Shelley Bynum is sommelier and wine director at House of Pure Vin on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. She got into the wine business as a second career, having started out in marketing and public relations. When she was in her 20s in the 1990s, she hosted tasting events in Atlanta, Georgia, for people under 40. The purpose, she says, was to “knock wine off its pedestal.” Here, she talks about her evolution in the industry and shares her take on wine, including wines that are made in Michigan.
Q: Did you consider pursuing a career in the wine industry earlier in your career?
A: While I became very passionate about wine, its depth and complexity of flavors and what it does with food, I was also a single mom. I knew there was no way I could go into this because of the hours and demands, so I kept my job in marketing and PR in Atlanta.
Q: What brought you back to it?
A: I remarried a gentleman from Windsor, Ontario, and moved there in 2001. We married in 2000. I got very involved in the local wine scene in Windsor. I met a lot of local chefs and sommeliers who worked in Windsor and Detroit. I befriended people who owned wineries in Southeast Ontario from Niagara down to here. The sommelier friends of mine kept telling me, “You’ve got a great palate, you should do something with that.” So when my youngest was in high school, I began studying to become a sommelier, and almost as soon as he graduated, I switched over and began working in the wine industry full time.
Q: How did you jump back in?
A: I went to work at North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. It’s in Colchester, about 45 minutes outside of Windsor on the north shore of Lake Erie — a local wine region here in Ontario. I worked there as they were building and establishing their restaurant, so it was very hands-on. It was a great opportunity to see the entire process, from buds breaking out on vines to making the wine and into the restaurant and going to the tables to work with people to pair the wine with the food. I wasn’t a sommelier when I began there, but I was when I left in 2018.
Q: What came next?
A: I did a lot of freelance work, consulting for restaurants and training their staff, plus wherever those restaurant managers needed me. At the time, House of Pure Vin was hiring for a part-time sales associate. I hadn’t worked in wine retail at that point — only on the service and winery side — and I thought this would be a great way to learn a little bit more. I went in thinking, “I’ll just pick up something part time,” while I was still consulting with local restaurants that weren’t able to have a sommelier on staff full time. Then House of Pure Vin said they were expanding and had a full-time position. I started at sommelier, helping to buy and helping with anything that needed to be done, working with tastings, pairing wines for events and learning the business and (owner) Regina’s (Gaines) vision.
Q: How did the pandemic intervene?
A: We really sort of trimmed down when the COVID lockdown happened. It allowed an opportunity to refocus. Regina is preparing some incredible expansions for House of Pure Vin out of state and within the store itself. In the meantime, we took our wine collection down to just a few bottles on the shelves. People thought we were going out of business, when actually we were trying to sell off the old inventory and completely curate a new collection of wine. Now the store is just packed. We don’t have enough space for the wines we want to bring in. We still have a lot of old favorites, but by and large it’s a completely new collection — a really beautiful eclectic collection. It’s the kind of wine collection that is a sommelier’s dream.
Q: Why is that?
A: The core concept hasn’t shifted; we just changed the collection itself because wines aren’t always the same from vintage to vintage and there are a lot more areas that have opened availability for us. For example, we have wines now from Romania, Kosovo, a Georgian collection and other varietals that weren’t necessarily available when the store first opened.
Q: What do you look for in the wines you select?
A: Is it beautifully made? Is it well structured? Does it taste like it’s supposed to for that varietal and age and that area? I’m not going to name any names, but a lot of brand-name wines don’t taste like what they’re supposed to taste like. They’re highly manipulated … to taste like they’ve been in a barrel longer, like they’re a wine 10 years older even though it’s not. We will not bring in wines that have that kind of manipulation. We try to pick out wines made in smaller batches by small wineries. We seek out minority winemakers and women winemakers in particular, but you still have to make a good product.
Q: What about Michigan wines?
A: We really try to focus on Michigan wines. Claudia Tyagi is a master sommelier who opened the store with Regina. Claudia is incredibly passionate about Michigan wines, and that passion has stayed with the store and with our inventory. When you come into the store, the very first wine section is Michigan.
Q: Give us your take on Michigan wines, please.
A: They are fabulous and underrated. Michigan wines are really, really beautiful. The quality is there. There’s a maturity, and the winemaking craft and skill in Michigan and the wines are absolutely fantastic. They can hold their own internationally. They are exactly what you’d expect for a cooler climate. And people never really appreciate what is in their backyard until outsiders begin to appreciate it. That’s the way it was with California, and Oregon wines and Washington state wines, and that’s the way it is going with Michigan. The wines in Michigan are very, very typical of wines from cooler climates of Europe, Northern France and Germany and those areas. I’ve heard people say, “I’ve tried a Michigan Cab and it doesn’t taste like a California Cab.” Well, of course not — it’s not from California.
Q: What strengths do you see in Michigan wines?
A: The Cabernet Francs and Pinot Noirs coming out of Michigan, I love. The Chardonnays are light and crisp and take me back to northern France and northern Italy. And there are a lot of rare varietals they’re growing and experimenting with — varietals you typically only see in places like Austria. A few are doing Blaufränkisch, a light-body red you generally don’t see outside of Germanic countries. It’s beautiful. Detroit Vineyards has one. And there are people like Nathaniel Rose, who is doing all of this experimentation. He’s making tiny batches of exquisite wines. Kasey Wierzba at Shady Lane is making wines that every time I taste them, they just knock my socks off.
I’ve been on speaking panels with other sommeliers where we all always bring a wine, and I try to bring a Michigan wine with me whenever I can. The last one I was on was before the COVID shutdown, and I took Kasey’s Orange Riesling with me. The other sommeliers on the board were, “What is that?!” And I told them it’s a little gem from northern Michigan.
We’re very lucky to have these wines in our backyard. Wine is made in all 50 states, including Alaska. And Michigan ranks up there with some of the best.
Q: Any tasting tips?
A: I encourage people, just because you have a grape you don’t like, to try it again from a different region, from a different year or a different style. Because saying you don’t like Chardonnay is saying you don’t like Michaels because you had one Michael who treated you badly. It doesn’t mean all Mikes are bad. Be open and curious.
Also, wine selection, whether in a restaurant or store, can be intimidating. There are usually professionals to give you guidance. Seek them out and ask questions. We’re there to make everybody comfortable. Wine has been built up to be this snobbish and intimidating thing and it shouldn’t be. It should be as easy as pulling on your jeans and T-shirt and going out for a walk.