May I Quote You? Vol. 25 No. 03

A Conversation with Mary Ewing-Mulligan

The head of America's pre-eminent wine school makes it through the pandemic by blending hybrid methodologies. But now, 'I'm dying to start traveling again!'

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How quickly we adapt, though never quite forgetting where we left off. “I came across the female equivalent of a Dopp kit in my closet the other day,” she says, “and I thought, ‘Oh, I used to travel!’ And I’m really dying to start traveling again and going to tastings events in New York and seeing you and all the other people.”

Like everyone these days, Mary Ewing-Mulligan – America’s first female Master of Wine and president of the International Wine Center (IWC) in New York City, where she has taught since 1984 – and I are meeting on Zoom.  I’m reminded of that horrible metaphor from the Vietnam War era about “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” but that’s where we are right now, glimpsing hope that the Covid pandemic might be winding down, but not yet quite certain it is.

“This time last year – early March – it was just dawning on us that Covid was here and real and we had to do something,” I say. “When did you realize it was going to affect your school and your teaching?” The IWC provides Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) classes in wine at four levels plus spirits and sake instructions, with about 1,000 students taking courses annually.

“I was hit by how real this thing was on the evening of March 11,” she says, “although we had been talking about it for a few days. I went to a Skurnik tasting that evening, and started to shake hands and got a cautious fist bump instead. Then, I started worrying about my students in the subways on the way to classes, so I decided the next day to close down the classes for two weeks.”

Of course, those two weeks turned into months and online instruction.  As anyone knows who has taken remote classes – or seen their children do so – some subjects can be easily if not ideally taught by Zoom or on a similar screen-sharing platforms.  But many things cannot be, and having wine tastings – typically poured from a solo bottle into students’ glasses – falls into the same unworkable category as dance, woodworking and chemistry instruction. During that time, the IWC continued teaching remotely, although in some instances measuring out wines for students in small sample bottles. It wasn’t until October 1 that the first students came back to the IWC classrooms with reduced occupancy. “We now typically have 12 people in a space for 15 students,” Ewing-Mulligan says.

“With the temporary or permanent loss of sommelier jobs in restaurants, what career paths are students following?” I ask. “Many students are in retail or unrelated professions and not restaurants,” Ewing-Mulligan replies, although noting one of her instructors is a sommelier who has had a work/don’t work time of it as restaurants opened, then closed during 2020.  But while not everyone is studying to be a sommelier, sommeliers are now competing for other wine-related hospitality and wine sales and marketing jobs. Nevertheless, class demand has not tapered off, and Ewing-Mulligan is proud of the fact that women are often in the majority in IWC’s classes, and the number of BIPOC students is also growing.

As Mary noted at the beginning, the two of us have frequently crossed paths at industry wine events in New York over the years.  My last event was on the cusp of Covid – the annual Vinexpo New York 2020 on March 2-3 at the Javits Center. “How are you keeping current on business these days?” I ask.  “Each of us here at the Center has a focus,” she explains.  “Mine is on Italy first and then Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand, and there have been quite a few Zoom events on those” over the past year, either given by importers or public relations firms.

“I’ve pretty much given up on press trips,” I say. “So have I,” she says, “but I do like the longer trips with the Masters of Wine.  Everyone’s an MW, so there are always good questions, and we spread the work around.”  We discuss how each of us has built up virtual Rolodexes of wine people on various continents who are just a phone call or email away – great resources whenever we need to know something for a class or an article.  “Are you finding time to write?” “Just a monthly article for Wine Review Online,” she says, “but I may find time to go back to twice a month soon.”

So in addition to some travel, what else does Ewing-Mulligan see in her future when things get back to that elusive “normal?” She laughs. “The staff was just discussing how we’ve never worked harder in our lives.” So let me suggest a glass of good Chianti, a shady place far away from a PC or tablet to read a magazine now that spring temperatures are rising and just grab some well-deserved time to chill out. True, everyone needs to get back to work now, but we may need to get back to leisure more.

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