Leadership in Wine #35 - John Szabo MS
John Szabo has seen the hospitality business from all sides including cooking and washing dishes, serving and sommellerie, importing, teaching, writing, speaking, consulting and judging wine internationally.
He was listed as “Canada’s best-known sommelier” in Meininger’s Wine Business International. John is a partner and principal critic for WineAlign.com, His books include Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies (Wiley, December 2012), and Sommelier Management (Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers, Revised Edition 2013). Volcanoes have become John’s current fatal attraction; his multi award-winning book, Volcanic Wines, Salt, Grit and Power, was released to critical acclaim in October 2016.
What triggered your interest in volcanic wines?
It was a commissioned paragraph on “my favourite wine” for a holiday issue. All of the good favourites (Champagne, Burgundy, Barolo, etc..) had already been taken, so I started to consider lesser known wines. I had recently been to places like Santorini, Etna, and northern Hungary, where I had found some fascinating, original wines. It suddenly dawned on me that these far flung regions were all linked by the volcanic origins of their soils. So that was it! My favorite wine grew on a volcano. That paragraph later became a full length article, which, many years later, become a book and lifelong fascination.
What three volcanic wine regions that you feel best represents the volcanic wine movement?
Volcanic soils are not as easy to define as you might first think - there are plenty of regions with mixed soils, and others with soils that have only a tenuous connection to volcanic activity. The flagships would be the places where no one questions the volcanic-ness of the area, and where quality is also exciting. There are more than three, but right up there would be Santorini, Etna, and the Canary Islands, all three still very much active volcanic regions where special wines are made.
Erupting Mount Etna makes for a great poster.
What are your five top go-to Volcanic wines?
C’mon, really? Only five?
How do you define leadership?
Effective leadership is the ability to inspire and encourage others. It's achieved mainly through leading by example - showing the way, making possibilities apparent, giving people the courage to try, and guiding them on the path.
What are the main challenges of being a leader in the wine industry today?
The wine business is so fluid and dynamic these days that’s it’s a real challenge to stay on top of it all. Evolving and emerging markets, changing modes of communication, rapidly shifting trends and consumer preferences… What used to be a pretty stuffy, slow-moving, ultra-traditional industry now travels at light speed. It’s both a challenge and a blessing to be part of it in this period in history.
What were the major breakthroughs in your career to become the leader you are now?
Like most success stories, mine involves a good deal of good luck. I came around at the right time, at the beginning of the period of transition between the traditional wine writing of the 20th century, and the current, highly dynamic scene of the 21st, so I got in on the ground floor. Of course I had also developed the right skill set to take advantage of the situation, through considerable time and effort invested, but it would be tough to recreate the same set of conditions.
I was also fortunate to meet so many great and important people along the way, who helped my career immensely. The first and only importer I worked with, for example, afforded me the opportunity to travel and explore the wines of France in great depth, which was a brilliant foundation of knowledge. My first attempt at an article was gratefully accepted and published by my first editor in a national wine magazine. And countless regional associations provided the opportunity to further explore and learn about the world of wine, all strokes of luck. But it’s also true that putting in the time to pass the Canadian Sommelier Guild diploma, then the WSET Diploma, and finally the Court of Master Sommeliers finals exams provided the credibility I needed to capitalize on the opportunities that were presented.
If you were starting your career in 2019, in the wine industry, what advice would you give to yourself to become successful and content?
It’s often said, and still very true, that you really have to love the business. It’s not the easiest field in which to make a living. So I’d tell myself to think long and hard about what I really wanted to achieve with my life. And if still interested, I’d say, there’s no way around putting in the time to learn and experience the wine business in all of its many facets.
In the area of wine communication, remember that everybody has an opinion. But the opinions that matter most are those that come padded with a healthy dose of context. And context is acquired through experience. So get out there and read as many books and websites and listen to as many podcasts and watch as many videos as you can.
Above all, take every opportunity to get your boots on the ground - there’s no substitute for first hand experience. Be prepared to do a lot for very little or nothing at all. And then, with a bit of luck, you just might make it. But at least be consoled by the fact that along the way you’ll meet fascinating people, see beautiful places and taste some life-changing wines.
Douro Valley in Portugal.
Ancient vines from Taurasi, Italy.