First Woman of Wine: Amanda Danielson And Her Lifelong Labor Of Love
“If I know the owner is doing the wine list, my little ears perk up. At Stella, the list is Amanda’s definitive statement of taste … it’s accessible and stylish.” — Madeline Triffon, Master Sommelier
What wine would you pair with alligator tail or chicken heart? Amanda Danielson had no idea. You can bet she does now.
That moment more than two decades ago set Danielson on a pursuit of wine knowledge that today places her among an elite group of wine stewards.
The co-proprietor of Traverse City restaurants Trattoria Stella and The Franklin, Danielson earned the Advanced Sommelier designation in 2007. She is one step away from the fourth and final level of Master Sommelier, which would put her in a very rare group of women across the world.
“Wine is so cool, so fun,” said Danielson. “I just love drinking it.”
Danielson wasn’t yet of legal drinking age in the United States when she went to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to help open a couple of Brazilian-style steakhouses for her then-employer.
She was asked to do the wine pairings for dishes including such staples as alligator tails and chicken hearts. While she knew a little bit about wine, her skillset didn’t match the menu.
“I felt completely ill-equipped,” she recalled. “In my head I thought, ‘I hate this.’”
There began her pursuit to become a serious student of wine. “My want is to over-intellectualize things,” she admitted.
The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1977 to promote high standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants. There are just 230 professionals in the world who have earned the title of Master Sommelier – of those, just 32 are women.
One is longtime colleague and friend of Danielson’s, Madeline Triffon. When Triffon passed the Master Sommelier examination in 1987, she was the second woman, and first American woman, in the world to do so. Born in Connecticut, Triffon has spent her entire career in Detroit – where she and Amanda first met.
Triffon is one of only three in Michigan who have passed the exam; the others Claudia Tyagi of Southgate (class of ‘97) and Ron Edwards of Charlevoix (class of ’05).
Danielson actually has sat for the examination twice.
“In 2012 I failed poorly and in 2013 I failed very well,” said Danielson.
She would love to sit for the exam a third time, “as soon as the requirements of family and my two businesses allow,” she said. “If and when I do pass, that will be a great accomplishment. But even at that level of ‘geekdom’ the learning doesn’t stop. Every day I have to read to stay up on it.”
Said Triffon,”Amanda is doing the work, she has gotten the recognition. It’s quite extraordinary. Anybody who’s at that level … you’re in the deep end of the pool. There are no failures, only people who give up.”
While Michigan is increasingly recognized for its wine-producing regions – specifically northwest lower Michigan – it still remains very much on the periphery.
“The state of Michigan supports its wine industry so well, but it is still considered a marginalized wine region by the wine-consuming public,” said Danielson.
And Michigan is not alone. Arizona, for instance, is another state that is making some great wines but is overlooked, said Danielson.
“I want to continue to wave the flag for Michigan wine, but also for these other ancillary wine regions,” she said.
What does she think it will take to change the perception?
“Truthfully, the confidence and support from the people who live in our great state,” Danielson said. “If I had a bottle of wine for every time someone looked me in the eyes and asked if Michigan wines were any good, I could fill Building 50.”
Both Trattoria Stella and The Franklin have locally-produced wines on their lists. “Why would I allow any wine into my program that I am not proud to share with my guests, not to mention drink myself?” she asked.
But she also has no problem being critical of others. “While there are many wines produced in our area that are not what I would consider world class, I can line up dozens from the most revered appellations in the world that are worse. Just get some guidance to find the best wines of Michigan, which are indeed world-class.”
FOOD, HOSPITALITY AT AN EARLY AGE
Danielson springs from Detroit. Her first few years spent in the city proper and later, as the family grew, in the neighboring suburbs. Her early experiences with food, drink and hospitality are two-sided.
“My mom’s parents were immigrants from Poland, old school, very conservative,” said Danielson. They lived in a house in Warren and tilled the small backyard into an organic garden, growing plums, pears, chestnuts … really anything they could, Danielson said.
“Grandpa grew and Grandma canned,” she recalled. “They had a huge cellar.”
What they didn’t grow, they would trade for with their fellow gardeners – a neighborhood comprised of many eastern Europeans.
“So from birth to age five, this was my experience,” Danielson said, recalling making five or six stops with her grandmother to gather ingredients just for a couple of days’ cooking. “Food was everything. All Polish food, all from scratch.”
