Not many wine books start with a full-throated ode to a brand of dirt-cheap malt liquor favoured by 1990s West Coast rappers. But then, of course, maverick sommelier, acclaimed vintner and budding restaurateur Mr André Hueston Mack is not like other wine buffs. And, for him, opening his wine manual/memoir 99 Bottles: A Black Sheep’s Guide To Life-Changing Wines with hood-approved 40-ounce Olde English 800 was a no-brainer. “My initial relationship with alcohol came through music,” says Mr Mack, with a chuckle. “So, for me, that was a case of wanting to talk about drinking, or wine, in an approachable, fun way; a way that told my story.”
The irreverent shock of its first recommendation isn’t the only way Mr Mack’s book distinguishes itself. Taking the improbability of its 46-year-old author’s backstory as a launchpad (an unlikely trajectory that has taken him from McDonald’s to stints at white-hot restaurants like New York’s Per Se and, ultimately, his current position as one of the few black wine producers working today), 99 Bottles is a bright, rambunctious, one-bottle-at-a-time biography that seeks to demystify the world of vinification with trading card-style breakdowns, wit and copious pop culture references.
It’s the same refreshing, playful approach that has characterised Mr Mack’s Oregon-based wine brand – Maison Noir Wines, formerly Mouton Noir Wines, or “black sheep” in French – since it emerged in 2007. Before natural wine producers started siphoning off some of the visual idiosyncrasies and anarchic spirit of craft beer, Mr Mack – raised on a youthful diet of rap and skateboard culture – was leading the way. Maison Noir Wines had punning T-shirts, eye-catching monochrome labels and bottles named after Naughty By Nature songs (“OPP” or Other People’s Pinot).