Updated: Apr 19
Welcome to My Winelife, the ultimate destination for wine enthusiasts and professionals alike. If you're searching for a reliable source of information and inspiration in the world of wine, you've come to the right place. Our monthly Masters of Wine interview series features some of the most esteemed professionals in the industry, including Eugene - a passionate and knowledgeable Master of Wine who earned his certification in 2015. Eugene's exceptional performance in his year earned him the prestigious Robert Mondavi Winery Award, and he is a respected speaker, wine educator, and competition judge on the international stage.
Dear Eugene, thanks for joining our weekly Master of Wine series. From Master of Fine Arts to Master of Wine. How did your wine journey start and how did it evolve?
Well, my fine art and wine journeys are interconnected in fact. When I was attending Stanford University in California (what a great place to connect wine and art, right?), I was given the task of buying a few wines every Friday for a wine and cheese night at the student co-op residence I lived in, called Hammarskjold House. That $20 budget (literally) and a round-trip bicycle ride to Safeway supermarket’s wine aisle is what started it all.
I certainly did not grow up in a wine culture at home, with Eastern European parents who were more aligned to sweet cherry wine or even vodka! But I’ve always been experimenting and discovering from an early age. A couple of inspiring and influential art teachers in my high school years fed that desire, Bruce Francisco and Teena Royale-Smith. Landing in California, as a decidedly cool-climate Canadian, it may have only been natural for me to gravitate to my creative, rather than analytical side.
Finally, acknowledging others in my journey, after my career began in the wine industry circa the year 2000, morphing through two different Canadian companies, it was our vice president of sales in Ontario, Anne Givens, a tremendously generous soul, who encouraged me to begin the Master of Wine (MW) journey. Without her promise of support (and her push, frankly!), I’m not sure I would ever have made it to where I am today.
How has your creative background supported your journey to becoming a Master of Wine?
Simply, I would say that wine is one of those elements in life which are, from one perspective, purely “optional,” not required. But much like the visual arts, music, design, and other such elements, without these things, life might be able to be lived, but it wouldn’t be much fun. That’s the connection I’d like to draw between art, photography, looking around and ultimately, tasting, drinking, toasting, and exploring with wine.
While studying for the Master of Wine designation, my interest in (and love of) travel, people, literature, and many more of the broader category of the “arts” definitely kept me going through the down moments and serious challenges, which were many.
You are a family man, was it hard to focus on your study, knowing you wanted to be there for your family as well but had to give 110% to finish all parts of the Master of Wine study?
That is a great question. I have already acknowledged several mentors along my journey, including teachers, colleagues, and others. But family is equally important, if not more. The answer is that my wife Michelle agreed to the challenge (though I’m not sure she’d quite knew what we were signing up for!). I knew this would be a multi-year effort, involving an incredible amount of travel, study, writing, struggle, and stress. It sure helped that I managed to pass both parts of the written exam on my first try in 2014, making the process just a little bit shorter. Others I know have had a longer, or even incomplete, journey, and have juggled even more family issues than we did, with younger children, newborns, or while changing jobs and cities. Luckily, those did not apply to my situation, and we made it through, whew! I should finally add, that after passing the live exam portions in 2014, I did not realize how much of a further battle the final Research Paper phase would be. My final days writing, tweaking the document, and submitting it while my final file crashed (yes it did!) in the final week of June 2015 were among the most trying of my entire life, it is fair to say. But we made it!
What was the role of Mark de Vere MW during your Master of Wine study?
Mark is a wonder, and not just because he’s got such a top-notch British accent, which makes him sound utterly convincing to me in all (or most!) of his opinions. Seriously, Mark is a colleague, the long-time resident Master of Wine at Robert Mondavi Winery since about 1997, and I am proud to sell the same wines he is responsible for. I knew Mark before I entered the MW program, and he wrote a vital recommendation letter helping me with admission to the program back in 2011. Further, he has been a real guiding light at the MW student seminars for literally decades, helping shape the agenda and delivering many presentations at the North American editions of these events. Countless MW students would acknowledge Mark’s guidance on essay writing, planning answers to theory questions, as well as his impeccable tasting insights. In sum, Mark, alongside many others such as my mentors Tuomas Meriluoto of Finland, Barb Philip of British Columbia, and my Research Paper advisor Mary Ewing Mulligan, has been a key element of why I was able to cross the finish line successfully. Here the maxim rings out loudly: it takes a village to raise a Master of Wine. Truly.
