Claudia Tyagi is the antithesis of everything you might expect of a high-level wine executive: She’s warm, self-effacing, and funny. Completely self-taught (and Detroit-born and -bred), Tyagi came of age in the world of wine at a time when there weren’t any women wine professionals. In fact, very few women were working in fine dining at all. These days, Tyagi enjoys sharing her wealth of knowledge; most recently, she curated the wine program at Grosse Pointe restaurant Marais.
Metro Times: What is the job of a master sommelier, and what do you do?
Claudia Tyagi: Well, not all master sommeliers do the same thing. My focus has always been restaurants. I love that ambience, that particular focus of business and actually, the court of master sommeliers was born from the “Masters of Wine” who wanted to improve wine service in restaurants. Very much to me, being a sommelier is about the guest. It’s not necessarily selling the most expensive bottle of wine, it is making the experience of the guest the most pleasurable it can be, as far as the wine and food pairing are concerned.
MT: You’re obviously not intimidated by wine, but a lot of people are. What can people do on their own to be less intimidated by wine?
Tyagi: Be open-minded and taste a lot, even if you don’t think it’s something you’re going to like, at least get it on your palate. The way your brain and senses are hardwired, you’re going to get impressions.
MT: We hear from people that they don’t taste or smell things “wine people” do when tasting — like honeysuckle, pears, strawberries, earth, grass, citrus fruit — they can’t make the association. What advice do you have and is there an unintimidating resource we can use to improve our skills?
Tyagi: There are quite a few unintimidating resources and this is what I did to train myself. I tell people to open jars of spices and smell them. When you go to the grocery store, pinch the fruit and smell it. Look and pay attention to all the varieties of fruit. What is the difference between a white grapefruit and a red grapefruit? Think about what a grapefruit is made of. It’s made of pith, the peel, the juice — and pay attention to those differentiations in the fruits. When you start to pick up on those types of differences, you’ll start to notice them in wine.
MT: Sometimes, people equate an expensive bottle of wine as being a good bottle of wine, but that’s not necessarily true, is it?
Tyagi: It is to a degree, but we have gone to the extreme. We’ve become such fans of branding and you need to ask yourself, “Is this bottle expensive because it’s intrinsically great, or is it because of its brand?”
MT: Can you share with us some of the strangest questions or weirdest circumstances from over the years?
Tyagi: [laughs] Having worked in Las Vegas, I did work with the porno industry conventions. Waiting on those people was interesting. I’ve waited on a lot of famous people.
MT: Are you at liberty to tell us who?
Tyagi: Well, Walter Cronkite and Jane Pauley came into the Chophouse when the Republican National Convention was in town. A lot of the rock ’n’ roll stars. You know, Fleetwood Mac wanted to take me on their tour with them!
MT: Why did you not go on tour with Fleetwood Mac?
Tyagi: Because I was married and very much in love!
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