The way Madeline Triffon sees it, "I'm just a high falutin bus person."
Watch her on the floor and you will, in fact, see Triffon bus tables (she'll do any job that "needs doing," she says). But Triffon's real job is sharing her extensive knowledge of some of world's best wines. Because Triffon's not only director of wine for renowned Midwest indie group Unique Restaurant Corp.; since 1987, she's been a master sommelier. There are 47 of those in America. Eight are women. Triffon was the first.
Yet she manages to shrug her shoulders over that accomplishment, too: "My success came from experience and hard work," she says. "I don't have a scary amount of talent or anything."
Asked if she feels being a woman has helped or hindered her career, Triffon demurs. "No one has ever put a big fat barrier in front of me because I was a woman," she says. "If there was discrimination, I chose not to give it any weight. Because I wasn't concerned with perceptions, but rather, focused on my work. The job kept me straight."
Her job, as she sees it, is not to discourse endlessly about wine or impress people with what she knows, but to demystify it. Her wine lists have won accolades not just for their creativity, but their down-to-earth qualities. "I don't believe you have to learn all about wine to enjoy it," she says. "After all, you can drive a sports car without knowing about carburetors."
Triffon's aversion to wine elitism makes itself known in the wine promotions she runs, named in an effort to reduce intimidation and add some levity to the highbrow topic. "Wretched Express!" for example, offers Triffon's hand-picked best wines of the year for $50 a person. "Weird Wines We Love" serves up Northern Lakes area specialties.
Triffon's low-key approach to wine in all of Unique's restaurants—which include Duet, No. VI Chophouse, Morels, and Shiraz—stems in part from living in Greece during her formative years. "When I was growing up," she says, "wine was simple and part of everyday life. It wasn't forbidden. We children got a sip."
Triffon's original goal was to get through medical school. Foodservice jobs paid the bills in college, and eventually Triffon decided to stay. "I just fell into this job," she says. "I had studied French, so I had a good accent. They just kept handing me more to do."
After working as a wine steward at La Fontaine in Detroit, Triffon scored well during a national wine-tasting competition, which in turn led to an invite to take the exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers in 1986. (Only 10% pass the rigorous test.)
Since then, Triffon's wine lists have won many honors, including Detroit's Chop House being named "World's Best" by Wine Spectator. Her renown led to a job offer at Unique, where she moved in 1995. "I'm very happy here," she says. "[CEO] Matt Prentice affords me a lot of freedom."
Mentoring is important to Triffon because that's one thing she missed during her burgeoning career—having a mentor. (Lack of mentoring was, in fact, cited as "the top barrier to the advancement of women" in a recent study by the Women's Foodservice Forum.) "I train people to succeed me," she says. "And you grow through the people you've nurtured."
And how does she feel about being one of the very few females at the top of the wine world? "It was interesting being the only American woman master sommelier for nine years," she says. "But we need more women in this line of work."