The other part of Danielson’s food upbringing is Middle Eastern. Her paternal grandmother moved from Lebanon to America at a very young age.
“But, she was a lousy cook,” Danielson said. Fortunately, her grandmother had a large family and Danielson learned all about Lebanese food culture from her aunts and uncles. She remembers her Aunt Mary’s crepe leaves with special fondness.
From both her eastern European and Middle Eastern families she learned a philosophy that still guides her today.
“Growing up with these traditions, I have so much respect for food and drink,” she said. “I learned that food was never to be abused or wasted and that the quality of ingredients was very important.”
In addition to the food itself, her maternal grandmother would always set the table beautifully, iron every napkin and polish every piece of silver – and anyone was always welcome at the table.
WINE AS SERVICE
For Danielson, wine is a way to offer great service to the guests who’ve chosen to come to her restaurants. She acknowledges that some people look at an extensive wine list and feel overwhelmed. It may make them feel uncomfortable, even, but that’s where a well-trained staff rises to the occasion.
“When people feel overwhelmed by a wine list that’s where service comes in,” Danielson said. “And no judgment.”
She has a mantra she has instilled in her staff: Comfort of the guest and integrity of the product.
“It’s very much a job of servitude in the best way,” she said.
She also describes her work in the industry as an “intellectual pursuit” so that she can better able distill it for others.
“I believe good food and drink should be absolutely inclusive,” she said.
Today, her keen interest in wine has extended to the study of spirits, coffee, tea and even sparkling water.
“It’s not only the substance but also the ritual of the beverages,” she said.
THEN, AND NOW
Amanda and husband Paul moved to Traverse City in 2000 and opened Trattoria Stella at the Village at Grand TraverseCommons in July 2004.
“When Paul and I first met we knew we were going to open a restaurant someday,” she said.
They both were working in the restaurant industry in the Detroit area. On one of their trips to Traverse City and visiting Danielson’s family – an uncle who owns the Big Boy restaurant on U.S. 31 – they thought to themselves, ‘Why not here?”
“We really had a lot of confidence but wondered if the market would accept it,” she said of the neighborhood restaurant with traditional Italian food. “It took a couple of years to answer that.”
Today, Trattoria Stella is one of the most celebrated restaurants in the Midwest and recognized nationally. Chef Anton, who was the force in the kitchen when they opened and still is today, is a five-time nominee for a James Beard Award, the country’s most prestigious culinary honor. Anton is also a partner with the Danielsons in both restaurants.
Danielson said the success of Stella lies in its relationships. “It’s personal, that’s why it’s successful,” she said. “We’ve built relationships with the community, key staff, our farmers and other suppliers.”
Stella also arrived at a time when there weren’t a lot of choices for great food around – save for Pete Peterson’s Tapawingo in Ellsworth, which Danielson quickly gives a big nod to.
Danielson curated the beverage program at both establishments and continues to run them both. She conducts mandatory wine training for staff every two weeks.
“What is singular about Amanda is her commitment to education … it’s very much in practice,” said Triffon.
The beverage program at Stella stands out among the best, noted Triffon.
“The beauty of the program at Stella is the food, wine and beer have grown up together,” she said. “That’s the best kind of beverage program.”
But two things really rise above for her.
“The wine list is not too big … I really admire that,” said Triffon, adding that a modest size list is much harder to create than a big one. “Every wine on the list is there for a very special reason. Amanda’s very thoughtful and her standards are very high.”
And secondly, the list is a product of the owner.
“There’s something special about the owner doing it, and it is not that common,” Triffon added. “If I know the owner is doing the wine list, my little ears perk up. At Stella, the list is Amanda’s definitive statement of taste … it’s accessible and stylish.”
For Danielson, the bottom line is connection.
“The people behind the wines I love actually care that someone in northern Michigan is drinking them and have a connection to us knowing that we have their wine,” she said. “I would rather people come to my restaurants to be turned on, to become part of those connections. That is the human side of wine.”
While wine must taste good, Danielson’s relationship with the beverage goes much deeper, and that is something she will continue to share with anyone who explores wine at one of her restaurants.
“Wine is a living breathing product of generations working hard to support their land and their families by creating a true expression of grape and place,” she said. “Each vintage brings new challenges and opportunities to truly craft a bit of history in a bottle. That is wine to me.”