Drink what you like

Jacqueline Barton

Photo By Larry Dalton

When most people think of wine experts, they most likely picture a man—probably an older man—and one who’s at least slightly snobbish. Jacqueline Barton has been the wine buyer for Michelangelo’s Italian Art Restaurant in Midtown for more than five years, and she’s none of those things. Barton, who’s now a managing partner of the restaurant with her parents, just celebrated her 29th birthday. And although she appreciates fine wine, she knows that taste is peculiarly personal. The image of a stuffy wine aficionado doesn’t fit Barton either. She’s got a sense of adventure about wine and revels in the excitement of learning about new regions and tasting and comparing new wines and the foods that go with them.

What drives your passion for wine?

I love the stories about wine. When you’re learning about a wine, you learn about the people, the winemaking techniques, the food they serve. I’m getting more into the world of wines, the different grapes, where they come from and why they taste the way they do. It’s never ending. There are so many villages, so many winemakers. There are always new wines. Also, what I love is that it’s at least half subject to your own taste: “This is what I like, and no one can tell me different.” In buying wine for the restaurant, my biggest determining factor is “Am I wowed by it?”

How’d you learn about wines?

I started by tasting, listening and reading. My uncle taught me about the list at Michelangelo’s, strategies of wine and the business of wine. Most of my tasting experience has been with vendors. After I figured out that this was what I wanted to do with my career, I took a winemaking course at UC Davis. I’ve been dabbling since, taking more classes and doing more tastings.

And you started the Midtown Winers, a monthly wine-tasting group, to explore even more wines?

At the restaurant, I can only buy Italian and California wines. I wanted to explore other regions, taste more wines and compare them without having to buy 10 bottles of wine. Talking with people, you learn all sorts of tidbits they’ve picked up. I don’t know how many books you’d have to read to get that kind of information.

What’s special about Italian wines?

It’s their structure—the way they’re made to go with food, which I really love. They’re dry, not overbearing and pretty well-balanced. They’re complicated but still easy to drink. For my personal taste, the more accessible domestic wines are too fruity, too in-your-face. Good California wines are more “occasion wines,” and they’re expensive. Italian wines are more wines for your lifestyle.

Have you made mistakes with the wines you’ve bought?

I’ve fallen for sales pitches. There have been flaws in bottles and in wines, things I don’t have control over. It’s hard to make a mistake. You might buy a wine that you decide you won’t drink again. But with a much wider base at the restaurant, someone out there is going to appreciate every wine.

Is an expensive wine a good wine?

Not necessarily. Chances are, price indicates it’s a well-made wine or a rare wine. But there’s no guarantee you’ll like it. And sometimes it goes back to the story: If a winemaker has only one acre, and he has to pick the fruit and hand-press it, it’s going to be expensive. But it might not be a very good wine. You don’t have to like a $60 bottle of wine; you can like a $10 bottle.

So, you’re not a wine snob?

I have to say no. I don’t look down at certain wines or at people who drink certain wines. I have my preferences. Maybe I’m an “elitist.” I prefer boutique wines, which are an art form—they’re made by people creating a wine as opposed to vineyards mass-producing wines that fit the charts of what a large number of people want to drink, which is where wines are going now. Winemakers are identifying the components that have mass appeal, and then everybody makes those types of wines. It’s called the globalization of wine.

Is this a new era for wine?

Yes. People are drinking more wine, exploring more. The intro-to-wine level, with wines like Two Buck Chuck, is just huge. The industry is booming, and people my age are now a target demographic.

What advice do you have for young people who want to learn about wine?

Listen to what people say. Trust what you like. Don’t try so hard to apply the rule of what people say you should like or even what food and wine should go together. Try a red wine with your tuna. What’s it going to hurt, if you like it?

Where will your passion for wine lead?

My dream is to own my own wine shop. We sell wines at Michelangelo’s for people to take home. It’s an opportunity to explore wines from around the world. I’m hoping to get enough of a reputation that people will trust to buy wine from me.