’s wine consulting company] the accounting team is still in Rhode Island. It’s an excuse to go up and spend some time. I spent a good part of my youth there. I brought Marissa [Ain], the owner of Plate + Decanter, up for a meeting in February. On the way out I took the local road down through Narragansett to go eat lobster and clamcakes at Champlin’s and I was disappointed it was closed. Champlin’s is always on my cruise when I’m in town.

Last couple of visits I’ve been checking out some of the new spots. Jeff [Callaghan, co-owner of Fluke Wine, Bar & Bistro] is an old friend of mine so I went there the last time I was in town. It’s sort of surprising to see how much even downtown Newport has changed since my time there. I spent a lot of time in Newport when I was a kid. I used to work on sailboats and race sailboats. So it was a big part of my youth. There’s good food in downtown Providence. It used to be you went to Federal Hill and had the Italian red sauce spots. I’m really excited to go to Aquidneck Lobster Bar, so that’s high on my list of things to do when I come up for a site visit. I ate at Tallulah. It’s exciting. There was none of this stuff when I grew up.

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