How a self-taught sommelier went from small-town Alabama to leading worldwide wine tours

Cvne Winery in Rioja, which Miami-based Heathen Wine Tours visited in 2017. Photograph courtesy of Heath Porter.

The age-old adage that you should find something you love and make it your job didn’t really click for me when I was growing up in a dry county in Alabama.

Never once did my high school counselors recommend that I forgo my education and look into drinking for a living. My mother’s career advice consisted of telling me that eating, drinking and being a smart aleck were the only three things I was good at, “so figure it out!”

I moved to Hawaii after high school and, having worked at some restaurants as a teenager, got a job at a super-busy place in Honolulu. I figured the more I could learn about the hospitality business — food, service, booze — would lead to better work and more money. So I started reading and tasting everything I could get my hands on, and soon enough the job offers started coming.

Highs and Lows

Having spent the past 20-plus years of my life as a sommelier and wine director in five-star resorts and restaurants presented great dualities.

I figured the more I could learn about the hospitality business — food, service, booze — would lead to better work and more money.”

On one hand, it meant never having a holiday or weekend night off, 100-hour work weeks, and endless studying to keep up with new releases and expanding terroirs. On the other, there was worldwide travel, dining in renowned restaurants and getting to experience rare, once-in-a-lifetime wines.

My regular customers and VIPs would ask over and again: “Hey, fancy wine guy, when can I travel with you? Do you need an assistant? Will you let me come on a vineyard tour?”

And thus began Heathen Wine Tours.

Heathen Wine Tours
Two happy Heathen Wine Tours guests frolic in a vineyard in France during a summer 2018 trip. Photograph by Amanda Murphy.

All-Access Visits

The concept is quite simple: I take small groups (typically 14 people or fewer) to wine regions around the world, seeking out the best or most under-the-radar producers. I’ve been in the business long enough to have had the opportunity to meet many of the wine world’s rock stars — and have behaved well enough that some of them even invite me back. 

Heathen Wine Tours is my version of work trips if I were on vacation. We visit a couple of wineries a day, and no annoying or snobby wine geekdom (unless prompted). We have meals in vineyards or at local haunts, often with the winemakers themselves. We spend time in the wineries, with their owners, to gain an understanding of what makes each place special.

Anyone with money to burn can spend a fortune going from tasting room to tasting room, drinking copious amounts of whatever the current releases are. But how many can say they had tastings led by the actual winemaker, or tried a vintage in the cellar from barrels that won’t be released for two more years? Would you rather have lunch somewhere recommended by the hotel concierge or in the vineyard with food picked from the winemaker’s garden and prepared by her grandmother?

wine
Food on Heathen Wine Tours trips often comes straight from vineyard gardens and is cooked by the winery owners themselves. Photograph by Amanda Murphy.

Pastas, Truffles and Castles

This fall I took a group to Italy, where an iconic Barolo producer spent the morning teaching us how to make tajarin pasta, which had a golden-orange hue from fresh local eggs. We cooked beef that was butchered by the winemaker’s husband and dined in the cellar, drinking old vintages from the owner’s personal stash.

Pretension, snobbery and gloomy dispositions are strictly prohibited on Heathen Wine Tours.”

Afterward, we strolled into the woods with a local forager and his truffle-sniffing dog, Lady, who helped us unearth those delicious nuggets of mushroomy heaven. We laid our heads that night in a 12th-century castle transformed into a five-star Relais & Châteaux property inside a walled medieval village.

Every trip is different and takes on the personality of the guests who come with me. The best groups aren’t made up of wine connoisseurs and industry professionals. In fact, pretension, snobbery and gloomy dispositions are strictly prohibited. The only requisite at Heathen Wine Tours is that you like to have fun, learn and explore.

Vineyard views in France. Photograph by Amanda Murphy.

Heathen Wine Tours 2019 

  • CHILE: March
  • ITALY: May
  • OREGON: July
  • SPAIN & PORTUGAL: September
  • VIRGINIA: October

More info at heathenwine.com.

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