You have won the prestigious Robert Mondavi Winery Award. Congratulations! What does it mean to win this prize?
This award is extremely meaningful to me and not only because it was presented to me by Mark de Vere himself, but moreover because the award came with a special visit to the winery to collect the prize. I did that with my two teenage boys accompanying me on a father & son's west coast trip which was simply amazing. And finally, on a more academic note, I feel this award, presented to the MW student with the best overall performance across all the theory papers, vindicated, reinforced, or somehow confirmed even more securely my “right” to the MW designation, if that is a fair way to put it.
What do you love more; painting or enjoying wine (trick question ;)
Ha ha! That is a bit of a trick question. If we believe that the “moment” is the thing, being in the present moment that is, then I must say that it is the enjoyment of wine first. My love of painting has never faded, but it is currently in the background and I haven’t (sadly) painted in about ten or twenty years. But I know I will return to fine art big time, perhaps only when time permits in my eventual retirement (or shall we say, semi-retirement, since I do not imagine I will ever stop doing what I love). Maybe the final word is that wine and painting (or art) go hand in hand, as flip sides of the same, inspirational coin.
How did the Toronto wine trade evolve in the last decade?
The question is a good one, but I might rephrase it as “How did the Ontario wine scene evolve in the last twenty years?” I know that is not quite what you asked, but it captures a coming of age of the local scene, both in terms of wine production and wine enjoyment. The local Niagara region (and beyond) exploded from say a dozen or so major wineries circa the year 2000, to now, twenty years on, to include about two hundred wineries of all shapes and styles. Now that is a real community! And if we could count fine wine dining and wine bars on the fingers of a single hand (or maybe two) a couple of decades ago, now we clearly have a vibrant on-premise trade that really cares about wine in its many shapes and idioms. But I do have a further wish, it is that more people (local wine lovers, consumers as well as sommeliers) open their hearts and mouths to try even more local wine wonders. Fame and importance don’t have to lie outside of the home, and too often some of us still say that our Canadian wines aren’t as good as those from other regions: our wines absolutely stand among the best in the world, in their own specific styles.
What do you love about judging wine during events like the Decanter World Wine Awards?
Like much else about wine, I love the community: friends and colleagues who all converge (especially in pre-pandemic times) in one location for what is a ton of work, but also a whole bunch of fun, given enough evenings for camaraderie. And there is also a sense of real satisfaction in having done a good deed: really diving deep into hundreds of wines during a single week and separating the wheat from the chaff. Hopefully, help others discover great wines after the results are published! And I’m very much looking forward to the awards this year after not having been able to attend the last two years running.
Do you have a golden tip for students who follow the Master of Wine diploma course?
I’ve said it to others, and I will say it again: you will have so many competing interests and demands in your life, at any given time. That “noise,” if you will, will never go away. So do not dwell on why your circumstances are not perfect; they never will be. Therefore, “just do it” is my one word of wisdom to current and future students. Do something good, every single day, in whatever room in your schedule you can find, and keep moving forward one solid step at a time. Oh, and most of all, believe in yourself, that you can actually do this thing. Otherwise, there is no point in even starting!
Which Master of Wine shall I interview next?
I think you could select ANY (or all) of my fellow Masters of Wine and do very well. However, if you have not yet spoken to Mark de Vere directly, it would be wise for you to do so. Mark embodies a global sensibility, having lived in California for many years, but also with a firm foot still planted in Europe, his original home.
Want to connect with Eugene Mlynczyk MW? Follow him on: